The Magic of Mindfulness.

If you are looking for an effective way to stop the impact stress has on your life and well-being, mindfulness is your ticket!

But does the popularity of the word mindfulness intimidate you?

Please don’t let it!

Mindfulness, is simply the practice of being a non-judgmental observer of your thoughts and gently directing them back to the present moment. We all have the intrinsic capacity to change the focus our attention. 

Simple but not so easy to do.

Our mind hangs out in the present moment less than 50% of the time, as happiness researcher Dr. Killingsworth discovered through his postdoctoral research at Harvard University. As if that is not bad enough, his research also showed that a wandering mind leads to unhappiness in life. 

By practicing mindfulness, we can lessen the time we are lost in thoughts and be healthier and happier.

 In fact, over the last few decades, research from all around the world has proven that in addition to happiness, mindfulness leads to numerous physiological and psychological benefits, as well as peak performance.

With such strong evidence, why do less than 10% of us take advantage of this wonderful way of living?

A little over a decade ago, I was one of those people. 

I remember vividly when the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle was the book selection at my book club. I recall rolling my eyes hearing that this book was about “awakening to a new way of being and a new level of consciousness.”

I did not feel I had the time to “let a flower show me the way back home to my true self!”

All was seemingly going well in my life at the time. I was mostly unconscious of the great level of anxiety that I lived with, or accepted it as part of the price I had to pay to be successful. 

As it turned out, the seeds that were planted by that coincidental opening to mindful awareness grew into my lifesaving jacket shortly thereafter. When my unconscious state manifested in my life in the form of a series of unfortunate events, mindfulness became my beacon of light, my anchor, and my way home.

To this day, practicing mindfulness provides me with a safe place to find refuge in difficult times, keeps things in perspective, and helps me regain access to my evolved brain so that I can make wise decisions.

But how about you? What are your thoughts about mindfulness?

Are looking for ways to experience more balance and peace in your life?

Do you wish to enhance your ability to prevent work challenges from coming home with you at the end of the day? Would you like to become better at making intelligent use of your emotions?

What if I was to tell you that incorporating a mindfulness practice into your life will open the door to all of the above and many more inner strengths and states of being?

If you are anything like me, you may think that it sounds too good to be true, that you do not have time for it, or that you simply tried and cannot do it.

I would like to challenge your perceptions by sharing with you what I learned from the world’s most prominent mindfulness teachers about my points of resistance to mindfulness.

My goal is to inspire you to open the door to the ultimate form of freedom by welcoming mindfulness into your life.

“Mindfulness is a love affair with life and a possibility for healing.” John Kabat Zinn

1.    “The mindfulness hype is simply too good to be true.” 

It is hard to believe that mindfulness can transform our life. Even if the strong scientific evidence impresses us, we cannot conceptualize how incorporating even as little as five minutes of mindfulness meditation three times a week can increase our immune system cells or our happiness.

 Yet, even with all the scientific evidence aside, we know that our current way of being often does not feel good.  We appear to be stressed out and more addicted than ever; we have a hard time sleeping; we are overweight.

What we are not fully conscious of is that our mind’s attention—our thoughts—determine the way we feel, which leads to our actions that create our life experience. Everything in your life today is the result of your thought process. Your career, education, and your relationships are all the result of the decisions you made based on what you think.

The problem is that when we are thinking over and over about events that appeared threatening or made us feel defensive, we neurobiologically lose access to the intrinsic strengths we have to make good decisions.

The reason for this is that fear-based thoughts place us in survival mode. This is good when we are chased by a cougar, but not so good when we are ruminating over and over about a harsh criticism by our supervisor.

Here is why intercepting our thoughts has such a robust benefit on our wellbeing: 

When we are in survival mode, this little structure in our brain, called the amygdala, orchestrates our body’s response to threats.  Our body is flooded with stress hormones and literally shuts down our higher brain functions to allow energy to fuel all the systems required to survive in the face of a threat. 

Let’s face it, if you are being chased by a cougar, you really don’t need access to your innovation and critical thinking skills that allow you to discover a cure for a disease or develop an invention. You need to deal with the immediate threat of the cougar. So, instead, your energy is directed to the appropriate organs and functions that will allow you to fight, flee, or freeze.

