The Value of Grief

It’s one of those nights when every song that plays reaches some part of my heart that can’t help but open to grief—I’m in tears every 10 minutes or so. Not because anything bad has happened, or because I’m in a difficult place—simply because it’s there—that grief, these tears—they are in me. It’s part of the human experience to suffer, sometimes to grieve, and if we don’t give it space when it makes a natural appearance, its later manifestation is never quite so congruent with our hearts.

This sadness, tonight, is asking for my attention.

Grief is not comfortable, for most of us anyway. It’s not something we choose to hang out with much. And in our efforts to avoid it, I often wonder what else we miss. We do so much to push it away, repress, suppress, distract, distance—but isn’t there validity in our pain? Isn’t there something there that, if we can lean into it, might have some wisdom to impart to our hearts?

There is a reason that we weep to the point that, at times, grief3
it can feel as if our hearts will rip apart. And I have to wonder, is it maybe our soul’s way of asking us to stretch a little further into life, into love? Love is certainly not for the weak of heart, so if we are going to feel its depth, we better find ways to strengthen our tolerance.

My belief is that when we are willing to allow grief some space in our hearts, and we stretch into the discomfort, and simply “stay” …we are equally strengthening our capacity for the other end of our emotional spectrum. We stretch ourselves into deeper love, to fuller compassion toward the human experience, into more receptive intimacy, into more complete authenticity, and into gentleness toward ourselves, and to those around us.

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Grief can break us open, and in the depths of our open hearts, we sometimes find who we were made to be.

For the Love of Your Life,

Angie

 

 

 

 

 

Thankful

I wrote this article a couple of years ago, and while I don’t often “re-write” articles, this one, to me, is more of a practice–a reminder of the blessings in my life.  They have shifted and grown, so I will allow my sharing to grow as well.

If you care to read, please take a moment to quiet your thoughts, and allow your heart to open to the gifts that are yours, right in this very moment…

Happy Thanksgiving.  

I’m blessed to live in a state where a three-hour mountain ride on my road bike is possible at the very end of November. So today, Thanksgiving, as my way of “giving thanks,” I donned my cool weather (even though it was close to 70 degrees) riding gear and headed out into the peaceful hills to breathe it all in.

I had my kids a few hours longer than anticipated last night, so just soaked them up, playing games, doing puzzles, coloring, snuggling, cooking, eating. And I’ll have them again on Friday for our Thanksgiving.

I thought that I might feel a little “whoa is me” being solo today, but I’ve been struck by how filled my heart is—especially as I road—with the amazing blessings in my life. Of course my brain goes to the psychobiological—“well, I’m stimulating the release of positive neurochemicals through exercise so of course I’m feeling good!” But there’s more to it than that today.

Maybe because of the work I do, or certain shifts I’ve felt as of late, but I’m often reminded that the pain I’ve suffered throughout my life, while sometimes overwhelming to me, does not compare to what so many endure. The things that people can do to people, and the burdens that humans must bear… the trauma and tragedy, the abuse, the betrayals, the life and death events that break hearts and tear families apart, the unresolved hurts… And what I see, consistently, is that the human spirit is not only resilient—we want to feel joy and so we choose to. Not always, and not everyone. But feeling joy beyond our particular suffering is a choice before us that motivates bravery beyond measure. And when I witness those who’ve suffered so much choosing to continue to open their hearts to love and to joy, risking what is most vulnerable, I am humbled and changed.

And without really trying to today, I kept thinking of the things I’m most grateful for. My “top 10” – not necessarily in any order.

I’d like to see your list too, if you’re motivated to share.

10 Blessings for which I’m incredibly Grateful

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#1 My children. Beyond anything in this world, they are my greatest teachers, my most powerful motivation, the wellspring of my love. They have grown me into the mother I am and they are the center of my heart, my most profound joy. I am currently struck by their emotional intelligence. Their ability to open their own hearts, to cultivate empathy, and to love—just purely LOVE, is so humbling. Deep gratitude to this life for the blessing of my children.

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#2 About three and a half years ago, I met an amazing man who, with humility, integrity, willingness, and love, has taught me to slow down and has connected with me in a way I’ve longed for my entire life. He reflects my gifts, challenges my mind and body, inspires my deepest respect, and my most playful presence. He “meets me” in the unique design of my heart’s longing and I have changed through receiving his love. I am blessed to be fully sharing my life.   To practice the skills I’ve cultivated over the past decade in an intimate and loving relationship, where they are welcomed and where I feel cherished, is… well, amazing. I am so grateful.

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#3 My family. We’re Greek and messy and dramatic at times. We’re quirky and strange in our own way. We exhaust one another. My parents taught me early on how to work really hard and they taught me that family is family and we stick together. They taught me that sometimes, no matter how tired we are, we just do what needs to be done for one another. They taught me to cherish our time together, to celebrate and dance, to be passionate, to tend to one another well, and to love big. I am so grateful for my family.

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#4 My work with my clients, I’ve found, is often as transformative for me as it is for them. I am humbled and honored that people choose to open their lives to me, and to trust me with their hearts, their questions, their shame and hurt, their anger. The work that I do is an incredible gift to my life. The community and team of people—Noeticus Counseling Center—with whom I work is like a cocoon for our collective personal and professional development, and provides me with the foundation for my work as a therapist. So thankful!

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#5 My closest friends are the people who meet me in the stability and the chaos, holding my hands through our shared journeys. They are the ones who grab ahold when I don’t have the strength and the ones who pull me back with loving arms to challenge my objectivity. They are the ones who see and love all of me, and allow me to witness the wildness, the grit, and the suffering of their hearts.  They allow me to help hold them with gentlenss, especially when they forget to be gentle with themselves. I am forever grateful to these women who have stepped into the fire with me!

