A ‘Nightline’ anchor shares his journey back from an on-air panic attack

This story is not only well-done and informative, but shows Dan Harris’ remarkable bravery in sharing such a vulnerable set of experiences and insights…It’s wonderful to see a story like this getting national network exposure.

Book Group at the St. Louis Wellness Center beginning Monday March 17th from 7-8:30pm

Small group participants will read and discuss “The Pathway” – a New York Times bestselling book with the compelling tagline:

“Turn off the drive to over-eat, spend, over-work, smoke, drink too much, rescue others, put up walls, think too much, and people-please”

book club flyer

The program that evolved from this book was named “One of the top 10 medical advances of the year” by ‘Health Magazine’.

The book describes…

– How unhealthy habits really form,
– How excesses and overindulgence actually serve us,
– and how to make long-lasting change.

The group will meet on Monday evenings for 8 weeks. Call 314-518-5112 to register.

The power of our ‘autopilot’

I think all counselors and coaches might share a similar wish for the well-being of their clients: ‘Don’t underestimate the power of your auto-pilot’.

Learning to drive a manual-transmission car is the best metaphor I can think of to explain the relationship between the conscious and ‘auto-pilot’ parts of your mind.  Automatic transmissions may work just fine to translate your intended direction via the steering wheel, gas pedal and brakes. But people are often drawn to the manual transmission because it gives you a different level of control.

If you haven’t yet, coming to understand how to operate a manual transmission can be very eye-opening. You learn that an ‘automatic’ is actually directing many more functions than you had ever realized needed attention. “Decisions” about what gear to use, at what speed, and many others, are all conveniently made without us even being aware of them. But if the automatic transmission starts to have problems – slow acceleration, stalling, or abrupt speed changes – you have little recourse for control without “manual” options.

Whether it’s driving a manual or spending less time living on auto-pilot, the solution is all about increasing awareness of the mechanisms in play and improving your responsiveness to them.  Increasing your tangible knowledge can be a good first step.  But knowing and doing are two separate steps.   In the case of getting more control in your personal life, some find that they need “hands-on” help in coaching or counseling for the “doing” part of that equation.

The information in these columns is meant to build a foundation of understanding why we might find ourselves unhappy or scratching-our-heads about others’ or our own behavior.  Understanding all the mechanisms in play can help you see things more accurately. And that information can be enough to begin making changes.   But  in either scenario, the doing will be your own creation. As in my post on “Finding Yourself“, it’s very tempting to look outside of yourself for answers.  But the most vital information is already within you.

We will never force change

We will never force change
It comes from within and runs from pressure
We can only believe in the goodness that bears us all
And the connection that can open with anyone
With the right patience & acceptance
All the clichés whirl around my head
With meaning I can’t believe was absent
When it comes to self-improvement in the face of self-destruction
Only one person can choose their decision
And their decision is already made
It is not simple and I cannot imagine not empathizing
The duality that battles fear and panic with logic and reason
Is the essence of spirit vs instinct
And who would argue spirit cannot deny instinct
Yet it is instinct that we distinguish & disparage
How dare you escape at will when we righteous must battle fear & logic with deference or heartache.

… I just ran across this poem I was inspired to write very early in my career…

Neuroscience offers a very hopeful prospect for change

In my opinion, there is no one best counseling approach or technique. The most important distinction among all of them is the client’s comfort with and benefit from it.

But as a counselor supervisor, I have had the opportunity to follow-up with clients who were unhappy with their experience of counseling. The particulars took different forms, but in general, many of these clients felt that the counseling experience ‘meandered’ and they had wanted to feel clear about what their solution might be and how they could get there.  This is not to say that problems aren’t often complex and can be rushed to solution. Quite the opposite. The nuts and bolts of our most persistent habits in behavior, mood and relationships do not respond well to pressure. But advances in neuroscience have a great deal to offer clients who want that clear tangible plan for reaching the solution they desire.

What we know as our ‘mind’ and our ‘feelings’ are manifested by a physical organ – the brain. And until the phenomenon of neuroplasticity was understood just in the last decade, science and medicine had some pretty grim expectations about making any significant changes to the adult brain. Thankfully we now know that is not the case. With intentional practice and experience, you can change the physical structures (or ‘wires’) in your brain that determine your autopilot settings for all sorts of things. Why is that important? Because most of us have autopilot settings that can lock-in negative moods or destructive behaviors without our awareness. So being able to change the wires means we can make some pretty dramatic changes in our overall happiness, fulfillment and health.

