In the last blog we talked a little about the driving forces of needing to do things perfectly and not feeling good enough. Today we are going to expand on these a bit more and discuss other driving forces that can hinder our recovery. These driving forces are actually personality traits and there are several common ones found among people with chronic conditions.
Many people with limbic system impairments tend to be the high achiever/perfectionistic types. There is a huge internal drive to accomplish things, to rush and get stuff done and check it off the list. Self-worth is often determined by productivity levels. "You're only as good as what you get done in the day" can be a common underlying belief. When things don't go perfectly or we aren't as productive as we would like, it can bring up feelings of shame, guilt, and not being good enough. As a result we ending up putting more pressure on ourselves and pushing harder to achieve, which burns us out even more. When we hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards, it can also contribute to procrastination tendencies and resistance to retraining. Part of us knows that we can't do it perfectly to this standard, so the underlying feeling of "why bother even trying" takes over. If we can't do it right we might as well not do it at all. There can also be an underlying fear of failure that plays a role in procrastination, which also stems from unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
Another common trait is to put everyone else's needs and feelings before our own. Our self-worth comes from helping others, even to the point of our own detriment. There is an underlying belief system that this is what "good" people do. Putting ourselves first can lead to feelings of guilt or shame, or a belief that we are being selfish.
Limbic system impairments also tend to go hand in hand with a harsh inner critic. This is the voice inside that criticizes us, judges us, and tells us we are not good enough. Often this leads to shame, guilt, embarrassment, and being super hard on ourselves. At an extreme, it can lead to us punishing ourselves or feeling like we deserve to be punished.
Most retrainers have a part that gets caught up in a worry or fear. While worry may be underlying all of the personality traits to some extent, at its extreme, the worrying trait is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and catastrophizes or plays out worst case scenarios as if they are really happening right now. It may be hyper alert, looking for any slight hint of someone that could potentially go wrong, and then goes into huge overreaction if it finds something. It might worry about the future or predict an outcome before the event has taken place. It might use fear of a possible reaction to prevent us from doing things and engaging in life. It could also express as being overly concerned about what others think or feeling like we are being judged by others. This may lead to people pleasing behaviours or avoidance of social situations altogether.
We may also have a victim trait, where we are perpetually feeling victimized by circumstances, people or situations, and powerless to change.
You may recognize yourself in one or all of the traits listed above. There may be other traits that are common to you that you know get in the way of moving forward on your path to wellbeing. We can't change what we aren't aware of, so when you become aware of them congratulate yourself. You are one step closer to making the necessary changes for optimal health.
Luckily, there are antidotes to all of these limiting traits. If you find yourself falling into the overachiever/perfectionistic category, practice slowing down and doing things "lightly". Intentionally evoke a nonchalant attitude before engaging in your to-do list. Bring in a fun-loving attitude to what you are doing. Practice staying in the present moment and being intentional about the tasks you are completing. Focus on one thing at a time and set realistic and achievable goals for what you want to accomplish each day. Also, try to practice the 80% rule used in Positive Psychology - 80% completed or 80% of perfection is good enough. Or, as the Gupta states, "Do your best and leave the rest." When you notice the drive to do more or push harder kicking in, choose to stop what you are doing in that moment and do something else instead, preferably something that calms or relaxes your system. If you find you get caught up in things and have trouble stopping, set a timer for yourself to help with pacing, and take a break or switch activities when it goes off. Do rounds of practice if necessary to help break the cycle. Finally, consider starting a "to-be" list, instead of a to-do list. Think of how you want to be and make that your goal to achieve throughout your day. Some examples include: happy, calm, loving, grateful, present and playful.
If you find yourself putting everyone else's needs above your own, remember that when your gas tank is full you have so much more to offer those around you. By modelling healthy self-care and self-compassion, we are teaching our children to treat themselves the same way. We are also unconsciously giving others permission to do the same when we treat ourselves lovingly and look after our needs. Recognize that the inner voice that tells you this is selfish is not your voice. It is likely a childhood message that was internalized from someone around you. In all likelihood that someone was probably bitter and resentful, as we all can be when we don't take care of our needs. Or it was a way your system learned to behave in order to receive love from those around you and to have your needs met. Either way, it is time to remind yourself that you matter, that self-care is not selfish, and that if everyone looked after their own needs first the world would be a much better and happier place.
With the inner critic it is important to remember not to believe everything you think. Our thoughts and our feelings are not the essence of who we are. They are simply messages. Sometimes those messages can be false. Sometimes we can even recognize the voice of the inner critic as the voice of a parent or someone from our past, which can help us externalize these messages and not buy into them. Practicing self-compassion can also be really helpful in changing this trait.
Worry and fear are a huge part of what we are rewiring through the brain retraining programs. As soon as we become aware of it, we can interrupt and redirect. If it is a persistent pattern, consider doing full rounds of practice. It may also be useful to come up with an affirmation that you can repeat to remind yourself that all is well. It is also helpful to call in support from a higher power, the universe, or from nature, where we feel supported or connected to something greater than ourselves. This helps us to feel connected, less alone, and to know that we don't have to handle these worries all by ourselves. We can ask that power to assist us in overcoming our fears/worries, or practice releasing and letting go of the worries by taking a deep breath in then exhaling all the worries into the ground to be recycled or by handing them over to that higher power. Sometimes, people like to imagine a box in their minds. They place their worries inside it whenever they notice them arising. Then, at a more convenient time later in the day, they lovingly hand their box over.
If we notice ourselves feel victimized by our situation or circumstances, or feeling powerless to create the changes we desire, it can be helpful to review the information about what is happening in the brain during these conditions along with the principles of neuroplasticity or brain retraining. Increasing our understanding of what is happening and why we might feel this way can provide a stepping stone into taking action and moving forward. Additionally, we may choose to listen to stories of others who have recovered to help increase our belief in our ability to change. If we are stuck on something that happened in the past, perhaps doing some forgiveness work is in order to help yourself let go so you can move on. I highly recommend "Forgive for Good" by Stanford Professor Dr. Fred Luskin if you find yourself holding grudges and unable to let go of past events or people. Sometimes that feeling of powerlessness or helplessness is connection to low levels of the happy-feel-good neurochemicals in the brain. Consider taking 5-HTP to help increase dopamine production in the brain (or course if you are on medications or have any questions/concerns please consult with your health care provider first). Exercise and practicing gratitude are other great ways to increase our good neurochemistry.
Please note that if these personality traits have been playing out for a long time it is likely that our brains are neurochemically addicted to the emotional states associated with these traits. This means that as we start to intervene we may notice some push back or resistance from the brain initially. Your brain may come up with new or creative ways to get you back to feeling guilty, shameful, fearful, or "less-than." It is crucial to keep going and know that this is the brain withdrawing from these neurochemical signatures. When the process is complete the associated thoughts and draw toward those feelings will be significantly lessened. It is also crucial to approach changing each of these traits with gentleness and loving kindness. These traits developed to try to help ensure your survival and safety growing up, to get your needs met. They served a role, but now in adulthood that role is no longer helpful or conducive to optimal wellbeing. We want to interact gently with those parts, and at the same time have our wiser adult version of self take the reins of control and guide us into a new ways of being in the world. This starts with changing up how we do things and interrupting the old patterns as they arise.
Practice being the mindful observer so that you can more readily catch these tendencies. It is when we are operating on autopilot that these traits are most likely to go unnoticed. Self awareness is key to making changes. As we check in with ourselves, we can become aware of our tendencies and determine whether they are helping our progress or is hindering it. If they are hindering us, it is time to step in and change the pattern. Determine how you want to be instead, affirm that new way of being by stating this to yourself, and practice the tools above to help you operate in a new way. It may take some time and repetition to shift the old patterns, but in the end not only will it help you recover, it will also increase your resilience.
Until next time!
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Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com