Therapeutic Change: It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.

Therapeutic Change: It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.

I am constantly asked by patients, and now by readers, “Ok. But now what?” The insinuation being, “yes I’ve enjoyed the insight, but what can I do?” As a species we do not embrace idle time, maybe because it really is the devil’s play thing. Most of us are uncomfortable with just being in the process; we like to make sure we have a modicum of influence on how the process unfolds, how fast it goes, and what destination we end up at.

This kind of goal directed focus is not a bad thing per se’. In fact, it is part of why we rose above instinct and utilized the substantial brain functioning we have available to us as humans. One of the underlying principles of the work I do is to create a space where an emphasis on the process can unfold in ways that “ordinary” life does not always allow for. Usually when a patient asks me some version of the aforementioned question, I reply, “It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.” Most of what occurs in the therapeutic relationship is a result of the being, not the doing. That being said, this blog is my best attempt to outline some of the strategies I encourage my patients to “do” to help increase their tolerance for the process of “being.” 

Observe Your Mind.

The development of the capacity to observe how our mind and brain works from a space of true observation is a skill that lends tremendous insight in the process of change and growth. Psychologists call the ability to achieve this state of mind the “observing ego.” In this state we have no horse in the race, so to speak. We just observe our thoughts, feelings and experiences from a place that is conflict-free.

In the beginning, I suggest my patients say things to themselves like “oh there I am doing “that” thing that I do” and then shepherd the mind away from fixating on even that process. Just simply move on. This helps people to begin the process of interrupting the never-ending internal dialogue that most of us have, as we critique our thoughts and feelings on a spectrum of good or bad, right or wrong, comfortable or uncomfortable. But mostly the emphasis is on observation. Just being present in watching how your mind and brain operate.

The great part about starting with this observational mind technique is that you can “do it” anywhere because it is only happening in the quiet (or not so quiet) of your mind. This is different than mindfulness or meditation, which requires a different type of commitment. We will discuss later about the formal practice of mindfulness. This observational practice involves observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening while you go about your daily life. Observational practice is what I ask my patients to start from the very first session. We just carve out space to observe how your mind works and experience your feelings and thoughts without any conflict, judgment(s) or any other critique that serves merely as a hindrance at this point in your journey.

Our mind, the way it metabolizes information, fuels our feelings, and organizes our thoughts is the ground upon which progress, change, and evolution occur. The power to develop a strong capacity to observe your mind, without enabling it (I feel anxious, therefore I will avoid that feeling or stimuli), or masochistically abusing yourself (I am such an idiot. What is wrong with me!), or any version of self-dialogue that centers on harsh critiquing is the central groundwork to quieting our central nervous system. For many of us, prior to the development of this ability our reactions to our experiences are hardwired and lack any true sense of free will, as we simply play out patterns of the past in an unconscious and unobserved manner. (Please refer to my last blog post about how the unconscious rules the roost 

Neutralize Intensity.

Remind yourself frequently that all you are experiencing are feelings. Some of them will be intense. Some will be mild. Feelings have a beginning, middle, and an end. Nothing lasts forever and nor will your internal state of discomfort. Likewise, the good feelings will fluctuate and crest and then recede and crest again. Our interior architecture requires dexterity and sway in order to thrive, just as trees and buildings do. The structures that really stand the test of time are able to bend and sway with the ever-changing demands of its environment. So too is our interior world. The more flexible and tolerant of changes and shifts in our thoughts and feelings we are, the better able we are to withstand all the inevitable undulations inherent in being human.

When patients are deeply overwhelmed by anxiety (usually close to panic) I often reflect to them something along these lines:

You are really uncomfortable and you wish you didn’t feel this way. But it is just a feeling. It will pass. Try to find space and fluidity in the pain to simply tolerate it. Tolerance is all we are aiming for here. No one expects you to be graceful under these conditions. Eventually, usually in a few minutes, it will crest and then recede.

In time, this process of neutralizing the intensity of our feelings allows for a deepening of the ability to simply observe your experiences. And with enough practice, eventually you can begin to actually “listen” to the feeling(s) in a way that was previously inaccessible because of the noise of critique and anxiety around the intensity of the experience. Something along the lines of, “I can’t stand feeling this way. What the hell is wrong with me that I feel this way? I don’t want to feel this way. What if this never stops!” All the while your heart rate is increasing and your thoughts start to try and keep pace with the 160 beats per minute and you are, from a central nervous system standpoint, well on your way to a panic attack.