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#6 My deepest hurts are blessings that have strengthened my tolerance, broadened my perspective, and challenged every edge of my heart. Engaging with the brokenness has taught me that there is a deep wisdom in pain, when we pay attention, when we stay present. When we can allow ourselves to feel, we are opened to fully engage with life. When we stretch to feel the pain, we are also strengthening our hearts capacity for love, for play, and for intimacy. My deepest hurts are gifts for which I will be forever grateful.

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#7 I have cultivated a variety of physical practices over the years, with the influence of friends and mentors, and I am so thankful! Last week I danced, I climbed, I ran, I skied, I strength-trained, (and I also did these wild leg-blaster workouts that leave me crazy shaky and happy!) and this week I hope to ride… challenging my body has strengthened my mind, and I am grateful for the ability and motivation to push myself beyond comfort.

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#8 My education—both my formal education and life education, and the integration of learning and practices that have changed my visceral experience of living in the world. My education is a privilege, and something I do not take for granted. I am grateful for the opportunities, the support, and the motivation to embed the practices that change who I am and how I impact others.  I am thankful for mentors, for their work and legacy that I now have the opportunity to hold and share.

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#9 My health has allowed me so much opportunity. It has allowed me to learn to trust my body, to track the very sensation that informs me of what needs tending to, to deepen into complete present-centered relationship with me. My health is never a given. It is both something I do my best to manage well and it is a gift for which I am wholly grateful.

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#10 Neuroplasticity! So thankful that the “emotional wiring” I had for the first half of my life will not be the same wiring that I have at the end of my life! My brain—everyone’s brain—is plastic! We can completely rewire how we exist in relationship to others, how we respond to life, to love, to everything that comes our way. I am so thankful for the way that my brain and body work together to create the life that I envision.

There are so many gifts in each of our lives. I hope that you are struck today, and every day, with the unique gifts that have been offered to you. Please take them in and share them with all of us!

I ran across the following and sadly, I do not know who wrote it.  I’d like to give credit so please, if you know the author, let me know.  It speaks to my heart though…  maybe it will speak to yours as well.

“Having loved enough and lost enough, I’m no longer searching… just opening, no longer trying to make sense of pain but trying to be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land. These are the irritations that rub into a pearl. So we can talk for a while but then we must listen, the way rocks listen to the sea. And we can churn at all that goes wrong but then we must lay all distractions down and water every living seed. And yes, on nights like tonight I too feel alone. But seldom do I face it squarely enough to see that it’s a door into the endless breath that has no breather, into the surf that human shells call God.” (Author unknown)

For the Love of Your Life!

 

Angie

For the Love of Lust: Part Two

(If you missed part one of For the Love of Lust, Click Here)  

We are built for bonding.  There is no doubt.  Whether we ever satisfy our relationship1innate need for deep connection is dependent on countless factors, but suffice it to say, creating meaning through our relationships is a prime motivator for much of what we do in life.

Could it be possible, however, that our desire for intimacy has a shadow to it?  Maybe that the moral laws that govern our fidelity do not coalesce with passion?  Could it also be that through our efforts to increase togetherness in our relationships, we simultaneously create an emotional barrier to eroticism?

Many partners will admit to waning desire that can become a burden to relationships, coming alive only in response to others or conversely deadening one’s spirit of Lust altogether, after significant time has past.  Most will simply describe this process as fact, as natural.  And while sex and eroticism can take dramatic turns over the course of time, to submit to these socialized beliefs can actually cause harm to these unions we’ve worked so diligently to forge.

In Part One of this article, we spoke to the evolutionary advantages of Lust.  We spoke to the health and necessity; to the brain circuitry specifically designed to support it’s expression.  We also acknowledged the complexity of attaining a harmonious balance between Lust and Love.  (Again, if you missed that, click here).

Becoming Friends with Lust—Ours and Our Partners

Esther Perel, PhD, author of Mating In Captivity notes that lust doesn’t always play by the rules of good morals.  In fact, sometimes those rules are actually antithetical to the cultivation of lust and eroticism because, for that circuitry to be activated, humans tend to require a little bit of risk—something that our intimate bonds have a propensity to constrain.

When we consider the closeness that intimacy allows, the stripping away of lifelong emotional layers that lends to the foundation of relational love—the transparency that fosters safety—we have to wonder as to the other side of the coin.  When we have become so open, so able to yield into the transparent dance of togetherness, we leave nothing for our partners to seek out in us.  And our practice of seeking is related to another region of evolved brain circuitry that is necessary for us to thrive as humans.  Seeking feels good to our brains–it provides a sense of purpose and pleasure and forward motion.  When there is nothing left to seek out in our partners, the pleasure that comes from seeking must find another outlet for expression.

To destabilize our intimate bonds with behavior that many see as riskyfor example, to rekindle eroticismcan feel as if it opposes the exact behavior that is nourishing our relationship.  So often, our “lust needs” take a back seat to the cultivation of care and closeness

lust5And yet… as is clearly stated in Part One, we are hardwired for lust as well.  So while lust can quiet itself for a time, that particular brain circuitry needs expression and ideally that expression would be practiced in a way that supports our vision for an integral relationship.

Lust, for most people, tends to require a certain amount of risk—these two emotional constructs act very similar in the brain, in fact.  The question in the development of lust in an intimate relationship subsequently becomes, how do we RISK without risking too much?

Neurochemicals of Risk

The nature of risk is related to the emotion excitement, which is essentially a combination of hope and fear.  Excitement, on a physiological level, provokes a state of hyperarousal, where thoughts and body states are pushed to stretch beyond homeostasis—our natural state of equilibrium—to a palpable emotional experience that, while stressful, is also related to positivity.  You see, when we push ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zone, and we experience some resulting pleasure, the reward center in our brains lights up like the 4th of July!

Exciting experiences activate dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s rewardDopamine1 system that helps us experience pleasure.  The pleasure and reward center is housed primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, and provides a “reward value” for experience.

