The upside to being on a fairly continuous ‘self-improvement’ plan is that I keep finding new ways and things to improve! The downside is often paralyzing self-doubt and harsh, internal judgment. So a lot of my recent mission has been to help myself and my clients improve our self improvement plans (!) with ‘kinder, gentler’ techniques that are also effective. Here are some of my favorites:
- Dr. Weil’s 4/7/8 Sleep technique A few months ago I found this article on Facebook about a simple breathing technique to help people sleep. I thought I’d tried everything, but it’s amazing how well this one works. You simply breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts and let it out for eight counts.Try to keep the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth. It is a little anxiety provoking at first to hold your breath for seven counts, but stick with it, it gets easier. I have not needed to do this for more than four rounds before I have been asleep. This has been true even when I have thought at first, “There is no way this will work”. This reminds me of something I believe about health in general: Keep searching until you find a solution that works for you, and try to make that solution as natural as possible. I am not opposed to more medical interventions, but limiting them as much as possible does seem wise. Sleep itself is one of life’s greatest healers and prevention strategies.
- Stop confusing self care with self pity. When you’re feeling lousy try saying to yourself, “I’m so sorry you feel lousy right now. Even if it’s partly your own fault because you didn’t take enough care of yourself, it still stinks and I’m still sorry.” People usually say to me, “But won’t saying this just turn me into a self-pitying victim?” Paradoxically, I think it’s much easier to let go of self-pity when you say something caring to yourself instead of beating yourself up for feeling beat up.
- Find the win-win in internal arguments. If someone asks you a question about yourself, like, “Do you want to be in this relationship?” and you say that you don’t know, it generally means that part of you does and part of you doesn’t. Start realizing that when you don’t know the answer to a life question it often means part of you thinks one thing and part of you thinks something else. Write down what each part of you thinks it wants or doesn’t want, without judging either part. In order to find the best solution to the question look for a “win-win” between both or all of these “parts”. Do the same thing in arguments with others.
- To create long term change, kindness is a much better motivator than harshness. Short-term, a good swift kick in the pants tends to work. But no-one wants and most of us don’t accept a lifetime of being “kicked in the pants.” Notice any and all internal criticism that is harsh. Be grateful for the criticism because it means you are not a sociopath. Be grateful also that you want to become a better person. And be grateful because this hyper-critical part of us is essentially trying to protect us from anyone else criticizing us. “I’ll beat myself up before anyone else does.” But make a strong, disciplined commitment to stop the harshness wherever and whenever it creeps in. Notice it even when seemingly gentle criticism is masking an underlying harshness. We all know that, “I’ve got to lose weight” is really just another way of saying, “I’m fat and I hate myself for it.” So make a commitment to replace, “I’ve got to lose weight,” with, “I’d really love to be and feel healthier.” Notice the difference in the way you feel and are motivated to behave.
- Make one small change at a time until it becomes a habit. Humans are compulsively drawn to what’s familiar. It must be a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ strategy. We even tend to repeat bad experiences from our formative years. We know that trauma changes the brain. Neuroscience teaches us that our neurons are like roads and a road travelled on many times forms a rut that is hard to change. Mercifully, we now know that it is possible to grow new neurons. But we need to consciously travel down the new road over and over again until it too forms a rut. We can do this with thoughts and behavior, but not with emotion. There is no point trying to change the way we or anyone feels. Stop saying to yourself or others, “Don’t be mad or sad or scared or hurt”. Instead focus on adding a loving thought or a healthy behavior to your repertoire. In order to increase my water intake I decided years ago to have one glass of water each time I see a client. I used to hate water (I know it’s a strange thing to hate) and now I love it. In this way, healthy, long term change is possible, even for the most undisciplined of us. Those of you who are already disciplined could still use this life hack, except instead of a behavior change, you could focus on adding one kind, self-loving thought at a time. In this way it will help you let go of perfectionism which can be destructive in its own way.
The last thing I would say that I’ve figured out is that most problems can’t be figured out on our own. When I have a problem that needs to be healed, cured or simply improved upon I research it relentlessly, until I find a helpful person or idea that makes sense to me.
Becoming our own advocate doesn’t mean doing the healing all on our own. Find someone experienced that you trust to help you and also trust that given enough research most problems can at least be improved upon if not completely cured. Leave no stone unturned until you find your own life hacks, bit by bit they will buy you some much needed health and peace of mind.