However, the more we think about the harsh criticism we received from our supervisor, the more we live immersed in the chemistry of stress—sometimes for hours, days, or even years. Multiply that by several challenging events per day times the 70,000 estimated thoughts we have per day, and maybe you can begin to see why stress is now linked to more than 90% of today’s disease.

This is the power of our mind at work—inadvertently not allowing us to get out of our stress response when our unconscious thoughts perpetuate the need to protect our selves by perceived threats.

And allowing our unruly thoughts to keep our stress response over-activated long-term changes pretty significantly structures and functions in our brain that originally were intended to help us live the most amazing, healthy, and happy life. 

Research shows that it takes a minute and a half for a negative emotion to run through our neural circuitry. Yet by interpreting the situation as a threat, we let the negative emotions linger unconsciously, placing us in a compromised state for most of our daily lives. 

So, how does mindfulness help? Mindfulness helps us to make our thought patterns conscious. By sorting through our unconscious thoughts and emotions, we are able to become our own neurobiologists and regulate our inner response.

Mindfulness simply allows us to interrupt the stream of thinking about a situation that has activated our fear circuitry and return to our peaceful home base. By bringing awareness to the sensation of the fearful experience, and purposely returning to the present moment, we stop the release of cortisol. We can then redirect our energy to fuel the parts of our brain that are critical for our optimal performance. Further, through repetition of bringing mindful awareness to all that we do, we contribute to growing the parts of our brain that are linked to positive traits such as resilience, confidence, and self-control.

Although mindfulness cannot prevent us from experiencing negative emotions, it enhances our ability to take a break from the negative thoughts and emotions we experience and turn inward for a sense of peace and calm. From there, we can choose our response using the incredible strengths and inner capabilities that we have but that we can only access when we are calm and centered.

2.     “I don’t have time to do it.” 

It is true that time is a precious commodity these days. Technological advances once designed to improve our efficiency have resulted in a dysfunctional relationship with our devices, which we use to bring work and our to-do lists home, even on weekends or in bed at night! It is natural to present resistance to adding one more thing onto our already full plate. 

But how much time do you currently waste in either thinking about the past or worrying about the future? 

How much time do you lose waiting for others to do things for you so you can feel fulfilled? 

Based on the Harvard research mentioned in the beginning of this article, we waste about 50% of our time in the virtual reality of being lost in our thoughts.

Without conscious attention, which is what mindfulness is all about, our thoughts and the emotions they generate, run our life on auto-pilot.

Our thoughts determine how we respond to life. When our thoughts regularly revolve around fears and worries, we will experience anxiety.  

It takes a few minutes to connect with the mental content of our thoughts and the bodily sensations of our emotions. Even investing only five minutes every morning in a formal, mindfulness meditation practice will, over time, allow you to regain control of your mind’s focus. And then the real magic happens, when we bring our new capacity to modify the attention of our thoughts when real life situations take us off balance. 

We can then prevent the unnecessary activation of our stress response no matter how many stressors we have to deal with in life.  We simply deal with them from a space of wisdom and confidence that can only be found in the present moment. 

And what ends up happening is we have more time because:

—We stop living life waiting for something to happen. We’re more focused on our internal world as opposed to external rewards.  

—Our creativity and imagination flourishes because our mind is no longer cluttered by negative thoughts.  

—We are more resilient. A better regulated mind allows us to bounce back quicker from uncomfortable events such as negative criticism. 

3.     “I have tried to practice mindfulness, but I am just not good at it.” 

In our busy, hyper-connected world almost everything is associated with the need to perform. So, we expect we must perform mindfulness perfectly. 

However, mindfulness is this magical break from the never-ending race of meeting expectations.

It is a practice that does not require perfection.

Recognizing the point when our mind wanders is what the magic of mindfulness is all about. The practice is to shift from judging and condemning ourselves when our mind wanders, to recognizing that the moment when we recognize the wandering mind is the moment of power. 

We don’t have to be Zen masters to use life as our practice in nudging our thoughts back to the present moment, one thought at a time. Every time we intervene in reactive thinking and choose our response instead strengthens our ability to do so in the future. Additionally, research shows that gray matter increases in the pre-frontal region of our brain. This region of our brain, known as the executive functioning part of our brain, is what allows us to make sound decisions and access valuable data that we can use to bounce back quicker from adverse situations and improve our life experience.

