Grieving Missed Pandemic Milestones

Like many people, I was really excited to hit the next decade of my life and had big plans for how my new-decade birthday might go. I figured 2020 would be a big year for me personally, and I was looking forward to the milestone birthday being one of many important transitions. I don’t think I need to tell you that the big party didn’t happen. The big vacation I planned didn’t happen.

But it didn’t bother me at the time. Seniors missed graduations and class trips, weddings were postponed or streamed on video. Plenty of other people missed birthdays and holidays and vacations. It felt for a while like we were all in this together, all sacrificing the things we were really looking forward to.

It still didn’t bother me in 2021 because things still felt up in the air. Sometimes events could happen, other times they’d be shut down or postponed yet again. Some people were having parties, but other people were still keeping things small out of caution.

This year has been different. One of my best friends is about two years younger than me and she’s now hitting the decade milestone that I missed in 2020. And she gets to have the party and go on the special vacation. I’m jealous in ways I didn’t expect.

I’ve heard similar from people who had to skip their graduations or have them virtually. They can go and walk this year to make up for it, but they’ve moved on in their lives and it feels weird to go and walk in someone else’s graduation just because you missed yours. But the feelings of sadness and jealousy are still there.

So how do we deal with these feelings? How do I watch my friend have an amazing party and then follow it up with a fun long weekend away? How can I be genuinely happy for her while missing the fact that I wanted those things for my milestone birthday too?

And just like it feels wrong to walk in someone else’s graduation to make up for the loss of mine, it also doesn’t feel right to have that party two years later simply to make up for lost time. All that’s left is for me to bring these thoughts and emotions up with acceptance. I missed my birthday party and the vacation. I didn’t feel sad at the time, but I’m sad now and that’s okay. I’ll have another birthday this year, and that can be good enough. I can plan a new vacation this year, and that can be okay. I’ll never get back all the time in 2020 that I lost to the pandemic and all the restrictions, but I need to accept that as a fact in order to move on.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I ignore my sadness or my jealous thoughts. My sadness is real and an important part of me. I can accept what happened and accept my sadness. The jealousy is different. I can tell from sitting with it that it comes from a place of feeling like things were unfair and I deserved better. Those emotions are valid, but they’re ultimately unhelpful. Focusing on the sense of unfairness doesn’t help me feel better, it keeps me in a cycle of feeling angry and jealous and focused on what I’m missing.

Does this make sense? My sadness is helpful because it allows me to acknowledge what I lost. My jealousy is unhelpful because it keeps me focused on myself as a victim of circumstance. Moving through this grief, it’s not helpful to allow myself to dwell on the jealousy, but I do need to hold and sit with my sadness so I can feel it fully and journey through it.

Grieving missed milestones and memories from the pandemic looks like sitting with your thoughts and feelings with a posture of acceptance. From there, you can decide which thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful and decide how you want to proceed with intention, acceptance, and self-compassion.

Did you miss a milestone or major event during the pandemic? How did you handle it? Does the method I used sound like it might make sense for you or did you use a completely different way?

Lent Intersecting Therapy

Lent is usually a season of giving up oppressive habits and taking on new patterns of living. We often think of Lent in terms of giving up chocolates or coffee for a time, but when we think of Lent in the broader sense of observing and breaking the chains that lead us on a negative path, we can see how it plays into our mental health.

This year, I’m going to stop drinking coffee because I’ve noticed I get irritable and am prone to withdrawal headaches if I don’t get my morning cup. Coffee is a good thing, but it’s become a weight on my life- I have to have it, I’ve grown dependent on it.

Similarly, I’ve noticed a pattern of thinking that’s unhelpful. When I’m worried or have a concern, I’ve fallen back into ruminating on all the possibilities. This makes me feel tense, and I can feel it all through my body. And when I start to feel the anxious tension in my body, the mental distress escalates which again turns back to mental chatter. It’s a vicious cycle and I don’t like it at all. So this year, I’m also giving up anxious thinking.

