The Shame that is Hidden in Our Words

“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.” –Ben Sira 28:17-18

The past couple of posts have discussed the work of Brené Brown and the research she has done on shame.  This week, we explore how shame manifests in the way we talk to others.  As I read Brené’s work, one of the things that struck me was how powerful our words are.  When we ourselves are not feeling good and are in a place of shame, an often automatic response is to shame others.  Shame is a tool to control others and is often used as a form of discipline.  Although we no longer use the ‘dunce hat’ on the child sitting in the corner as a form of punishment, many of the techniques and ways we discipline are equally as shaming.

This post is difficult for me to write, because as I start looking back at things that I said and did as both a parent and teacher, I now realize how much shaming I did, often in the name of discipline.  It is not easy for me to look back and recognize how hurtful some of the comments that I made must have been.  I remember saying things like, ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Look at how nice everyone else is sitting.’  While at the time I was attempting to get my students to behave, I now understand the magnitude of the shaming words I spoke.  When my son picked out an outfit that didn’t match and I argued with him to change into something more ‘appropriate,’ there was shame in implying that his choice of outfit was not good enough.  Over and over I can recall times when I shamed.

Increasing my awareness of the power of shame has affected the way I talk to others.  I am now much more aware of whether my words are building someone up or shaming them.  It is not easy though.  I still find myself shaming without thinking about it until later.  Being critical, judging or laughing at someone are all ways that we shame without realizing it.  They are easy traps to fall into.  Shame is a message that there is something wrong with me and I’m not lovable.  It isn’t hard for someone to get the message of shame just from the tone of my voice, the way I look at them or my body language.   We don’t even need words to shame!  Becoming aware in the moment of the interaction takes practice.  It is frightening to think about how many times I use shame without my conscious awareness of it.   What would change if we all thought about the destructive force of shame and increased our awareness of it before speaking?  Are you ready to communicate without shame?

Are You in the Flow of Change?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” –Heraclitus

Change.  Just the word brings up various emotions for people.  Some get excited for change, but often it is met with discomfort and longing for what was.  When change comes our way what do we do?  I use the analogy of a river with my clients.  Life is like a river, constantly flowing and moving.  When we find ourselves resisting change, it is like we are on a large rock in the middle of the river.  It becomes comfortable on the rock.  We get familiar with the scenery and sounds.  While it may not be ideal, it becomes predictable.  But, after a while the river rises and begins to push us off the rock.  We may cling to the rock for a while and resist the changes, but eventually the water will rise enough to push us off.  Our natural reaction is to get back to the rock.  We swim as hard as we can, but the current of life continues to push us and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get back to the rock.  Once we give in and recognize that there is no other choice, we allow ourselves to go with the flow of the river.  Life isn’t about finding a rock we like and staying stuck there for the rest of our lives, it about building a strong canoe that can support us as we go down the river of life.  Friends we enjoy, family support, a career we love, gratitude, compassion and joy are all reinforcements on the canoe.  When we have a sturdy canoe, we know that the river may have some turbulent waters or even thorny overgrowth battering us, but it also has beautiful vistas and calm peaceful stretches.  When we focus on strengthening our canoe instead of the rock we once had, we are able to go with the flow of life.  We embrace change as a natural part of our own evolution.  All explorers know the thrill of not knowing what is ahead and going anyway.  Life is a journey, an adventure that is full of change.  So, strengthen your canoe and enjoy the ride!

The Paradox of Tolerance

“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” –Mahatma Gandhi

America was founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance of differing beliefs, but we seem to be at a crossroads.  How tolerant can we be to the hate and violence that seems to permeate our media. defines tolerance as, “The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”  The problem is that when we have tolerance of intolerance, the problem doesn’t go away and those who are intolerant become emboldened.  Karl Popper wrote the book, The Open Society and Its Enemies while in political exile during WWII.  The two-volume book was published in 1945.  The book has been called a philosophical defense of the importance of democracy.  One of the points he discusses is the paradox of tolerance.  Popper states, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.  There is a major point here.   Can we be tolerant of intolerance?  How do we change intolerance?  Peace and acceptance of differences depends on us, as a society, coming to consensus on when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Does the intolerance cause suffering for someone else?  If the answer is yes, someone is suffering due to intolerance, then we need to be intolerant of their intolerance.  If there is no suffering, then it can be tolerated.  I can be tolerant of other’s opinions and beliefs, but if their words, actions or behaviors cause suffering to another person, that becomes intolerable and must be addressed.  Popper goes on to state, “In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

What would the world look like if every individual spoke out about intolerance which causes suffering?  It is time.  Our future depends on the choices we make today.  Peace can only happen when we are truly tolerant of everyone and intolerance is not tolerated.

