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The Courage to be Vulnerable and Daring

iStock_000002128470XSmallMy intention is to live my life as fully awake as possible. Yet, the more I meditate, the more I realize how frequently I am on autopilot.  I was comforted to learn that this is a common realization among regular meditators, so I guess I am in good company. 

As a child I learned to distract myself from distressing realities, to block them out of my mind. Even though I have spent close to 35 years working on enhancing my self-awareness, I discovered that there is still a part of me that automatically falls back into my old avoidance pattern when I feel vulnerable.  It is a common human instinct to avoid unpleasantness so it is understandable that I have this tendency.  I try to notice when I start to fall back into this habit and change it as soon as I can.  However, I am also learning to respect my vulnerable feelings and accept myself when I am having difficulty overriding my urge to distract myself.

Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability and having the courage  to tell the story of who we are with a whole heart.  In her book, Daring Greatly, she quotes Theodore Roosevelt:

 “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

It is a new year, so I have spent some time reflecting on the past year and setting my intentions for this year.

In reflecting on 2014, I thought about the courage it takes to continue to get to know myself, despite my urge to avoid thinking about it, and to take risks to reveal my vulnerabilities to others. I also dare to take risks to reach for higher and higher goals, stretching myself beyond my limiting beliefs about my capabilities. When I fall short of my goals, I try to give myself credit for daring to reach beyond my comfort zone  and try to think about it as a learning experience on the path to greater self-efficacy.  And mostly I am succeeding at looking at it that way. The most important lesson for me is that it is inevitable that I will make mistakes and that it is not necessary to hide my imperfections, because:

  1. being genuine is an important value for me
  2.  my authentic self includes all parts of me, even the imperfect parts 
  3. I want to learn to accept all parts of me, even the parts I want to change
  4. I want to fully embrace the belief that I am good enough as I am even when I fall short of my own expectations
  5. I want to let go of expectations as much as possible
  6. I have learned that the more I can accept myself as I am in the present, the more I can change what I need to change in order to keep growing and progressing towards my goals

 I see myself as a “diamond-in-the -rough” who needs to work on polishing the rough edges.  This past year my focus was on developing more discipline and improved habits.  While I am still not always consistent with my new habits, I am much more confident about my ability to keep plugging away at it until I get there.   This year I intend to work on becoming more mindful of my tendency to go into automatic pilot mode. I plan to work on  accepting and even embracing difficult situations as welcome challenges, rather than distracting myself when I feel vulnerable, so I can be more fully present  more of the time.  And I intend to work on polishing my rough edges by challenging the limiting beliefs  that interfere with my reaching my full potential.

In what ways do you take risks to “dare greatly”? What rough edges do you intend to work on polishing?  Please share your comments and reactions to this post below.

You might also enjoy Shifting Gears from Automatic Pilot to Mindful Attention and  7 Steps to Mindful Awareness.

 


The Benefits of Mindfulness

I have been talking a lot about mindfulness in this blog and I decided it was time to explain why I am so enthusiastic and determined about developing this skill.  Mindfulness involves  focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, with acceptance and compassion. This can be done informally, as we go about our daily activities, and in formal mindfulness meditation practice. So the question is: what are the benefits of becoming more mindful and accepting of our present experience?

iStock_000002128470XSmallAccording to Ron Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, “a wealth of scientific evidence” shows that mindfulness can have a profound effect on our lives. Researchers have demonstrated “changes in both inner experience and outward behavior” and have recently been able to show changes in “brain functioning and brain structure” due to advances in  brain scanning technology.

Richard Davidson, a researcher at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to study the impact of mindfulness training on brain activity. They recruited stressed workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation 3 hours per week over  8 weeks.  The other workers served as a control group who were not taught mindfulness meditation.  At the start of the study, all the participants had significantly more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, a pattern found in people who are anxious, depressed or hypervigilant (frequently scanning the environment for danger). At the end of the study, the group who were taught mindfulness meditation had significantly more left prefrontal cortex activation than the control group, which is the brain activity pattern for people who are generally content, with fewer negative moods. Additionally, the group of meditators had a greater immune response, indicated by more antibodies than the non-meditators after receiving the flu vaccine.