Jack Kornfield, best-selling author and Vipassana teacher, has helped me simplify the concept of practicing mindfulness. Far from a mystical practice, it can be mastered by viewing our thoughts as a puppy that we are trying to train to stay. We tell the puppy “stay”; in a moment it wanders away; we call it back and tell it again to stay. We repeat this process over and over again. We don’t get angry at the puppy. It is simply learning how to stay in one place, just as our wandering mind is learning to stay in one present moment. 

Contrary to almost everything in life the benefits of mindfulness are reaped in our moment to moment experience without the need to arrive at a destination. Mindfulness opens us up to a new way of approaching life that shifts our default mode of getting distracted by old stories that our mind has hung onto and are not here right now. The present moment is where happiness, contentment, optimal performance, and life satisfaction can be found.

Final thoughts

Our thoughts are incredibly useful as they form the genesis of our emotions and lead to actions that create our reality.

However, often times, the power of our mind results in us becoming servants of our thoughts because of imaginary threats, which activate our stress response and deprive us of our inner capabilities, our creativity, and our natural capacity for resilience and happiness.

When we begin to bring mindful awareness to our thoughts and change the focus of our attention, we expand our perception in all areas of our life.

We realize that when we worry about a staff meeting, a presentation we have to give, or the potential of a relationship break-up, we allow our thoughts to take us to a virtual reality that is not here right now.

With mindfulness, we can begin to cultivate a better relationship with our thoughts. By practicing conscious awareness of our habitual thoughts that do not serve us, we can begin to become the compassionate observer. We can recognize that these fearful thoughts are just habits and become better and better at directing our attention to the present moment. 

Although there are plenty of reasons to shun this well-substantiated practice, many of our objections are also just thoughts!

The evidence of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is compelling. You can expect to improve your immune function, blood pressure regulation, and cardiovascular risk, as well as your mood, concentration, focus, problem-solving and self-regulation.

These benefits will improve your work performance, your relationships, and your sense of happiness.

When beginning to learn mindfulness meditation, it is often helpful to practice using a guided meditation. If you would like a guided practice to try, you can click on this link : http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen to join the Myndzen community and receive a guided, mindfulness practice delivered to your inbox.

By joining a mindful community, you can access the resources, support, and accountability that can help you harness the power of your mind to create a more fulfilling life experience. 

Tips to Make the Holidays Less stressful. (And more Merry & Bright)

We typically refer to the holiday season as the most wonderful time of the year. 

But is that true for you? If it is, I am happy for you.

But if it’s not, you are definitely not alone!

Statistically-speaking, it appears that for a good three months, including the time before and after the holidays, our stress level is at its worst for the majority of us.

Further, seasonal depression abounds during the holiday season. Many additional financial strains, extra work demands for end-of-the-year deadlines, and dealings with family members challenge our ability to stay positive, present and calm.

Not to mention, many of us have to rise to the occasion of having a “wonderful life” when our reality is not congruent with the commercials and holiday shows that bombard us. Many of us are divorced, single parents.  Some of us live thousands of miles away from home. And others are adjusting to life without loved ones who are no longer here.

Between the extra expenses, gifts, travel, decorations, dinner parties, loneliness, distractions of our normal routine, long lines, loss, divorces, extra traffic, dealing with family, and oh-so-many expectations are you surprised we suffer from holiday stress?

It does not matter whether the holiday is Hanukah, Christmas, or Diwali. The extra load the holidays place on our already-full plates often exceeds our capacity to rise to the occasion without taking our bodies out of whack.

However, there is a magical gift to be found in the holidays and in the rest of our life. If the script that was passed on to us is causing us exhaustion, anxiety, pressure, and strain, it is 100% within our control to change it!

We are the creators of our reality and we can re-write any part of our story to make it more balanced, sustainable, jolly, and bright!

Here are nineteen suggestions to consider in re-writing your holiday story, in order to savor the festivities without burning out.

Upgrade your mindset

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1.    How we celebrate Christmas as we grow older can change.

The holiday tale you were handed as part of your family history includes a myriad of family traditions that perhaps are not realistic today. 

