[reposted from my substack]
Once a man painted a picture of a fearsome beast. The creature began haunting his thoughts and dreams, causing him great distress. The beast became so real in his mind that his fears threatened to consume him. The above is a parable I heard at a mindfulness retreat conveying the idea that much of our suffering is based on subjective beliefs that are not grounded in reality. How much of our unhappiness is based on what we imagine rather than what is?
We experience emotional pain in response to unmet wants and needs. The esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow had set out a hierarchy of needs, which are safety, security, connection, and esteem. While he did not intend for these needs to be in a pyramid, overall he did hypothesize that the lower needs were ones more fundamental to our survival and will take priority over higher needs when they are missing. However, Maslow's theory does not elaborate on the details of what it means to have our needs fulfilled. There can be a lot of subjective interpretation when it comes to judging whether or not our needs are being met.
There are situations where pretty much all of us would agree that fundamental needs for baseline levels of safety, security, connection or esteem are not met, e.g., being held at gunpoint, serious illness, or loss of loved ones. Most of us also would agree that a baseline level of functioning in our physical and neurophysical systems is needed for emotional wellbeing. For example, some serious mental health conditions (e.g., severe depression, anxiety, addiction, mental illness etc.) result in states of neurochemical imbalance that inevitably would cause unhappiness in all who suffer these conditions. We all require environments that offer some levels of physical and social safety and an operational range of neurochemical balance in order to feel ok.
When we move beyond extreme cases of life hardship, subjective interpretations start to creep in. Our subjective perceptions of what qualifies as "enough safety or connection" will differ and depend on our personalities, past experiences, culture, and expectations. For example, one person could feel safe just having a roof over their head while someone else may require months or years of emergency savings to feel safe. Seeing a friend once every few weeks might be enough for one person while an extreme extrovert may start feeling unhappy after one day alone.
Our subjective perceptions also affect the duration, intensity and quality of our emotional pains. For example, when we do or say things we regret, or we let ourselves or others down, some emotional pain will be natural and even appropriate. However, even when pain is unavoidable, whole-hearted mourning for mistakes made and the harms caused is still preferable to prolonged self-flagellation intertwined with guilt, what-ifs, and self-loathing.
Irrespective of how subjective the cause, emotional pain has objective biophysical markers. Emotional social pain activates the same brain networks as physical pain. Perceived experiences of isolation and loneliness can be seen in our neurophysiology. Thus, if we incorrectly imagine people don't care (even though they actually do), it will still cause stress in our nervous system in the same way as if we genuinely were around people who don't care. Perceived imaginary threats that are entirely in our minds, still show up in our neurophysiology as if they were real.
Given that life is hard enough as it is, it seems worth alleviating the unnecessary extra components of suffering that come from our imagined distortions of reality. Two common ways that our subjective beliefs can distort reality are fears that we do not have enough and fears that we are not enough.
Past experiences of lack, or tendencies toward anxiety, can cause us to be excessively concerned about scarcity. For example, we may be concerned about not having enough safety, security, or connection despite actually having a reasonable level of these things in our life. This is not to say that we wouldn't sometimes potentially feel more at ease if we had more in our bank account, or were surrounded by more like-minded people who understood us. Indeed it may be worth our while to put effort towards changing our life circumstances so we can have more of certain resources in our life. However, much subjective pain can come from our excessive worries about not having enough, which also can prevent us from appreciating and feeling resourced by what we do have.
One solution to alleviate our perception of lack is to put deliberate effort towards experiencing a sense of having our needs met. Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Rick Hanson has a HEAL model of experiencing resourcefulness where we practice taking in the good. This is a specific form of gratitude practice where we intentionally notice and appreciate the resources we do have in the domains of satisfaction, connection, and safety. The following 4 steps of HEAL are taken from Dr. Hanson's publication in Journal of Positive Psychology:
H: Have a beneficial, nourishing experience. Beneficial i.e., enjoyable and/or useful – experiences can occur in several ways: We can have a live experience in the moment, we can recall a specific past experience, or we can deliberately create a beneficial moment by calling up a feeling of compassion or meditating on something we feel grateful for. The key is these experiences can be small. Even the smallest glimmer of human warmth or a fleeting moment of satisfaction can be nourishing if we choose to recognize it. For example, a smile from a clerk behind the counter at a post office, the shade of the sky, or the taste of morning coffee can all be beneficial experiences that we use to increase our sense of safety, satisfaction, and connection.
E: Enrich it. This involves deliberately prolonging, intensifying, and exploring an experience. The HEAL model describes five ways of enriching beneficial experiences:
1) We can intensify it by deliberately heightening our attention to the good aspects of the experience or memory (e.g., remembering the felt sense of how good it felt to talk to our friend).
2) We can prolong the experience by paying attention/remembering the experience for a longer amount of time.
3) We can heighten the salience of the experience by noticing novel aspects of the experience (e.g., thinking over the new idea that was discussed when talking to our friend).