Sara Lazar, a biological researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studied MRIs of long-term meditators and non-meditators. She discovered that the meditators had thicker cerebral cortexes than non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, sensory cortex, and anterior insula. Thicker areas of the brain are indicative of enhanced capabilities in those areas. All three areas are involved in paying attention to sensory input and the prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory–which helps us keep thoughts in our minds long enough for reflection, problem-solving, and decision-making. Research also showed that the degree of thickness was proportional to the amount of meditation experience and the differences were even more pronounced in older participants.  In another study, Lazar found increased density in a part of the brain stem involved in the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice. The most pronounced changes in density occurred in the brains of those who practiced the most. These individuals were also the ones who reported the greatest increase in their sense of well-being.

A school-based program of mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) for second and third graders, ages 7-9, was studied by Lisa Flook and her colleagues at UCLA. The program was provided to students two times per week, for eight weeks, for a total of sixteen 30- minute practice sessions.  Children with self-control problems who received the mindfulness training showed greater improvement in their regulatory abilities than children who did not receive the mindfulness training.

To summarize, research has shown significant reductions in anxiety and hypervigilance, improvement in mood, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and immune response, and promising findings with regards to cognitive functioning as we age.  I am most interested in improving my self-discipline, working memory and ability to shift attention from distractions, which will hopefully also help improve my time management skills. What benefits of mindfulness would be most helpful to you? 

 


Harnessing Radical Acceptance & “I Want” Power to Enhance Self-Control

APA-BlogDayBadge-2014The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that persuades you to get up to meditate and exercise when you feel like staying in bed, helps you to resist the extra helping of dessert, and motivates you to start working on the project that you feel like putting off until tomorrow.  According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University,  the main purpose of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards choosing to do “the harder thing.” 

Kelly McGonigal describes the three regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in motivating us to make the harder choices as specializing in “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. The region near the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex handles “I will” power. It helps you start and stick to boring, difficult or stressful tasks. The right side of the prefrontal cortex specializes in “I won’t” power, helping you resist urges.  The third region, in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, focuses on your desires, goals and priorities and helps you decide what you really want in life, then set the intention to pursue it.  

I am getting much better at “I won’t” power.  I am much more able to resist unhealthy food choices than I used to be and I am successfully losing weight. I have made a lot of progress with “I will” power, as demonstrated by my efforts to add daily meditation and exercise to my routine.  When I do concentration meditation focusing on lengthening the breath in the morning I am much more likely to choose to exercise that day.  I did it 5 days in a row one week and then 3 times the following week. However, it is still very easy for me to fall out of the habit. 

The good news is that I am motivating myself to get back on the horse much sooner than ever before.  Partly this is because I am not judging my lapses in discipline as failures.  I am practicing what Sharon Salzberg refers to as “stealth meditation,” incorporating mindfulness into my day, not just during formal meditation practice. One form of stealth meditation is practicing radical acceptance and self-compassion over and over again when I have setbacks in my efforts towards achieving my goals. That helps me get back on track faster.  The other thing that is helping me get back on track is that I am investing a lot of “I want” power into this endeavor.  I have made a commitment to keep working on developing healthy self-care habits and I am quite persistent when I am determined to accomplish a particular goal. 

In what ways do you use “I will” power, “I won’t” power, and “I want” power? Which of these forms of willpower are challenging for you? What do you do to try to overcome these challenges? Please share your thoughts  in the comments section below.

For information about Mental Health Blog Day and to read other contributor’s posts, follow this link:  http://ow.ly/wSKlZ 

 

If you are interested in reading more about Kelly McGonigal and “The Willpower Instinct,” you can read the following posts:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

For more information about Sharon Salzberg’s meditation strategies, you can read:

Seeking the Middle Way

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness


A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

iStock_000002128470XSmallI spent the first two months of 2014 developing a solid daily meditation practice, and the next step towards my goal of achieving greater life balance was to add exercise to my daily routine. The first week went well.  I exercised every morning and continued to meditate regularly at night. Then we switched to daylight savings time and it all fell apart.  I was tired and not feeling well, so I gave myself permission to take a day off, then another and another.

I started reading the book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of it, by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, to help me get back on track.

  In the first chapter she wrote, “every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself.” She recommends identifying, naming and being mindful of these different parts.  Since I am a great believer in the existence of multiple parts of self that unconsciously impact our actions,  this resonated strongly for me. Thinking of it in these terms helped me to gain some needed perspective.

