“Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life.… On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them.” Rick Hansen
To face your challenges and your vulnerabilities, you need inner strength. We talked about neuroplasticity, how your brain is shaped by where you focus and rest your mind. If you give into your brain’s negativity bias, you allow your brain to focus on self-criticism, worrying, slights and stress. If you train your brain to rest on the good, you will shape your brain for a positive mood and sense of self-worth.
As you build your inner strengths, Ask yourself:
“Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions ultimately diminishing my spirit? Are my choices leading to my Wholeheartedness, or do they leave me feeling empty and searching?” Brene Brown
If you answered like I did, you may want to cultivate your inner strengths, so you make better choices and nourish your spirit to feel more wholehearted. The questions are: Where do you start? What strengths do you nurture? Based on my experience, I recommend that you start by training your brain to be calm and stable. Then you choose the easiest inner strength to work on. I found that working on one strength, strengthened the others. And you want some wins to build your confidence and motivations.
Cultivate Calm and Stability
It is very difficult to see clearly if your body and mind are not calm and stable. A still lake reflects perfectly. But you can’t see the reflection in a lake churned up by the wind. We need to quiet our mental chatter to calm our minds and bodies. The best way for me to do that is to meditate. When I meditate, I train my brain to change the focus of my attention to my breath. That focus on my breath makes me feel calm and stable. I have been meditating for years, it is easier to calm my mind when I get triggered than it used to be. But I need to continue building those neural networks to make it more automatic.
“Remember, difficult feelings and thoughts are like quicksand. The more you struggle against them, the more they suck you in.” Matt Licata, Jeff Foster
It is easier to calm ourselves if we think about calming ourselves just for this breath, and then this one. If we think the difficulties will go on forever, we get overwhelmed and reactive. That is the beauty of the Mindful pause, where we just take three breaths. And maybe we then see we need another three breaths, or some walking mediation to calm ourselves.
Take Persistent Baby Steps
We often go for the big bold steps, thinking that we will speed up the change. But when we bite off more than we can chew, we give up. Rather than saying you will meditate for an hour a day, it is better to start with 5 minutes a day. Rather than saying I am going to find 10 things a day to be grateful for, find one. The baby steps may not feel like you are doing much, but if you do them persistently over time, you will see results.
Why baby steps? They prevent brain freeze and overwhelm. Baby steps are so much easier and have a greater chance of success, thus reducing your fear of failure. Taking a baby step triggers your innate reward system and motivates you to keep going by feeding your enthusiasm to move forward.
Savor the Good
Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. We must train them to focus on what is working, what is joyful, what is good. My favorite practice is called Taking in the Good. Everyday you find something good, a beautiful tree, a sunset, someone’s smile and you savor it for 20-30 seconds. When I did this daily for 6 months, I noticed that I was seeing the good much more often in life.
Savor when you get what you want, instead of just moving on to the next thing. Take time to appreciate your successes and your joys. Allow yourself to experience awe. Pay attention to the people and things you are grateful for. Grateful eyes look as if they had never seen it before and caress it as if they would never see it again.
Take a moment to look at what’s satisfied you in the past week. What really makes you feel nourished?
Nurture the Courage to Face Your Vulnerabilities
“What do I do when I feel emotionally exposed?” “How do I behave when I’m feeling very uncomfortable and uncertain?” “How willing am I to take emotional risks?” Bene Brown
The edges of the experiences we fear form a kind of invisible fence that limits the life we allow ourselves to have. We dread how we think an experience may turn out, so we close ourselves off from that experience. But what we dread is usually rooted in childhood, and today it is much less likely, less painful, and less overwhelming than we fear.
Start with facing small vulnerabilities. Play a game you are not good at. Call a friend you haven’t been in touch with for a long time. Give someone a compliment. As you build your confidence in your ability to handle your vulnerability, you can move on to bigger things.
Curate Your Mind Made World
We all live in a world that is developed by our minds. Your mind made world was developed as you were growing up. It contains lots of “should” that are not really yours. It includes perceptions that are not true. And it limits your thinking, your actions, and your life.
To curate your mind made world, start by seeing clearly. Notice that the stronger our wants and fears, the narrower the perspective we can take it in. We are otherwise occupied or fixated.
By listening deeply to yourself, you learn to recognize your own beliefs and opinions, needs and fears. If your mind is filled with the perceptions of others, you won’t have enough inner space to really hear yourself. Our culture has taught us to jump to fixing problems, whether they can be fixed or not, instead of listening to how the problem makes us feel. We don’t listen to our bodies to learn what makes us suffer, and what brings happiness.
Our culture has taught us that it is not OK to have needs, so we brush them under the carpet instead of listening to them. We think we have no needs, so we don’t set boundaries. And then we wonder why people are always taking advantage of us.
The way I have found most beneficial in helping me listen to myself is to listen to my body. The sensations in my body are like a mindfulness bell. They alert me to when I am going to interrupt someone, when I am going to unnecessarily correct someone, when I am becoming judgmental, and when I am beating up on myself.
Remember that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, it is important to be aware of what neurons you are allowing to fire as thoughts, that is the listening part. Once you begin listening and becoming more aware of your mental chatter, you can look at its tone. Is it loving or harsh? When we harshly criticize ourselves, we may think we are just telling the truth. But we are really creating more judgmental neural pathways, making it easier and easier to put ourselves down. Just listen to the body sensations when you are talking to yourself. You will know whether your speech is harsh or loving.
When you speak to yourself (or other people), ask:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it beneficial?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it the right time?
If the answer to any of those questions is NO, change the focus of your attention to your breath or your body sensations. If that doesn’t work, try walking meditation. And if that doesn’t work, find a distraction.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
“Sometimes reflecting with hindsight is actually a better time for learning because you are less emotionally affected. Let the dust settle, survey the damage, make notes, and then learn. And you can do this over and over, as many times as you like, as long as the juiciness of the felt experience is still accessible.” Judson Brewer
Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it means they are not good enough. On the other hand, growth-mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they know their performance can be improved.
“When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou
You will know whether you are operating out of a growth or fixed mindset by noticing whether your body feels contracted and tight or open and relaxed. If it is tight when you tell yourself you cannot do something, see if you can calm your body and your mind. Then consider again whether you can do it.
Many of these practices will feel uncomfortable or mechanical at first. So, experiment. Don’t give up on a practice the first time you try it. Some practices will take you to the edge of your learning zone. They are uncomfortable but are helping you to grow. If the practice makes you feel overwhelmed, go back to calming your body and try it again when you are feeling stronger.
Next session we will explore two powerful tools for cultivating inner strength: Kindness and self compassion.