When do we return to normal?

In the beginning of the pandemic, we all experienced a collective event that hit many people as a trauma. And as a predictable result, many of us got brain fog, lost confidence, experienced physical changes in our bodies, and difficulty keeping up with the rapid changes in policies within our companies and cities.

But most of us expected to be better by now. It makes sense that you’d react to a sudden shift in lifestyle by getting stressed, sleeping poorly, missing deadlines, and gaining weight. After years, it seems like we should be adapted by now. The continued stress and trauma only added up, they didn’t get better. And the longer this goes on, the more we lose confidence in ourselves and our ability to bounce back.

Our inner critic is the key here. It’s bad enough to be stressed and going through a collective trauma, but when your inner critic piles on the shame, you add the sense of ongoing failure to the list. It’s the inner critic who keeps you from being resilient and accessing your strength because it keeps you in the mindset of comparison, shame, and failure. Even when we know consciously that these are normal reactions, the inner critic’s blame and shame tell us the story that it’s okay for everyone else to be struggling, but it’s not okay for you to struggle.

This belief creates a sense of isolation from others. It’s hard to look at someone else who seems to be doing so much better and admit that you’re struggling. And it’s equally hard to be around friends who are struggling and resist the pressure to put on the face of doing just fine. This isolation keeps you from accessing the community, mutuality, and support you need to actually bounce back.

We return to normal only when we can accept what happened, admit to ourselves and others when we are not doing okay, and enter into supportive community in order to truly heal.

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.

Can HSPs be extroverts?

In short: yes!

While the Highly Sensitive trait is commonly associated with introverts, it’s also totally possible to be a Highly Sensitive Person and be an extrovert. 

Going back to basics, extroversion and introversion are descriptions of how we deplete and recharge our energy. Extroverts gain energy from being around people and can be drained by being alone. Introverts are the opposite- gaining energy from being alone and drained by being around people. 

You can see how it’s hard to differentiate. Highly Sensitive people can be overwhelmed by lots of stimulation, like the amount found at a party or a crowded event. But there’s a key factor- the high sensitivity is reacting to the amount of noise or light or social pressure at the event. An introverted HSP might feel each of these drains similarly. But an extroverted HSP feels both energized by the human energy of the situation and drained by the overstimulation. 

As an extrovert who works at home, I love going out for dinner on Friday nights. I feel like I’m literally buzzing with energy from being around the other people at the restaurant. Similarly, if I have more than one social event on the weekend, I feel totally drained because social events tend to be overstimulating for me. Often, I can feel the tipping point between the buzz of people energy and the overwhelm of social engagement. 

But it’s also true that the majority of Highly Sensitive people are introverts, and if you’re an extrovert you may find that you can’t necessarily relate to information or posts that are supposed to reflect the HSP experience but are actually about introversion. You are not alone in your Highly Sensitive extroversion, and you are not less valid as an HSP because of your extroversion. 

Are you a Highly Sensitive extrovert? Let me know! I’d love to connect.