Breaking a thought pattern is very different from breaking a physical habit. I can stop drinking coffee by simply not picking it up or ordering it. But thoughts are often unconscious, and there’s not an option to simply not think at all or to filter your thoughts to block out the ones you’re trying to avoid. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In the Christian tradition, we’re told to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and “think on things that are true, noble, pure, right, admirable, and lovely” (Phil 4:8-9). These suggest two key points: first that thoughts happen unconsciously, and when they do, we have a choice about that to do with them when we notice them. Second, that we can consciously direct our thoughts, and we are not entirely at the whim of our unconscious minds.

Taking unconscious thoughts captive starts with awareness. We can’t capture a thought that we don’t know is even happening. And awareness starts with slowing down and paying attention. Most of our life happens on autopilot. And most of the time that’s okay. You don’t need to pay close attention to every detail of your commute, and it’s normal to want to zone out a bit after a busy day. But sometimes autopilot goes wrong, and our default thoughts turn toward the negative.

That’s what happened to me- I consciously managed my anxiety years ago and haven’t been super prone to anxious thoughts for a while. But lately, it’s crept up again, and it’s important to deal with it early so it doesn’t get out of hand. My autopilot has turned to worry, and that’s not okay with me.

You may be surprised to hear this from a therapist, but I’m not the best at noticing my emotions. It’s something I’m working to get better at through this conscious practice of noticing and increasing my awareness. I usually notice my anxiety when my neck and shoulders start feeling tense and I notice the shift in my breathing. Once I notice these physical shifts, I can usually trace them back to the frantic thoughts. Taking time throughout the day to check in with my thoughts, emotions, and body feelings is so helpful in allowing me a chance to notice in advance what’s going on in my mind before it starts affecting my body.

But what to do with anxious thoughts once you notice them? They feel like they’re racing so fast, they almost have a life and power of their own. I think it’s enough to simply say no to the thoughts. No, I’m not doing this right now. No, this isn’t helpful. No, you’re just going in circles and getting nowhere. No, no, no. Some theories say that it’s helpful to debate the thoughts or analyze them to see if they’re true. And if that works for you, go for it! But that doesn’t work for me.

I’ve mentioned before about how a tree branch fell on my car in a windstorm and I would get super anxious when it got windy with the thought that another branch could fall again. It wasn’t helpful to challenge those thoughts because my anxious mind doesn’t care that a branch fell only once in the ten years I’ve lived here- it happened once and could happen again. The only thing that truly helped was saying no from a place of acceptance. Yes, the tree could blow around so hard that another branch falls on the car or the house or a person. But my worry thoughts can’t stop it. If I stay up awake at night worried about what the tree might do, that won’t keep it from falling if it’s going to.

This brings us to the second part. You may have heard the saying “Life abhors a vacuum.” This is equally true of our thoughts. It’s not enough to simply say no to the anxious thoughts, we have to replace them with something else or another thought will quickly come up from our unconscious minds.

Whatever is true, whatever is right…
The “what-if” thoughts aren’t true. They’re hypothetical. They’re future focused. The best way to think of what is true and right is to turn your attention to the present. Give direct, focused, mindful awareness to who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

Whatever is pure, whatever is noble…
The “worst case scenario” thoughts aren’t pure. Pure means “without unnecessary elements” or “without contamination.” Worry adds to your reality with all the ways things could go wrong. And again, the antidote is present focus, getting back to what is currently happening without the added extras that the anxious thoughts are focused on.

Whatever is admirable, whatever is lovely…
Anxious thoughts often take us to the lowest place. Thinking of things that are admirable or lovely helps to lift us back up. When we set our minds on higher things, we are reminded of the good things in this world. Lately, I’ve seen articles of studies that show how good it is for people to experience things like awe, wonder, beauty, and glory. Whether it’s going out in nature, experiencing art, or simply marveling at the majesty of the world, focusing outside ourselves helps us get out of our minds and back into a proper perspective of who we are and how we fit into the world.

As we approach the beginning of Lent, I hope you consider how Lenten practices can intersect your personal work in your thoughts and habits. If you have a similar experience or want to join me on this journey, leave a comment and share your perspective!

The Benefits of Failure

Nobody likes to fail, especially in front of others. But failure carries with it two implications- first that you were willing to try something, and second that you have a chance to learn. These are the benefits of failure.