For risk to be related to reward, our brains need healthy doses of dopamine and adrenaline, along with their available receptors.  And the culmination of reciprocated lust ignites serotonin as well—which is related to feelings of happiness and mood regulation.  Top that off with healthy doses of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids and this neurochemical cocktail—if given to a skilled mixologistis deserving of a worthy name!  No wonder our drive to acquire, and experience, the rewards of lust are so powerful.

The fact is, even a one-night-stand can stir these potent neurochemicals into existence, which is why we can experience incredible closeness—the feeling of, anyway—after even a brief sexual encounter.  And yet, one-night-stands do little for the other driver of our relational circuitry—those connected to Care, Bonding, and Love. 

Cultivating the Sweet Spot

Our brains and bodies have evolved to the point of reaping significant benefits of both intimacy and lust—just rarely collaboratively.  The relationship between the two is complex and clearly non-linear, as we may have previously assumed.  Science has demonstrated that both are necessary to our collective evolution.  And if we are to thrive, individually and collectively, we need to stretch into new possibilities for these constructs not only to co-exist, but also, to inform and enhance one another.

The current marital trends are far from indicating a culture of happy unions.  With over 50% divorce rate (60+% in second marriages) it’s time we take a look at the deeper implications of a society that is known to deny the health of lust.  More importantly, we need to cultivate a more united vision of intimacy and lust working, and playing, side by side.

Practices

There are many practices that have been designed to deepen our awareness and experience of intimacy and sexuality.  I’ll focus on three that I believe, and that are grounded in science, as central to supporting a healthy transition into developing lust within an intimate partnership—whether you’re in one or not.

These practices are for individuals, maybe those who are deeply connected to a partner and looking to enliven a relationship; and also for those who are seeking to explore a new relationship, where lust is alive from the beginning, and remains a central theme in the developing journey of Love.   These practices are simply “some” ways to help reconcile our need for security and adventure, closeness and separateness, stability and risk, predictability and novelty.

1)    Honor Autonomy

autonomy1In our desire for connection, we can often forget that we are primarily individuals seeking togetherness.  We can become essentially “fused”—not knowing where we end and our partners begin.  This feeling can be incredibly soothing and seductive initially, as we can imagine we’ve found our intimate home and that, finally, we are met, deeply recognized, loved unconditionally.  However, becoming over-connected can, in reality, become a hindrance to eroticism.

For deep connection to be possible, separateness is vital.  While this may seem contradictory, the ability to step away from our partners as separate entities, the ability to self-regulate and practice autonomy, are necessary qualities for one to be able to move toward the other.  As Esther Perel states, “When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen.  There is no one to connect with.  Thus separateness is a precondition for connection:  This is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”

Find ways to establish—or reestablish—independence, autonomy, and separateness.  Nurture activities and personal interests as a means for strengthening not only your attractiveness and desire-ability to your mate, but your own internalized “attraction to self.”

Also, encourage your partner—or future partners—to do the same.  Honor his or her need, whether stated or not, for separate interests and activities.  When developing closeness, look to the future vision that you would like to create—where there are worlds yet unexplored within the context of your partner’s autonomy.

2)    Cultivate Mystery

It can be difficult to be lustful for someone about whom we know everything. synapse1
If nothing is left to the imagination, our minds become uninterested, lacking the tension necessary for desire to flourish.  And as science of the mind is fairly certain, our sexuality is more related to the space between our ears than the space between our legs!

Nourishing the mystery in our intimate unions can feel somewhat counterintuitive since some of the elements of lust don’t necessarily support the development of a harmonious, transparent relationship.  Clearly, lust and intimacy are on very different trajectories, and when they yearn to coincide, fears of the unknown can destabilize our inner worlds as well as our intimate journeys.

One place where we can always escape the confines of fusion is into our own minds—where imagination can take us anywhere, to anyone.  And when we honor the beauty of our minds, simultaneously soothing the innate fears that may arise, we are cultivating our unique mental wanderings that may inform us of what naturally excites us.

The question becomes, can we tolerate the anxiety provoked by our partner’s developing autonomy—by his or her intrinsic capacity to always escape into the sanctuary of the mind, to where we are quite possibly NOT the center of their attending neural processes?  When we can stand firm in our own sense of self, within the vulnerable “unknowns” of our partner’s inner mental territory, we give space to his or her unique exploration of self, grounded in the safety of an intimate home.

An important distinction to consider with this level of the erotic dance is whether or not we are utilizing our fantasies as fuel for our intimate partnerships, or whether we are escaping into the erotic, only to return to safety and stability with our partners, and leave the fantasy separate.  Part of how fantasy can serve to edify our relationships is to acknowledge and share at least part of what is occurring in that solitary space.  Risk bringing the erotic design of your own mental forays into sexual play with your partner—and be open for him or her to do the same.

Conversely, when our own imagination confronts what we assume about ourselves—the principles and experiences within our comfort and moral code—with new stimuli that forces us to question our truest desires, our integrity, and our natural wiring for lust, we have an opportunity to strengthen our sense of self and to share something new and different with our intimate partner.

Through imagination, we maintain a sense of freedom and personal wonder

that can bring new life to our relationships.  

It can feel intimidating to allow our imagination to wander and wonder, to consider what or who, besides our current partner and situation might naturally entice or excite us.  Through our development of safety and closeness, we’ve forgotten that our erotic mind needs to flourish as well.  So allow yourself to re-attune to your innate lustful longings, and then allow them to come alive with your intimate partner.

