What Does It Mean to Trust Your Gut?

No doubt you have heard the phrase, “Just trust your gut.” Ever wonder what it actually means in a practical way, what it feels like and how to do it?

Abiding inside our most authentic self is a feeling, a voice, a resonating vibration that knows what is best for us and if we can just quiet all the noise around us and all the chatter inside our brain, we can actually hear the guidance coming from deep, deep inside our very essence. That guidance –that intuition– is our gut communicating with us and it can be our greatest protection when we make the effort to connect to it and allow ourselves to hear it.  It’s always there yet it’s easy to miss the messages it wants to give us when we engage in any compulsive activity such as working or playing too hard, eating, drinking–you can fill in the blank here. Another common way to block the guidance from our gut is by assuming the answers we need are outside of ourselves.

Want to begin a daily practice that will help you trust your gut?

Find a time and a place where and when you can be still and undisturbed.  Initially, as you are learning, you need only to dedicate a few minutes each day.   Close your eyes; breathe slowly and deeply from your belly. When your mind wanders and starts thinking about mundane things, just stop those thoughts without judging yourself or them; refocus on your breathing and start again.

Making this effort to pay attention to your gut is a step toward true knowledge of who you really are, what you really need and what action or non-action serves you in your highest and best good at this point in time.  The more effort and time you put into connecting to your gut, the more power, strength and guidance you will receive from it.

Decide how much time you want to devote and choose when and where you will do it. Set the timer on your phone, whether it is for one minute, two minutes or more; then just begin.

Your gut is the best friend you will ever have; the more time you spend communicating with it and learning how to listen to the guidance it sends to you, the easier it becomes to follow that guidance with assurance, confidence and calm.

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Trust or Fear: Which Do You Choose?

There are two places I can always go, but never at the same time.  I have to choose one or the other.

I can go to the place of fear where I will most certainly experience worry, anxiety, doubt, insecurity, and discomfort.  I don’t like going there yet it’s so easy to find myself there when I’m not being mindful of my thoughts.  Being in fear makes me sad, impatient and self-centered.   I feel nervous and uneasy there and I know instantly I don’t want to stay.  It’s not a friendly place and it’s very crowded.  Lots of people hang out there and none are happy.  There’s lots of complaining, moaning, whining, blaming, judging, criticizing and there’s no shortage of despair.

I like the other place, the place of trust.  Everyone in trust is calm, relaxed, and peaceful.  People take their time in this place; they are confident, generous, optimistic and practice gratitude.  You see lots of smiles in the land of trust.

We are always in control of our choice and we can always change our mind; which one do you choose?

What’s One Simple Tool to Prevent Your Inner Child from Hijacking Your Life?

We are all born innocent; as infants, toddlers, and young children, our innocence allows us to grow, learn and develop in optimal ways and at phenomenal speeds.

Then, at some moment in our growing up, something happens and on some deep, hidden level, a dramatic shift occurs and we mysteriously intuit that our innocence has vanished and we have crossed over an unanticipated threshold toward a darker, heavier place.  Why did innocence leave?  Where did it go? And most importantly–how can we get it back?

The particular event or series of incidents that moved us out of innocence is less relevant than the omnipresent but unspoken awareness of feeling vulnerable in a threatening world and somehow blameworthy.  The pattern and behavior of compulsively blaming and harshly judging ourselves develops into our unconscious default and can dominate for years, even decades.  Self-forgiveness seems impossible to imagine, as does recovering our innocence.

Yet, without self-forgiveness and recapturing innocence, how can we experience true joy, peace, and health?

How do we transition from blaming, shaming and judgement to a place of acceptance, forgiveness and connection where we believe we are worthy of abundant love, health and joy?

This gradual transition demands a disciplined, assiduous practice of reconnecting to the baby, toddler, child or adolescent inside of ourself who needs to be seen, heard, understood, valued and loved.  We are the only ones who can give this to ourselves.  We are the only ones who can parent the needy, hurting child inside of us who needs our attention, acceptance and love.  The more we avoid the wounded and needy child within, the more we, as adults, unknowingly chase others away from us with our neediness–neediness that we are not even aware of yet to those around us seems suffocating and blatantly obvious.

You can start your practice with one simple question each day.  Choose a time in your infancy, childhood or adolescence; see yourself at that age and ask that younger version of you what she/he needs.

“Tell Me With Words”– Too Tall an Order for a Toddler?

Can Tadpoles Leap?

Some very well educated, young parents are currently embracing the technique of instructing their toddlers (children under the age of 6) to express with words what they are feeling in the midst of an emotional outburst. At face value, this may seem like a helpful attempt by the parent to teach the child how to identify and manage upset emotions. Let’s look closer to see just how helpful this parental requirement to “…tell me with words,” may actually be.