For some of us who have at least one area in life where we are at least moderately successful if not highly proficient, we are faced with the temptation to stay within our realm of competence. This is a key danger in life because once we develop a core competence and choose to remain within it, we can shut down from novel and difficult experiences. We can keep ourselves safe from not knowing, not being very good, being the worst, but only at the cost of our ability to learn and grow and explore.

So failing in itself isn’t necessarily the benefit. But failing means that you tried something outside of your core set of competencies. It means you were willing to stretch yourself and be open to the many different possibilities that could await you. Any time you want to learn how to paint or try a yoga class or sew your own clothes, you probably won’t be a master the first time you do it.

The way out is through acceptance. When you try something new, you might fail. You might look silly. Other people might form opinions of you and your capability. Let me share a story from my life to illustrate.

My Inner Critic is deeply focused on worrying how I’ll do at physical activities. When I was about ten years old, I thought about asking my parents if I could start taking karate lessons like many of my friends did. I never asked because my mind told me that ten was just too late to start learning karate and I’d be behind all the other kids who started even younger.

Looking back, it seems objectively silly. As an adult, ten doesn’t seem to old to learn a new skill. But in the moment, my mind had convinced me it was way too late. Of course, everything seems more obvious in hindsight. The real trick is to be able to notice in the moment when my mind is telling me an untrue story.

I think of some of the things I was interested in but didn’t do. That cookie decorating class- why didn’t I go? That book group- why didn’t I sign up? I can tell myself that the class was too expensive, but in reality if it were half the price I still wouldn’t have gone because what if everyone else is there with a friend and they notice I’m by myself?

Shame says: I don’t want to be the fattest, weakest, and least flexible person in the Pilates class!
Acceptance answers: You might be! But you’ll be doing something you’ve been wanting to try for years.
Shame says: I should have started ceramics years ago if I wanted to be any good.
Acceptance counters: But you can’t start years ago. You can only start now.

I can choose to think back on some of the times I did go to a class alone. I met new people, and others in the class were happy to include me even though they came with friends. I can remember how it felt to finally try karate in college and I did struggle compared to some of the other students but I got stronger and learned a lot, and nobody was as hard on me as I was on myself.

Here’s your challenge- think of something that you’ve wanted to do but just haven’t managed. Explore your reasoning and question deeper to see if the surface reasons are covering over some internal shame or Inner Critic narrative. And then try it. Just once. Just to show your Inner Critic that you’re strong and resilient, that you don’t want to be trapped by worry.

Exploring Motivation

Motivation seems fairly straightforward on the surface, but when you don’t have the motivation to complete basic daily tasks, it suddenly becomes complicated. And it can be frustrating to know that you’re on top of everything you need to do at work and at home but feel like you don’t know how to get yourself to want to work out every night when you get home.

Motivation is huge in therapy. Many people come to therapy looking to regain the motivation they used to have, to explore why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do, basically how to get yourself to want to do the things you have to do.

Motivation is also a bit of a paradox. My clients who are depressed, lost, and frustrated are all looking for the motivation to get them going in life. But my clients who are high functioning don’t see motivation as a relevant factor. They don’t work out every day because they want to, but because it’s built into their routines.

Structure and habit seem to be the key to bypassing motivation. If you only get out of bed when you want to, there will be some days when you simply don’t feel like it. But if you get out of bed every morning when your alarm goes off, you don’t have to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling first.

This is why many unmotivated people can do well at work but are unable to follow through on what they would like to be doing with their personal time. The external structure of work creates certain obligations- be up and ready by a certain time in the morning whether you want to or not, do your routine job tasks regardless of how you’re feeling, attend meetings when they’re scheduled even if it’s not your preference. At home it’s flipped. You want to start reading more, take up a new hobby or craft project, do a puzzle. But then the “I’ll just watch one episode with dinner” becomes a few episodes, or you’re comfy on the couch and it feels easier to stay seated than to get up and do some yoga.

How do you motivate yourself? By creating a habit. By creating a new narrative of how your evenings go. By deciding that I am a person who works out every day after work whether I feel like it or not. By deciding that every night at 9pm all the screens go off and I’m going to read until it’s time for bed.