I provide clients with a set of tools that uses the opportunity of neuroplasticity to revise some of those ‘wires’ that can make moods, relationship patterns, addictions & habits of eating so difficult to overcome. The scientific vocabulary can sound complex, but the tools themselves are simple and elegant. I have seen them make tremendous impact not only in the lives of my clients, but in my own life as well. And I would love to share them with you. To learn more about my counseling and coaching services, please call 314-518-5112.

Grateful to be back in St. Louis

I am very happy to report that I am back to the St. Louis area and am offering counseling and coaching services at the St. Louis Wellness Center. I will begin more regular topical posts in the next few weeks and look forward to your comments.

Warmest wishes for the New Year!

How do you feel?

How rich is your ‘feeling life? If you ask yourself  ‘how do I feel right now?’ – is there a ready answer?

Very often, to be ‘successful’ in our society, we must pump up our thinking abilities.  Many of us lead very rich ‘thinking’ lives and we certainly benefit in practical ways because  of it.  We must be able to problem solve and analyze and wordsmith.  So if you are a skilled thinker, it can be easy to start using thought as your primary tool for interacting with the world.   But we have an opportunity to live in two dimensions – to think and feel.   And leading a rich, yet balanced, thinking and feeling life is actually essential to good health – both mental and physical.

In all the hours I’ve spent with clients,  the most common phenomena I see is a kind of ‘depression’.  The pop- psychology meaning of  that word is something close to feeling ‘numb’.  I could go on with the literal definition and talk about the diagnostic criteria for major depression. But in practice, I’ve found that those components often do little to imply the urgency that leading a ‘numb’ life should.

Emotions point to a truth.  In general, changes in emotion are the natural and healthy catalysts for action. Ideally we use the information they provide to motivate us to meet important needs.  But as humans have evolved in our thinking capacity, we have developed a possibly dangerous capacity to ignore our ‘feelings as they happen’.  As we become a more intelligent and principled society, implications of what we should feel and should prioritize are being adopted as truth (by the thinking mind at least).  From a high-minded and theoretical perspective this can be a good thing.  But as always, the devil is in the details.  The importance of balancing authentic emotional experience with thinking is absolutely vital for true happiness and health.

This is such an important context for every part of our daily lives. When our thinking and feeling capacities are out of balance, it is one of the most difficult things to address with clients.  Things get tricky when we’ve trained ourselves (with the help of some families and society) to distract attention from unpleasant realities, internal or external.

Why wouldn’t we want to be able to disconnect from unpleasant experiences? Who wants pain?  This is very natural.  But too much disconnection over time can begin to dampen your emotional senses across the board.  This is often how non-organically based depression begins.  Maybe you’ve learned to ‘stop letting things get to you.’  Typically this figure of speech implies not letting the ‘bad’ things get to you.  But the generality of the literal statement is ironically accurate.  As I’ve said in other posts – there is a symmetry to our perceptual abilities.  If we cap pain – then we cap joy.

So what do we do?  Ideally if you would describe the majority of your feeling states as ‘numb’ – I would encourage you to try coaching or therapy.  But as the title of this blog implies, many people have real hesitancy when it comes to sitting in a room with someone talking about feelings.  The irony is that the people most averse to discussing feelings are probably best poised to benefit from doing just that.

The good news is that plenty of non-therapy options exist to begin working toward a richer ‘feeling’ life.  Just checking in with yourself can be a start.  I often suggest that clients take a moment to ask themselves how they feel before each meal time.  And any non-thinking method you can find to express yourself is often a good way to access ‘off the radar’ feelings through the ‘back door.’  Things like music, drawing, working with your hands or physical sports are all ways to give the thinking a break and rebuild connection with the rest of who you are.

Mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation are also becoming much more mainstream this days.  Again, overthinkers will have a hard time seeing the value of ‘not thinking’.  But the answer any of these suggestions provides is not to stop thinking – it’s to start feeling – more regularly and more ‘real time’.  When we have a regular connection to the emotion of each given moment – then we don’t ‘save up’ toxic emotions for other unrelated situations and we feel joy that we may have otherwise missed.

How to change people…

It may not always seem like it, but fundamentally we all change in the same way. Ideally as children, our parents let us experience an appropriate amount of uncomfortable consequence when we ‘acted out’. By experiencing this discomfort, we identified our own specific reasons why the behavior (or misbehavior) was not in our own best interest. Ideally, again, this mechanism works the same for adults as for children.