4) We can engage in multi-modal aspects by contemplating the different thoughts, emotions, and actions associated with the experience (e.g., remember how we felt when seeing our friend, what we talked about, and different actions and behaviours we made).
5) We can find the personal relevance and meaning in the experience by linking the experience to our needs, values, or personal sense of purpose (e.g., appreciate how much seeing our friend met our needs for connection and allowed us to express love).
A: Absorb it. Absorbing experiences involves deliberating internalizing the experience by putting our attention to the felt sense of gratitude towards the rewarding aspects of the experience, its nourishing qualities and how it replenishes our inner resources. For example, we might relish how good it felt to connect with our friend and feel thankful that we can connect with someone in this way.
L: Link positive and negative situations. This fourth step is optional but involves reducing the negative associations with past experiences. We can do this by keeping a strong and clear focus on a positive experience while allowing ourselves to become aware of something negative in the background. For instance, in a good moment we when do feel accepted and connected in the present, we can try to remember feelings of loneliness from our past. By allowing positive experiences to coexist with our negative thoughts, we can reduce the salience of our negative thoughts.
Recognizing and taking in positive experiences to counterbalance our innate negativity bias. By deliberately savoring and internalizing positive moments, we can shift our attention towards feelings of abundance and the belief that we have enough to navigate life's challenges.
A second common type of distorted belief that can cause unhappiness is the perception that we are not enough. Feelings of being not enough can come in many forms with many causes. Insufficient levels of nurture and warmth from caregivers in our formative years can leave us with a gnawing sense of not being good enough. Living in cultures that value individual achievement and accomplishment can also fuel a sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. All of these gnawing feelings of inadequacy remove us from the reality that we are all fundamentally good-enough people, who are inherently worthwhile without needing to prove ourselves. Research shows that one of the most effective ways to address this unhealthy sense of inadequacy is self-compassion. There is a large body of research showing that the practice of self-compassion results in increased happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure. These positive effects come as a result of adopting a healthier way of relating to ourselves. A particularly beautiful therapeutic model for practicing self-compassion is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), which is also discussed in this previous post.
IFS recognizes our minds as consisting of various subpersonalities or parts, which have different concerns. In IFS, a common part that is present for many of us is an inner critic. (We may also have multiple variations of inner critics). Inner critics often are internalized voices from critical caregivers or teachers from childhood. These inner critics might say things to us such as "You aren’t good enough", "You are the one that always messes up", and "Everyone will find out that you are just pretending and don't deserve the role you have." A key differentiator between IFS and other parts-oriented therapies is the view that all our parts have good intentions; even when our parts are causing us undue emotional pain and their strategies are maladaptive, their intentions are to protect us.
Under IFS, the way to establish internal healing is to befriend and apply compassionate self-talk to these inner critic parts. Instead of waging war on our inner critics and inciting even greater inner conflict, IFS has us embrace these critical voices in ourselves with kindness and curiosity. We can then "reparent" these critical parts of ourselves by engaging in a dialog between the parts and our wise self, also known as the “Self”. IFS believes we all have within us a core "Self", which has the qualities of Compassion, Curiosity, Calmness, Clarity, Courage, Connectedness, Confidence, and Creativity. We can use this Self to listen to the concerns of our critical parts, thank it for trying to look out for us, and find ways to give compassion and reassurance to our concerns. Some compassionately curious questions we could ask our parts might be:
What are you worried about?
In what ways are you looking out for us?
What are you wanting or needing?
After asking these questions we might find out our inner critic is worried about our ability to do a good job. Our critic might be trying to ensure that we are valued by the people around us and to know that we have belonging and worth. IFS then has us access our wise self to talk to our inner critic in ways that acknowledge our inner critic’s concerns, thank our inner critic for looking out for us, and find plans to help alleviate its worries.
For example, if we had an inner critic who felt imposter syndrome in a new role at work, we might say to our inner critic:
I realize there's a lot we don't know, but I promise you I'll do my best to build helpful relationships with our colleagues and learn from the people around us.
If we had an inner critic who felt social anxiety, we might say to our inner critic:
Sometimes we don't always know the right thing to say in a situation but I know we can bring our goodwill and focus on asking questions to bring out the interests of other people.
We can help alleviate our sense of not being enough by encouraging a compassionate dialogue with our inner critic to understand its intentions and underlying concerns. Overall, IFS therapy provides a framework for exploring and transforming the fear of not being enough, fostering self-acceptance, and nurturing a more balanced and compassionate relationship with oneself.
Life is hard enough without making it harder through imaginings that are not reality. Research provides methods to help counter beliefs that we do not have enough or that we are not enough.
To counter beliefs that we do not have enough, we can use the HEAL model, to gradually shift our mindset from scarcity to sufficiency, cultivating a greater sense of resourcefulness, and contentment.
To counter beliefs that we are not enough, IFS provides an in-depth framework for practicing self-compassion to cultivate a sense of emotional well-being and wholeness.