by Jennifer Christian, LPC and Dr. Jeff M. Christian
Words of hate tear at the fabric of our society; words of kindness mend.
Imagine life without unkind words. Imagine comments sections on your favorite website that only allow constructive criticism, words meant to further the conversation rather than out-shout those who disagree.
Today, online words of hate, abuse, fear, and violence are rampant. The intensity of negativity overwhelms us, a tsunami of words altering our lives without us realizing their enormous power. This new world often feels devoid of kindness. Few of us would choose to pass on this world to the next generations, so we begin this project in the hopes that we can change the future by changing the present.
We have power to create a better world.
Imagine a world that offers encouragement. Imagine a world where people matter. Too often, though, we feel helpless in even thinking about making a change. Where should we begin?
Well, we have some ideas.
Start with some simple things. Appreciation and gratitude, for instance, are powerful tools that can help rebuild this world. Every word of kindness heals, builds resilience, and draws people together.
John Gottman found that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction. Relationships find balance when positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. At times we will misunderstand each other and say the wrong things. We are human, after all. However, for the health of all our relationships, we have the power to create better worlds for ourselves, as well as all of those around us. Our hope that we can do this together is reminiscent of John Lennon’s line, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
So let’s imagine a better world. One word of kindness can create ripples of healing across our society. If we come together to dedicate building reserves of gratitude in our families, places of work, and all other communities, we can change the tide of negativity.
Here are some other practical suggestions to get us started:
- Get creative. We can share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.
- Remember the magic ratio of 5-to-1. Each week send five notes of encouragement, whether online or handwritten.
- Practice gratitude at home as a family. “Researchers found that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.” (Susan Heitler)
- Notice the words you say to yourself. Learn how to offer yourself words of kindness and compassion: “Life can be rough without the comfort, balance and guidance of a self-compassionate friend on the inside. Lack of self-compassion affects our relationships and our well being in profoundly negative ways. What a difference it makes to go through life with a kind friend on the inside rather than an internal critic or bully!” (Kim Fredrickson)
Please take a moment to share this article and this project with friends and family. Together, we can create the world we imagine.
For Further Reading:
On appreciation and gratitude:
On John Gottman’s five interactions:
On practicing gratitude at home as a family:
On Susan Heitler’s work on gratitude in marriage:
On Kim Fredrickson’s work on self-compassion:
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it would be a nice time to focus on the healing benefits of a gratitude practice. I experienced an impact when my husband and I decided to start an active gratitude practice about five years ago. Over time we noticed subtle changes in our home, stress levels, and marriage. Recently, I spoke to a group about the benefits of gratitude in a marriage relationship. My teenage son happened to be in attendance. During the comments time he told the group about the positive difference he noticed in our family. He said he could tell a difference in the way my husband and I related to one another. It was incredible to hear our son share his own experience of our decision to practice gratitude as a couple.
Gratitude Nourishes the Brain
An active gratitude practice has the power to change the way we think and feel. According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we choose to place our focus has the power to shape our brains.
“If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.” (Hanson, 2013)
Gratitude Builds Resilience to Stress
Over the past few months I paired my gratitude practice with an app called the Heartmath Inner Balance Trainer. The Inner Balance Trainer has a heart rate monitor that works with a smart phone or tablet to guides your breath while it monitors your heart rate. As you breathe, you bring to mind gratitude and thoughts of compassion. The science of Heartmath has shown a powerful correlation to our heart rhythm pattern and our emotions:
“When we experience uplifting emotions such as gratitude, joy, compassion, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good – they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.
During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes – actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.” (www.heartmath.com/innerbalance/)
Gratitude Over the Holidays
The holidays add stress to our normal daily routines. In my last blog post, I discussed how “turning down the thermometer” on stress can create balance, especially since practicing gratitude has proven to reduce stress. The article “Seven Powerful Ways Gratitude Can Change Your Life” shows multiple ways this practice can enhance your health and your relationships.
I wish you and your families a grateful Thanksgiving. Thank you for your continued encouragement and support of Jennifer Christian Counseling. I am deeply thankful.
Hanson, Rick, Ph.D. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
At some point you have probably made a New Year’s resolution and then broken it. But instead of a resolution, what would it be like this year to create a meaningful habit?
