Luckily, because I’ve been noticing and working on this pattern for some time, it was easier for me to catch that automatic thought and challenge it. Immediately, I thought, “wait a minute!” I reminded myself that this is exactly what I want to do more of and exactly what I have experience, skill, and passion doing – and I am confident in it!
And yet, even in that situation, one that was so perfectly aligned with who I am, my core values, and the goals I have set for myself – my lightning-quick automatic thought process went to “don’t agree; don’t risk it; stay small!” Protection mode – if we don’t dare to do things that may challenge us, we can’t get hurt, disappointed, embarrassed, or any other emotion or experience we may fear.
I know I’m not alone in this and I realized once again how deeply ingrained these types of reactions really are. If it happened in that ideal situation, how often does it happen in our daily lives that we don’t catch it? Especially when it comes to situations that are new or different? How often are we avoiding being challenged, avoiding trying new things, or avoiding putting ourselves in situations where we may experience vulnerability?
We have so many outdated “scripts”, old stories that are running in the background of our minds, based on our upbringing and earliest experiences.
If we haven't done the work necessary to recognize, challenge or change them, they are calling the shots, running the show, dictating our perception, and essentially, making choices for us. Over time, if we lack the self-awareness needed to fully see this, we tend to turn these tendencies into personality or character traits (“oh, that’s just how I am”), when that is not accurate at all. Rather, they are defense mechanisms, put into place at a time in our lives when we had limited life experience and limited coping strategies. They then became a “story” we told, and continue to tell, ourselves and others – we believed them so they were “true”.
When we learn to slow down and drop in on, and check out those automatic reactions, we can learn about the messages attached to them. Messages that likely have some aspect of vulnerability embedded within them depending on what our young brains accepted as fact, in childhood and adolescence – that then became our “story”. We constantly put labels and limitations on ourselves: “I’m capable of “this”, but not “that”, “I am “this”, but not “that”.”
Let’s use as an example, a belief someone has that they are not funny. It is a story they may have told themselves, based on messages or experiences they encountered when they were young that made it, for whatever reason, not feel “safe” to be funny. Perhaps as a child they told their father a joke and his response was, “that’s not funny”. If their father was an important person in their life, and they wanted his affection and approval, that very simple statement likely carried an emotional impact.
Then maybe their father, or perhaps even an older sibling, made a similar statement on another occasion. It touched on that same emotion from the first time it happened and their brain became trained to seek out supporting evidence to further prove, “I’m not funny”.
By “safe”, I don’t mean on a physical level (unless there was an abusive situation), but emotionally. As children, we try to avoid overwhelming emotions like sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, and shame. So, we change ourselves in certain ways to avoid experiencing these emotions (i.e. we stop telling jokes or trying to be funny so that we do not get criticized or negatively judged by the people we care about.)
Once we become aware of the stories that are running in our minds, dictating our here and now experiences, we become empowered! Because only then can change, that is based on conscious, present-moment, heart-guided information, happen.
This is one of the biggest reasons why people struggle with creating, sticking with, and achieving goals, or forming new habits. They often don’t have a solid basis of understanding their ingrained tendencies, their conditioned responses, and the underlying limiting beliefs that form the foundation from which they are living their lives.
One of the primary areas I focus on in life coaching sessions is self-awareness. It is such a broad term that I’m sure people interpret it in many different ways. And it actually does mean different things. It can relate to “mindful presence” – being able to tap into a deeper, more attuned quality of life. But in order to achieve this, there must be a level of understanding of our core.
It is from a place of deep self-awareness (understanding the process of how our conditioned thoughts and beliefs impact our emotions, which then impact everything else), that we can change and transform. We are not our thoughts, not our beliefs or stories.
It is liberating to know that once we have this realization, once we understand why we developed certain beliefs or traits, and how they may still be holding us back or limiting our potential, we can choose to take control.
Ask yourself if a certain belief or way of thinking feels authentically true or right to you as the person you are now. Basically, is it still working for you? If not, you have the ability to re-create yourself to be the person you want to be now. When you can change your perception, you truly can change your life experience!
For more on Thinking Traps and Limiting Beliefs
If this is a topic you would like to explore more fully, check out reasons why people participate in coaching to do just that!
Let’s say, for example, that you’re meeting a friend for brunch. You have agreed to meet at 11:30am and you arrive at 11:15 to get a good table. You’re excited to see your friend since it’s been far too long since you’ve had a chance to catch up. As you scan the room you notice some couples and a group of friends, all chatting away and enjoying themselves. Feeling a little uncomfortable that you’re the only person sitting alone, you check the time and notice that it is 11:35.
Your first thought might be something like, “wow, I even made an effort to be a bit early, I wonder what’s keeping him?” Thoughts along those lines might continue for a few minutes. The more time that passes, however, the more your thoughts may start to take on a different tone as the voice in your head starts making comments like, “people always do this to me, I’m fed up with being the only person who’s ever on time!” or “he obviously doesn’t have much respect for me if he doesn’t value my time enough to be here when she said he would”.