The narrative is the key. It shapes your new identity as someone who does these things instead of someone who wants to start doing those things someday. Identity stories are powerful. When it’s 5am, an identity story of “I’d like to be a runner but I’m not there yet” isn’t going to get you out of bed. But when you decide “I’m a morning runner,” you find that your motivation shapes itself to the identity that you declare for yourself. Of course it isn’t as simple as naming yourself a runner, but that’s often the first step.

Try it on with something you’ve been meaning to start or get better at.
“I’m the kind of person who……”
“I ……….. every night after work.”
“I like to ……….. at least three times a week.”

These decisions are powerful. If you work out every day after work and have that as part of your narrative of who you are as a person, it shapes your schedule. When coworkers ask if you want to get drinks after work, you can draw on your identity story to protect your time and let them know you’ve got to work out first and you’ll join them after.

As you shape these identity narratives into a habit, the action becomes routine. Motivation is not a relevant factor. You wake up early to run because that’s just what you do. Think of other routines you have. Severely depressed people often don’t shower or brush their teeth because they can’t motivate themselves to get up and take care of their hygiene. But most people don’t even think about it. They brush their teeth at certain times of the day whether they feel like it or not, even when they’re rushed or exhausted.

Focus on motivation isn’t helpful because it requires you to be monitoring your internal state which is naturally highly variable. You will not always “feel like” doing things you need to do. Deciding that you want to take on a new habit means that you decide that you will do things regardless of your internal feelings about the new routine.

Here’s the lesson: if you’re focused on motivation, you’re looking for internal resources to create an external structure. Try it the other way instead. Create the external structures- scheduling, habit forming, identity narrative- and don’t worry about waiting until you feel like following through. Because once you’ve created that habit, it doesn’t matter if you internally want to keep going, it’s just something that you do.

Developing a Philosophy of Wellness

Your philosophy of wellness shapes your expectations of what you want to get out of your time in therapy. In the first few sessions, I try to get a picture of what my clients are looking for. Most give an answer like this:
“I want things to go back to how they were before”
“I just want to feel normal again”
“I want to feel good and for everything to be okay”

Many people have a philosophy of wellness that looks something like the above examples. They have some idea of a time when things were going well, and they want to have that feeling all the time. There are two problems with this kind of philosophy. First, it’s not realistic to expect that things will be good for you all the time if only you can reach a particular point of wellness. Second, the idea of “good” and “normal” is undefined and nebulous, and it’s hardest to hit a moving target.

To address these problems, we can safely say that we need to develop a philosophy of wellness that accounts for the normal ups and downs of life. Your definition of what it means for you to be and feel well can’t depend on your life circumstances always being positive. And your understanding of wellness should include specific, measurable targets that are well defined and understandable.

With that in mind, what does it mean to be well? What does it look like in terms of how I behave? How does it feel mentally and emotionally? How do I handle negative experiences when I am well? I’ll show you how I answer these questions and how I use them to develop an overarching philosophy of wellness.

To me, being well means that I am okay with just being. When I am unwell, I tend to rush around and have a sense of striving in hopes of working myself into wellness. When I am well, my actions show it by the pace. Instead of a frantic energy, my behavior is characterized by a centeredness that shows even when I am working quickly. When I am well, this centeredness allows me to be more patient with my family, more open to my friends, and more able to respond to events rather than react. My feeling mentally and emotionally is calm and open, and when I am doing very well, I am curious, creative, and energized by new ideas. When I am well, I handle negative experiences thoughtfully without being derailed by anxiety or panic. I am able to process and analyze the situation, asking for help without feeling frantic or shutting down. I am able to deal with catastrophic thoughts without being caught up in them.

My natural tendency is toward anxiety, so my philosophy of wellness is focused on my ability to move away from my unwellness- frantic, striving, rushing, catastrophizing- toward its opposite. For me, that means calm centeredness, openness, curiosity, and creativity. I feel it mostly in my chest. The sense of striving feels tight and hot, and I notice it in my breathing. I also feel it in my mind. The thoughts move from swirling, ruminating, overwhelming, catastrophizing into stepping back, watching the thoughts without being swept up in them, taking time to think clearly.