3)    Practice Mindfulness

a.    In perception

Practice increasing your tolerance to the exploration of space between meditation1you and your lover.  When your partner feels distant, or when you are proactively choosing to strengthen your own autonomy, allow the emotions and the sensations that activate your nervous system to arise.  Welcome them, sit with them, yield into the discomfort of “stretching” your perception and tolerance.  Allow them to inform you of the long-standing patterns of anxiety and fear that tend to surface and cause discord.  Welcome that knowledge like a long-lost friend, here to help you increase both your ability to push the edges of your comfort as well as to strengthen your ability to track your natural sensation that ultimately will lend to deep understanding.

b.    In thought

Practice unconditional acceptance and presence to all of your thoughts from the perspective of an observer.  Practice noticing the thought, and letting it go, over and over and over.   Don’t fall into spiraling thoughts that trigger fear.  Rather, notice the thought arise, and witness it being released with each breath. Notice any impulse to create a story with your thoughts, to give deeper meaning to fear or insecurity.

According to Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, in his article, “Rewiring Neural States in Couples Therapy:  Advances from affective neuroscience,” we can easily “blindly trust” a feeling or thought, because our brains are hardwired for self-protection.  We often automatically attach ourselves to an emotion—as if the emotion is real, and the idea that someone else caused it feels just as real.  In all actuality, the automatic processes of the brain do this naturally.  Our “protective mechanisms” are designed for hypervigilance, first and foremost.  So if we feel fear, for example, we will seek out a source—external to us—that we can attach to the cause, and from which we can then protect ourselves.  This dynamic, while serving us in regard to our survival, can be toxic to our relationships.

Instead, practice simply noticing the thought without attaching it to any external source.  Allow it to exist solely, without spiraling out of control.  Practice being present to all that arises in regard to mental information, just as it is, without trying to dismiss, avoid, or change anything that may ultimately serve to bring awareness.  Simply witness… and let go.

c.    In body

Pay attention, nonjudgmentally, to the subtle signals and sensations of your body.  Reject nothing.  Notice in detail the sensations that are present—especially any tightness or tension that arises or that draws your attention.  Notice any small, seemingly automatic movements that could be related to a deeper emotion.  Allow those sensations to simply “be” without attempting to dismiss them or push them away.  Allow your sensations space to exist, and time to guide you to your body’s internal wisdom.

Also, nurture physical practices that help you touch into your own internalyoga1 resources—your body, your strength, the wisdom that resides in each and every cell of your being, along with your ability to practice new skills.  Experience your body in moments of strength, in times of vulnerability, though practices that stretch and push you beyond what you know.  Our physical selves help to shape our psychological selves, so be present to the shape and flow of your life.

Research has demonstrated that those people who enjoy physical practices, such as strength training, dance, cycling, running, or yoga, experience more excitement in their lives.  And as we practice risk by exploring new physical practices, risk becomes an integral aspect of our natural drive for learning and pleasure.  So the very practice of getting physical opens your neural pathways to experiencing more excitement, more risk, and ultimately more lust.

Embody Your Intention

We have an opportunity, individually and collectively, to transcend the inhibitions and fears ignited by longstanding ideas of lust, as well as our attachment to any historical meaning or power we’ve given over to it.  Lust is a natural, potent, necessary quality of human beings.  Like all other qualities intrinsic to our evolving selves, this specific circuitry in our brains needs to be understood and allowed space to breathe—to find it’s way out of hardwired constraints—in a way that helps us to thrive rather than has us cycling in a spiral of fear.

It is time we transcend the fears that bind our relationships, and allow our bodies the chance to expand their language repertoire—to own and practice our original language and deepen our understanding of the subtext, the nuances, the dialects of our own—and our partners—primary tool of communication.  It is time we work toward becoming fluent in our unique erotic style, allowing ourselves to fully embody the dynamics of seduction, and then share that energy with those whom we love and trust.

Through following the practices of presence, mindfulness, autonomy and mystery, we can begin to lay claim to our birthright for experiencing both the intense nurturance and love of intimacy, along with the fiery and erotic dance of lust—together.

If you’d like more tips for enhancing your intimate partnership, check out my !0 Rules For Intimacy, a free download with lots of juicy and challenging tips for Relationship Transformation.  And keep coming back and joining in the dialogue here!

For the Love of Your Life…

Angie

Relationship Skills Training

When I was a personal trainer working with people striving toward their fitness goals, my initial focus with them was most often on form and function. Beyond those basics, I would help to motivate them to then practice their new skills daily or weekly, consistently bringing them back to the subtle messages from their bodies and minds—those things that would further inform their practice. What I knew from my own training, experience with clients, and what the experts said, that’s what works!

I certainly had clients, at times, who were looking for a “quick fix,” Yet I don’t remember ever having clients that actually believed that simply gaining “awareness” of their form and function, without practice, would yield the same results—they knew they couldn’t just read a book, look at some pictures, and have it down or transform their bodies. And what they became aware of rather quickly, with instruction, was that to make an actual difference, they would need to be pushing their bodies through some pretty intense physical feelings—they would be strengthening not only their bodies but their ability to tolerate a variety of powerful sensations.

Relationship Training

It’s almost humorous, and tragic, how often I hear people books1
working toward relationship success who are seduced by the belief that relationship habits will alter through simple awareness—That by reading the right book or article, by having some enlightening conversations with a therapist or friend, their core style of relating to their partner will magically transform.

Now I will grant that awareness—the didactic part of our learning—is a necessary foundation for change. And yet there is so much more.

Our Relational Design

Our style of relating to intimate partners has been designed into our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems—having literally been “wired” into us—from as early as our very first neural “firings.” The automatic pathways that our brain mechanisms follow in response to all sorts of human interactions is something that is related to processes that occur, most often, without our conscious awareness. These processes are immediate, unconscious, and follow “well-groomed” paths within our neural networks like the ruts in an old dirt road—and each time we allow them to flow without attention, those ruts become deeper and deeper, and much more difficult to alter. There’s some benefit to these processes, of course, especially when they’re related to things like…. Oh, walking, for example—the billions of functions that our brains control each and every day that we couldn’t possibly be aware of constantly. When it comes to relationship dynamics, however, those automatic processes often don’t serve our higher desires for intimacy and relational health.