I realized that the self-indulgent child part of me that craves instant gratification was saying “I don’t wanna” and “please don’t make me” about getting up and moving in the morning and winding down at night, and my overindulgent parent part was saying “ok, you don’t have to.” I also noticed that instead of remaining mindful and pausing to give myself a chance to reflect on what I really want, my wise woman part seemed to be on vacation or missing-in-action.  

Identifying the parts of self that were working against my long-term goals helped me to realize that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by giving in to my indulgent impulses.  So I started an internal dialogue to give voice to all three of these parts and to start meeting my needs first before satisfying my desires.  This has helped me to start to get back on the road towards greater self-discipline and balance.

For more information about Kelly McGonigal’s approach to willpower, you can view a talk she gave about her book: http://kellymcgonigal.com/2012/06/12/willpowerbooktalk/.  Topics addressed include addiction, cravings, procrastination, motivation, mindfulness, sleep, exercise, goal-setting, habits,  guilt, shame, and self-compassion.

Do you have internal conflicts about willpower? Which of your parts are in conflict over this? Does this parts-of-self approach to willpower conflicts sound helpful to you? Please share your thoughts about this topic below.

 


Receiving the Liebster Award and Paying it Forward

liebster award

The Liebster Award was created to recognize new blogs in a “pay it forward” manner. The word ‘liebster’ is German for ‘favorite’ or ‘dearest.’

 I am grateful to Dorlee M from the Social Work Career Development blog for nominating my blog, My Balancing Act, for this award (http://www.dorleem.com/2014/01/social-work-career-development-receives.html).

 The origins of the award are unclear and the rules have varied over time. In this incarnation of the award, the rules, as I understand them, are as follows: 

  • Thank the person who nominated you for the Liebster Award.
  • Answer the 10 questions posed by the person who nominated you.
  • Pay it forward by nominating 10 blogs with less than 3000 subscribers or Facebook fans.
  • Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer if they choose to accept the award. 

10 Questions Dorlee posed for nominees to answer: 

  1. What are the best three words that would describe you? 

genuine, caring, and determined 

  1. What do you hope to achieve with your blog? 

I am working on achieving a more balanced life and decided to share my process to help keep me honest, and to help others who are striving for greater balance, by offering tools and strategies gleaned from my personal and professional knowledge and experience. 

  1. Which of your blog posts is your favorite, and why? 

The post on body scan meditations is one of my favorites, because I did something different by recording a guided meditation and including an excerpt in the post.

The Greatest Love of All is also a favorite, because I used lyrics from a song that is meaningful to me to illustrate my point and shared about my passion for singing and how I turn it into a form of meditation. 

  1. What has writing taught you? 

Writing this blog is challenging me to be more courageous and transparent about my own struggles, to help me to grow and to help others to know they are not alone when life’s journey is difficult.  It is also challenging me to let go of my perfectionism. If I am tweaking the wording or the layout or looking for the source of a fact I want to include and it is taking too much time, then I am learning to let it go. 

  1. What advice do you have for pushing through fear? 

 I actually wrote about this in my post, Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness. I wrote, “It is the fear of fear that causes us to avoid it and try to block it from our minds.  When we face our fears, they become more manageable.”

To illustrate this point, I like to tell clients the story of Vishne and the Hindu gods, which I first heard at a training presented by Linda Sanford.

Vishne and his fellow Hindu gods lived in a castle in the sky. One day Vishne had to go away on business. After he left there was a knock on the door. When the Hindu gods opened the door, they discovered a monster standing there. They became frightened and the monster gobbled up their fear and got bigger. This made them more frightened and the monster gobbled up that fear as well and grew even bigger. This continued for some time with the monster getting bigger and bigger as the gods became more and more scared, until the monster had taken over almost the entire castle. Then Vishne came home and took one look at the situation and knew exactly what to do. He walked up to the monster, shook his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Vishne. Who are you?” And the monster became smaller and smaller and smaller until he was much smaller than Vishne and not scary at all. 

  1. What are some of your favorite quotes? 

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” –Hillel

 “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson 

 “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi

 “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ― Vivian Greene 

  1. What do you do for self-care and/or relaxation? 

Meditation, exercise, reading, doing puzzles, listening to music and singing, I also love to swim and do tai chi. 

  1. How did you find your current position? 

I’m in private practice so I created my current position. 