So while there’s nothing really wrong with saying that you want to feel normal again, or back to your old self, I’d like to challenge you to really dig into those statements. Make them more specific. What is it that you’re feeling right now that you’d like to manage differently? How would you prefer to handle difficult circumstances? What was different about your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in the past? How do you know when you’re feeling well or unwell based on your physical sensations in your body, your behavior, and your thoughts?

Seeking Connection

We had a connection crisis long before social distancing and shelter in place. For years, sociologists noted that our reliance on digital media as a means of contacting and connecting with others was problematic.

But even then, most of us worked outside our homes. Even if our friends and family were digital connections, we at least had to see our bosses and coworkers in person.

The disconnect in digital connection comes from the safe distance we feel from others when we interact online. Think about the comments section of any social media post- people are more likely to get into inflammatory arguments online than in real life. The screen insulates us from the humanity of the people we’re talking to and gives us protection from immediate consequences of saying something insulting. We don’t have to see how we hurt others, and we can’t get hurt in return.

Not that most of us are internet trolls, but the same principle applies when we try to connect. It’s harder to feel personally connected to someone on a screen because we’re used to screen people being fake people- actors on a show for our entertainment. Even if you are looking at someone you know and love, it’s hard to feel as personally connected when it’s digital.

This is a result of perception and training. The good news is it’s possible to work toward feeling connections even across screens and across distance. The bad news is that it’s hard. If you haven’t had distanced relationships before the pandemic, learning this new skill will take focused mental effort. It will be exhausting at first.

There are three key skills you can use to foster a sense of connection despite distance and digital interference.

1. Be Present. When you start a call or meeting with a loved one, take a moment to be present with them. Being in different locations, we each have environmental distractions that, if we were together, could be shared. But across distance, they only serve to divide us. Mentally set aside things outside your connected space and focus on the conversation.
2. Be Attuned. Notice their nonverbals. This can be more challenging on a phone call or with low video quality, but since most communication is nonverbal, this is a key point of connection. In person, we pick up on so much of this unconsciously, and it takes more effort in a digital format.
3. Be Honest. If you’re struggling to feel connected to someone in a particular format, ask for what you need. Some people feel most connected in email which allows for long-form expression. Others feel most connected over a phone call so you can hear their voice. You may enjoy video chats with friends but feel stressed when it’s with your parents. Be straightforward and ask for what you need.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is key to good mental health as well as general physical wellness. Not getting enough sleep- or not getting quality sleep- is a huge blow to your ability to maintain your emotions, feel good in your body, and stay mentally sharp.

We are armed with modern technology that allows us more understanding of our personal sleep cycle than ever. Most smart watches and fitness trackers can detect the depth and length of your sleep cycle. Some phones are also able to monitor your sleep.

Despite this knowledge, we are not sleeping well. Part of this is natural- as we age, we spend less time in deep sleep and may need less sleep. But part is cultural. For those who work during the day, night is often the only time you have to yourself to relax or to do your own activities. Sleep is one of the first things we sacrifice when we have a major deadline coming up or we want to spend more time with friends.

Good sleep starts with routine and sleep hygiene. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day creates a routine that supports quality sleep. This flies in the face of our idea of weekends, days off, and holidays as time to “sleep in” so creating a sleep routine means finding alternatives to sleeping in as a benefit of a day off.

Sleep hygiene means keeping non-sleep activity out of the bedroom. Even though fewer people own TVs or keep them in the bedroom, our phones and tablets create a similar disruption in our sleep hygiene. Those living in a single room or studio can benefit from having a couch or comfortable chair for other activities. Those with multiple rooms should avoid the bedroom except for sleep.

We know the problem- poor sleep- and the solutions- sleep hygiene and routines. But the problem goes beyond just a poor night’s sleep. A habit of too little sleep can leave you susceptible to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Interested in discovering how your sleep cycle affects your mental health? In therapy, we can go over your sleep routines, explore any resistance to sleep, and go through the process of discernment to find out how much sleep you actually need. Call or text 831-531-2259 or email leftcoastmft@gmail.com to schedule a free consultation to find out how we can work together to transform your sleep habits to work for you.

Not quite ready for therapy? My Foundations of Mental Health course is coming soon and will go over sleep as one of the foundational habits that are key to health and wellness.

