3 Steps from Anxiety to Freedom & Peace

This blog series by Vicy L. Wilkinson, MA, CTLC, BCC is called “Little Changes, Big Results” and introduces common problems and simple starting points for people, including those of you who are new to transformational life coaching. Welcome to Complete Life Coaching, where we connect, collaborate, and create. 

Part 1:  Mental Chatter & Anxiety

 

Web of Anxious ThoughtsI wake up in the morning and it starts immediately… My own voice, yelling at me. “What the hell am I doing with my life? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get up, feel good, and GO? What possessed me to say THAT to him? Of course no one can love me for long, I make it too hard. Just stop trying.  Or, good gawd, just stop EATING.  Look at yourself – UGH. Get off your fat ass and go to the gym.  How did I get SO FAR BEHIND?”

Maybe some of that sounds familiar to you.  I know with certainty I have said all of it and, honestly, way worse to myself, inside my own head over the years, especially the “bad ones,” before I knew I could change that self-talk.  I also know I would NEVER say such unkind, unhelpful, and let’s face it, just plain MEAN stuff to another human being.

So why do we say stuff inside our own heads to ourselves, about ourselves, that we wouldn’t dream of saying to a friend or family member? The short answer is that our minds, left to run wild, are full of fear, anxiety, loathing, and shame. And we are the constant recipient of our own projections of perceived faults and failures.

In my professional coaching practice, I am often the first person to hear someone’s “monkey mind” unleashed for an outside observer to see, and I view my position with humility and respect.  I am honored to be able to just listen to my clients, many of whom feel they’ve never been heard or understood. When a person decides to pour out what’s really going on inside her mind, it’s an act of BRAVERY and takes vast COURAGE. (Aside on courage:  from the Latin, then Old French, and finally handed down to us through Middle English, the word courage means heart. The heart as the seat of feeling, thought, etc.; spirit, mind, disposition, nature. As far back in English speaking history as 1300s, courage, when applied to a person, means “a quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; braveness, boldness, valor” and it’s also “spirit, vital force or energy.” Speaking our minds, giving voice to the feelings and thoughts from our hearts, clearly takes a lot of this courage, this quality of mind.[1]) I appreciate that magnitude of pure heart it takes to pour out the sludge and really take a clear look at it. It is terrifying to trust enough to be so completely vulnerable, so it certainly takes courage to tell our dark sides and share our stories of shame and pain. [Trust in the ability of the other person both to listen without judgment AND keep our confidence is key… Here’ s a great video about discerning when it’s okay to be vulnerable.]

Speaking the negative self-talk, the monkey chatter of a fearful, shameful, antagonistic voice of our own dark self to another and trusting them to be open to receive – to listen intently – to remain solidly in non-judgment and compassion bolstered with empathy – takes heart.  To speak out the chatter requires a connection deep down, literally, in the nervous system to the heart and the gut, making the speaker vulnerable.  As one chooses to speak the darkness, the self opens from the core & exposes the chatter, shining light into the darkness.  And when we turn on this “heart light,” of courage to be open and vulnerable with a trusted other, we taste freedom.  It is then that we start to observe ourselves more keenly and make choices about how much freedom we will allow ourselves.

When we choose to make this one little change: to trust SOMEONE and to say out loud all the darkest chatter of the monkey mind, giving true voice vis a vis acknowledgment to the shame and rumination and spinning out of control narrative and allow another person to hear us, to understand us, we get BIG RESULTS for ourselves.

So, how can one begin to make this one change?

Step one:  Begin by becoming more conscious and aware of that inner dialogue. Just notice.  Just observe your mental chatter. If it feel and sounds more negative and painful than positive and motivational, begin to simply watch your own thoughts whenever you notice.  Back off yourself, and just watch.  This might be in a minute of silence after an argument with a parent, partner, child, co-worker.  It might be in bed at night, trying to fall asleep after a long day. It might be as the alarm goes off in the morning.  Just start with a minute.  Just watch, like your head is a spectator sport.  For a just a minute, don’t play, don’t engage, just observe.  As you practice, this minute could turn into 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes… It becomes a silent, observing meditation practice.  You realize there’s more to “you” than all that self-talk.

Step two:  Decide you will make one change on your own behalf to begin the process of shifting your mind and asserting control over it. “In short, the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” – Dr. Dan Siegel (from this article on his website) After you’ve made this decision, you can continuously reinforce your choice to change each time your mind wanders down its usual path of negative talk.  The great news, is that your mind is expert in that wandering!  So it gives a LOT of opportunities to notice, to pause, to consciously shift.  First watch, then you decide.  Repeat.  Constantly.  It’s a process, it’s ongoing, and the timeline is your lifetime.  Start slowly, but start consistently.  Notice each time that you notice.  Your ability to stop and observe without judgment will expand over time.

Share Your Darkness to Spread the LightStep three: Choose someone to talk to and be willing to trust and share openly, with the spoken expectation (and AGREEMENT FROM THE OTHER PERSON) of receiving empathy and non-judgment, just listening.  This person might be a professional like a trained life coach, or counselor, but she could be your best friend or brother or someone else that you truly trust and can feel safe with as you reveal some parts of yourself that you may have actively hidden.

Let’s think about empathy for a minute. Empathy is not sympathy, and the difference between them is very important.  Empathy creates direct connection because empathy is “the power of projecting one’s personality [personal experience] into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.[2]” Early uses of the word in the English language talk of such things as “my mind’s muscles” and “feelings of… motor empathy.”[3]  Now we know that empathy is built into our brains and nervous systems with specialized neurons called “mirror neurons” and that we truly can feel connected to other human beings vis a vis our own experiences of feelings and emotions. Researchers and practitioners such as Brene Brown & Marshall Rosenberg cite empathy as critical to healing self and others, though their research and practices are ostensibly very different.   “We’re wired to tell our stories, not keep our secrets,” says Dr. Brene Brown.  It’s true.  And it’s what creates connection in that “embodied and relational” mind of ours.

These three simple steps result over time in huge changes in your mind, your body, and your relationships. More empathic connection means more time feeling truly connected to other human beings, and therefore encouraged and “plugged in” to community.  We are hard wired to connect deeply to others, and openness and trust feed those connections.  With time and practice, the chatterbox that opened this article becomes adept and skillful at refuting, dismissing, or reframing the negative blah blah blah into something much kinder, warmer, and more realistic such as….

“I’m alive. That’s good. I’ll feel better once I’m up and moving and showered and fed some good food.  Last night’s conversation was a doozie, huh?  It’s okay.  Today, I will try hard to stay focused and remember I love me. That’ll help solve the problem that started the argument to begin with.  I’m learning not to engage when I’m exhausted. I’m okay.  Everyone has bad days and makes mistakes.  Just take a breather and keep going.   Just do your best.  Going to the gym could help, even if it’s just 20 minutes it’s good for me.  I’m doing just fine where I am, just remember to breathe.”

This kind of radical shift takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight.  However, this 3-step practice, done consistently and repeatedly, over the course of 6-months to a year, yields massive results that can help calm anxiety; decrease mental, emotional, and physical stress; strengthen relationships, both with self and others; and mend the mind so that thinking and performance improve in all areas of life experiences. You’re worth it.  May you experience this empathic magic beginning immediately. Namaste.

[1] Etymology & information on “courage” abstracted from The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), second edition, Volume V. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK. ©1933, 1989.

[2] OED, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.

[3] OED, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.