  1. What advice do you wish someone had given you before starting your career? 

I wish someone had explained how important it is not to overextend yourself, to guard against unintentionally encouraging dependency in your clients, and not to be so sure that you are right that you fail to listen to another point of view. 

  1. What are three things on your bucket list?

Becoming a serious student of Qi Gong and Tai Chi, becoming fluent in Spanish and Hebrew, and writing a novel about the parallel lives of a psychotherapist and one of her clients.

Paying it forward- My 10 nominations for the Liebster Award:

Allison Andrews, PsyD – Practical Strategies and Emotional Support for the Parents of Quirky Kids http://www.allisonandrewspsyd.com/blog/ 

Judith Barnard, MSW, RSW  – From Distress to Peace: A Mindful Life http://judithbarnard.wordpress.com/

Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte, PhD – Help at the Intersection of Physical & Mental Health http://www.drannbeckerschutte.com/

Mirel Goldstein, LPC – Goldstein Therapy – Clifton, NJ Counseling Blog http://goldsteintherapy.com/blog.html/

Ricky Greenwald, PsyD – Once Upon A Time… Trauma Institute/Child Trauma Institute Blog http://www.childtrauma.com/blog

Cathy Hanville, LCSW  – Thoughts of a Psychotherapist http://www.cathyhanville.com/cathy-hanville-lcsw-blog/

JoAnn Jordan, board certified music therapist  -  Music Sparks – Music to spark a better life http://www.music2spark.com

Barbara Lavi, PsyD – The Wake Up and Dream Catalyst http://wakeupanddreamcatalyst.blogspot.com/

Kathy Morelli, LPC – BirthTouch – Marriage, Motherhood, and Mental Health http://birthtouch.com/

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. – Blog about helping special needs children and adolescents and their families http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/

There are many other blogs that I enjoy reading. I chose these because they are relatively unknown and deserving of greater attention, and new posts are added regularly, at least once a month. Also, to my knowledge, they have not been nominated before. Otherwise, Dorlee’s blog would definitely be on my list!  Even though it was difficult to choose which blogs to nominate, it is my pleasure to pay it forward. 

 10 questions for my nominees to answer:

  1. What is your vision for your blog? What are you hoping to communicate via blogging?
  2. Which of your blog posts is your favorite? Why?
  3. What are the 5 things you like most about yourself?
  4. What is your proudest achievement?
  5. What is your greatest challenge?
  6. What are you most grateful for?
  7. What do you do for self-care?
  8. Who do you admire and why?
  9. What are your favorite quotes?
  10. What do you hope to be doing in 5 or 10 years?

Nominees, I hope you will all accept this award and then pay it forward, as I have done with you.

Accepting this award led me to do some reflection on my career and my life to enable me to answer some of Dorlee’s questions. It was a worthwhile challenge that enabled me to get some new insight and perspective. So thanks again, Dorlee, for honoring me and my blog with this award. 

 

 


Realistic Optimism is Key to Success

It was more difficult to maintain my meditation practice this week.  I did fine until Thursday when I was running late for work and didn’t get a chance to meditate until the afternoon.  Then Friday I had to leave early for an all day symposium and didn’t get up early enough to meditate before I left. To my credit, I set the intention to meditate that night, but then had company until late and only did a few minutes of meditation before I fell asleep.  The following morning I almost forgot to meditate.  Only two days’ disruption to my meditation schedule and already I was slipping.  How easy it is to lose momentum!

Today, I had an early appointment again.  This time I made a commitment to make sure that I had enough time to meditate before I left. I am happy to report that I succeeded!

iStock_000002128470XSmallSo, the good news is that I got right back on track. The glass is more than half full. I meditated 6 out of 7 days this week. 

I used to get down on myself when I fell short of a  goal and tended to see the glass as half empty, so I doubted my ability to succeed and it ended up being harder to motivate myself to keep trying. Then I became so accepting of my difficulties that I stopped trying to improve. Even though I saw the glass as half full, it didn’t feel possible to fill the other half, so I accepted the status quo as good enough.  Now, when I fall short of a goal, I try to give myself credit for the steps I have taken towards the goal and recognize where there is room for improvement.  This helps me to be realistic about my accomplishments and obstacles and feel optimistic about my capabilities. Recent research indicates that this type of realistic optimism helps maximize success.