You Are Enough

You are enough. But do you believe that? Where do you struggle most in believing that you are enough?

You are enough just as you are. Your worth does not correlate with the amount you consume or produce- you are not a tool of the economy. Your worth does not connect to your relationships with others- you are not more or less whether you are married or single, whether you have children or not, whether you are involved with extended family or not. Your worth is not your work, your hobbies, your clothes, or anything else.

Your worth is intrinsic, it’s simply part of who you are. Because you exist, you are valuable. You are enough.

When you truly believe that you are enough, that you have enough, that there is enough to go around, it changes the way you relate to others.

When you are enough, you don’t have anything to prove to others. When you have enough, you don’t feel like you need just one more thing to complete you. And when you know there is enough to go around, you don’t see yourself in competition with others.

That’s great in theory, but what does it take to truly believe that you are enough?

It takes a posture of gratitude. Gratitude interrupts the comparison trap which is most of why we feel like what we are and what we have isn’t enough. Not enough means something different to everyone. It’s one thing when you don’t have money for food or utilities, it’s another thing when your kitchen is the most run-down or least modern among your friends, or you don’t have the home tech upgrades you wish you had. Gratitude reminds you of what you already have, and often that’s enough.

It also takes a habit of self-observation. If you find that you feel most down on yourself when you’re on social media seeing all the things others have, the vacations others are going on, the bodies of fitness models, then you might need to unfollow some people until you can stop comparing. If you find that you feel like you’re not enough when you’re at work, notice who you’re comparing yourself to or what your unmet expectations are. If it’s a boss who talks down to you or an environment where you’re consistently passed up for promotion, you may need a new workplace. But taking a step back and observing yourself, particularly where you feel shame and not-enough, can show you a great deal about what you value and where you’re off track.

You can also observe your motivations. Why are you going where you’re going? Why do you do what you do? Is there anyone you’re trying to impress? Whose approval are you looking for?

How do you feel right now? Do you believe you are enough? Are you enough all the time? Everywhere- work, home, social media? Is it for yourself or for others?

If you want to go through these questions of your purpose and values with someone else, therapy can offer you a private and confidential space to explore your sense of being enough.

Building Resilience

We all know we should build resilience, but how? Learn three ways to build resilience before things go wrong and three ways to enhance resilience in a crisis.

We all know that resilience is the factor that allows us to deal with life’s ups and downs. And we all know that resilience is a skill that can be built up. But not everyone knows exactly how to build resilience. I’ll give you some key steps to take to build up resilience before things feel overwhelming as well as some extra things you can do when you already feel overwhelmed.

  1. Be socially connected. One of the things I look for as a therapist is if my clients have at least 5 people or groups they can look to for support. For children, peer support is nice, but I’m looking for at least 3 adults and 2 peer age kids. Support doesn’t have to mean telling them about your deepest fears and worries. Support from one person could be a casual friendship where you go for walks or out to coffee. Groups like AA, NA, or GriefShare are a great source of support.
  2. Practice self-care. The idea of self-care includes fun things like treating yourself to a nice dinner or a spa day, but it also includes routine care for your body and mind like exercise, sleep, and taking a bath or shower. Develop a basic self-care routine that incorporates exercise and hygiene with occasional additional treats.
  3. Practice mindfulness. This could include journaling, meditation, art, or any other form of mindfulness. The goal is to learn how to recognize your thoughts and emotions from a distance, separate from your self-identity. Mindfulness also has a core of non-judgment. It doesn’t help to beat yourself up for “being anxious,” but it can help to recognize when you are having an anxious thought or experiencing anxiety in your body.

These three factors- social support, self-care, and mindfulness- are the basis of developing resilience. By practicing these skills when you’re feeling good and things are going well, you’ll improve your ability to use them when things aren’t so good. Here are three additional things you can do to increase your resilience during a time of stress or overwhelm:

  1. Disconnect from devices. News media and social media can contribute to your sense of stress. Taking a break can help you clear your head and focus on yourself.
  2. Reconnect with your goals and values. Sometimes, a sense of stress is a signal that we’re going in the wrong direction. Check in with yourself to see if anything in your environment- work, relationships, living situation- is contributing to your feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, stress is a part of moving toward your desired goals and remembering why you are choosing this path may give you the strength to carry on.
  3. Talk to a therapist. When things become more than you can handle, a therapist can teach you skills to navigate the situation. A therapist provides a neutral, outside perspective which can be helpful when friends and family all have their own opinions on what you should do.

