I start off every therapy session by asking a simple question that’s hard to answer: How are you?
Until they get into a routine with me, folks usually answer without considering: I’m fine. Good. Okay. There’s a clinical term, “Affect incongruent with stated mood.” It means that how you say you’re doing doesn’t match up to how you appear to be doing. People tell me they’re good even when their shoulders are trying to eat their earlobes, their brow is furrowed, and they’re fidgety as hell.
I met with a young lady recently who found herself unable to answer my simple/hard question. She finally admitted, “I have no idea how I am.” I asked when was the last time she checked?” Her bewilderment turned to sadness as she told me, “When you asked me last week.”
Her focus is external. She is acutely aware of others – how they feel, what they want and need. She avoids paying attention to herself. When I ask how she treats herself she can only identify, “I’m very hard on myself.” (Lofty expectations while avoiding awareness of our needs & feelings is a recipe for burnout, anxiety, and depression).
Most of the unhealthy things people do are subconsciously driven. No one has ever made a conscious decision to limit or shame themselves. It’s something we learned to do. It happens as a split second reaction to an emotional experience (example: I make a mistake at work and take time out of my busy day to yell at myself for being a loser).
The only way to change things we do automatically is to pay more attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Counselors refer to this as mindfulness. For most of us, being mindful is the exact opposite of what we’re used to.
Unless you’re pretty healthy, self absorbed, or way more enlightened than most, being self aware is uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s scary. It seems selfish. It can be exhausting, especially because practicing it brings to the surface everything that was previously stuffed down or pushed away.
Mindfulness shows us how much we doubt ourselves. We don’t just second guess ourselves, we forty second guess ourselves. It’s almost always the case that we know what the right decision is but are uncomfortable with how it makes us feel. It’s more comfortable to focus on the external: other people, places, things, stuff. Do work. Maintain habits. Keep routines, complete tasks – just get through each day with varying levels of mundane, unsatisfying shit. It always feels safer to do what we’re supposed to do and not what we want to.
Avoiding ourselves makes it easy to settle for so much less in life. No one says to themselves, “Well, this is as much as I can have without moving out of my comfort zone, so I’ll stop here.” We have to convince ourselves that this is all we can have. We don’t consciously lie to ourselves. That’s what makes justification and rationalization so hard to catch.
Personally and professionally, I implore people, “Pay attention to yourself. Stop avoiding you! You’re going to be with you 24/7/365 until the day you die. That’s a kick ass reason to invest and relate more genuinely to you!”
Mindfulness is simple. It starts with two easy/hard questions: – How am I doing? (emotion) and – What am I doing? (Am I investing or self limiting?)
When I choose to be rigorously honest with myself, I know what I need to do next. Awareness makes me more able to ask for what I need. In this way, I take responsibility for my needs and ensure that I neither cease growing nor settle for less than I can have.