If you want to write a new holiday story that fits your current reality, you can start by choosing a new theme. Then you can determine the plot, the protagonists, the roles, and the dialogue that work for you. Here are some suggestions for a new story with a happier ending:

2. Set your own standards, expectations, and what “good enough” looks like for you. Don’t try to keep up with traditions that are unrealistic based on your life’s circumstances.

3. Focus only on what you can control. 

4. Enjoy the journey without being distracted by worries about the result.

5. Strive for balance as opposed to perfection.

6. Explore ways you can turn to-do list items into opportunities for connection. My lovely friend Steph role-modeled this beautifully when she hosted a Friendsgiving soiree this year. Everybody contributed to a lovely meal, and part of the joy was decorating her Christmas tree together. What a great way to enjoy the moment and take the decorating chore off her to-do list!

Prioritize and plan ahead

7.    Set a budget without being afraid of being a Scrooge.

You may know of the character, Scrooge, from the story The Christmas Carol. He was miserly and selfish. But you can set limits and still be generous.

After all, how generous we are with our time, energy, and money hinges on the love and thought we place into things and not the quantity.

What if you avoid over-spending, as well as the overwhelming lines and exhaustion of holiday shopping, by creating gifts for your dearest ones? 

You can spend time with your children decorating useful everyday things, like coffee mugs for example. Or you can play some holiday music by the fire while reviewing your photos from the past year. Select your favorite photos of adventures you shared with family and friends. You can then order prints of those photos, place them in frames, and turn them into wonderful gifts.

8.    Don’t let the Grinch steal your Christmas.

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You may remember the Grinch,  Dr. Seuss’s mean-tempered character, who was so irritated by the holiday festivities that he decided to destroy Christmas.

When you lose yourself in an attempt to please everyone and surpass everybody else’s expectations, guess what happens! You burnout. The typical symptoms of burnout— exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, and ineffectiveness—can turn the nicest of us into the Grinch! What good is staying up all night to prepare the perfect holiday gathering if you are so snappish and irritable that you cannot enjoy it?

Do you remember the last time you gave up sleep, wholesome nutrition, or your little healthful rituals to rise to the unrealistic expectations of your family, friends, or work?

How did that feel in your body and spirit? 

The truth is, it is impossible to be the perfect mother, daughter, cook, and executive all at the same time. It is imperative that we take control of our priorities by being mindful of what is important to our well-being!  

To avoid burning out this holiday season, incorporate the following when setting your holiday priorities. 

9. Put yourself on top of your priority list! 

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10. Plan ahead how you will spend your time, your money, and your energy. 

11. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

12. Nurture your body.

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Don’t let the holiday over-burden your need for rest in between sprints. A short 15-minute walk can be a great way to de-stress. There is a great sense of peace in the sound of the wind whistling through the trees and the extra blood pumping through your blood when you gift yourself with a few minutes of activity in nature. Not to mention, research has revealed that even short amounts of daily exercise activate the same brain circuits as anti-depressants do.  

13. Nurture your mind. If extra contact with relatives, which takes you out of your zen, is on the menu during the holidays, purposely infuse positive activities in between visiting with them. This can include committing to a guided meditation before you go to sleep, listening to an uplifting podcast on the way to work, or simply planning to spend more time with people who uplift your spirits.

14.  Enjoy the moment. Resist the urge to let your mind wander to stressful thoughts. Although this is easier said than done, training your attention to stay in the present moment is an incredible practice. Its benefits go beyond being a popular fad. Keeping your attention in the now has many physiological and psychological benefits. Some of those benefits are blood pressure reduction, increased optimism, and even growth in regions of your brain that are associated with inner strengths, like improved concentration and problem-solving.

Dare to be you and do things differently

15.    Let Rudolph show you the joy of being different .

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Do you remember the story of Rudolph, one of Santa’s reindeer, who was shunned by the other reindeer because he had a bright, red nose? But then the light of his nose saved Christmas as he guided Santa’s sleigh on a foggy night. 

The stress to conform can increase during the holidays. Once upon a time we lived in small communities with family structures that had defined roles and plenty of support available. Today, the pace of life is very different with many single-parent households, moms in executive roles, and family members geographically spread around the nation or the world.