Why Do People Hate? What Do We Do About It?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The news stories of the past couple weeks have been difficult to watch.  From the war of words with North Korea, to the violent protests in Charlottesville, to the terrorist attack in Barcelona, we have been reminded that change is needed if we as a species wish to survive and experience peace.  We are at a critical point in history and these events are bringing major issues to the forefront.  People are concerned and scared about what the future will hold.  Now is the time to ask if the way we have been doing things is working.  This is not about who is right and who is wrong.  Those are judgements.  This is about asking does it serve us to threaten nuclear war on a country smaller than the size of Mississippi? Does it work to respond to hate with hate? 

There is one thing in common with all people who hate.  ISIS, Neo-Nazis, the KKK, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump all share one quality.  They are fearful.  They are scared to lose something that they value.  When we look at them as extremely scared individuals who are acting out in fear, it is easier to begin to have some compassion for them.  Hating them will not change them, it will only lead to more hate.  I believe that all people are good at their core.  It is our innate human nature to be giving and caring and loving.  When people hate, it is because they have forgotten who they are.  They have been engulfed by their ego and taken over by fear.  When we begin to become curious about what they are fearful about, we start to understand.  On that level, healing begins as we are able to go under the rhetoric and address the real issues.  It is no longer working for us to hate.  We are all diverse individuals sharing one planet. When we begin to honor that diversity, and look for ways to show love and compassion to those who look and believe differently, the world will be at peace.

Martin Luther King, Jr. left us with many words of wisdom.  Here are two more quotes from him which are just as appropriate now as when he spoke them:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Are we ready to change?

How Donald Trump is Making America Great Again

“Donald Trump’s a change agent. So am I.” –Ron Johnson

Politics is an area that most people have some opinion about.  Whether you consider yourself an Independent, Democrat or Republican, there are issues that we each care about and we want our political parties to fight for what we believe in.  Whether you like Donald Trump or not, he is currently the President of the United States.  He promised change on the campaign trail and he is delivering by breaking the mold on what it means to be presidential.

This is an exciting time in history.  There are many issues which are pressing and they are going to require urgent action.  Climate change, racism, LGBTQ rights, sexism, immigration, religious freedoms and healthcare are just a few of the hot button issues that are in the forefront of the news, not to mention the rising tension with other countries.  Now, more than ever, it is important for us to look critically at how these issues affect each and every one of us.

When President Trump speaks, or tweets, there seems to be a growing interest in every word.  There is no doubt that President Trump is stirring something in us that is awakening.  Whether you agree or disagree with what he says, it is an opportunity to critically examine what our core beliefs are.  I believe that Donald Trump is the perfect person to be president at this time in history for precisely the change that he is creating.  There have been over 20 large organized protests against him, including the Women’s March, which was the largest protest in American History.  All across the country people are listening to what he is saying and are either defending him or opposing him.  Either way, it is creating conversations.  For many years these issues were swept under the rug and rarely discussed.  Trump is bringing them up and forcing us to critically look at what our values are.  Now, more than ever, we each need to individually decide if at our core, we agree or disagree with what we are hearing.  Then it is time to talk about it.  Have some honest discussions with people who not only agree with you, but those that disagree as well.  For this country to change, we need clarity and we can only become clear when we challenge our prior assumptions.  By talking with someone you don’t agree with and being open to hearing their point of view, it is often surprising to discover that there is more that is agreed upon then disagreed on.  There are many core values that people have regardless of political party.  With all of these discussions around the country we will begin to clarify what our country values.  Once we are clear we can create change as the people.  In order for America to be great again, we need to reclaim our identity.  Our president is giving us daily opportunities to decide what is important.  We have the power to create the change that the Declaration of Independence gives to us:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

America is a great country because of the diversity we have.  It is time we honor differences of opinion and respectfully challenge prior beliefs.  Conversations have the power to create change, and true change happens from the bottom up.  Keep the conversations going!

The Problem with Labels Part 2

“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week I introduced the first part of the problem with labels, that by giving something a label it automatically becomes separate.   Noticing that something is separate is not a problem, but when we lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything on this planet it becomes a problem.  When we forget the fact that we are interdependent on others and our environment, we make choices that don’t sustain us.  We get so caught up in the labels of separation that we forget we are more than labels.

So, this brings us to the second problem, who are we without the labels?  During sessions with clients I will sometimes ask them to imagine a basket with their name on.  We then visualize taking all of the labels off themselves and placing them into the basket.  We list the labels one by one as they are removed.  When they have taken off the labels I ask them what is left?  Almost every client tells me that there is nothing left.  They don’t know who they are without the labels.