Does any of this ring true?

Fret not, the battle with anxiety is won and lost with the regulation of the central nervous system. It’s biologically impossible to experience profound anxiety if you learn how to regulate the central nervous system through observation, breath, and mindfulness. You will feel anxiety in life. There is no way to completely avoid or eliminate that emotional experience. That is not the goal of therapy. But by observing your mind and neutralizing your reaction you will reduce your propensity towards the more severe expressions of anxiety (panic attacks, chronic worry and anxiety, hypochondriasis, etc).  

Neutralizing our feelings also allows us to gain access to the deeper and more unconsciously held belief patterns that are operating outside of our awareness, but with considerable influence. When we begin the process of observing the first layer of our feelings (in this case anxiety) we will find emotional layers of much more complexity, texture and history that have been protected and hidden by the low hanging fruit of our emotional world. Our goal is to help you rework your internal response to your thoughts and feelings. Neutralizing the intensity of your feelings is one step in that goal towards quieting the central nervous system. Like all the strategies put forth here, consistent practice is the only ingredient necessary for success.

Mindfulness.

When it comes to mindfulness I endorse the style endorsed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This is the process where we learn to just sit and be present with our thoughts and feelings, observing the content, sensations, etc but without any effort to clear your mind or even influence the content of your thoughts (you are not making any effort to “think positively” or clear your thoughts).

MBSR is a specific practice of mindfulness that asks patients to carve out 45 minutes per day of seated mindful observation. I start out by asking my patient’s to commit twenty minutes per day, broken up into two ten-minute intervals. I suggest doing it first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. Sit in a comfortable position or lie down flat (before you get out of bed in the morning) and just observe your mind, body and brain. Observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That is all. It is that straight forward. This is a process of addressing long-held central nervous system patterns that lie deep in the parasympathetic nervous system. Maintain the practice daily, even when you feel “better.”   Again, this style of practice yields the best results when it is implemented daily.

The 300 Rule.

I remember when I started to really pay attention to baseball and started to notice what a civilized game it is. Like golf, there are a lot of good life metaphors in the game of baseball. The 300 rule is one of those metaphors. As any good baseball fan already knows, a top hitter in baseball makes contact with the ball .300 times up at bat or 30% of the time. And, by the way, those are the top hitters. The same can be said of parenting and attachment. If you can meet your child(ren)’s needs 30% of the time you are well within the “good enough” parenting bell curve. The other 70% of the time we are merely repairing the inevitable parental strikes or misses.

I encourage my patient’s to view life this way and more specifically therapeutic change. When you first start out with these types of techniques, which are by design subtle, you cannot expect yourself to be a top hitter. These are not grand gestures of change or upheaval; they are subtle shifts in your interior state of being with yourself. In other words, go easy on yourself. Just start swinging the bat, observe your mind, suspend critique, and hope you get a base hit every once in a while. If you expect more from yourself in such a short amount of time, observe that. And just remember, we have the rest of the 70% of the time to make up for all our strikes.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis
Dr Sarah SarkisSarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

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3 Comments

Peter

Hi I’m confused with the observe your thoughts situation .my mind just chatters away about things, and I don’t really know it’s happing. Then when you realise , and think stop this , it’s to late it’s happened . So how can you observe your thoughts, it has already happened . I don’t think you can observe and think at the same time. Or do you just observe what you have already just thought. After you realise
Thank you for any comments.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

When you realise your thoughts are taking you away, come back to your present experience – what can you feel, see, hear, taste, smell? Then, try stepping back and imagining your thoughts as clouds. This is a form of mindfulness and is a way to still your mind and pull back from the mental chatter. Here is an article that will help with other strategies https://www.heysigmund.com/different-ways-to-practice-mindfulness/. Hope that helps to make sense of things.

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Margaret O'Quigley Psychotherapist

I totally agree with your suggestion of just being with your feelings as they arise not trying to fight back at them. In the case of anxiety I have found it helpful to write down reassuring words as when one is in such a heightened state it can be hard to remember what to say. Words like this to will pass can be helpful. Many thanks

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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