Last year I wrote a series about self-control and how to achieve your goals. While researching the topic I was surprised to find that using willpower and self-determination alone sets us up for failure. I am not sure why this is such a surprise. How many times have I broken my resolutions when life got too busy? Sliding back into old habits can be a familiar pattern for many of us:
- Let’s say you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed trying to avoid the donuts all day that you later give in to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant that night. What a frustrating experience.
- Or suppose you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.
This is a common experience because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.
“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
How Can I Achieve My Goals?
If willpower does not work, what can I do?
According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control and increase staying power (Desteno, 2014).
- Authentic pride
“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
Breaking It Down
For the month of January, I will focus each week on a virtue that boosts staying power. This week will focus on compassion, and how a compassion practice can have a positive impact our ability to reach our goals.
How Can We Build Compassion?
Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing our surroundings, and then feeling moved to care. When we allow ourselves to notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.
Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care in the same way we would another human being.
One way we can build compassion is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.
Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
What Gets In The Way?
In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.
“A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)
The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry. When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be compassionate with ourselves, as well as others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow the pace of life.
When we begin each year, we are full of hope and excitement about the possibility of making positive changes. But over time, the fast pace of life gets in the way and pulls us off track. How we respond to ourselves when we make mistakes is essential to reaching our goals. If I beat up myself with self-criticism, I lose heart and momentum. “I failed again just like last year; I will never get this right.” This approach increases frustration and makes it difficult to keep going. Kim Fredrickson suggests another approach: Acknowledge my mistake and realize that even when I mess up, I deserve to be treated with dignity as a fellow human being.
“Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address this mistake directly)… Self-compassion is absolutely essential for healthy, balanced living. It provides huge benefits including emotional resiliency, stress reduction, contentment, and healthier relationships. Without it we are vulnerable to the opinions of others and find it difficult to deal with and let go of our mistakes.” Kim Fredrickson
When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.
“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff
A compassionate approach allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness and get a fresh start every day. Our mistakes do not define us. We are able to decrease the heavy burden of our missteps and move forward compassionately with our hopes and dreams.
Ready to Boost Your Compassion?
Here are some tools to get started:
- A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
- A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
- Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.
Resources on Building Compassion
Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/feeling-control-america-can-finally-learn-deal-impulses-self-regulation-89456/)
Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion?language=en)
Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC
A loving kindness prayer uses words and images to evoke feelings of loving kindness toward oneself and others. According to the article, “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving Kindness Meditation Today,” a consistent practice of a Loving Kindness meditation can decrease symptoms of PTSD, improve wellbeing, and bolster the immune system.
The following Loving-Kindness meditation is inspired by the virtues celebrated during the weeks of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This form of a prayer focuses on God’s loving kindness toward us and how we then become a vessel of His love toward others.
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie
I have so many reasons to be thankful:
- My husband and I sipped coffee together before we started our day.
- I enjoyed a long walk by myself at Memorial Park.
- Our teenagers have found their groove at school and are enjoying soccer pre-season.
- I am currently savoring a bite of dark chocolate as I type.
In 2012, I decided to incorporate an intentional habit that did not depend upon my mood or daily circumstances. I started a gratitude project and began experiencing the powerful benefits of an active practice. My husband and I have both been amazed at the positive impact a gratitude habit has had on our marriage and other relationships over the past three years.
I can tell you from personal experience that gratitude will change your life. The following list, compiled from a growing body of research, describes the powerful impact an active gratitude practice can have on your health and relationships.
Seven Ways Gratitude Will Change Your Life
- Gratitude boosts health and wellness: “ “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular physical examinations. Grateful people also tend to be more optimistic… studies link optimism to better immune function.” (Elizabeth Heubeck, Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude)
- Gratitude protects against depression: “Gratitude supports the neurochemistry of well-being, and protects against depression. It builds resilience, so we get less rattled by events and bounce back faster. And gratitude turns us toward others as we appreciate the people we care about.” (Rick Hanson, What Are the Health Benefits to Thankfulness?)