All the while, with each negative thought, your body and emotions are reacting in the same way as they would in a genuinely stress-producing situation, dealing with a hurt child or fender-bender, for example. Your brain is telling you a story and when you buy into it, your stress continues to rise.
Often a situation triggers a memory of another time in the past where we may have experienced something similar and did not have adequate coping skills or our feelings got hurt. We may not realize that is happening and think we’re in the here and now, but we’re really not.
We're filtering the present situation through the lens of our past experiences. If it is actually a new situation, our minds may start questioning, again on a subconscious level, whether we have the ability to handle it, or worry about the impact it will have on other areas of our lives, etc. In most cases, it is the messages our brains are telling us that trigger the stress response.
There are several ways to make some changes when it comes to this type of stress:
In the example above, you might remind yourself that your friend could be stuck in traffic or perhaps misplaced his car keys, or that he is dealing with a family emergency - all things that have absolutely no reflection on how much he values or respects you. Truly, at that point it has nothing to do with you except that you are sitting by yourself at a table in a restaurant. Then, take a deep breath and let those emotions pass by, without allowing the thoughts continue that are fueling your stress response.
Being aware of your thinking and its impact on the level of stress you experience is one of the most helpful things you can do to help minimize its effect on you. To learn more about Stress Management, you can also check out another write-up on stress here
Practicing radical acceptance when we are faced with a challenging situation is a skill that requires practice and luckily, life gives us lots of opportunities to do just that. The goal is not to eliminate emotions you may experience in relation to what’s happening – it’s important to allow for feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, or any of our other wide range of emotions.
The goal is to feel those feelings, while also accepting the situation as it is. Remember, we don’t have to like it or want it to be happening, but we choose to accept it instead of dwelling and resisting, which ultimately does not work and only succeeds in depleting our energy and making us more miserable than we were initially.
Let’s use as an example a pretty common one: you are unhappy in your current job, but are unable, for financial reasons, to leave that situation. You have a choice in how you navigate this experience. You can complain about it to anyone who will listen, telling them just how much you hate it, all the while constantly reminding yourself of the same thing, “I hate this, it’s not fair that other people like their job and I don’t!”
Can you feel your stress and anger building?! Alternatively, you can choose another response - you can choose to switch your thinking and decide to act as though this situation is something you’ve chosen. You can accept that this is your reality, not forever, but for now. And you can make the most of it!
Instead of focusing on aspects you don’t like, that bother you, you can choose to practice radical acceptance, which makes way for problem-solving. Instead of giving all that energy to the emotions associated with your resistance towards the situation, you can switch gears and put that energy into planning mode instead. It’s basically like saying, “okay, this is the situation. And this is how I feel about it. And now how do I want to handle it?”
Before switching to problem-solving, it’s important to honor your feelings and recognize what you can and cannot control. Remember, we are often not able to change a situation and at those times, the only control we have is in being able to choose how we will respond.
So, how do we do it?
I have used expressive journaling for many years and 2.5 years ago made it a regular and ongoing practice. It is so helpful in exploring such aspects of life as core beliefs, conditioned responses, and associated behaviors. I’ve been able to notice patterns and make more conscious choices based on them. It is a perfect way to reflect back on our reactions and learn what we could potentially do differently next time.
A helpful philosophy to keep in mind related to practicing radical acceptance is this: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Choosing to practice acceptance, in the moment, even in situations we do not like, essentially removes the suffering.
Resilience is strengthened when we’ve been able to triumph over a difficult experience. Each time, new insights are gained, and we develop healthier and more effective coping strategies. Keep in mind, changing our relationship to the challenging situations we encounter takes practice, so also practice self-compassion, knowing that we are all human, and by no means perfect. There are going to be times when we react in an unconscious, habitual manner, rather than responding from a tuned-in, conscious place. But the important thing in the end is this: did you take a bit of time to process and learn whatever lesson was attached to the experience in order to be able to learn and grow from it? Don’t worry, if you feel like you didn’t handle a challenging situation as well as you would have liked, there’s always next time 😊
Check out Mindset Coaching
What has helped me hold on during times such as these is developing a practice of Radical Acceptance. In the book Radical Acceptance – Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha, by Tara Brach, she writes, “Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening, or intense. It is the necessary antidote of years of neglecting ourselves, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom”.
Now this does not mean that because we are accepting the reality of our circumstances, we intentionally stay stuck in situations that are difficult. It does not mean that we choose not to strive for better in our lives. It does not mean that we passively accept things that make us unhappy or unfulfilled, and give up our power.
It simply means that, in the moment, we breathe and accept the reality of what is – that we understand that we don’t always see the big picture and that perhaps this very difficult situation is a necessary lesson to propel us further along in our quest to grow, evolve, and create our ideal life.