High demands are placed on us during the holidays.  It takes courage to defy the familial norms and traditions. Choosing how you want your life to be during the holiday season means you have the opportunity to create new traditions that are aligned with who you are today.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind as you become a holiday tradition pioneer:

16. Align traditions with your interests.

What traditions are linked to what gives you joy? For example, I discovered that volunteering for a cause I am passionate about is a fantastic new holiday tradition with many benefits. It gives me the opportunity to savor my connectedness to the whole, spend wholesome time with my daughter, and deepen my sense of gratitude for our blessings. 

17. Master the art of saying no. We have associated a negative connotation to saying no to things that take us off-kilter. But whether you kindly decline to attend one more holiday affair or to host your negative relative for ten days, consider what you are saying yes to when you say no. Perhaps you are saying yes to peace of mind, centeredness, and a better night’s sleep!

Reflect 

18.    Choose the definition of the greatest gift.

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Beyond over-indulging, over-spending, forced family time, and endless to-do lists, the spirit of the holidays is really about pausing and opening the door to love.

The greatest gift we can all give to ourselves, our families, and the world we live in is taking back the reins of what is 100% within our control. We can choose all the ingredients and the small steps to take to create the life and the holiday season we love.

During this time, give yourself the space to reflect on what you need to continue, to stop, and to start doing in the coming year. You can use the following prompts to reflect.

o  What activities, choices, and people brought you happiness this last year?

o  How does your current self-care ritual feel? How do you nurture your body and soul? What more do you need?

o  What are some of the biggest pearls of wisdom you gathered this year and what would you like to do differently in the new year?

By pausing, reflecting, and choosing what you will do to move toward what you truly love, you can not only design a peaceful holiday, but a more satisfying life. 

Enjoy

19.    Remember what a wonderful life looks like to you.

Our busy lives, in and out of the holiday season, don’t always provide us with the opportunity to reflect on what truly makes life wonderful.

I know from personal experience how draining, stressful, and unfulfilling losing ourselves in all the things we “should be” doing can be.

Meeting a never-ending list of others’ expectations and standards obscures the wonder of life and deprives us of the joy that we all deserve.

But we can use this holiday season as the catalyst for positive change.

We can:

  • Decide which parts of our history we want to bring forth into the present moment.
  • Dare to incorporate new traditions that serve us well.
  • Elevate our self-care and honor our limits.
  • Prioritize and plan how we use our energy to honor what is important to us.

And then, the miracle happens. A door opens to a truly wonderful life. We feel calmer, more grounded, and can shed a tear for a special someone we miss yet smile at the glistening shine of a fresh snowflake.

And that is when we not only enjoy the festivities in the present moment, but we become a beacon of light for our families, our colleagues, and the collective whole.

May you have a wonderful, joyful, and peaceful holiday season!

Practical Ways To Love Yourself More

In my last article, I provided an overview of scientific literature, which supports that self-love plays a foundational role in our well-being.

But how do we begin to do the work of cultivating the quality of love for ourselves that can literally transform our lives?

If being hard on yourself has been “the norm” throughout the course of your life, it may seem impossible to imagine how you can transform the stance from which you typically tackle life.

This may be the case even more if being a drill sergeant to yourself has resulted in “status quo” success.  My commitment to excellence, at the cost of my work-life balance, allowed me to synthesize cancer drugs, lead teams from the bottom to the top in performance, and win a myriad of corporate and other awards. It was all great until I fell apart!

The truth is, when I burned out, far from feeling love for myself, I felt like a complete failure. I perceived my burned-out state as a sign of weakness and felt very disappointed in myself. How could a once top performer—someone who synthesized cancer agents and was an athlete— fall apart like I did?

Yet somehow, I allowed my discomfort to become my motivation and discovered the ultimate path to freedom. We can experience amazing joy when our efforts are fueled by self-appreciation and driven by our own values instead of by external approval. 

Here are some of the most effective ways, which I learned from prominent researchers, that we can use to tap into cultivating a better relationship with ourselves, flaws and all.

These science-based strategies not only helped me find my way back home to better health, but they also help me now to transform the lives of my clients when they became too burned out to succeed.