Picture a pond with tadpoles swimming near the surface of the water. Would you ever expect any of those tadpoles to suddenly leap out of the water?  Obviously, that would be impossible; after all, those little guys have tails for swimming, not little legs for leaping. Yet, we know with absolute certainty that one day those tadpoles will, in fact, develop into little frogs with legs and they will most definitely leap! So, it’s really about development and the time needed for any creature to fully mature and develop naturally. So, what’s this got to do with saying to a screaming 4 year old, “Tell me what you’re feeling with words”?

Allow me to back-peddle for a moment and talk about my own experience with respect to using words to describe what I’m feeling when I’m upset. Recently, I went to visit one of my best friends at her office. I didn’t know the way and asked for directions, which turned out to be sketchy and didn’t warn me of the dangers at a confusing roundabout. Closely following her instructions, I was almost blind sighted by another car. In a split second, I avoided an accident but my heart was racing wildly and my legs were shaking as the situation worsened with mass confusion over the valet parking etiquette at her place of work. By the time she greeted me in her lobby, we were both ready for battle. She was feeling blamed and attacked by me; I was feeling angry, neglected and hurt by what I considered recklessly careless driving instructions.

For the first time in our friendship, we were trapped in a classic blame/defend dead-heat. All I wanted from her was empathy—for her to understand how the near-accident freaked me out and why it did—but she couldn’t or chose not to give me empathy; she was entrenched in defending her traffic instructions as entirely appropriate. I was experiencing an amygdala hijack that was controlling my brain and my body. Clearly identifying my feelings and putting them into words was the last thing I could possibly have done in the momentI was too preoccupied being out-of-control.

Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain whose job is to keep us safe from perceived mental or physical threats.  When it kicks into action, it triggers the release of hormones and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Once the amygdala is running the show, our thinking brain gets less oxygen and we react without thinking.  The experience of the hijack requires time and skill before we are able to recover from it and return to our reflective, thinking brain to analyze the sequence of events leading up to the hijack. That day, it took me several hours of focused attention and reflection to sort out why I got so triggered with feelings of anger, frustration and hurt.

So, I ask you: if someone like myself who has been studying the brain and emotions for over forty years can sometimes find it impossible in the heat of an emotional upset to “tell with words” what I am feeling—how is a toddler of 3 or 4 years old going to be able to do it?

You know the answer.

Rather than instruct the toddler to “tell me with words,” what he/she is feeling, the parent can instead, observe what emotion the child is experiencing and then state that observation to the child in a soothing, caring voice as follows:

“I see that you are looking really________.” The parent can fill in the blank with whatever emotion is observed (angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, afraid, etc.) If the parent has had some training and practice in speaking and listening with empathy, they can continue with follow up such as:

“I know how ______ it can feel when ______________ happens.”

“I bet you wish the baby wouldn’t grab your things and break them; I would be _____ too if that happened to me.”

“However, no matter how angry you are at the baby for breaking your things, hitting is never allowed.”

When a child, (or anyone, for that matter) encounters this kind of empathic response, the result is that they begin to calm down because they feel heard and understood and because they are being given the right to feel their feeling (whatever it is) rather than being forced to not feel it.

Toddlers will gradually learn the names of their emotions by receiving clear and informative, neutral assistance/feedback from their caregivers who name their feelings and report them objectively to the child with a kind and tender voice/tone. While they are in the midst of an amygdala hijack, it’s impossible for them to suddenly pause, reflect, and say, “I’m angry because the baby grabbed my my new crayon and broke it!” To expect the toddler to be able to do that is akin to expecting the tadpole to leap.  Recognizing and naming our emotions is an emotional intelligence skill that takes time and practice over the first twenty or more years of life until the brain is fully mature enough to master it.   However, toddlers can learn to slowly develop the necessary vocabulary that identifies and defines their feelings and over time, along with patience from their parents, and repetition, they will ultimately be able to “tell with words,” what they are feeling.

Will they be able to do this while the amygdala hijack is occurring?

Ask yourself; could you?

What’s Wrong with Saying “Calm Down,” to a Child Who is Upset, Frightened, or Angry?

For the most part, parents generally have good intentions for dealing effectively and appropriately with their child’s upset feelings; yet, the words they say, the tone of voice they use to say these words and the expression on their face often produces the opposite results they seek.  Their children become even more upset rather than calmer.  Let’s look at why “the meltdown” frequently occurs with children younger than 8 years old when parents tell or command them to “Calm down!”