As humans, we love to label situations as “positive or negative”, “good or bad”. But, ironically we never know if a positive situation will somehow lead to negative consequences or alternatively, that a situation that seems challenging and difficult is not actually a blessing in disguise. If we can choose to lose those misleading labels and consider circumstances as just that, we can take all that emotional energy we’re investing in fighting against or resisting the situation and put it towards taking positive action and developing a growth mindset. Basically, we accept it while we’re “growing through it”.
You may be thinking, “well, that’s easier said than done!” And it’s true, it’s not easy to shift our thinking in this way because our deeply unconscious belief system and lightning-quick thought processes are dictating our perception and interpretation of what is happening. Our brains are programmed to look for things that will hurt us and focus on them. But the goal in self-work is to learn to catch those conditioned impulses and reactions, take a mindful pause and then respond, from a more conscious place, rather than reacting in a habitual way that often causes more stress, pain, and problems than were already attached to the initial situation!
So the next time you hear yourself saying some version of, “but this isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to be going through this. I hate this!”, remember to pause, take a deep breath, and harness all the energy that is being directed at what it is you are resisting.
At that point you can use that energy as a launching pad to propel you forward into problem-solving or taking action to address your concern. Of course, it takes practice to develop this approach, but I’ll leave you with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
Want to work on developed Radical Acceptance? Learn more about Mindset Coaching
This new phase of life can present a whole bunch of challenges and roadblocks to navigate. It can be a bit confusing because this is a positive change, right? The brain can’t distinguish between positive and negative at this point. It just sees change and change is scary.
Initially, parents/supporters and students may enter into the honeymoon stage, which is just what you would expect from the name. Everything is new and exciting – filled with potential. It’s easy for students to get caught up in the hype and energy of orientation events, the prospect of new friends and new freedoms. It’s all so awesome!
And then, “real life” sinks in and that excitement can be quick to fade. Students start to realize that the supports they counted on over the past number of years may not be quite so available to them. Everything is “different” and it’s not going back to “normal”. This realization can bring along with it a feeling of homesickness – even for those still living at home. Pressure can start building because things just aren’t the same.
But then, things tend to hit an upswing as students settle into their new normal and see some successes. They have an opportunity to face situations where they can effectively plan and problem solve, which helps to build their confidence that they can tackle this new situation. In short, they experience an adjustment period.
Following that, however, students can feel a little disjointed and may question where they fit. They may feel like they’re on a roller-coaster, trying to navigate everything that’s coming their way. They may feel distance from friends and family and start questioning if they are on the right track in doing what they’re doing. A need for independence can cause internal conflict with also wanting support and reassurance.
Finally, with a bit of time, students start to settle into a flow. They know what to expect and have become more involved and/or connected to their new school. They are more confident in their choices and accepting of this new phase in life.
Some tips for parents/supporters:
Top 10 Insights:
#10. It's often not that students lack the academic ability to succeed, it's all the other "life stuff" that gets in the way. Building resilience, learning from mistakes, and managing challenging emotions and difficult situations provide the foundation for a positive academic and personal experience.
#9. It is a pretty huge transition to a more unstructured approach to learning. Did you know that for best results students should be working 3 hours outside of class for each hour in class? Students struggle with this because in many cases they have not learned how to structure their time.
#8. Students who are involved on campus, whether they join a Society, work part-time, or are on student government, feel much more connected and engaged in their experience. Those who do not, for any number of reasons, tend to report a disconnected, disengaged experience.
#7. It can be overwhelming! Whether it's a one-year diploma or a four-year degree, students encounter significant struggles along the way and require some extra tools to manage and keep going.
#6. Students feel lonely. That one may seem surprising, but it is one of the top concerns that brought students into The Counselling Centre.
#5. They are juggling what seems to be a million things! They often have a full course load, are working part-time (or full-time), involved in student groups or volunteering on campus - they have relationships, and responsibilities that fight to take priority.
#4. While there are usually services offered by universities and colleges, student demands often outweigh the resources available on campus. Students often have to wait weeks to access services and then support and guidance is spread out over time. Because semesters pass quickly and instruction is fast-paced, it is easy for students fall behind, become frustrated, and lose motivation.
#3. One in three students are struggling with mental health challenges and could benefit from additional training and support to help them manage their concerns so they can focus on enjoying and engaging in their post-secondary experience.
#2. No one can do it alone! Being a student requires you to develop "academic allies" - others who want success for you just as much as you do. This can be family, friends, classmates, or peers in group training seminars.
#1: Learning skills around emotional intelligence and self-management is what's going to shift you from merely surviving to fully thriving!
I know, some of that may seem like scary news, But there's good news! Post-Secondary coaching allows high school and post-secondary students to hone in on ways to address the above concerns. Students are guided in developing effective student life and self-management skills, including the ability to navigate challenging situations, manage stress and difficult emotions and build resilience.
Bobbi Beuree, Certified CAN Coach + Facilitator is located in Halifax, NS, and provides virtual, 1:1 coaching services grounded in Mindset Coaching.