We can only change our self. People or life can present uncomfortable circumstances. But we alone make the choice to change or not. This observation is not new, but its wisdom is can be much easier to accept when considering the preferred method of our own change, rather than that of someone else. Objectively we can know that brow-beating is ineffective, but how many of us can still get worked up about at least a few things – from exasperation with ‘lazy’ children or coworkers, to political beliefs of a strong left or right slant?

Pushing someone to change is not much different from physically pushing them. The analogy can be extended to a useful point. Imagine a wrestling match. Which tactic would be best for moving your “opponent”? Pushing with all your might against them when they can easily dig in their heels and brace against you, or embracing your opponent and moving with them? All things being equal, the second option would be far more effective. In persuasion or influence too, it is much easier to make efforts to create an ‘alliance’ with someone before ever attempting to move them in any direction.

Firm, fair and consistent. That is the ideal for our side of interactions with others. That’s the best we can do to truly effect any change we want to advocate. But it is significantly harder to maintain that stance if our experience with our primary caretakers was not firm, fair and consistent. Providing children with an ‘appropriate’ amount of consequence requires a precise balance of consistent affection and consistent rule-setting.

If a parent ‘let us get away with a lot’ or ‘held grudges’ when we acted out – the effect can be twofold: as adults our willingness to tolerate an ‘accurate’ amount of consequence may be lacking, and we may have a hard time being consistent in our dealings with others at home or at work. This subject can, and likely will be the subject of its own post. But for now I’ll leave it at this: if your pulse quickened in anticipation as you read the title of this post …honestly ask yourself ‘were you hoping to improve your influence with, or control of, other people?’

It is a common and understandable wish that we can swoop in and fix a person or situation, or help others ‘see the light.’ But if we’re feeling too strongly about influencing others: 1) we probably won’t actually be very persuasive, and 2) it’s likely that the urgency of our need to influence, save, or fix others, is a distraction we may find more attractive than confronting a change that deep-down we see is needed in our own lives.

Shame and judgment are obstacles to lasting change for anyone. This can be a good reminder to harness our attention and direct our energy into the most useful areas of our lives. It can take a lot out of someone analyzing, arguing or cajoling, and investments of this energy rarely pay dividends. An investment in yourself should always be the first priority. When we are at our best and feeling genuine confidence and esteem for ourselves, then we have the necessary reserves of goodwill to begin making inroads with those we’d like to help.

How to change

After hearing the stories of hundreds of clients, I have observed some common ‘truths’ that get overlooked or forgotten when trying to make positive changes…

Knowing and believing are two entirely different things.   This is the crux of much of the work in most coaching or psychotherapy.  Unless there is an organic source (meaning a physical condition such as schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders), people generally have full knowledge of what they “should” do or not do.  People with addiction don’t lose their awareness of this knowledge.  Yet they act against it again and again. Why? Because knowing is not the same thing as believing. Knowing something means it is part of the most evolved and conscious part of our mind.  But believing something involves feeling. And the core of feelings/emotion are part of the “lizard” or less evolved part of our brain.  Evolution necessitates that this  ‘feeling brain’ has the power to trump our rational mind. So we can know something to be true, but not quite believe it.  Our emotional “truth” can easily be outside our conscious awareness.  These covert beliefs can be heavily defended with rationale of seemingly sound logic.  So if you find yourself explaining (or defending) a rationale with a tight chest, red face or other physical sign of strong feeling …That’s a good signal that knowledge may be in conflict with beliefs. 

If you’re not feeling pain, then you’re missing out on joy.  Clients’ disbelief of this fact is the most prevalent delusion I’ve  encountered.  Life, both esoteric and biological, very often has a certain symmetry to it… Time and again I have observed that if someone is not feeling the full range of their emotional pain (from mild annoyance or stress in a moment, to full-blown grief or rage from the past) they are also not feeling the greatest range of joy that is possible.  You can’t have a capacity for joy but not pain. One simply doesn’t come without the other. 

How do we change? The answer is an extension of the previous point.  If you’re not feeling pain then you can tolerate almost anything.  Change happens when we experience emotion of an exceptional intensity – either negative or positive.  If you are not really ‘feeling’ the discomfort of circumstances you’d like to change, then continuing them can seem to be the most ‘comfortable’ path.  In every case I’ve seen, people find change difficult when they’ve disconnected to some degree from their emotional experience.  Drug and alcohol addiction are some of the most difficult changes to make because addictive substances  exploit the natural tendency of human nature to avoid discomfort.  From this perspective, the catch-22 of addiction actually begins to make sense. When we do make a change, it is because we reach a critical mass of discomfort or are inspired to the point of joy to do something different.