Our perception of truth and reality, likewise, is so often immediately NeuralImage1
categorized by our brains and relegated to “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., without our minds conscious engagement, that we have often decided something is just so, without considering the possibilities that would require a lot more work—and ultimately discomfort—for our brains. This is where Brain Training comes in.

Pragmatic/Experiential—it’s What Works

In terms of Relationship Training, we learn the “what” of skills through the pragmatic work, through reading and research and dialogue and psycho-education. Then with a trained observer who can provide reflection, support, encouragement, challenge, curiosity, and “coaching;” we can begin to learn the form and function in our bodies and minds—coming back to those subtle sensations, messages, triggers, and automatic responses, with more awareness and more ability to make different choices when it’s most important.

We can begin to feel into the internal shifts of observing our thoughts as we engage in new relational behaviors with a person practiced in the field of our learning. And as neurons begin to fire in distinctly new patterns—because that’s what’s happening when we practice new skills, connecting new behaviors to certain brain states—these pathways begin to carve new “grooves” into our neural networks. It’s like a workout for the brain! We are “wiring” new and healthier relationship habits into our neural networks. And yet, just as is true in the body, a single workout just makes us hurt—it doesn’t create lasting change!

Basic Neuroscience

Neuroplasticity is a popular buzzword right now—and a powerful one at that! The idea that the brain is moldable and changeable in response to behaviors and Mindful Attention–both in processes and shape–challenges the long-standing idea that the brain is physiologically static.  The direction that neuroscience has catapulted the realm of psychology has countered decades of the simple analytical, cognitive, and cognitive/behavioral work of our psychological heritage. It’s time that we—as practitioners of change—develop our emotional and relational fitness, strengthening neural pathways because we are choosing to develop not only awareness of our automatic responses, but to engage the most evolved parts of our brains. It’s time to build brain mass!

It’s exciting, really, that we have so much to say about how our internal worlds might respond to stimuli—those triggers that have previously caused us to feel powerless. And now we’re coming to grasp a power that, prior to the last decade or so, we’ve not fully understood. The idea that we can alter not only the functioning of our brains but the literal form—that’s just damned attractive in my world!

On this note, I want to share a recent experience based on these exact principles—I think it might be helpful for some people who are in the process of making the “implicit” “explicit”—bringing awareness into experiential practice and noticing the subtle shifts. This is the work of transformation.

The Language of Love

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre DameCurrently, I co-facilitate an adult relational skills group, called Developing the Language of Love, based on the scientifically sound approaches of Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. It’s work that literally gets my heart pumping and makes me want to shout from rooftops—we CAN develop the types of relationships that we’ve all dreamed of. Just as the fact that we CAN create fit, healthy bodies if we have the right tools. And this… this is one of the right tools!

This is an eight-week group, and we are more than halfway through the first round. Already, the results are evident to all of the participants and powerfully affirm our work as therapists and educators.

Two weeks ago my co-facilitator, Robin, and I modeled a “healthy dialogue” sharing some tools for approaching conflict with some well-grounded principles for getting our partners to treat us well. We demonstrated a conversation where both partners were tapping into skill. The modeling was well-received in the group and, also, a request was made that we share what a similar dialogue might look like if one partner is practicing “skill” and the other partner continues to dismiss, criticize, or respond negatively.

Of course! …thought Robin and I. Because most often isn’t that the exact way things play out? Quite wisely, our group was begging the question, “But if I show up well, and my partner is still an ass, then what?”

The Relationship DancerelationshipDance1

This is a much more common occurrence within relational dynamics, right? Consider how often you have approached your partner with a need to either launch a complaint or discuss an emotional need and you plan to do so with skill—maybe you’ve even practiced prior to the dialogue—and the response you get seems very unskilled—in fact, you might even feel mistreated and dismissed or, worse yet, your partner justifies their behavior or belief and actually purports that whatever issue you’re discussing is your fault!

Aggravating, isn’t it? We can walk away from such interactions feeling as if, “I did it right! My partner, like usual, is the one who just blew it!”

We leave these conversations, often very resentful of our partner, feeling that he or she simply doesn’t get it—they just don’t have the skill that matches our own.

And guess what? This very reaction, no matter how “true” it feels, is a breeding ground for contempt.

…But Back to the Story

Robin and I took our group’s request to heart, loosely designing a scenario where one of us (me) had developed some skill to get my partner to treat me well, even when my partner (Robin, in this instance) continued to criticize, dismiss, and blame me. And you know what? It worked! Even via role-play, it became apparent to everyone there that, had this been a real life interaction, with the skills I was demonstrating, it would be incredibly difficult for Robin, or anyone, to continue to act in the way he was consciously TRYING to act—badly!

Then the bigger questions came: Did I feel the automatic responses in my body that might have made me want to react negatively, and what did I do with those? What were my internal thoughts about Robin’s behavior? How was I able to “calm my nervous system” consistently, while Robin was saying some pretty harsh things?

Real Life Happens

Now, let’s get clear on something—Just like most people I, too, have difficulty in this area of my personal life. I continue to cultivate the skills to stay present and I do my best to practice new habits but, WOW! …Let’s just say, I thought creating a fit body was difficult! Nothing compares to the exhaustive work of developing sound relationship skills. So I’ll just say, this is, of course, much easier within a role-play! And, the story continues…

After our group, I continued on with my night and as synchronicity would have it, had an opportunity to practice these exact skills FOR REAL.

Now, maybe because it was so fresh in my brain and body, maybe because I’ve been immersing myself in developing these skills, I was able to consistently bring my focus back to the more advanced part of my brain—my prefrontal cortex, which resides at the forefront of the brain and is implicated in social and emotional regulation.

Essentially, my mind was able to tolerate a bit more intensity because I’d been “training” the exact function I needed just hours before. –Let’s consider the body once again: When I’ve been training a specific muscle, that muscle learns to tolerate more weight, more intensity, right? The same is true for structures in the brain.

