Child development is incredibly and wonderfully complicated, and part of the joy of parenting is trying to figure it out and caring what happens. We know it matters; and that responsibility is both inspiring and terrifying. We often find ourselves baffled and uncertain what to do. We are busy people and can’t all be (don’t want to be) helicopter parents, much less child development specialists; we know there must be a simpler way that achieves our basic goals (raising a decent, successful person). Plus, we want to enjoy it and not feel like we are constantly failing or riskingpublic condemnation or a visit from CPS. Sometimes we would like some advice that simplifies things.
People often ask me to boil it down to the most important things a parent can do to help raise a healthy, happy, successful person. Sure, no problem! (See caveat below.)
First, bear in mind the most fundamental principle of development: a child that feels safe will grow faster and better than one that has to worry. If you make it your primary goal to help your child (as newborn, infant, toddler, school-age…) feel safe and secure, that everything is ok, they will explore, learn, grow, and become. If you do this one thing, all of the right things will fall into place.
Second, by far, the best way to make your child feel safe and secure is to attune to him. I have described this at length elsewhere, but the gist is to be empathic and loving: sincerely try to understand what the child is experiencing, make it clear to them you are doing so, and convey that everything is ok. Reassure them they are being seen and that it’s all good.
Third, attunement is not the same as permissive parenting. Paying attention to what they are trying to communicate, attuning to their feelings, and expressing an accepting, loving attitude does not mean you let them do dangerous or hurtful things, that they are in charge, that you forfeit your authority to control the situation, or that you don't have a responsibility to help them understand rules of conduct and the consequences associated with actions. Attunement is essentially conveying that you are paying attention, you see how they feel, and that you will protect them, and help them learn.
Fourth, children of all ages, when they feel safe, will explore and experiment. This is how they learn. They learn just as much from successes as they do failures. We have to allow them to fail in order to learn. Our job is to pay attention and try to manage those failures so they happen in manageable amounts. We don’t learn well from failing at things that far exceed our abilities. That said, one of the best things that can happen to a child is to fail or get hurt and realize it’s ok; everything is fine and the hurt goes away. An added bonus is that being hurt elicits comforting behaviors from others; how nice! Ongoing proof that someone is paying attention, loves you, and comforts you. It’s great for kids to have this experience over and over and over again. Our job is to know our child well enough to know how much they (not we) can reasonably handle; not too little, not too much.
Fifth, routines are good for everyone; they order the child’s world, make it more predictable, reduce unknowns, and give them a sense of control and ownership; this goes a long way to providing safety and security. Routines around bedtime, naps, and meals are especially important. The human mind is bothered by what it doesn’t know; unknowns and uncertainties drive curiosity and learning. We do not need to train that drive, but rather to remove the impediments to it. Providing security and routines answers the basic questions: Am I safe? Is my environment safe? Do I know what’s going on? Routines free the mind to move onto other fascinations.
Sixth, transitional objects (aka Blankey, Lovey, Teddy) help children feel safe and secure because they are a known entity the child can control with her hands and have access to virtually always. Parents are not always available, controllable, or managed physically. A soft piece of cloth - however nasty it smells and appears - that the child can hold and raise to his face whenever he wants or needs, is a salve on every discomfort. Not only is it comforting, but more importantly, it gives the child a sense of self-control; that she can comfort herself.
Seventh, relax. Enjoy. Laugh about it. Give yourself, and whoever else is involved, a break. If you pay attention and don’t freak about things; if you love your child for where she is in the process of becoming a person, and allow that to be enough, for now; if you don’t try too hard or force the child to be something she’s not; if you get on the floor with them, pay attention, and enjoy, it will all work out!
Ok, that was the positive spin. Here's the other side.
Mis-attunement leaves kids anxious and uncertain, insecure, distrustful, sad, and ashamed. Not good. And not a good base from which to explore. Sure, we are built to survive and will do what it takes to live; we hang on for dear life. Humans are born virtually physically helpless and are wired to preserve themselves by clinging to their mother; the less safe they feel, the more they cling. The less available parents are for comfort, the more preoccupied kids are in obtaining it. This preoccupation, and the insecurity that drives it, interfere with exploration and learning.
Parents can design their homes and routines so that most of what the child experiences facilitates learning and doesn’t exceed the child’s ability to handle them. In a safe environment parents don’t need to micro-manage their child. And paying attention allows you to sit back and watch them explore without having to hover over them. In fact, a child whose parent is constantly hovering over them anxiously protecting her from herself and the world is learning the world is dangerous and that she cannot be trusted to navigate it. This does not build security.
The child’s mind is wildly stimulated by its environment. Electrified. The learning curve is steep and exhausting. The brain needs to rest in order to process what it has already taken in; the child needs to sleep. A lot. As much as he can. But the child cannot be expected to responsibly turn away from stimuli, or turn off his brain, and manage how much sleep to get. Children will, like zombies, power through until the system breaks down, they melt down, or collapse. Sleep schedules can prevent this.
The mind uses its available resources to deal with experience. Learning occurs when experiences are within the “zone of proximal development”, that is, challenging but not beyond what the child can reasonably handle (on her own or with help). Trauma occurs when experiences are too far beyond their ability to handle them.
Children are, as they say, like sponges, and when safe, they crave learning. It is important to provide a rich, safe environment for them to explore. It is essential that their learning is affirmed by parents. It is a joy to watch our kids learn and do things new to them. Learning occurs in that first instance, but also through repetition and mastery. It is also critically important they learn to stay on task, try and try again, and master things. Working toward mastery is intrinsically gratifying for children, but parental affirmation reinforces this. They will regularly look to you for guidance or affirmation. It's easy to express affirmation when they do something new, but it's just as important to acknowledge their repeated efforts to get something right, even when they seem to have it down pat. If they continue to repeat something, they need the affirmation it provides. It can be downright boring, but, stay tuned; when we lose interest, they lose interest. If they give up before achieving mastery, they might inadvertently be learning that "practice" isn't gratifying, only novelty or winning. This is a missed opportunity to help them learn self-control, which is, after security, the most important thing to develop. So, keep paying attention and turn off the iPhone.