When children cry or act out in any way because they are afraid, confused, hurt, angry or feel an unpleasant emotion that they are too young to analyze and understand–they want and need their parents’ attention and they want it NOW!  The more they need their parent to assist them–the louder and harder they will cry; they want the problem to get fixed and they need mommy or daddy to fix it.  In desperate need of help–they cry and/or physically cling to the parent. This is normal and healthy; babies and young children crave connection with their caregivers in a time of strong emotion and genuine need; it is an intrinsic survival behavior.

So, what happens when the parent says, “Calm down” either in a gentle or not-so-gentle voice? The child’s brain, which is already experiencing an amygdala hijack, becomes more desperate to get the adult’s attention because her/his need for assistance and desperate plea for comfort and aid is being ignored and/or rejected!  The reactive/impulsive part of the brain (amygdala) triggers the chemicals that cause the child to scream louder or cling harder to get help; this is simply how the human brain functions.  The parent mistakenly assumes the child is having a “tantrum” or a “meltdown” and responds by further withholding that which the child needs the most in that crucial moment: empathy, connection and understanding.  As the scenario develops, the more upset and demanding the child becomes, the more withholding and distant the parent responds by continually commanding or imploring the child to “Calm down.” The child screams louder and more frantically.  This continues as parent and child disconnect further. The child, who has less power, ultimately wears down physically and emotionally.  Red-faced and exhausted from the trauma of crying, the defeated child finally appears calm–almost as if in a stupor. At this point, the parent approaches the child, possibly with affection, and assumes the child has learned that comforting comes only after the child has obeyed by “calming down.”

But, in truth, what has this child really learned?

Let’s explore this.  Something happens to hurt or frighten the child; the amygdala in the child’s brain takes over and the child cries for help.  Rather than help, the parent instructs the child to calm down first before help will be administered.  The child physically can not obey this command because the brain already released the toxic chemical cortisol, that is driving the hysterical crying. The child wants to please the parent and calm down but is not capable of doing so.  The scene then plays itself out as described above but this is not an isolated incident that happens once in this child’s life.  The requirement from the parent to “Calm down,” when the child is physically and emotionally unable to do so, is one that happens repeatedly–maybe daily, weekly or monthly until the child gets it.

And what exactly does the child get?

In the example above, when the child finally appeared calm, what actually happened was that the child surrendered to the hopelessness that Mommy/Daddy would empathize, understand and respond to the genuine need for help. Intuitively, energetically, the child also gets that Mommy/Daddy doesn’t want me to show my feelings, doesn’t want me to feel my feelings, doesn’t want me to have feelings.  And perhaps the most psychologically damaging message the child gets is that Mommy/Daddy will only listen to me, pay attention to me, or help me if I am subdued, passive–or in their words–“calm.”  And to take it one step further, the child learns that Mommy/Daddy only gives me love when I act the way they want me to act. If I don’t, they will withhold their love from me and since I’m afraid to live without their love, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win it–even if it means pretending I don’t have feelings–even if it means learning how to not feel!

Is this really what we want our children to learn–that we will only give them love if they suppress their authentic emotions?

There is another way to interact; it’s based on empathy–the intrinsic capacity of our brains to connect with others; empathy engenders understanding and compassion.

Empathy Warriors teaches how to listen, speak and act with empathy.  Learn more; private message me or buy my book and start your own Empathy Warriors Support Group with your peers to learn and practice these new behaviors.  I am available to support you in your efforts; it’s my gift to you.

14 Year Old Accused of Murdering His Teacher Described as “…a Quiet, Normal Kid”

How many times in recent years have we heard accused killers in school violence described as a “…quiet, normal kid?” http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/24/justice/massachusetts-chism-profile/index.html

This week’s senseless murder of a 24 year old math teacher in Massachusetts, has us all asking the same old questions, “Why didn’t anyone see warning signs in this student? How could someone who appeared so nice and normal commit such a violent crime?”

A friend and teammate described the 14 year old accused killer saying, “He was a really nice kid–had a great smile…kinda shy; kinda quiet…”  http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/25/justice/massachusetts-danvers-school-killing/

So, we are left wondering how so much anguish, rage, depression, confusion, or mental torment could exist inside a teenager’s mind to drive him to murder, while those who knew him saw no signs or warnings of what was going on in his mind.

How much effort and energy do we invest in going beyond the superficial greetings and platitudes of those with whom we interact?  How much attention do we actually pay to their body language and facial expressions? How often do we really look into the eyes of someone else to gauge how they might be feeling?  How much attention does our education system pay to teaching our students social and emotional intelligence?  How well are our schools helping students learn how to identify and manage their emotions appropriately?