I became involved in a dialogue that required some regulation of emotion, some acknowledgments of deep, somewhat painful feelings between two people, and a solid balance of validating my own truth while also acknowledging a legitimately different perspective of someone else—without making the other person “wrong.”

The dialogue that ensued is one I literally know “by heart,” and while the distinctive movements may look different from the outside, the dance is well rehearsed. The “dance” being the pattern of activation—mirror neurons from one person to the other engaging in a willful and well-choreographed tragedy that repeats itself over and over. For many, including myself, this is often the seductive dance of relationship.

Rewiring

Somehow, this night, I was able to feel my feet on the dance floor, feel my pelvis, my belly, my chest, all responding to conscious breathing and mindful presence. So when I approached the dialogue with skill, and then received what felt like a defensive, critical response, something happened. And this is the piece I want to dissect a bit.

Automatic, Subtle Responses that WRECK our Relationships

Most of us have had moments when we’ve approached a difficult dialogue with some skill, right? We’ve maybe done some work around “personal development” and feel better equipped to handle relationship distress. And it’s a boost to the ego when we feel as if we’ve done ourselves well and acted with integrity. And often, we just don’t get what we want in return. Sound familiar?

Then What?

Here is a very common response—we have some internal dialogue going on, which sounds something like this: “I’m doing my best here to stay present and he/she just can’t do it. Why do I always have to be the more mature/more skilled/more evolved person? He/she can never understand what I’m talking about.” Any of that resonate? Something with that general flavor ever cross your mental palate during an intense dialogue with a partner?

I know I’ve had those moments—many of them! And I usually leave those arguments not only frustrated but resentful. I further justify that the whole situation is “mostly” his fault. I mean really, do you want to know what he said??

(Familiar scenario?)

And then not only is the interaction finding it’s way into well-grooved neural pathways, we actually strengthen these habitual responses each time we mentally replay the interactions in our heads with a similar mental content or share the story with friends—that our partners are the ones to blame.

If you allow yourself to play this scenario out, I have a sense most of you know exactly where it leads, and it’s just no good. Sure, we can get a little release from bitching to friends and family about how inept our partners are and about our powerlessness to create actual change. And then we come back home and start the same scene tomorrow—it’s a little like “relationship groundhog day.”

The Brain Workout

So the shift for me came in that exact moment when I did notice something in my desire to “fight back”—to engage with the same energy I felt I was experiencing from my partner which, by the way, is referred to as negative affect reciprocity—the tendency to respond to one’s partners’ expression of negative affect with one’s own negative affect.

And here’s a little tidbit here, which many of you will grasp. I was feeling mistreated. Whether I was being mistreated or not isn’t really important! What’s important is HOW I RESPOND. That, in and of itself, is the determining factor of my personal ability to ultimately create and maintain a healthy relationship. The problem is that we most often get caught in justifying our response due to our partner’s perceived misbehavior. And ultimately, that does little for us, or our partner’s ability to respond more positively. (More on that later.)

Right now, some of you may be thinking, “But it is important whether or not our partners are mistreating us! We can’t just let them off the hook!” And what I’m saying does not negate the importance of that—I promise. Right now, however, let’s focus on our own ability to strengthen our relationship skills.

So I noticed something beginning to shift in me and further tuned in to my internal state—a process known as interoception—“checking in,” essentially. And thankfully, in that moment I realized that THAT—what I was noticing—was the somatic response that I generally have when I get activated! Here was the answer to my group’s question.

Automatic Somatic Response

The moment I felt I was “doing relationship” just a little bit better than my partner, here’s what happened: My breathing became shallow, my chest kind of “froze,” my shoulders collapsed just a little, but in a somewhat defensive, protective stance, and I felt a lot of energy right in the back of my throat, as if I could raise my voice or rapidly justify my perspective.

And I realized in about a nanosecond that I had an opportunity to re-pattern some neural networks that have known a solid and singular path for years.

One thing to note: It is in the moments when we most need to access more advanced parts of the brain—when we most need to use new skills, that they are the least accessible to us. We need them when our brains are so triggered, we’d rather throw all our damn skills out the window because we feel so hurt or angry. And those are the EXACT moments when we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we can do it differently. This is similar to the moment when training a particular muscle pushes us to a physiological “edge”—and we have the experience of every ounce of our being believing we can push no further. Then something shifts and we somehow push through and far beyond our perceived limitations. This is when the body begins to KNOW how to transform.

The most important time for us to practice new relational skills is when they are LEAST accessible to us–when they are the most difficult to access!  We can all feel pretty “skilled” when we feel we’re being treated well, right?  It’s when we feel we’re NOT being treated well–this is the moment of truth!  These are the exact moments–opportunities really–that will set us apart from those who continue to set themselves up for failure.  Just as in training our bodies, it does little good for us to train with weights that don’t push us to our “edge.”  We have to train our bodies when we feel we are exercising not only our muscles but our focus, attention, and will.  

So… it was one of those moments. And here’s the kicker—I noticed the automatic thought patterns as well. I heard the little voice in my head wanting to believe that my “dance partner” clearly wasn’t following my oh-so-skillful lead. I felt myself wanting to make him wrong, and ultimately “less skilled” than I was.

And then the jolt. Ahhh….. there it is—the wiring that I have for contempt. And damn, is it a well-grooved path in my neural networks!

In that single moment of awareness, something so subtle shifted internally. It was like the moment where, during a workout, “pain” transforms into “sensation” and we realize we have believed a limitation that doesn’t really exist. “Ohhh…..” I thought. “This is where I normally get off track. And I can make a different choice—and it’s difficult.”

