I am currently in the process of reading Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion and just came across, seemingly for the millionth time, the reference to “putting on your own oxygen mask first.” In case you haven’t heard this frequently used in-flight instruction demonstrating the importance of self care, I am here to break down why it is simply the greatest psychology metaphor of all time.
Psychotherapy and Exploring The Self
So much of what we psychotherapists are doing with our clients is exploring The Self: the self as separate from family of origin, from partners, parents, friends, children, and siblings. So often, the reasons that elicit the need for psychotherapeutic services are relationships gone wrong. Early childhood trauma, parents that were too self absorbed or uneducated on the basic needs of infants and young children or the lifelong impact of not meeting those needs, and unsatisfying or abusive adult relationships often leave individuals feeling confused, stuck, and anxious and lead people to seek help.
As we look at what has transpired within these relationships, and how they have become sources of pain, we also begin to look more closely at the self of the person who has sought our help. Together, we begin to inquire. Who is this person? What are the needs of this separate self?
What we often find is that the self has needs, desires, and ways of being that are distinct and unique. Taking good care of that separate self is one of the chief tasks of adulthood. Hence, the analogy.
We, as adults in relationship with others, must become good stewards of our own experience so that we can, in turn, be good caregivers to others.
An Experiment for Cynics
Don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: for the next week, avoid doing anything simply because you enjoy it. Commit only to doing things that are in the service of others: your kids, partner, friends, colleagues, etc. Notice how you feel at the end of that week (if you can make it that long!). Exhausted? Irritable? Angry? Resentful?
How are the relationships themselves? Strained? Tense? One-sided?
When we care for others at the expense of caring for ourselves, ultimately, relationships suffer and everybody loses. A burned-out, overworked and anxious employee is hardly in a position to offer the same level of clarity, creativity and critical thinking as someone who has a balanced work/play/rest lifestyle. An exhausted, energetically depleted mother can not give the same level of presence and empathy to a struggling child as a mother who is rested and well cared for.
Back to The Metaphor
The instruction given at the beginning of every commercial flight states “in case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting someone else.” This clearly illustrates how caring for yourself is paramount in order for you to truly care for others. Breathing is a symbol for life, for being. Inhabiting a human body requires regular care and maintenance: rest, food, water, touch, movement. If we don’t tend to the needs of the body we get sick. Tending to the needs of the psyche/soul also sustain life, infusing it with meaning and understanding, allowing us to make connections, grow and evolve. Taking a holistic perspective requires that we view ourselves as consisting of many parts: mind and body; soul and spirit.
As adults, we afford ourselves and those in our care the opportunity to experience true generosity and abundance when we are able to tend to our own metaphorical gardens. Otherwise we run the risk of showing up for relationships empty handed, without resources and craving that someone else will fill us up. Not only can this lead to disappointment by expecting from others what they may not be able to give, but this caring for ourselves also serves as a protective function. When we do show up for relationships in desperate need for affection and attention, we open ourselves up to victimization by predators who may give us something, but ultimately take more than what’s offered.
Essentially, this metaphor encourages us to help others. It stresses the importance of being able to be there for others in their time of need. But who are you going to help if you can’t breathe?
So many of us struggle with the daily grind of motherhood. Depending on our children’s ages, it could be exhaustion, maintaining a demanding nursing/feeding/sleeping schedule, lack of family support, emotional meltdowns/tantrums, social obligations, sibling feuds, a general lack of resources, or other life stressors that we find most challenging. While motherhood can be incredibly isolating, it can also be an incredible growth opportunity – a time that we shift our focus and understanding, or our way of showing up in the world.
Coming together in a small group format of 4-6 women, Mindful Mamas will gather weekly to learn about and explore the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and motherhood. Groups are a great way to find connection, validation, and perspective on our life situation. In this six-week group that includes both educational and experiential components, we will cover the following:
The basics of Buddhist philosophy and how they relate to the everyday challenges of motherhood
Ways to deal with negative emotional states such as guilt, anger, and worry from a Buddhist perspective
Mindfulness practices that will best serve you in discovering and maintaining inner calm and presence
As a mother of a toddler and step-mother to both a tween and a teen, I can relate to the need for practices to sustain, nourish, and cultivate the inner calm necessary to remain afloat in the occasionally murky waters that are motherhood! As a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice, I hold certifications in Buddhist Psychology and Teaching Classical Hatha Yoga. I have been a practitioner of yoga and meditation for over fifteen years and I feel that both my life and the lives of my loved ones are benefitted from these great traditions.
In the past year I have been enrolled in and engrossed by a certificate course on traumatic stress, offered by The Trauma Center and The Body Keeps the Score author Besel Van Der Kolk. During weekly lectures, I have learned more about different types of traumatic experience and ways to work with these experiences in psychotherapy than I would have previously thought possible!
One particular area of my research is something that is referred to under many different names: Developmental Trauma/Attachment Trauma/Interpersonal Trauma/Early Attachment Wounds/Slow Trauma
This is the trauma that results from a lack of attunement in early life experiences, either in infancy or childhood, with our primary caregivers. The experience of neglect, or of absence of care in the tender moments when we most needed attention, support, loving kindness from the adults in our lives, especially when this lack becomes the standard rather than the exception, can be incredibly damaging on the nascent psyche of a child. It is sometimes called slow trauma because it takes place over time, during repeated experiences of not being reassured, held or supported by a mature adult when we are most in need of care, rather than one specific traumatic event that occurred.
