I was born into a long lineage of gladiators. My father, his father, and the generations that came before them were all gladiators, steeped in the art of brawn, force, and mental toughness. This trait helped transform them from Middle Eastern immigrants, to American citizens, and eventually capitalistic businessmen.
My father was the oldest child and only son of an infamous bookie for the mob. He was raised in a world where street smarts and common sense outweighed the lessons at school. My father’s sense of character and his sense of self emerged through the hard earned lessons taught by mobsters, assassins, and other colorful characters associated with the life of organized crime.
Turns out, it wasn’t so organized after all.
Chaos, fear, emotional tyranny, and physical discipline were the hues that colored my fathers childhood. Shame was the primary emotional tool leveraged to maintain order in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable environment. This is the foundation from which my father matured towards an adult world where he would have neither the skills nor the stamina to sustain human connection with any sense of compassion, empathy or loyalty.
He learned to be compliant; he learned to follow the rules, for the most part. He graduated from college. Went on to create and run for four decades a successful restaurant company. He married his high school sweet heart and had six children. He paid his taxes, for the most part. He ticked all the boxes, so to speak. He looked and appeared psychologically well, all things considered. But the more advanced emotional scaffolding, like empathy, compassion, remorse, and deeply bonded attachment patterns that only come from a safe and secure environment, were rudimentary at best, if at all. Life became for him a series of manipulations to get people to bend to his will. And, in that world, standing toe to toe with other like-minded gladiators, my dad, and his dad before him, were fearless.
That sense of fearlessness shaped who I am today, as a woman, a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother. I too have that gladiator spirit, a toughness that served me well in my family of origin. I am the youngest of six. The caboose. Hustling up the rear of a long line of dynamic and strong personalities, I learned to be scrappy, indignant, self-reliant, and mentally tough. These traits served me well, for the most part. But I am also empathic, sensitive, and introverted. As I matured I began to observe that these traits started to shape shift and reveal a more sinister side. I found myself in my early twenties being rigid, cold, often aloof, afraid to be vulnerable and fearful of being hurt. I noticed my own experience of compassion and empathy began to recede to the background of my character. In it’s place was something different, something much more distant, detached and isolated. Like my father, and his father before him, I appeared healthy and well connected, but I was following the well worn familial path of ticking all the right boxes, but not being genuinely integrated from an interior stand point.
This realization scared me.
I worked hard throughout my twenties to better integrate these dueling aspects of my personality. The soft and the strong. The lighthearted and the tough minded. The gladiator and the compassionate observer. As most genuine transformations do, mine started with an internal process of change, as I evolved from my family of origin and began to author my life in ways separate and distinct from my upbringing. And, like most periods of profound growth, progress has been measured in infinitesimal increments, almost undetectable. I began going to therapy and deeply observing my interior world. I began to make conscious choices about my relationships and who I “chose” to seek connection with. I began to be more honest with myself about my own pain, hurt, and sadness, instead of masking it with bravado, strength, and often humor. I started to allow myself to mourn and feel grief over aspects of my childhood, family, and parents, which I had previously cordoned off in my mind as scary, unpleasant, and shameful. I began to emerge as a more emotionally flexible and accessible person.
With that said, for the next six months I will be using this blog to discuss compassion, empathy, and personal evolution with other people. I am going to transform this blog into a platform where I interview influential people who have cultivated and leveraged compassion as a way to transform their interior world and the world around them. My goal it to interview these people and allow them, in their own words, to explore what influenced their development towards becoming an empathic and compassionate being, how do they manage disappointment, rejection and emotional pain, and what are the behaviors they do to manifest a more compassionate interpersonal dynamic?
Many of these people will have risen to the top echelons of what we consider financial success by leveraging compassion. These people are gladiators as well, but they are compassionate gladiators. My goal is to turn this platform over to them so that they may to go toe to toe, fearlessly, with other like-minded compassionate gladiators and share the wisdom they have gained through their effort and emphasis on humanity, connection, and kindness.
This is my act of social rebellion at the start of 2017. At a time when everything feels to be moving towards a darker and more sinister expression of success, competition, power, and influence, I am going to engage people in an authentic discussion of how it is our shared humanity, capacity for loyalty, empathy, compassion, and connectedness that are our most powerful tools for personal and professional empowerment and success. It is not, in fact, our capacity for brutality or ruthlessness that makes us powerful and effective in the world. It is the opposite quality that sets us apart from other mammals.
Finally, starting in February, I will be launching my new podcast series, Inside The Padded Room. My interviews with these compassionate gladiators will also be available in podcast form…so if you know people who you think would love this topic, but are not “readers” pass on my blog so they can sign up to get the monthly podcast series. The first podcast interview will be launched by the end of February.
Please stay tuned and pass it on.
This article appears on Hey Sigmund
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 specie we do not embrace idle time, maybe because it really is the devils 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 patient’s 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. ;-)
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.
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 gets a base hit .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) need 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.
This article was originally published on Hey Sigmund.