1. Become your own best friend. 

If your best friend came to you while facing a challenge, how would you support them? I am certain that you would speak to them kindly, listen to them attentively, perhaps make them a warm cup of tea, and hold their hand through their difficulty. Why can’t we be as compassionate to ourselves? The world’s most prominent researcher in self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, has revealed that when a friend fails it presents no threat to us. However, our own shortcomings present as a real or perceived threat to our self-concept. And any threat short-circuits our thinking brain and activates our stress response, which compromises every part of us, including our compassion for ourselves.

But why not use this knowledge to instead make a commitment to extend the same love and support to ourselves as we would to a best friend? Become your own best friend!

According to Dr. Neff, we can teach ourselves to be our best friend by incorporating the three essential components of self-compassion, which are Mindfulness, Kindness, and Recognizing our Common Humanity.

To illustrate how this might work, let’s pretend you were just passed up for a job promotion. Or you could pick your own example of a current or past difficult situation.

The first step is to bring Mindfulness into the situation, recognizing how difficult the situation is.  

You can use any words that are comfortable and natural for you.  You could say, “This is really tough,” or “I am feeling rejected,” or “This is a moment of suffering,” or “It is not going to be easy for me to accept this.” The key here is to choose how we relate to the experience without taking it personally, so that we can deal with our emotions from a calm, balanced state. We need to avoid judging either the situation or ourselves. We would never respond with judgement and blame to our best friend, would we? 

The second step is to invite Kindness in.

This can be something as simple as setting the intention to be kind and supportive to ourselves. Think of the words and the actions you would use to comfort someone you love if they were going through a similar experience. Include terms of endearment, the warmth of human touch, and soothing vocalizations. For example, you could hold your face in your hands and say something like: “Aww Tzeli, I am so sorry you have to go through this right now, my love. But I am here for you.” Don’t worry about looking silly. No one is watching. Remember, your brain does not know the difference between what you are saying or thinking and what is happening in reality. By role-modeling compassion, your brain registers safety. This keeps all of your body’s organs and functions working at optimal performance levels, which allows you to respond beautifully to difficult life situations.

The third step is recognizing our common humanity.

As we go through the ups and downs of life, we may find it hard to be on our own side. This may be  because of the false perception that everybody else is managing life just perfectly and we are alone in our discomfort.  The truth is, not a single one of us is perfect and failures, mistakes or moment of self-doubt, are all part of being human. In moments of doubt, it is important to remind your self of our common humanity. You can comfort your self by telling your self something like, “It is normal to feel disappointed, but there are many others going through similar situations,” or “Discomfort is part of life. I am here for you. I’ve got your back.”

Research reveals significant benefits in investing your energy into becoming your own best friend. Some of these benefits are greater resilience in the face of challenges and faster recovery from physical or emotional traumas.

2. Reconnect with your values.


When our never-ending pursuit of happiness is driven by social norms and the wants and needs of others, we lose a really important source of power: The power of our own values!
When we are taking actions and creating things in life that are not aligned with our values, we experience discomfort and difficult emotions. This in turn leads to coping mechanisms that sabotage us. However, when we turn to what is most valuable to us, we can find strength, motivation, and energy to invest in meeting life goals that are rooted in love, rather than fear. 
To re-connect with your values, I invite you to run an experiment with yourself for the next seven days.
  • On the first day of your experiment, set your alarm ten minutes earlier and begin your day with a short, guided meditation. You can use a guided meditation of your choice, or you can receive one in your inbox by joining the Myndzen community- bit.ly/JoinMyndZen
  • Once your mind is clearer, give yourself few minutes to write a list of single words that represent what you value most in your life in the present moment. For example, some one-word values are adventure, community, love, friendship, integrity, tradition, equality, and so forth. What do you value most? When you have completed your list, review it and choose the three values that make you feel the most joyful, happy, and powerful when you think about them.
  • Then, at any point throughout the course of your day, when you recognize any of your actions causing you frustration or discomfort, pause and challenge yourself to identify what is driving your action. If one of your top three values is not behind your action, this may be the cause of your discomfort. Select a small step you can take to nudge your response to a new action that is more aligned with your values. For example, if your top value is family and you were asked to participate in a weekend work meeting, you could suggest that you participate remotely via an online meeting app instead of physically attending the meeting.
  • Focusing on the top three values you identified, repeat the process of aligning your actions with these values over the next seven days. You might want to keep a list of your new actions.
By the end of the seven days, you will have a list of different actions you can choose to keep you in sync with your top values. These new choices come from a place of self-trust and self-appreciation as opposed to self-judgment. You will be amazed at how much energy you will free up when you choose actions that are aligned with what you care about the most.

