Just like the doorbell rings to alert us to the arrival of a guest, anxiety tells us that some core emotion buried within us is pushing to be expressed.
Take, for example, Heather, a 35-year-old women who has been working in a law firm for the past five years. Heather came to my office a year ago. When she first stepped inside the door, she smiled softly and looked at me with kind eyes. This was the first time, she had visited a therapist’s office, and I could tell she was feeling nervous. I heard it in her shallow and restricted breath and saw it in her wide eyes, as she began to tell me, that her anxiety was making it hard for her to enjoy things, that used to bring her joy and relaxation.
While growing up, Heather experienced the normal fears of a child. She worried about the dark, about robbers, not being liked by friends, and she feared that the family would run out of money, since her dad left.
Unfortunately, because her mom was overwhelmed by raising a big family alone and by caring for Heather’s younger sister, who had a chronic health issue, none of Heather’s normal fears were processed with a knowing adult.
In fact, when Heather expressed her fears, her mom reacted by telling her to grow up and be strong. Instead of helping Heather, her mom turned the tables and said she needed Heather’s help with all the responsibilities around the house. Heather, of course, loved her mom profoundly and did not wish to burden her, so she trained herself over time to repress her fears and manage on her own.
As it is most often the case, repression of fear leads to anxiety. We push down a fear, but the energy of it stays with us, resulting in a generalized anxiety. This is what happened to Heather. And because anxiety is quite uncomfortable itself, Heather tried to repress it as well. She coached herself to avoid situations that triggered her worries. While repression can soothe the immediate effects of fear, ultimately those fears get stored in the body. By repressing her fears and anxiety, Heather was filling herself up with many unmet negative and scary emotions.
During her teens, social anxiety set in, and Heather began to experience physical stress from all her repressed emotions. Neck pain, muscle tension, headaches, shortness of breath and occasional panic kept her home from school and allowed her to avoid going places with her friends. When the anxiety felt this pervasive, Heather discovered she could distract herself from her emotions by playing games on her phone.
The problem is that core emotions that are essential to the human experience and to healthy growth and development—sadness, anger, fear, and even excitement—get blocked by anxiety because we have learned from our cultures, families, or peer groups, that these emotions are not welcome. Heather, who seemed to have found a way around her need to process her emotions with her mother as a child, was now trapped in a terrible cycle of repression, anxiety and avoidance. She didn’t feel good, and she was unhappy, unable to enjoy life.
In our work together, I taught Heather some breathing techniques to help soothe her immediate anxiety, and I helped her see the connection between her anxiety and the powerful survival mechanisms that she acquired growing up.
Now, Heather has learned that when she feels anxious, there is something she can do to ease her pain and confusion. She slows down by tuning into her body and anchors herself with breath. Once she feels anchored, she looks for the underlying core emotions that are being blocked by her anxiety. When she locates them, she understands them more fully and gives herself the positive, tender attention that her mother was unable to give her when she was young.
This relieves the anxiety in the immediate, but it also keeps it from coming back so intensely the next time. Eventually, the anxiety disappears because the core emotions are being dealt with.
If you are experiencing anxiety, working with a therapist to understand your unique story of repression can be very helpful. Your therapist can teach you important breathing techniques and show you how to process the fears and emotions the anxiety is blocking.
Like Heather, you deserve to be happy and enjoy life!
Sheila was backing out of her parking space, at the grocery store and accidentally hit another car.
Bob screamed at his boss, for making him work late on Friday night, date night.
Karla was gossiping, about a colleague, via email and accidentally sent the toxic message to the person, she was insulting.
All three, needed to apologize, but only the driver, Sheila, knew how to handle the awkward situation.
As she jumped to the other driver’s assistance, she said, “Are you all right? I’m sorry, that I hit you. Here is my insurance information.” In one breath, Sheila stated her mistake, expressed her regret, and tried to make amends. And yet, few adults are that graceful – or honest – in the act of apologizing.
In my last post (Are you sorry), I gave some examples of lame apologies, ones guaranteed to make the situation worse, instead of better.
Today let’s focus on apologies that are truly helpful, with help from psychologist Harriet Lerner. In her book, “Why, Won’t you apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts,” she offers pointers:
1. The best apologies are short and sincere. They have a single purpose, which is to open lines of communication. Once, the two of you are talking, there is plenty of time to address underlying issues, if there are any.
2. What to say? State your trespass. Say you’re sorry and that you’ve learned your lesson. Here’s an example: “The comment, I made was offensive. I’m sorry I was insensitive, and it won’t happen again.”