As adults, we can experience the damaging effects of this neglect as feelings of self-doubt, worthlessness, low self-esteem, as a sadness that seems to be without origin, and often, it results in challenges regulating internal states of distress and can lead of chronic anxiety and depression.
A passion of mine is working with individuals dealing with this type of trauma. Through connecting with the inner child that was hurt, deep grieving and cultivating new practices that support and nurture the Self, we can return to the source of the pain and heal the parts of self that most need nurturance.
“I’m not a good meditator, I can’t stop my thoughts”
“I’m not a good breather”
I can’t count the times I have heard these sentiments expressed, but every time I hear them, they break my heart a little bit. Truth be told, I am guilty of having said the second statement myself. I said it during my first year of graduate school, in my mid-twenties, during a time that I was encountering multiple new worlds: yoga, meditation, fully embodied presence and clear and effective feelings-focused communication which I had never before encountered. I was overwhelmed and awed by this paradigm shift and in my new understanding of what was possible.
I was also extremely self-critical. I had come to associate the relentlessly analytical judge in my mind who let me know when I had said or done the wrong thing with my true self. (I later realized this judge was an impostor!)
I know now that I am a natural-born breather. I know that my breath will sometimes be fast and labored, particularly during times of heightened stress. I also know my breath can be slow and steady. It can calm and soothe me when I harness its power to affect my parasympathetic nervous system. I also know that my breath can be used as a tool to anchor me in the present moment, so that I can be fully aware and come back to the now when my mind begins to wander or I get lost in my own thoughts.
As a part of my work as a licensed professional counselor, I often introduce clients to meditation and breathing exercises, and I often hear these “I’m bad at it” concerns expressed. Dispelling the myths about what mediation is and is not is often the first step in that process. Above is a short video by Dan Harris and Sharon Salzberg that breaks down some of those myths and includes a few minutes of guided meditation so that you can learn and practice on your own. Below is another, longer guided meditation by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg.
You may be familiar with one or more of the following issues arising in your intimate relationships:
Inability to be present, or unawareness of what that really means
Lack of understanding around the concept of empathy, and how to do it
Trouble with just listening to your partner, feeling yourself frequently taking the role of ‘problem solver’ or ‘fixer’
Your partner has expressed feeling unheard by you, like you aren’t understanding them or listening when they want to share and process their feelings
In my private psychotherapy practice I provide therapy for men and have the great honor and privilege of working with men who enlist my support in cultivating their emotional intelligence. Some of these men have experienced a lack of intimate relationships, while others have not been able to show up in their long term relationships in a way that sustains the growth of their unions.
I recently watched and was deeply inspired by the documentary film The Mask You Live In, about the role that American culture plays in shaping the identities of our boys and men, and how we teach our boys from a young age that having and expressing emotions is the objectionable territory of girls and women only. The resulting tragedy of this insidious message is that boys and men don’t learn to connect with the full range of their human experience, and therefore don’t connect with others either.
Sometimes boys are raised in fatherless families of origin, or have an inaccessible father who is out-of-touch with his own emotions, is abusive, or is otherwise not a good example for kind and open communication. This lack of role modeling, paired with the cultural stigma of boys expressing emotions (and the berating that often follows) can create the conditions whereby men do not develop their emotional selves and later find that they are not skilled in creating intimacy with loved ones through sharing the feelings closest to their hearts or empathizing with their partner’s experiences.
Together, we can look at the obstacles that might be preventing you from creating and building the types of bonds you would like to have. Additionally, we can explore your abilities in the following areas of effective communication and work on strengthening your skills so that you can move forward with confidence in your ability to sustain positive and loving connections:
Identifying and Sharing Your Own Feelings, Body Sensations, Emotions
Please contact me if you would like to learn more about effective communication and build your skill-set.
“There are at least two kinds of therapists. One kind develops a great deal of expertise in understanding and has explanations for everything. Another kind of therapist seems more shamanistic, follows the mysterious, and relies more upon imagination. All of us have both capacities within us: one which understands and one which follows the process…” – Amy and Arny Mindell
One of my favorite ways to work with clients when ‘following the mystery’ is called guided imagery, or psychosynthesis.
Psychosynthesis utilizes meditative techniques to focus on increasing awareness and understanding of bodily sensations, breath, feelings and thoughts, or to evoke and engage images from the unconscious. Imagery has been called ‘the language of the soul’ and can be used to facilitate healing, for relaxation purposes, in order to gain insight, as well as for mental preparation. Guided imagery exercises can also be used to integrate sub-personalities, to cultivate self acceptance, develop positive characterological qualities, set goals, or access the inner wisdom of one’s highest Self.
Psychosynthesis is something that I have personal experience with, and have found it to be transformative in terms of removing obstacles, neutralizing inner conflicts, and in my own personal growth.
The purpose of using imagery or visualization in psychotherapy is to gain insight into unconscious or split-off parts of the personality. Using this creative function can provide what Carl Jung called a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ and unite the unconscious and conscious into a more holistic, balanced state.
Psychosynthesis “aims to evoke wholeness and the dawn of a new and wider frame of reference in the human psyche.” – Piero Ferrucci
Roberto Assagioli, and Italian psychiatrist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, created Psychosynthesis as a psychotherapeutic technique which supports the ideal of self-actualization by integrating disparate components of the psyche.
“Assagioli noticed several years ago that a great deal of psychological pain, imbalance, and meaninglessness are felt when our diverse inner elements exist unconnected side by side or clash with one another. But he also observed that when they merge in successively greater wholes, we experience a release of energy, a sense of well-being, and a greater depth of meaning in our lives.” – Piero Ferrucci