The Reason it’s Called “Practice”

NeuralImage2The work in these moments is so incredibly subtle, so consistent. We need to keep bringing our attention, our focus, back to the present moment; noticing what wants to “steal” our attention and bringing it back to the part of our brain that can make a different choice—the pre-frontal cortex. And some might think this is just far too difficult and maybe even silly to focus so much on these subtle sensations. And again, just as in a physical workout, sometimes that subtle shift in “form” is the difference between strengthening and injuring.

This interaction—and what I was attempting to do—took a while, it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was different. Most importantly, the instant I brought attention to my internal dialogue, there was a shift, not only inside of me, but within the system of interaction.

Similar to the role-play interaction with Robin, above, my partner simply wasn’t able to mistreat, or even seem like he was mistreating me. You see, when we believe our partners are more to blame, we make it just about impossible for them to change. In fact, our belief that they are more at fault than we are is like the kiss of death to our relationships! And so when I, or you, can release the attachment to the belief that we’ve held so tightly, it’s like giving breath to our partner’s unique experience of interaction with us—because sometimes, that’s no joy ride either, right?

Learning to cultivate responsiveness in our partner, when we have long standing patterns of blaming them, is the one path out of relational dysfunction. Most often, even the discovery of this path requires a certain receptivity in us, to stretch our perceptions of reality—of our partners reality, as well as our own—to go beyond the paradigm of truth that we know, and develop a new way of seeing.

If you have questions or reservations about what I’ve shared here… if it’s not sitting right with you, or if it is, I’d love to hear from you!

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie

And We Fall

In between a man and a woman who fall… first in love, then into wounds, then sometimes into pain too deep to describe; there is a bond that will forever provide an opportunity to open or to constrict. 

Ahhh… Love

The hope in every beginning is that “this” feeling—“this” person—“this” love will last beyond what others have known—that no one else could possibly grasp the intensity and transformative power of what THIS is.  And our hearts move beyond the present, inviting in a future of our own design.  And we begin to grow ourselves into newness, enlivening our hearts with passion and togetherness.

And just as in other ventures, sometimes our designs fail us—or reality and our resources simply don’t intersect with our designs.  Our visions are grander, or different, than our resources and we need to step back; gain some objectivity and begin again.  Or maybe it is that we are perfectly suited to just this path; of reaching, stumbling, falling, resting, strengthening, then reaching again.  And our sense of failure is a necessary step to forward movement.

Even when we do not reach our envisioned goals, we can continue to propel ourselves forward, so long as we feel just safe enough and connected to our deepest yearning.  And ultimately, we find our way to meaning, discover unexplored internal resources, and fulfill our hearts’ longings—at times before we even know what they are.

The Blessings of Anger

Anger can motivate us, move us, inspire, and inform us.  It can scare us, whether it comes from within or is moving toward us.  Anger can feel overwhelming, even if we’re merely witnessing its wrath.  It can leave pain and sadness in its wake and can exacerbate itself, if not expressed healthily.  And really, what does that even mean?  What is healthy anger??

Anger is one of the primary emotions into which psychological researchers have given a large dose of curiosity, exploration and study, especially over the last few decades.  Anger can range from mild irritation to intense fury or rage. Essentially, it is an automatic response to one’s experience of having been wronged or offended and is a person’s way of expressing that he or she will not tolerate certain types of behavior.   Anger can raise our heart rates and blood pressure and increase adrenaline and noradrenaline.  If left unattended (especially if not addressing anger is a lifelong pattern), anger can lead to increased risk of heart problems, depressed immune function, depression and anxiety and contribute to a wide range of other mental and physiological problems.

And while we have come to understand that anger has many benefits, we’ve not spent near enough time supporting the overall “space” for anger to be, not only expressed but; tolerated, held, moved, and healed.

Expression

Anger is multi-dimensional—it involves our thoughts (cognition), our bodies (sensation/somatic response), and our behavior (expression).  Anger is one of the most normal emotions we can experience.  It is innate—consider an infant experiencing needs that are left unmet.  What happens?  He or she expresses anger at the injustice.  And just as we wouldn’t deny an infant this natural expression without attempting to help find resolution, we need to find and practice appropriate ways to “be with” the anger of those close to us (first of all, our own!) and, because we are interdependent creatures, help our mates find a way through this experience.  By cultivating our ability to engage with anger in a healthy way, we can ultimately enhance our relationships and learn to tolerate more emotional depth across the entire spectrum of emotions.

So, how do we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anger?  And who is responsible for developing the way in which we come to view anger in the most reasonable way?  Who provides the overall design of what kind of anger is beneficial vs. what kind of anger is unacceptable?  Maybe the question shouldn’t be about the actual anger since, as we know, anger is automatic.  Natural.  “Natural” can’t be bad, can it?  The natural part of anger—the Somatic (body) aspect—is automatic.  The thought content, however, and the expression or behavior that ultimately ensues…  those are the parts over which we can begin to wield a little control, a little pre-frontal cortex Mindfulness!

Anger, in itself, is not healthy or unhealthy. It just is. Simple enough. What we do with it supplies the gauge for where it falls on the continuum. How we are able to tolerate it in another provides yet another gauge–for our own ability to be with the depth & breadth of human experience.

Engage

Many therapeutic models use anger as the ground for exploring deep, emotional wounds, relationship dysfunction, and healing.  The problem, in my own opinion, of some of these models, is that while anger becomes both safe and cathartic to express, it can then become “stuck.”  Anger—and it’s resulting neurochemical response—can become part of an addictive cycle if not processed because even though we “think” that anger doesn’t necessarily “feel good,” the catharsis in releasing something that has been held in the body can release chemicals in the body that feel very good!

So how can we respond to, hold, be with anger from another person?  And the bigger question:  How can we remain present to another’s anger when that anger is directed toward us?

While anger can be “healthy” to express, it rarely feels good, or even okay, when someone is healthily expressing anger AT us, right?  And yet, we want to create safe, healthy relationships and be able to ultimately release negative emotions and deepen our connections.  The problem is, we generally have a very natural, and protective, response when someone expresses anger toward us.  And our response as well is somatic (at a level of sensation), cognitive (triggering a variety of thoughts), and behavioral (inspiring expression).  And there are neurochemicals involved in our brains and bodies as well, and parts of our brains literally shut down (the thinking parts) and other parts light up (the emotional, reactive parts).  Anger is connected to an altogether crazy process, most of which (in the moment at least) occurs without any unawareness on our part.

Opportunities of Anger

Suffice it to say, we generally go into defense mode in the face of anger.  We can feel like fighting back, defending, justifying, making the other person wrong, distracting…  all sorts of things to take the uncomfortable focus off of something we have potentially done “wrong” or that has hurt someone we care about.  Why?  Well, because “wrong” doesn’t feel very good, right?   Sometimes we will quickly say, “I’m sorry,” with the justifiable hope that that’s all it will—or at least “should”—take.  I mean, we said “sorry” right?  Why is this person still upset?

Well, remember that anger is not only cognitive.  It’s somatic.  That means it’s occurring on a body level—and we can no longer wish it into nonexistence than we can a broken arm.  Something deeper than “thought” needs to shift and when a person says “sorry” too soon, it can often be the result of their own discomfort in handling the overwhelming experience of another’s anger.  In fact, most of the ways in which we manage our emotional response to anger are really saying, “Okay, that’s all I can handle of your authentic emotion.  Will you stop now?”

The 8 Tools

So, I’d like to offer some Eight “Tools” for when we are confronted with someone else’s anger.   My hope is that, as we begin to practice tolerating others intensity, we provide the space for those we love to show up more fully, more authentically, vibrantly and alive!  Ultimately, aliveness begets aliveness.  Pretty soon, we’re living in a world where all of our emotions have room to breathe!

  • If you’re in close physical proximity to a person who is expressing anger, it can sometimes be helpful to simply take a step or two backward—just to Offer Space to them so that they are able to fully express themselves while you practice some awareness around your personal sense of boundaries and needs.  If you’re not in close physical proximity—maybe talking over the phone—you can imagine yourself in a “bubble” of sorts, energetically maintaining a boundary for yourself to feel safe and with a more objective view.
  • BREATHE.  I know, simple.  And we hear it all the damn time.  And still we forget and when our brains get reactive and protective, we still our breathing—this is connected to the “fight/flight/freeze” response.  If we’re freezing, we generally stop breathing.  So take a deep breath and do a quick scan for tension in your body.  Breathe deeply into your belly.  And if you have the opportunity, it may be helpful to say something like, “I really want to hear you but I’m feeling a little reactive.  Can you give me a second or two to relax myself so I can hear you better?”
  • Which brings me to my next point:  Just because you want to stay present to the other person, that doesn’t mean you dismiss your own needs.  So Speak Up before you’re running away or attacking.  Let the other person know that while you want to allow them the space and safety to openly share their intensity, that if it becomes overwhelming for you—to the point where your brain begins to shut down—that you need to take a minute (or more) to ground, breathe, and refocus.
  • Attune to your inner voice—the part of you that wants to just make this stop.  Keep reminding yourself that we all get angry—that it’s normal and that it’s okay.  It’s a momentary emotion that, with processing and sharing, lessens.  When responded to with authentic openness, anger most often dissipates relatively quickly.  Also, however, practice your own boundary setting.  If you’re not able to stay present, calmly ask for an hour–maybe a couple–to calm your nervous system and come back with more openness.  But don’t ever just walk away, abandoning your loved one in the midst of their own anguish.
  • If necessary, Request that the person who is angry own their emotions—ask him to make “I” statements and to take responsibility for whatever might be “his part.”  Hear what he has to say and take time letting it sink in.  Remember that honoring another’s experience doesn’t make them “right” and you “wrong.”  It simply allows them to share their unique perspective and feelings, opening the doorway for you to strengthen your ability to manage your own reactions and broaden your perspective.
  • Practice allowing yourself to experience YOUR anger, owning your personal experience—thoughts, sensations, and expression—of anger when it arises for you.  Make a habit of sharing it with someone with whom you have a sense of safety in developing this practice.  Be okay not doing it perfectly!  Consider that very few people have had anger modeled to them in a healthy, safe way and it’s going to take time to become comfortable expressing it healthily.  Try to even find some humor in the fact that most of us just don’t do it very well!
  • Reflect back the pieces that you hear from the other about why they’re angry, what else they may be feeling—practice some active listening skills and then state back to them what you’ve heard without filling in the spaces with your own emotional protection strategies.
  • Ask for clarification—and space—when you need it.

Get Curious

Before any of these ideas will be able to sink in, the most important thing any of us can do is to develop a relationship with our own anger.  Get curious about where our own intensity lives.  Many of us—myself included! —grew up in homes where anger was not acceptable.  It may have been expressed by an adult in a way that seemed frightening or threatening but rarely, for most of us anyway, was it expressed, processed, held, or resolved with openness and love.  So most of us grew up believing anger to be a “bad” emotion.  For me personally, anger wasn’t safe to experience or express.  It was scary and rarely brought resolution of any kind.  And I grew up believing that to be a “good person,” I couldn’t express, or even feel, anger.  So I put on a smile—a big one! –and shoved it all down inside, justified my passive-aggressive style and went on about my merry way.  Sadly, in shutting down my anger, I shut down a lot of my aliveness right along with it.  Until one day…  and that’s another story!

Thankfully, I was allowed the space in my more grown-up world to begin exploring what this deep, intense emotional rollercoaster was all about for myself.  Now, I don’t always manage my anger well.  I’m Greek.  I’m a big person.  I’m really intense sometimes.  And my early wiring didn’t set me up so well to “let things go.”  So I’ll continue to practice.  I hope you will too!

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie