Somewhere, inside us all, hides theCRITICAL CRITTER– a rather scary, hairy and un-fairylike creature. The Critical Critter is fed on a diet of negative self-talk and unkind, unsupportive words from others. Each time we chew on harsh and unjustified criticism, it’s like giving the critter another burger to munch on.
It’s a simple question I heard on the Timothy Ferriss podcast. It was a recent episode featuring Tony Robbins. At first, I thought “Huh?” Turns out Tony uses this question to uncover internal conflicts. To find the things we beat ourselves up for without knowing why. The high standards we yearn to achieve, but seldom do. Why are the standards there in the first place? Why do we expect so much from ourselves?
One of the most remarkable and oh-so-good-to-be-human findings in the last decade or so is that we human type beings can change our brain. Clever aren’t we. (Go ahead – straighten your crown.) In an exciting twist on the nature/nurture debate, it turns out that what’s more important than either nature or nurture, is what we believe.
I had been “seeing” Abby for about 7 months. We were getting to know each other as people often do in those early weeks and months of any relationship. This one being no different, except that it was occurring with in the boundaries of therapy.
Being human is complicated. Even if we came with a set of instructions, seriously, who would read them. This is a good thing. The only way to do ‘human’ is in our very own way. It is the imperfect things we do, and we all do them, that are such an essential part of being human. We don’t want to lose them, as much as they might roll us from time to time.
Anxiety is such a human experience. Anyone who has stretched themselves far enough to do something brave would have scraped against it in some way. If anxiety could, it would throw its wild warrior arms around us, smother us with kisses and tell us it was there to keep us safe by warning us of danger and getting us ready to deal with it. Too often though, that ‘danger’ is more a challenge than a threat, and what we need is not to be held back from it, but for anxiety to step aside so we can move boldly through the middle of it.
Some people are intoxicating to be with. You know the ones. They have a way of making you feel important, noticed, and they linger in your thoughts for a while after they’re gone – not (necessarily) in a romantic, falling in love kind of way, or an obsessive, ‘let’s see what our mutual friends, Google or Facebook, say about you’ kind of way, but in the kind of way that leaves you feeling bigger, more energised and with the impression that they’re someone pretty wonderful.
We humans can do anything – anything – but the fear of rejection is so powerful that it can make us step back from life in case we get hurt. That’s completely understandable. Completely. But we miss out on so much by doing that.
All of us at some point have done something bold and brave and daring – because the risk was worth it. We’ve chased, caught, kissed, asked, shared and bared our wanting soul for something that was too important to walk away from without trying.
Change happens in moments, bit by bit, with brave, small, daring steps that lead to something bigger. Sometimes they don’t feel that brave, that new or that daring – they just feel different, because they are. That’s what’s important, not the size of the change but that it’s different to what has been.
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The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat - and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, humiliation all count as threat, even if they come with loads of love.
When our kids or teens mess up - which they will, because they’re humans not robots - the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it. In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. (Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.)
If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala (the seat of anxiety and big emotion) by sending the message that we aren’t a threat. We can do this by validating their feelings or the need behind their behaviour (if we know what that is).
Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with them, and it doesn’t mean approving of their behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we want to understand the world through their lens. ‘I can see you’re really upset about this.’ ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you talk to me about this?’
When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.
It also doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we see them, and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that (including any consequences for them), and what they can do differently in the future.