3. Short and simple will not suffice if that thing that you did was a major betrayal. In those cases, “I’m sorry” is a good first step — for a long-distance run. Step two, is listening to the anger of the wounded party. “There is no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than the gift of wholehearted listening to that sort of pain,” Lerner says
4. How to bear a long recitation, of your sins from the person you hurt? Recognize your defensiveness. Ask questions, about whatever, you don’t understand. Find something, you can agree with. Apologize, for your part. Let the offended person know, he or she has been heard. Thank, him or her for sharing. If you see things differently, say so. Draw the line, at insults.
5. If you simply can’t bring yourself to apologize, keep working. Keep trying. Lerner says, “Tendering an apology, one that is authentic and genuinely felt, helps the other person to feel validated, soothed and cared for. It also restores, a sense of well-being and integrity, to the one who sincerely feels, he or she did something wrong.”
If you still can’t apologize, Lerner doesn’t approve, but she does offer a sliver of comfort. You can still change and improve your behavior, she says.
Actions do speak louder than words.
Are you sorry? Then avoid these traps when apologizing.
Barbara was tired that Friday afternoon at work, and she looked forward to going home, putting on her pajamas, and spending the evening watching TV. But just before quitting time, Lucy dropped by Barbara’s desk. Lucy was lonely. She asked could she come over for supper.
Reluctantly, Barbara said yes, and they agreed on a 7:30 p.m. dinner. But 7:30 came and went, and Lucy didn’t knock on the back door until 9 p.m.
“I’m sorry”, Lucy said as she breezed in. “I ran into an old boyfriend, and we had a few drinks.”
By that point, Barbara was furious. When she appeared in my office a few months later, still angry, I had to tell her that botched apologies are common, and they can poison relationships. That’s one reason self-help books on apologies are so popular.
My favorite, the one I’ve been carrying around with highlighter in hand, is “Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts,” by psychologist Harriet Lerner.
She says some apologies are done so poorly they’re almost worse than no apology at all.
When you need to admit that you were in the wrong, do you know what NOT to say?
Here’s a list:
1. Do not ramble on and on or try to explain why you did what you did. Give the offended party space and time to consider your short and sincere apology.
2. Avoid fake, blame-reversing apologies that sound like this: “OK, I apologize. I’m sorry that you’re so upset.” The offended party will be madder than ever.
3. Apologies that begin, “I’m sorry if …” or “I’m sorry but…” are non-starters, too. Just as you shouldn’t shift the blame, you shouldn’t make excuses for your poor behavior, either.
4. It is possible that your trespass was so serious — the list of possibilities is long and grim — that the offended party doesn’t want to hear one more word from you. Respect that. This is not the time to ease your guilty conscience.
5. Assuming that the injured party would appreciate an apology, don’t under-do or over-do. Though the two responses seem very different, the problem is usually the same — low self-esteem. Lerner explains, “The more solid one’s sense of self-regard, the more likely that person can feel empathy and compassion for the hurt party and apologize authentically.”
Some of these examples may dredge up memories of conflicts in your life that are still unresolved. Just know that you are not alone.
Apologies can be so much more complicated than that short sentence, “I’m sorry.”
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When Joanie first came to see me, she seemed like a person in total control. She had a lucrative law practice, a loving husband, three adorable children.
Nevertheless, she was recovering from her third pounding headache in as many days. When I asked if anything in particular was worrying her, she had a one-word answer.
She told me she was anxious about deadlines at work, her husband’s recent health scare, even the kids’ science projects. Things big and small were keeping her awake at night.
“I wonder,” Joanie said. “Could stress be making me physically ill?”
Scientists have been trying to answer that seemingly simple question — and understand the interplay between body and mind — since the days of the ancient Greeks. Researchers still have much to learn, but this much is certain:
Heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes and Alzheimer’s — the modern maladies that will be the death of most of us — can be caused or complicated by stress. But as harmful as chronic stress can be, not all stress is bad. In fact, some situational stress can be life-saving.
Joanie looked confused, so I told her about Dr. Robert Sapolsky.
The Neuro-endocrinologist and Stanford University professor begins many of his lectures on stress with a word from high school biology — homeostasis. It comes from the Greek words for “same” and “steady” and refers to any process that living things use to maintain stability.
That internal steadiness is desirable, Sapolsky says, unless, for example, you’re being chased by a lion. Then the situational stress, leading to the secretion of adrenaline and other hormones, will give you energy, bolster your immune defenses and help you think more clearly. With luck, you’ll escape. And even though your body is not in homeostatic balance during that tumultuous time, the automatic stress response is completely appropriate.