3. Befriend your inner critic.

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A part of you will always rise up to sabotage your efforts, especially when you are brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone. For example, you may have decided to improve your work-life balance to support your value of family by working less. Then your boss challenges your commitment to your work because you are not working late as much. At this point, you may hear an inner voice that sounds something like: “Who do you think you are challenging the status quo?” We call that voice our Inner Critic.

We have historically viewed the inner critic as an antiquated parental voice, which we have been advised to ignore. However, newer models of therapy such as Dr. Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, suggest there may be a more effective way to relate to our inner critic. Instead of ignoring it, we can befriend and work with our inner critic. If you really think about it, our inner critic, as annoying and frustrating as he/she may be, is only trying to protect us. The voice and the inhibiting actions it tells us to take are attempting to protect parts of ourselves that have been hurt in the past.

For example, if speaking up and standing up for yourself was punished in your early years, you may experience a lot of resistance from your inner critic when you are braving assertiveness. It will criticize you to prevent you from taking any risks that might cause you pain. This causes discomfort and your inner critic may then lead you to numbing actions like eating or drinking alcohol.

To release ourselves from the voice of our inner critic, we can make ourselves less vulnerable to whatever it is that the inner critic thinks we need protection from.

For example, you can find a safe space to practice speaking up with no consequences, like joining a Toastmasters group. Your inner critic will soon learn that you are not in danger or vulnerable when you speak up. You can also begin recognizing your inner critic as a valuable part of you and engage in journaling practices where you can honor it instead of resisting it. You can use this new relationship with your inner critic to learn more about your vulnerable parts. Here are two sample journaling exercises to help you become friends with your inner critic.

Inner Critic journaling Exercise 1

Identify a recent challenging situation. Then take a few moments to talk with your inner critic in your journal about this situation. Let’s pretend that the challenging situation is that you are trying to decide whether or not to apply for a management position. The dialogue might look something like this.

Inner Critic: You can’t be serious about applying for a management position. You aren’t leadership material!

You: Look, I know you are worried about me struggling as a manager. What are you afraid will happen?

Inner Critic: Being a manager will be too much for you. You’ll become anxious and irritable and you will fail.

You: I understand your concerns, but I have grown a lot. I know how to love and take care of myself now. And I am not afraid of failing. Trust me.

Review what you have written. Pay attention to what words your inner critic uses to criticize you. What is she afraid of? What does she want to protect you from? And how does your current self tell her that you are no longer vulnerable or afraid?

Inner Critic journaling Exercise 2

Use Dr Neff’s three components of self-compassion to let your compassionate self approach your inner critic. Remember that the components are Mindfulness, Kindness, and Recognition of Common Humanity. In your journal, write a letter to your inner critic. It might look something like this:

“Dear Inner Critic,

My dear, I understand that you are telling me that I will fail if I take on this new promotion because you are trying to prevent me from make a choice I will regret. But however well-intentioned you may be, you are causing me pain, which is not helpful to me. All of us make choices that sometimes don’t work out. But I am confident that I will be able to determine the best course of action if things don’t go according to plan. Do you want to work together as I pursue this new promotion.”

Working with your inner critic and not beating him or her up is a great way to reinstate a sense of trust in yourself, which is required to break the spell of the past.

 

Final Thoughts  

I know all too well how hard it is to shift responding to life in ways that honors you and your values first. – Especially if being hard on yourself has been your “lifetime companion.” It was mine too!

However, by becoming your best friend, getting to know your inner critic, and re-connecting with your own values, you can reclaim precious energy that you are currently losing to unnecessary stress.

You can then use that energy to light up the path to a life that is meaningful to you and aligned with your true values and purpose.

And that light, my friend, will not only allow you to live a life free of the cumbersome symptoms of stress, but will also illuminate your relationships, your workplace, and your world.

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