How do you enable your best self?
Let’s face it: the past couple of years have not been easy. Remaining open, yet vigilant; positive, yet cautious; and resilient, yet flexible has been no easy task. For many, taking care of our loved ones has taken precedence over care for our self. Yet, if we don’t “show up” for and encourage our best self, how do we fully recover and care for others? How do we live our best life?
Demonstrating care for ourselves begins with self-compassion. To some degree, everyone suffers. It is part of being human. Unfortunately, denying our suffering may make us more prone to self-sabotage.
Practicing self-compassion means acknowledging that we may be self-handicapping: we anticipate a real or imagined obstacle to living our best life and use it as an excuse for inaction. We practice self-compassion when we recognize this as an ineffective mechanism against suffering, and begin to notice this behavior.
As clinical psychologist and author Alice Boyes, PhD, writes for Harvard Business Review, practicing self-compassion has four components:
- Practicing a kind tone (and language) that appeals to you
- Accepting pain and suffering are part of being human
- Allowing and recognizing all feelings (without attachment)
- Anticipating that you can and will do the best you can at any point in time.
Unfortunately, our self-handicapping can be very subtle. It’s also one of the ways we get and stay stuck, trapped in the familiar, or worse, a bad habit loop.
Self-sabotage can be cunning. Resting on past accomplishments (too much positive thinking), for example, can sabotage future success. Here are nine other ways we self-handicap:
- Negative thinking (“I’m not good enough.”)
- Withholding/silence (not contributing, responding, or offering ideas)
- Delaying action (failing to act)
- Excuse making (“I don’t have the time/resources.”)
- Failure to accept responsibility (Similar to excuse making, we may blame others or our circumstances.)
- Adopting a “good-enough” attitude to avoid failure/rejection (becoming too risk averse)
- Imbalance of focus (too small picture)
- Focusing more on feelings, rather than facts
- Allowing (or encouraging) distractions to derail us.
Self-sabotage may be part of being human. Fortunately, our brains can help us thrive in the face of adversity and practice self-compassion; helping to enable our best self. We know this through the study of positive neuroscience—the study of positive psychology using neuroimaging techniques to explain the neurobiology.
To some degree or other, we are inundated with information or situations that can evoke an emotion. Whether it is happiness, gratitude, sadness, sympathy or any other emotion, we vary in how we respond. One study leads researchers to conclude that happier people are better able to see opportunities without missing threats.
Happier people—persons with high positive affectivity—are typically characterized as open-minded, sociable, and helpful. They have high energy and enthusiasm, are alert and active, and have confidence in their ability to achieve—if not now, then later. Persons with high negative affectivity are typically characterized as having a poor self-concept. Nervousness, guilt, fear, disgust, contempt and/or anger are common emotions and experiences in persons with high negative affect.
With the use of fMRI studies, researchers find that our amygdala responds to emotional stimuli according to our affective style. If we have a more positive affect style, we are less reactive to stimuli, are better able to regulate our emotions, and our disposition is more positive. If we have a more negative affect style, we are more reactive, less able to regulate emotions, and our disposition tends to be more negative. (This is not all bad news: negative affectivity does have benefits.)
According to researchers, our affective style is the result of our genes, attachment style, adversity in early life, and mental disorders. While there is nothing we can do to go back in time to change our genetics or early life influences, we can change our style, specifically, how our brains respond to emotional stimuli or situations.
When taking action to counter self-sabotage, especially self-compassion, it’s helpful to understand how emotion regulation can change the brain. While it’s important to recognize the feeling, name it, and allow it to happen, regulating emotions is a bit more nuanced.
Emotion regulation is an attempt to influence what, when, and how an emotion is experienced. According to Stanford Professor of Psychology James J. Gross, PhD, and the November 2021 research paper, Assessing Emotion Regulation Ability for Negative and Positive Emotions: Psychometrics of the Perth Emotion Regulation Competency Inventory in United States Adults, we can, and do, regulate both negative and positive emotions. Gross, and his fellow researchers, posit that this ability is “a cornerstone of adaptive psychological functioning.”
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, emotion regulation techniques are a way to help enable your best self: emotion regulation can change our brain. First, let’s look at some of the conscious techniques:
- Avoidance: avoiding a certain situation
- Focus: noticing breath or other repetitive pattern
- Seeking support: contacting a friend or support person
- Smiling: forcing a smile, even by clamping a pen or pencil in your mouth, can stimulate the amygdala, releasing “feel good” neurotransmitters
Researchers find that two techniques, cognitive reappraisal and meditation, have lasting impact on our affective style.
The technique of cognitive reappraisal can alter the emotional impact of a situation by changing how you think about the situation. Not only can you use this strategy to lessen negative emotions, reappraisal can increase positive emotions. This is important because it allows you to experience your feelings, including unavoidable and constructive negative feelings, and increase the psychological benefits of positive feelings.
You see, when we reframe our thoughts about a situation, experience, or stimulus, we can experience change in our emotional response. Research finds that using cognitive reappraisal correlates with activity changes in specific parts of the brain. We can change the intensity and duration of the emotion, depending on the tactics and frequency.
Mindfulness meditation—such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—which focuses on the experience of thoughts, sensations, and emotions by simple observance—has been used in many neuroscientific studies of emotion regulation. Researches find that:
- Long-term meditators are better able to accept their emotions.
- Short-term (8-week) MBSR training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the ability to regulate emotions.
There are other strategies to counter self-sabotage and enable your best self, including spotting the warning signs, stating your goals, and working toward mastering a domain that you value. A qualified coach can help you develop strategies and techniques that work best for you.
Thanks to the good folks at Kashbox Coaching for this article.