The problem, Sapolsky says, is that it doesn’t take physical danger for many of us to experience chronic stress reactions. An argument with the boss, a traffic jam keeping you from an important assignment, even a painful memory from childhood can trigger the chemical responses. React that way often enough, Sapolsky says, and you run the risk of damaging your cardiovascular system, your nervous system, or even causing brain damage.
Another leading expert in the burgeoning field, Dr. Esther Sternberg, says the interplay between our emotions and physical health, mediated by stress, also can affect our susceptibility to depression, arthritis, AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Sternberg, who studies the connections between mind, body, stress, wellness and the environment, comes to many of the same conclusions as Sapolsky: a well-timed stress response can save your life or the life of others. But a chronic cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal hormones can be dangerous.
Most of us lead stress-filled lives, even though we encounter very few lions.
It’s tough to escape a big work project, a crying baby, a disappointingly large credit card bill. But give yourself permission to step away, if only briefly.You can’t abandon your child or even avoid those bills, but taking a few minutes for yourself is important.
Even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance routine can change and improve your mood.
Knowing that you can occasionally share your burdens can be a vast relief.
It will help you relax and focus.
If someone cuts you off in traffic or grabs your parking space, don’t allow him or her to upset you. It’s not worth your good health.
I wish you and yours a happy and low-stress new year.
Amelia, a struggling young actress, plopped down on my sofa. She’d never been to see a therapist before, but she had to find out why she was so depressed.
“I’m a great daughter and a great friend,” she told me. “When the people I love are down or in trouble, I know how to make them feel better. The problem is I’m not nearly that nice to myself. When I have some sort of reversal, I’m self-critical and self-blaming. I have to learn to take better care of myself, or I’m not going to make it.”
It took me a moment to respond because Amelia had so perfectly described a self-destructive habit that too many of us share.
We are lovely to friends and family. But when we talk to ourselves, we blame, we shame, we guilt until we have convinced ourselves we’re failures as human beings.
Take it from me and Dr. Kristin Neff — we do.
Neff, an educational psychologist and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness, care and compassion that you would show others.
During an interview with The Atlantic in May, Neff said:
“One component of self-compassion is self-kindness, which is obvious in a way. But it also entails a recognition of common humanity—in other words, the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives. Sometimes, when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong—that this shouldn’t be happening. … But it’s not ‘poor me.’ “It’s well, ‘everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.”
“We have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don’t want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don’t want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving.”
During my research, I found a more light-hearted take on self-compassion from The School of Life, which is an institute based in London and focused on emotional intelligence. Their five-minute video on YouTube is a gift in itself, with sketches and a script that will make you laugh. But the underlying message couldn’t be more serious. The video begins by acknowledging that we’re all so adept at self-criticism that the end result can be depression and underperformance.
“We might simply lose the will to get out of bed,” says the ironic British moderator.
Call the perfect cure what you will — self-compassion, self-care, a 30-minute bubble bath, or, as the moderator says in his wonderful British accent, “a corrective.”
“We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity,” the moderator says. “But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.”
To all of you out there reading my blog, I wish you happy holidays. And don’t forget the bubble baths.
Rob and Mary have supported each other through health crises, career ups and downs, the raising of five children. But even they have one subject that they cannot discuss without thoughts of divorce —America’s 2016 presidential election.
The Hamptons and the Smiths have always been great neighbors. Until that Saturday morning in October, when the couples stopped speaking.“Obama’s a Muslim,” Bob Hampton had said, and Sue Smith had screamed, “You’re a fool.”
Two women relax over coffee — until Susan says a former boss once tried to grope her. Martha freezes. Her husband was once accused of making inappropriate advances to a female employee. He said — and Martha believed — that he was innocent.
In my office, I am teaching clients one word to take to heart — empathy. Other therapists, including Houston’s own Brené Brown Brown, are touting the power of empathy, too. As she defines it, empathy is the ability to understand what someone is feeling and to reflect back that understanding.
That means that Rob and Mary have to stop plugging their ears when the subject of presidential politics come up; they must try to understand what the other is saying and why. Mary, who is pleased with the election’s outcome, has to reach back and remember the many times her candidates have lost. Then she can be truly empathetic.
The Hamptons and the Smiths also have to remember that they were once valued friends. They’ve helped raise each other’s children and fed each other’s pets. No one in the foursome is “bad,” or uncaring or racist. They’re just trusting different news sources and viewing the candidates through different lenses at this moment in time.
And Martha and Susan have to remember that there are at least two sides to every story, including and especially the conversations about sexual assault that are taking place around the country. As Brown says, “We can only respond empathetically if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain.” She also says we have to choose curiosity, connection and courage over walking away or shutting down.
Krznaric lists six habits of highly empathetic people: