Do people ever say to you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and your inner voice replies with something like, “But I don’t know how not to,” or “If I’m not, who will? I won’t get very far in life”?
One of my yoga teachers talks about the “Little Man” in our head who tells us how we’re not going to succeed. “You can’t balance on one leg for five seconds – you will fall! You’re not good enough for them – they’re out of your league! You have to do everything yourself – you’re a loser and no one is going to help you! You’re gonna miss that bus, then you’ll be late to work, and then you’ll lose your job!”
All of these messages come from that voice in your head can really beat you down, causing stress, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. The majority of the time we are our own worst critic.
But here is the secret: That voice is not really you! You may think it is you because it’s coming from inside of you and and it sounds like you; but it’s not a part of you. That voice and those messages are a part of someone or something else. They grew from a little seed (or 2 or 20 seeds) that you unknowingly swallowed along time ago.
From a psychological perspective this is called an introjection. An introjection is “the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others.” These voices or messages in your head are just ideas from someone else you started to believe without question.
Not all introjections are negative or make us feel bad about ourselves, but it’s wise to be curious about all of our unconscious beliefs. Introjections can be ideas we picked up from our family or community about religion and spirituality, politics and money, sex and identity, race and culture. They can also be ideas about who we are – things that people told us about ourselves as we grew up.
So, if you grew up in a home where you received messages about being smart, attractive and successful, after a while you probably started to believe that was true because it’s what the authorities in your life told you. And if your school environment was supportive of your growth, encouraging you to think critically and told you you were smart, then you probably believed that too. But imagine if you had parents and teachers who were unhappy, stressed, angry or sick, and blamed your for their suffering. If this went on for a few years, then after a while you started to believe that it’s true. We internalize these messages about ourself and the Little Man is not so nice – he is our own worst critic, judge and tormentor.
Now the question becomes, How do I get rid of the Little Man? I believe that the Little Man is not something we want to get rid of, but something to change. That voice is something which can be helpful when it says things which help us feel good about ourselves. It takes time to change that voice and the messages. It’s takes consciousness, awareness and effort. Think of it as retraining your brain to think differently about yourself.
This is where self-compassion comes in to help soften the voice and soothe the Little Man, so he doesn’t get defensive when you tell him he’s wrong. That would be like arguing and yelling “Shut Up! You’re wrong!” That’s not going to help someone change their thinking. Self-compassion brings in a level of understanding your own suffering allows the mind to open to other possibilities. This takes time and discipline, just as with any new skill we learn.
One of the best tools for working on this is practicing a Loving-Kindness meditation (or Metta from the Buddhist tradition). This practice has two parts: sending loving-kindness to yourself and to others. For the practice of self compassion I suggest focusing just on yourself. The basic practice is to get into a mindful state and focus on this mantra:
May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
I suggest starting with just five minutes a day, every day. Over time these messages will start to become more natural and automatic, and eventually the Little Man may adopt them into his arsenal.
There are many other ways to work with introjections and cultivating self-worth and self-esteem, such as working with a therapist. This is just one way to begin the work on your own.
~ May you be free from suffering ~
– Nick Venegoni, MFT
When was the last time a stranger struck up a meaningful conversation with you in public? Well, it happened to me last night at 10:30PM on a crowded bus, rumbling through the rainy streets of San Francisco.
I was on my way home from my weekly dance practice in Berkeley, when the young man sitting in front of me turned around and hesitantly asked me, “What are you passionate about?” It took me a moment to register the experience, as I was listening to a podcast and that was the last question I expected to hear from a stranger at this time of night. Considering the question briefly, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Music,” I said, and he smiled knowingly. He shared that he, too, was a musician of sorts, “a poet.” We shared why and how we felt passionate about music for a bit.
A few stops later the passenger sitting next to me exited the bus, and the young man quickly got up and sat down right next to me. “Tell me about a profound experience you’ve had,” he says. Again, not expecting this second question, I took a moment to ponder.
Just about a year ago I was part of a ceremony celebrating the life of the recently deceased David Bowie. We chose his song “Changes” as the theme of this ritual, and my friend who gave the sermon encouraged us to, “Turn and face the strange” in both our lives and inside ourselves; to not hide in fear from that which we don’t understand or are unfamiliar with. Little did we know then, that 2016 would get more and more “strange” with each passing month. We faced many challenges and losses. The “strange” hiding in the shadows came out into the light and took reign center stage, unbridled and unafraid.
Back on the bus, I was impressed by my companions unbridled courage to turn and face this stranger—me—and ask such poignant questions. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the experiences in my life which have brought me joy.
“Profound experiences have usually been in a group of people where we are all in sync, in the flow of life and feeling connection to the divine in those moments.,” I finally reply. Again he smiled in agreement, and we exchanged more stories and ideas. We introduced each other, shook hands, and a moment later I exited the bus at my stop, as he sailed over the hill toward the dark ocean.
Thank you, young man, for reminding me that turning and facing the strange can bring me joy and a full heart.
~ Nick Venegoni, MFT
Most days I walk to work through a small park with a patch of grass and a children’s playground. There are a few large pine trees there, shedding their needles and cones on the grass. One particular day on my walk I spotted a small immature, “closed” pine cone. I picked it up, enjoying how it looked and felt in my hand. I stuck it in my pocket and brought it to my office, where I put it on my altar with other objects which remind me of the natural world outside my window.
I returned to my office a couple days later to find the pine cone had begun to open, flaying out about half of its bottom scales, while the top half stayed closed. I was completely surprised to see this had happened off the tree, let alone in my office. I wondered if the rest would open on its own in the next few days. I waited, yet nothing occurred — it had stopped opening the rest of the way. So this left me wondering, how did this transformation occur and why did it stop?
This feels like one of life’s many mysteries: What is the process of initiating and completing transformation in ourselves and in our lives?
The reason most people seek therapy is because you want something to change. You want to change the way they feel about yourself, your relationships, your lives, etc. Those who are new to therapy often think that I have a secret formula to give them, and if they follow it they will transform their experience. The truth is, I don’t have any formula to give you. BUT I can support and guide you on your inner journey to find that formula. The truth is the secret formula lies within, and you have to find it.
That pine cone didn’t open on its own, but the potential for it to open and transform is part of its natural essence. Through the contributions of heat from the sun and water from the clouds above, it was supported to open. The cone didn’t last long enough on the tree to fully open and mature. I don’t know if it ever will fully open, but I accept that it has done what it could with the resources it had. When I look at the pine cone it helps me have patience for myself and those I support, that we will transform to the best of our ability when we are ready.
~ Nick Venegoni, MFT
Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 1
How many times have you checked your phone today? It seems that we have all become Pavlov’s dog and immediately respond to our phones alert bell, ding, beep, chirp or buzz without hesitation. Our brains salivate with each notification of a text or LIKE or HEART — and it feels good! It’s nice to connect and engage with others around shared interests and beliefs. No big deal, right?
As a therapist, when someone asks me if they are addicted, they tend to see the situation in black or white. But I think the relationship can move along a continuum of interaction. I see addiction on a scale — something like this: use, abuse, dependence, addiction.
Webster defines ADDICTION –
: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)
Do you have a strong need for your phone? Well OK, phones aren’t drugs, and Instagram isn’t gambling. Webster continues…
:an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something
SO, maybe your interest in your phone might be considered “unusually great”?
I’ve noticed for a few years now, this strong need, this unusually great relationship some people develop with their smart phones. And it’s not really the phone itself that people are obsessed with, but the content and connections their phones provide them. Or the salivation — the chemistry our brains release with each notification and interaction.
Let me say, I find social media to be a great way to gather information and connect with community, especially for those who may be isolated in some way (such as queer teens in small towns, disabled folks, home bound senior citizens, etc). However, I also see how it can generate isolation and degenerate authentic connection and intimacy. By spending such considerable amounts of time engaging with your phone (liking, retweeting, commenting, reviewing, texting, chatting), the technology starts to become an extension of oneself. When someone has lost or broken their phone, I’ve heard many say it feels like withdrawing from a drug or like they’ve lost a limb. In some ways this is true — you do lose a particular ability to communicate, and there are particular chemicals in the brain that cease to be released when one loses this form of communication and connection with others.
So, what do you do about it? Easy — discipline. Moderation. Cut down. But, we Americans tend to have difficulty with moderation since we live in the land of bigger, better, louder, brighter, Super-Size Me! So even though discipline is a challenge, bringing awareness to your relationship with your phone (and other portals to social media and digital communication) is the first step to solving this conundrum.
In the world of mental health and dealing with substance or behavioral abuse (remember the scale? use, abuse, dependence, addiction), there’s the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is a way to evaluate level of use and level of “harm”, and then reducing use to reduce “harm.” An example of the harm reduction model is working with food addiction. Someone addicted to food can’t just stop eating or they’ll eventually die, but they can reduce their intake and change their relationship to food. The same thing can be done with your phone. Consume less time on your phone and use your newly found free time for other things — visiting with friends and loved ones in person, engaging in hobbies and physical activities, or all the other things you’ve been putting off (laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc.). The commodity is time and connection, not the phone.
The important part to remember is to start small. Maybe it means only 30-minutes less a day for a week, and then increasing to one hour, and so on. You want to stretch yourself without stressing yourself. And know that you maybe have cravings and that’s OK.
– Nick Venegoni, MFT