This is the void that I feel many people have in life.  They have forgotten who they are at the core.  Our authentic self is the pure essence of our being, but it is covered over with so many labels that we forget.  To help some of my clients get to know who is under the labels, I ask them to visualize themselves as a newborn baby.  They don’t yet have language to describe the world, so all they can do is feel who they are. I discuss the senses that they begin to feel.  It may be comfort or love, it could also be hunger.   Without language to label these things it is just an experience.  I then ask them to keep those senses aware as they begin to visualize growing up.  Without putting labels on themselves I ask them to remember when they felt the most alive.  We discuss what that aliveness is for them, when they felt connected to something or someone.  Under all of the labels we have for ourselves, there is an awareness that remains.  It may feel like love, peace, or light.

Getting reconnected with our essence, our authentic self, is what I believe we are all meant to experience during our brief time on this planet.  Some people find that connection in meditation, prayer, nature or in loving a pet.  We can only find it when we remove the labels and judgements for a moment and become fully present with who we truly are.  That sense of aliveness, love or light is who we are without the labels.  We see the world and our connection to it when we take off the labels and become fully present.  What would your world look like if you took some time every day to remove the labels?


The Wisdom of Virginia Satir

“Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.” –Virginia Satir

As I have studied various counseling theories, there is one that stands out as my favorite.  That is the work of Virginia Satir, which is profound in its simplicity.  When she looked at families, she knew that each member of the family was longing for love and acceptance from each other.  Her goal was to validate each member and to help them see where the breakdown in communication was occurring.  One of the ways she did this was by identifying the roles each family member played and how it affected the way they saw themselves and the world.  She identified three necessary parts to healthy interaction; the self, others and context.  When these three positions are balanced, there is congruent communication.  When one or more of these three positions are denied, distorted or eliminated, defensiveness and stress occur in the communication.

When someone sacrifices themselves in a situation to put the needs of others and the context of the situation first, they became what she called a placater.  Placaters will put their own needs aside and will often say ‘yes’ when they really want to say ‘no.’  They will do whatever is necessary for others to be happy and will sacrifice as much of themselves as needed to please others, often out of fear of being rejected.

A blamer, on the other hand, has no problem sacrificing others in order to maintain their sense of self and the context.  They put the responsibility completely on other people when something goes wrong.  They will often say things like, “What’s the matter with you…” or “I can’t believe you…”

The super reasonable person is like a computer.  They sacrifice the self and others to only focus on the context of the situation.  They tend to take a detached stance and will focus on principle and what is ‘right’ instead of on people’s feelings or emotions.  They will often use the word ‘it’ to communicate, such as, “It is important to…” or “It doesn’t matter.”

The irrelevant communication stance doesn’t address the self, others nor the context.  This is someone who can’t tolerate discomfort in a conversation and will immediately change the subject and talk about something else.  They seem to hope that their distractions will avoid the hurt, pain or stress.

While we all take on aspects of these styles from time to time, by objectively looking at these communication stances, it is easy to see how defensiveness arises and clear communication breaks down.  When the self, others and the context are all taken into account, issues can be addressed head on.  There is compassion for the other and respect for the self to address the context of the situation.  What roles have you been falling into and what would change if all three aspects were balanced in congruent communication?

Does Your Life Reflect Your Values?

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” –Roy E. Disney

It is easy to say that something matters to us, but when we objectively look at our day, does the way we spend our time reflect what we say we value?  There are many that say exercise or self-care is important, but is it the first thing that gets cut out of our busy schedule?  If our family is important, are we spending quality time talking with our children- without distractions?  With all of the phones and technology it is easy to spend time together without ever making eye contact.  Our devices are great tools, but we also need the balance of having real conversation, with time spent both talking and listening to each other.  Research has shown time and again that it is the quality of the time that we spend with each other, which is more important than the quantity of time.  Is adequate time spent on activities that promote family togetherness, if that is a value?

One of the things that I notice is that many people are not clear on what their values are.  It is hard to say we are in alignment with our values when we are not even sure what it is that we value.  Take some time to make a list of just two or three values that are the most important, then begin to notice throughout the day which activities are in alignment with those values and which are not.  Is there balance?  What is one thing you can do today that is in alignment with your values?  What would your life look like if you spent just a few minutes each day doing that activity?  In the busyness of our world it is easy to lose sight of what we value.  Getting clear on what our values are and living from those values has the power to change the way we live.  Are you ready?