What skills do you use regularly and when you feel overwhelmed by stress? Is there anything that’s worked for you that I missed? Is it time for you to talk to a therapist about your situation?

Curiosity and Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling threatened, but it can be hard on relationships. A posture of curiosity allows you to empathize with the other person.

Most of the time when people start therapy, they are approaching life- relationships, change, work- with a defensive stance.

A defensive stance is natural. Our responses to new situations are usually fight, flight, or freeze. The instinct of self-protection is key to our survival. It’s important, and we can’t completely ignore it.

But when we carry this defensiveness into familiar situations and routines, it can create relational problems. You may have the experience of feeling defensive at work, perhaps you had a bad week and now the boss wants to talk to you- or in your close relationships, when your spouse is washing the dishes angrily and you’re wondering what you did wrong this time.

I’m sure you know the feeling of defensiveness. Your breath is shallow and tight, you start to notice the tension in your neck and chest. You may start to feel something in the pit of your stomach.

When you’re feeling defensive, your body tightens and closes up to protect you from danger. Often, people who feel defensive show it by crossing their arms and leaning back. Your thoughts and emotions close up too. Your mental focus is on analyzing possible threats and making sure you have a way out. Emotionally, you may balance your fear by getting angry or crying.

In contrast, imagine a picture of curiosity. When you’re curious, you lean forward to look. You may reach out with your hands, you may move closer. Your thoughts are open, your mental energy is exploring. Emotionally, you are prepared to discover.

Curiosity defuses closed off defensiveness. Imagine the earlier scenarios. You’re called into your boss’s office after a terrible week at work when everything seems to have gone wrong. Your spouse is angry at you and you don’t know why.

If you go into these situations defensively, you’re looking for threats. And when you look for threats, you’ll either find them or connect the dots to create them. Humans naturally look for patterns, whether they’re there or not.

It takes effort to overcome the natural sense of fight-flight-freeze when we feel like we’re in danger. And of course if you’re truly in danger, you wouldn’t want to shift to an open and curious posture. But in relationships, whether at home or at work, curiosity helps maintain your connection to the other person. You’re able to take a step back and look from the other person’s perspective. You can only empathize with them if you’re first curious about them and their needs. And you can only admit your mistakes when you’re not trying to protect yourself.

In difficult situations, like when you’re sure your boss is going to want an explanation for your bad work week, defensiveness works against you. If your boss sees you justifying poor work or blaming others for mistakes, they may not feel confident that you would be able to do things differently in the future. In contrast, if you can admit it was a down week and take responsibility for your part in the problem, your boss may develop trust that you are aware of the situation, your part, and possible solutions. Curiosity shows you’re teachable.

And when your spouse is angry, defensiveness calls up all the ways they wronged you. Defensiveness is ready to attack or blame. Curiosity recognizes that they are feeling angry and is ready to listen to their perspective. Curiosity can hear the unmet need behind the anger and is willing to work to meet it.

So how do we shift from defensiveness to curiosity? The first step is recognizing defensiveness when it comes up. Notice the physical sensations. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Then challenge those thoughts by shifting your focus to the other person. Wonder to yourself what they might be thinking or feeling. Change your physical breathing patterns. Deep breathing calms your vagus nerve. Stretch your body to break out of any tightness. Notice any tension and deliberately tighten and then relax those muscles.

This shift takes time, especially at the beginning. If you notice yourself getting defensive, take a break. Give yourself a few minutes alone to get into curiosity before going into a situation where you usually feel defensive. If you can, ask for a break. Start with easier situations before trying to get curious around a hot button issue.

What do you think of the idea of curiosity? Do you notice when you’re in a posture of defensiveness? How do you think defensiveness and curiosity have played a role in your relationships?

If you find that your relationships have been severely affected by defensiveness or you aren’t able to shift into curiosity, therapy can help. Even a few sessions of guided curiosity can help you create new patterns of relating.