Self-Worth and The Courage to Pause

– This text was written by Claudia Vettore, founder of The Mindful Cloud and a Self-Worth Safari licensee.

“We’re a culture of people who have bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us”
Brené Brown

Ooops! I did it again
Somebody, talking about me in reply to another person’s remark, has said earlier today “she’s not anxious, she’s just hyperactive”. So much for my Mindfulness training, my meditation practice, my Self-Worth Safari, started well over a year ago, on a gloriously sunny Sicilian day. Clearly, the lions and tigers keep showing up, in the form of commitments I keep adding, one too many “yes”, a combination of calls with friends and Skype conversations with business partners and clients, and even a long-waited weekend on the mountains that has unconsciously become one more burdensome item on my to-do list.
There is one thing I am very grateful for, though – a voice that asks “Claudia, why are doing this to yourself?”, followed by “What do you need now?”. And, strange as it may seem (to me, at least), there is neither sarcasm, nor reproach, just a hint of regret and disbelief. Which proves that there is still a lot of work to be done (sorry, perfectionist lady), but also that this is a promising path, fueled by self-worth and leading to more self-care.

Transforming the inner voice
The starting point, once we recognize we are worthy of our own care – not to be taken for granted, as John Niland has rightly pointed out – is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the miracle of Mindfulness”, i.e. the awareness that things are just as they are. This sometimes simply means we see clearly that we tend to fall into the same patterns, or cow paths, to use a very powerful metaphor. Once we are aware of it, we can no longer go back to ignorance, but we can very well keep falling. At this point, we may decide to listen to the inner judge telling us a variation of “you, stupid” / “I can’t believe you did it again” / “of course you did it again!” / “you will never learn” / “you’re a failure” and so on. That judge can be very creative in its wording, but the message is always one that deeply undermines our self-worth.

Yet there is another option: this is exactly the time when, aware of this vicious voice, we may use Kristin Neff’s trick and turn it into the voice/tone/words/attitude we would use with a friend, even if such friend is actually at least partly to blame for that situation. Surely, we wouldn’t be as judgmental and cruel with somebody we truly love, would we? We may even move further, through the 3 steps she recommends: “I know this hurts” (kindness and non-judgment), “other people have felt like this” (connection, as opposed to feeling isolated) and “this is the way it is for me” (mindfulness, recognizing things as they are, no drama added). These 3 dimensions are the pillars of self-compassion which, unlike self-esteem, is not based on judgement, conditions and the desire to feel better than the average, i.e. social comparison.

This also means that I can find myself being caught in busyness and still feel self-worth, and help myself instead of becoming my fiercest enemy, following my perfectionist tendency. Let us see how.

“This hurts!”
Busyness hurts, and so does realizing we are caught up in it. But let’s face it – sometimes we seem to have no other choice than making the most, whatever that means, of every second of our lives (and our children’s, sadly). Our society literally celebrates being busy as being cool, and multitasking seems to be the ultimate quality of any successful and efficient professional. Yet, some recent studies have revealed that this puts an enormous stress on our brain, making us, if anything, less efficient, creative, productive and, in fact, more likely to feel overwhelmed, stressed, juggling, even to become sick with anxiety or depression. Incidentally, the World Health Organization has predicted that within 20 years more people will be affected by depression and anxiety than any other health problem.
Focused Minds, a Mindfulness-based approach for leaders and the corporate world, found that our minds are off-task 47% of the time. Interestingly, their basic suggestion is to stay “1 second ahead”, i.e. to try and be aware of what is going on just before our automatic pilot has set in.