- Gratitude increases happiness: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (Harvard Health Publications)
- Gratitude can help you through hard times: “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do.” (Sonjia Lyubomirsky, Eight Ways Gratitude Boosts Happiness)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction and longevity of relationships: “It starts within our own self. When we consciously foster feelings of appreciation for our loved ones—whether by doing a gratitude mediation about them every morning or by deliberately focusing on specific things we love about them—our relationship improves.” (Cristine Carter, A Surprisingly Simple Way to Feel Madly in Love)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction of parenting: “I am happy and proud to say that my relationship with my teenager is better than ever! Now he seeks me out to tell with me stories and jokes. He listens to me intently when I give him guidance. I can’t tell you how much this simple practice has changed our relationship. In retrospect, while teaching my family about this principal it also affected me positively. I noticed how my attitude towards him changed and softened because I started seeing him through a gratitude lens.” (Debbie Lyn Toomey, Gratitude Tip for Positive Parenting)
- Gratitude increases self worth: “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.” (Robert Emmons, Why Gratitude Is Good)
Create Your Own Gratitude Practice
- Start a gratitude journal. Write down three items each day that make you grateful.
- Share gratitude at the dinner table. My family shares “Highs and Lows” every night during our evening meal to stay connected through the week. If not with your family members, pick a friend and share a high point and low point each day.
- Say “Thank You” often: Look for ways to express gratitude to those who cross your path every day. Express thanks at the grocery story, gym, at home, or just about anywhere.
Through November, I will dedicate this blog to the practice of gratefulness in honor of the Thanksgiving holidays. David Steindl-Rast’s TED Talk, “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful,” is one of my personal favorite talks about how gratitude can change your life. He shares a message of how we can become happier people and how happier people can make a peaceful world together. I hope you enjoy his message of happiness and peace.
Excerpt from Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful
“How can each one of us find a method for living gratefully, not just once in a while being grateful, but moment by moment to be grateful. How can we do it? It’s a very simple method. It’s so simple that it’s actually what we were told as children when we learned to cross the street. Stop. Look. Go. That’s all. But how often do we stop? We rush through life. We don’t stop. We miss the opportunity because we don’t stop. We have to stop. We have to get quiet. And we have to build stop signs into our lives.” (David Steindl-Rast, TED Talk)
Last week, I had a dream that I was caught in a blizzard. A blanket of swirling white surrounded me. My mind raced to discover some sense of direction. I was disoriented and frightened. Paralyzed. Where was I? Where was the path home?
And, then it was as if everything went into slow motion. Time slowed down. Way down. I began to notice individual snowflakes. Unique details of one snowflake. Its beauty. As my awareness shifted toward the structure of the snowflakes, I noticed my body beginning to relax. My mind settled. Gently. Slowly. I began to see areas of empty space open between each of the flakes. The spaces grew wider. The snowflakes began to lessen. I saw more clearly. The intensity of the blizzard that had seemed so overwhelming now calmed. Though still surrounded by the snow, I no longer felt afraid.
Since this dream, I have thought how much everyday life can at times feels like a blizzard. Time speeds up without warning. Daily tasks swirl around me: work tasks, family expectations, holiday chores, friendships, household duties, volunteering, etc. But then other things compound what might already be a blinding blizzard of activity. Thoughts, feelings, regrets from the past and “what ifs” of the future can surface to cloud my vision even more. My mind begins to race.
Where am I? Where is the path home?
Then I notice. Awareness. Gratitude.
- The smell of the crisp autumn morning air
- Listening to the laughter of my children as they watch silly videos
- Seeing my husband’s eyes gently crinkle as he pushes the plate in my direction to let me have the last bite
- Gently holding the hand of a dear friend who is grieving
- Tasting a hot, gooey chocolate chip cookie
- Feeling the sensation of a long hot shower after a satisfying day
Take a deep breath. This is your life. Notice. Search. Find the moments of beauty sprinkled like beautiful snowflakes in the midst of the flurry of tasks and worries.
Time slows. Mind gently settles. I am still surrounded, but I am not afraid.
The power of gratitude.
A daily gratitude practice has a powerful impact on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. People who practice gratitude notice many benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More joy, optimism, and happiness
- Act with more generosity and compassion
- Feel less lonely and isolated
- And, gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships
Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk, “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude,” combines stunning time-lapse photography with powerful words from Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?
Be thankful when you don’t know something,
for it gives you the opportunity to learn.
Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.
Be thankful for your limitations,
because they give you opportunities for improvement.
Be thankful for each new challenge,
because it will build your strength and character.
Be thankful for your mistakes.
They will teach you valuable lessons.
Be thankful when you’re tired and weary,
because it means you’ve made a difference.
It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who
are also thankful for the setbacks.
Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles,
and they can become your blessings.