Don’t Take It Personally—Really, Don’t! 5 Tips to Let It Go

“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.” Don Miguel Ruiz

The other day I was working with a client and he commented that the people around town are so rude.  He went on to tell me a list of examples why, such as, people don’t smile at him or even say ‘hi’ when he walks by.  He concluded that everyone was ignorant and judging him.  I explored with him the story he was telling himself about the other people and then asked him why he cared so much about what these people thought about him.  After a while, he discussed other times in his life when he felt like he didn’t belong.  As mammals, we are social creatures.  We have an innate desire to belong and to be accepted.  When we feel like we are being outcast it is extremely painful.

All of us have our own filter, through which we interpret the world.  Our brains are amazing tools.  They take in information and store it.  These memories can serve us well, but they also color the way we see the world.  There have been studies which show that when we have a history of trauma, even neutral events can become charged with emotion.  Our brains become sensitized to pick up on the slightest cue that there is danger.  Other people may say that we are overreacting to a situation, but to our brain, which is remembering the past event and working overtime to protect us, it isn’t an overreaction at all.

If you find yourself taking comments personally, here are five tips:

  1. Take a step back from the situation.  In the moment, when we feel we are being personally attacked, our brains flood with fight or flight chemicals and the rational thinking part of our brain shuts down.  There is no way to have a rational conversation when someone is triggered, so take a break and allow the thinking part to re-engage.  Go for a walk, take some calming breaths or listen to music.
  2. Once the brain has calmed down, become curious. What was the story that I was just telling myself about that situation.  Write it down, so that you can objectively read back what you just wrote or say it out loud.  It always amazes me how things sound so right in my head, but as soon as I speak the words out loud I can hear the absurdity of them.
  3. Ask yourself if the story that you just wrote or said aloud is true. Often our personal interpretation gets added in, when there may be no real evidence of what we are telling ourselves.  What are the facts in the situation and what is a personal opinion that is being shared?  When someone says something to us that feels like an attack, separate out the evidence from the beliefs.  We all have our own preferences.  Some people will like what I do, others won’t.  We can’t please everyone and that is okay!
  4. Remember that you have bad days, too. Give the other person some grace.  We don’t know what the other person is going through.  When I get cut off in traffic, I make up a story about the other person.  Maybe they are rushing to get to the hospital.  When I picture what they may be going through, I can shift from anger to compassion for them.
  5. Have the courage to speak up. Often our thoughts about someone’s words or actions are not what their intention was.  Is a friend really ignoring us when they don’t answer our message or are they just busy?  I know that I will often read a text and while I intend to return it later, I forget.  But, if someone doesn’t return my message, I tell the story that they are disrespectful for not giving me an answer.   Ask clarifying questions if someone says something or does something that felt personal.  It is not easy to clear the air, but it is healthy.

When we take something personally it is the story we are telling ourselves about the situation that gets to us.  Other people have their own stories they are telling.  When we take responsibility and own our stories, we are able to shift the way we see things and they become much less personal.  As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  What have you taken personally that may need to be re-examined?

When Our Parts Don’t Agree

“My goal is to make space for my selfhood. All of it. All of me, not just the parts I like or think that others like but all of it.” –Tracee Ellis Ross

We all have parts to us.  Part of me may want to go out to eat, but another part wants to stay home.  Part of me wants to clean the house on a Saturday morning, but another part wants to sleep in.  It is normal for our parts to be in conflict with each other, but when they don’t agree, how do we decide who wins?  I envision all of us to have many different parts within.  These aspects of our self all have their own personalities.  We all have a lazy part, but when the lazy part constantly wins we begin to define ourselves as lazy.  When the addiction part constantly wins, we define ourselves as an addict.  I envision each part to have a counterpart.  The lazy part is balanced by an energetic part.  The responsible part is balanced by an irresponsible part.  So, what do we do when our parts are in conflict?

I recently had a session with a client who was frustrated with her habit of procrastination.  She discussed how whenever she had a project to do in school, she would wait until the last minute and then rush to complete the assignment, often getting poor grades.  She was aware that other people in her class were working on their projects from the moment they were assigned.  She wanted to know why they could be disciplined, when she couldn’t.  We discussed how she has a disciplined part as well, it is just being overshadowed by the procrastination part.  We talked about the power that the procrastination part had been given over the years and why her procrastination part felt the need to take control whenever she had a project to complete.

The key to controlling our parts is to increase our awareness of the parts.  We are not our parts.  Our awareness is the director of the parts.  It is our authentic self who is actually in control of our parts.  When our director is able to recognize that a part has taken over it can decide if the part’s action is in alignment with who we say we want to be, or not.  It is the director’s job to decide which part wins when our parts don’t agree.  Our authentic self knows what our goals are and what actions we need to take to be true to ourselves.  It can then choose which part will win when the parts don’t agree.  How much control does your director have, or are the parts running amok?