“This is stress”
But what is stress, exactly? The definition often used by Lazar – a transaction perceived as taxing on our own resources – underlines its very non-objective, relative nature: not all of us are sensitive to the same stressors to the same extent, nor are we consistent over time. It also depends on our resources, which vary over time and from person to person. The essence of stress is thus difficult to capture in words, but easy to relate to, for each of us in our own way. A good strategy is to ask ourselves a couple of questions:
– How do we feel, in our body and mind, when we feel stressed? This is paramount in order for us to be “one second ahead” and promptly recognize the signs of an incoming negative feeling.
– How do we usually cope with this, what are our own resources, are they healthy, can we accumulate them in order to help us in times of need?
Sharon Salzberg, in her Happiness at Work book, recommends that we write down these items under three different columns, to clarify our own perceptions and typical reactions and coping strategies, ultimately considering whether they are healthy and sustainable or need to be replaced – out of self-care, not criticism, of course.

“This is what I can do” (“because I’m worth it!”)
Once the essential shift from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” (I am really grateful to Moe Carrick for presenting the valuable quadrants below) is made, there is no way back. There will certainly be quite a lot of time spent at stage 2) though, as we keep trying and falling and trying again. But we are aware, we can see this happening, maybe even just before it happens at times.

2) Conscious incompetence3) Conscious competence
1)     Unconscious incompetence4) Unconscious competence

Although the coping strategies are, as highlighted above, as personal as our stressors, some useful training practices can greatly support us in taking care of ourselves and developing our “self-worth muscle”, by offering us the time and opportunity to make that decision. Janice Marturano, a former senior manager at General Mills, now the Chair of the Mindful Leadership Institute, provides a few that apply to the workplace as well as our everyday lives and can indeed be very useful. They are in line with countless articles and scientific papers, including a few by Daniel Goleman, the worldwide guru of emotional intelligence. Below are a few ideas, invariably based on a combination of mindfulness and self-worth practices. The invitation is, for each of us, to test them, to play and dance with them, finding out which are the most relevant and…fun for us.

  • Taking a “purposeful pause” of just a few minutes, focusing on our breath, body and mind (how is my breath right now? how does my body feel? are there any tensions anywhere? what are my thoughts and feelings and what is my attitude towards them?) is of enormous help. We do not even need to change anything, it is not at all a question of feeling better or different, but simply of being aware, thus interrupting the autopilot reaction (worrying, planning, getting busy, skipping lunch, replying aggressively, or anything we may regret a second later or acknowledge as not such a healthy habit); we may get some help from technology in this, like the Tomato timer while working, or use apps like Headspace or Insight Timer to support short meditations.
  • Finding one or more routine moments in our daily lives to “be all here”, using a playful, experiential approach, like:
    •  opening our front door on the way to work, or the office door on the way in (focusing on body movements, then zooming in to the hand, the sensations on the skin, and widening to any feelings, thoughts or even sounds);
    • drinking our first tea/coffee in the morning, paying attention to its preparation, the aroma, the sensations on the hands holding the cup and the ones linked to the taste; the lingering flavour in the mouth, the sipping process;
    • walking to the car, paying attention to the sensations under our feet, the pace, the surrounding environment.

The list of possible moments to “come home”, as we say in our Self-Worth practice, is infinite and, as simple as they may seem, incredibly effective. Let’s be creative!

  • Deliberately choosing to single-task, at least for a few minutes a day, to see how difficult that has become and how much more focused we can be; without beating ourselves up for not being able to stick to it, but on the contrary, noticing how powerful that can be.
  • Experimenting with some tech-free moments; this last point deserves more attention and space than just a paragraph, but suffice it to say (for now, at least) that the negative effects of our uninterruptedly on-line life have been proven to be greater than any pessimistic expectations. So what would happen if, for example, we left our phone in our pocket, when hanging the coat at a friend’s place?

All of these suggestions ultimately help us remember to take care of ourselves, simply recognizing that we are worth it. Yet this is only possible if, on one hand, we are able to foster a friendly, caring attitude towards ourselves, for example by asking ourselves a few times a day what it is that we really need right now; and on the other, if we are willing to find the courage to have a short break, a few seconds of silence – sometimes even just a breath.

“If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us, as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.”

Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet


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