What does “normal” really look like?  One of the leading brain experts, Dr. Dan Siegel, talks with Goldie Hawn, campaigner for mindfulness, about the power of mindfulness for children and youth.  Click on the link below to listen to their TEDMED talk.  Also, to learn more about the teenage mind, check out Dr. Dan Siegel’s new book, Brainstorm.

http://drdansiegel.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OdBXGHwNCk

Another Tragic School Shooting in Nevada…

Bullying is not new; it’s been around for as long as most folks can remember.  What is somewhat new however, is what appears to be an emerging trend with which victims of bullying find solutions to their ordeals through suicide and/or murder. Scholarly psychology papers claim that victims of bullying are more likely to demonstrate aggression and in recent years, studies suggest that teenage shooters have been victims of bullying. (http://www.sozialpsychologie.uni-frankfurt.de/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Leary-et-al.-2003.pdf.)

Many schools have some sort of anti-bullying program, but how effective have they been in reducing the incidence of bullying, empowering victims, and changing the behavior of bullies? According to a recent study by criminologist Seokjin Jeong, at University of Texas at Arlington, these programs have not only not been helpful but some anti-bullying programs actually make the problem worse because they teach bullies new and more effective ways to hurt victims! (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57606812/are-anti-bullying-efforts-making-it-worse/)

More and more experts in the field are saying we have been misinformed about the nature of bullies and what to do about them and that at least a dozen myths and misconceptions still abound. Rachel Simmons, cofounder of the Girls Leadership Institute and author of Odd Girl Out,  explains that bullies generally do not possess low self-esteem as was originally thought but instead are confident, powerful, popular, and adept at terrorizing others.  She states,  “Bullies are talented chameleons. The most psychologically aggressive kids are usually the ones who cop angelic poses when adults walk into the room (Eddie Haskell, anyone?). These kids possess high social intelligence. The same skills that enable them to hurt their peers are precisely what allow them to manipulate adults.” (http://mag.newsweek.com/2010/10/14/the-nine-most-common-myths-about-bullying.)

So, if traditional anti-bullying programs are not helping and we have misunderstood the true nature of bullies–then what is the solution?

In my book, Empathy Warriors, I describe how I was tormented and excluded as a teenager and the resulting isolation and depression I endured because of it.  I was, in fact, alone with no support from family, teachers, or friends.  Because of my own personal experience being victimized, I believe that what schools need is a profound shift in the emotional, social climate of the entire school environment from Pre-K all the way through 12th grade.  Inclusive of every breathing human being in the school environment, empathy must preside over all relationships and behaviors. Social and emotional learning must be taught systematically from Pre-K to Grade12 students, teachers, parents, administrators and all staff on campus.  This school wide shift into empathy can only occur successfully when everyone is on board with a policy that honors authentic emotions, respects multiple perspectives, and practices empathy in all situations, at all times, with everyone.

Social and emotional intelligence can be taught and learned; it’s the right choice for all schools today.

One Mindful Breath and Your Brain Cells Will Benefit!

A myriad things that we are barely aware of can trigger us and a darkened veil can suddenly descend over our joyful spirit; we feel the shift into darkness yet we don’t know what caused it.  It is in these moments of feeling the transition toward the negative that we must act to protect ourselves from allowing a dark mood to control us.

The moment our mood begins to shift, we must remind ourselves that we have the power, choice, and ability to remove the veil and step back into the light.

Breathe; it sounds so simple yet we resist it.  It takes less than ten seconds to complete one focused, deep-belly breath; why talk ourselves out of doing it?  Even just one mindful inhalation and exhalation will begin the shift back to peace and calm.

Breathe; you deserve ten seconds of peace.   Breathe again; you deserve another ten seconds!  Between each breath, say to yourself, “I deserve peace; I deserve calm.”

As you breathe mindfully, every cell of your body is rejuvenating and the cells that benefit the fastest are your brains cells controlling your moods.

Your brain prefers joy, peace, and calm so breathe–and give your brain what it desires most.

Why Do We Need Social and Emotional Learning?

For generations, schools worldwide have distinguished themselves by their students’ academic achievements.  As emphasis on high test scores preponderates, attention to the social and emotional development and well being of learners tends to get marginalized. The result of this phenomenon?  Worldwide, we are currently experiencing the highest incidence of teenage depression on record and teenage suicide is becoming alarmingly more common as a solution to bullying and other social issues!  As young people in every country spend more time on electronic social media, their opportunities to look directly into the eyes of their peers are shrinking and their social skills are plummeting.  Put simply; young people lack the emotional intelligence skills to identify and manage their emotions productively. Schools are failing to successfully provide the urgently needed social/emotional learning programs students require to flourish on all levels: academic, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual.

It’s not just our youth who suffer, but parents and teachers as well.  Our species tends to be living longer–but not necessarily happier or more productively.

The good news, and it’s very good news, is that everyone, regardless of age or gender, has the capacity to fully develop their emotional intelligence and become happier, more confident, more productive, and more in charge of their lives simply by experiencing a systematic social and emotional learning program!