Sophia Chou, an organizational psychology researcher at National Taiwan University, presented her research findings at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in August, 2013. She discovered that realistic optimists have a positive outlook about the future and an accurate perspective about current challenges, They tended to be more successful than idealistic optimists who had positive illusions rather than accurate appraisals of their capabilities or pessimists who were realistic but had negative expectations for the future. Chou found that realistic optimists had more confidence in their self-control and influence over relationships, so they could stay hopeful about the future, even while acknowledging present challenges. For further information on this study: http://www.livescience.com/39128-optimistic-realists-do-best.html.

 Are you a realistic optimist, idealistic optimist, or a pessimist?  How do you think your perspective impacts your ability to achieve your goals? Is there anything you now want to change? What first step can you take to help develop a new perspective?


One Good Habit Leads to Another

Last week I wrote about my intention to take my meditation practice to the next level and make it a daily practice.  I have now successfully finished my second week of daily meditation and I’ve noticed something. Even though I planned to wait to work on being more consistent about exercise so I could dedicate myself to developing one habit at a time, I ended up going to the gym twice this week anyway.  I just felt like doing it.

iStock_000002128470XSmallIn last week’s post, I mentioned research that showed that self-control was like a muscle that can get tired and needs rest.  However,  according to research by Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, participants who exercised self-discipline on a regular basis in regards to one habit,  also  showed  improved willpower with other habits.  So self-control also resembles a muscle in that it strengthens with exercise.

There is another way that I had more practice this week.  I was more distractible a few mornings this week, so I had much more practice bringing my attention back to my meditation over and over again, which gave me a lot more practice in self-discipline.

Even though I successfully exercised twice this week, I am still not committing to exercising regularly yet.  I am going to continue my plan to work on one habit at a time to maximize my success. This raises the question, how long do I need to continue my daily meditation practice before it becomes an automatic habit? 

According to success coach and best-selling author Jack Canfield, it takes 30 days for a new neural pathway to be established. He recommends 30 day experiments to try out new behaviors, and an additional 2-3 months to reinforce them. According to Loretta Breuning, PhD of MeetYourHappyChemicals.com, our brains need 45 days of repetition for a new habit to start feeling normal.  And according to a University College London study, it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become an automatic habit, depending on the complexity of the behavior, among other factors.  Given the above, I decided to give myself two months to develop my meditation habit before I move on to focusing on other goals.

Since the literature does not yet have a consensus about how long it takes to establish a new positive habit, I am curious to know what your experience has been. How long has it taken you to develop a new habit? Has it taken different lengths of time for different types of habits? 


A New Blog for the New Year

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe New Year is a time of reflection and rededication to striving to overcome  bad habits.  In reflecting on my own personal growth journey and the areas that continue to challenge me, I decided it was time to work on it in a more disciplined and structured way.  My old way of approaching things has helped me only so far.  Now I have decided that I need to shift the balance.  Up until now, I emphasized acceptance over change, when it came to personal habits.  I accepted my own difficulty maintaining structure and the need to keep starting over and over again.

This new blog is part of the new plan.

Setting my intentions and committing to them publicly is a way of holding myself accountable and receiving support for my efforts.  I also plan to be more systematic in my approach.  Instead of trying to change several things at once, I am learning from my experience.  What I noticed is that when I focused on being more disciplined about one thing, it became harder to be more disciplined about another thing. Recently, I was going to the gym twice a week and exercising at home other mornings.  When I tried to be more structured in my meditation practice, my exercise routine suffered.  So I intend to focus on one goal at a time and to stick with that goal until it is a more automatic part of my routine before trying to change something else.

There is some research to back up this approach.  In a review by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in the 2000 edition of the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 126, No. 2) entitled, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?”, the authors concluded that the inhibition component of executive functioning relies on a limited, consumable resource, that needs replenishment.  Resisting temptation to indulge in extra sleep or go on the computer instead of meditating in the morning, for example, would make it harder to exert self-control to follow through on exercising.

So once meditating is more of an automatic habit, then it won’t be using up my self-control reserve and I can apply it to become more consistent about exercise.  So far, I have meditated every morning for the past week.  I am off to a good start!

Now the question remains, how long do I need to work on meditation before I can move on to focus on exercise? More on that in next week’s post.

 What intentions are you setting for the new year?  What strategies are you using to try to achieve your goals?