I have two teenagers gearing up to start school next week, and I feel a little disoriented. Transitions have always been a personal challenge, and I have to pay extra close attention to my stress levels throughout the shift into the new school year. The next couple of weeks will be full of lists, paperwork, school supplies, lunch ideas, medical forms, school forms, school clothes, etc.
I used to run myself ragged trying to get everything done for the sake of my family. I would end up feeling frazzled and irritable. I did not realize there was a relationship between my own self-care and the health and peace of my family. Like the old saying goes, “When mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy!” I learned (eventually) that parenting is kind of like the oxygen mask drill on an airplane. Give yourself oxygen first, so that you can stay calm enough to then put the mask on your child. Likewise, when I check in with my own self-care, I am centered and have more to give.
Over the years, I have tried a number of different coping strategies to help me manage the stress and offer myself a little compassion in the midst of unusually hectic times:
11 Back to School Coping Strategies for Parents
- Remember transitions are stressful. If you feel a little overwhelmed when you look at all that needs to be done, it is okay. You are not alone. When you beat up yourself for feeling stressed or wonder if everyone else seems to be handling things better, it fuels the tension and makes you feel stuck.
- Be kind to yourself. This has been a huge help for me over the past couple of years. When you give yourself a little grace, you give yourself a little space. Compassionate self-talk naturally calms the tension in our body and calms the stress. You build inner support and encouragement when you learn to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend. Try this self-compassion exercise: How Would You Treat A Friend?
- Breathe. Breathing naturally calms the body and brings down stress levels. When I get stressed out, my mind starts racing and I cannot think. Breathing settles the mind and helps get back on track. Andrew Weil has a simple, powerful breathing exercise that naturally calms and settles the body.
- Buffer Time. A little extra scheduled time sprinkled throughout the day can bring down the stress. Get up 15 minutes earlier to give yourself a few extra minutes to get organized, find a missing shoe, or get loaded more peacefully into the car. Leave for school 10 minutes earlier to give a buffer for traffic or any unforeseen challenges.
- Write It Down. Make a list of all that needs to be done, and then prioritize. When you organize tasks and put the most important things first, you create focus and limit distractions. Multi-tasking is over-rated and actually increases stress.
- Practice saying “No.” A new school year includes lists of new activities. When you say “Yes” to everything it can leave you feeling burned-out and frustrated. Give yourself some time to think about how each activity will impact the family’s load. When I feel pressured by someone to respond right away, I often say that I need to check my calendar and will get back with him or her as soon as I can. Then I access how many activities will fit into our life without over-burdening our resources of time and money. I can then respond in a firm and realistic way that puts the needs of my family first.
- Listen. When you get so busy with everything that needs to be done, it is sometimes difficult to give attention to the people you love. At times things just need to get done right away and it is not possible to listen well. Tell your loved one, “You are important to me and I really want to hear what you are trying to say. I can give you my full attention when I finish _______.” Also, give others some grace when they are busy: “I have something I want to share with you and I want to be sure you can hear me, is this a good time? If not, when will you have a few minutes for us to talk?”
- Get some sleep. Lack of sleep exacerbates our stress and impacts our mood, health, and wellbeing. Sometimes getting in enough sleep may mean cutting a few things off the to-do list. However, we may also end up with a better attitude and more energy to get things done.
- Minimum requirements of self-care (MRSC’s). When things get hectic and time gets squeezed, your self-care is often the first thing that gets cut. This is understandable and common, but you can get worn down and burned out. According to Jennifer Louden, “MRSC’s are the basic things you need to stay in touch with yourself, to have a strong foundation to meet the rather constant challenges of life, and to ease the noise in your head. Things like loving yourself with yoga, getting enough sleep, being outdoors in the teasing spring wind, saying no to a great invite because you need time to putter alone. They aren’t sexy, they aren’t earth shattering, but without them, you tend to get all blurry and knotty and resentful.” Notice the little things that make an impact like taking your vitamins, going for a walk in nature, etc.
- Gratitude practice. When tasks mount, it feels overwhelming when things do not get done. It is life-sucking to get to the end of the day without recognizing that what you did matters. Write down three things you are grateful for about the day and share them with your spouse or a friend. Gratitude helps us not to take our life for granted. And, it is a great way to boost wellbeing and marital satisfaction.
- Add an ounce of love to every thing you do. Remember to give yourself and those around you a little extra love in the midst of hectic transitions. The tasks and stressors and temporary and will pass. You and your loved ones are here to stay. A little extra patience, compassion, and love goes a long way!