A related issue, and common among savvy parents with the best intentions: It is gratifying to see children learn new things, and naturally we want to encourage them to learn even more. An unfortunate and unintended consequence of always focusing on what else they might learn - however encouraging- is that from the kid's perspective, it's never enough. It's a difficult line to draw: we want them to know we are paying attention, are proud of them, happy about their achievements, and want to encourage them to try for more. But we don't want them to feel like we are never satisfied. Maybe the best rule of thumb is to keep principle #1 in mind and trust that if we focus on affirming, they will naturally strive for the next level.
As they grow, it's important to allow them space to play on their own. Having paid attention along the way you will know when to step back and let them work things out on their own. They will inevitably look to you for affirmation, less and less regularly if they are safe and trust you are available. When they do, they will start by non-verbally referencing you. If that doesn't work they will move to verbal requests or tugging at your hand. Remember that making them work for your attention interferes with real independence.
I know, I know, my reduction sauce is still pretty soupy. But if you boil it down to the underlined phrases it gets pretty simple. Get on the floor, pay attention, lovingly affirm them, and enjoy it. Sorry, that's not the same as "If you just love him, it'll all be fine."
I have made a lifelong study of child development and parenting, most formally at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Child and Family Studies, the home base for my independent study to understand moral development, and at the Department of Clinical Psychology at Columbia.
My interest and understanding only deepened as I have, as a clinical psychologist, seen how my patients' development resulted in their particular struggles - and strengths. Daily, I bear witness to the consequences of various parental styles, family constellations, and circumstances in and beyond parents' control. It's not always obvious - in the scrum of family life - what helps, what hurts, or how things are going to turn out. In therapy, we examine how things have turned out thus far. And in every case I delve in and understand what contributed to patients' anxiety, mood, insecurities, agency, effectiveness, relationship and parenting styles; their ability to love themselves and others, to focus, see things through, find happiness, cope with pain and frustration; their relative ability to know themselves, control themselves, and get what they want in life.
This front row seat informs our understanding of early childhood development and the influences that matter most.
There is no one right way to parent and hardly any wrong ways either. The human spirit and the adaptations people make to their circumstances continue to blow me away. People survive and thrive. And what may at one point seem like a deficit later fuels adaptations and compensations that lead to achievements - personal or professional - that may not otherwise have been possible. Insecurities become accomplishments and commitments. Invisibility becomes celebrity. Pain, as Gibran wrote, is the hole into which flows happiness (or something like that).
So, is there any point in advising parents about the styles and techniques that are associated with desired outcomes? Many will tell me to stay out of it and let parents do what they want. I'm fine with that. But, who can deny that - increasingly - the air is dense with parental ambitions to channel their love into optimal development and opportunities? Parents yearn to know what matters most. And everybody has an opinion (or at least something to sell). I have, reluctantly, begun to post my thoughts about these issues, previously shared only within the organic, intimate context of therapy, or with fellow researchers.
It's risky. Psychologists have only recently entered the realm of public sharing, mainly I think because it is easy for lay people to misunderstand concepts and misapply them in their own lives. (The recent advent of publicly available genetic testing is a good example of how a little information - incomplete and inaccurate - can do more harm than good.) Plus, the obvious risk is that parents will find it difficult or impossible to do the "optimal" things and will be loaded up with pressure or guilt. As with so many things, ignorance is bliss, and knowledge can be an unbearable burden. The final risk is that parents will feel judged.
The spirit of sharing these thoughts is simply to convey what we know in a no-nonsense, conversational way in hopes people can make use of this or that. When I write about the importance of attunement, it is meant to be aspirational, information to guide the parents trying to do what matters most. Life gets in the way of such aspirations, and when I write about misattunement, it's not meant to be a damning portent of miseries to come.
Posts about development are not just for parents. This information is useful to adults trying to understand how they "got this way", what drives them, and why, and what they might be able to do about it. Ideally, it sparks interest, exploration, and conversation.
When I am with my toddler son, my intention is to follow his subjectivity as closely as I can and to convey that empathic presence to him. To do so my mind must be empty of all other things, except the interface of his experience and the context in which it occurs. I watch him explore and enjoy his ingenuity and innocence, contemplation and apprehension, bravery and pride; I observe closely as I consider how much to protect him and how much to let him experience; I understand that he will reference me along the way and will without warning reach for my hand when uncertain; but I sense that this is all an expression of his will and he would prefer to experience the agency and pride of doing it, rather than the experience of having been helped to do it; it's a fine distinction and I know I can misjudge it. He doesn't use words yet and will do these things without signaling them, yet he regularly looks - however subtly - for validation of his experience and for feedback on how I feel about it, and to see if he's ok.
To provide useful feedback I have to be paying attention, not just to what I think is happening and going to happen, but to what he is experiencing, and must anticipate what he might be planning to do. The information he is looking for is intuitive and intentional as much as gestural or verbal. He doesn't want me to say "be careful" or "you can do it" as much as he wants to see simply and directly that I understand and he is ok.
To provide this kind of information I have to be present. I cannot be lost in my own thoughts unrelated to his experience; I cannot engage with my own moods; I cannot be paying attention to anything else. It goes without saying I cannot be engaging my iPhone or another person.
Cultivating such a presence shares many aims of meditation and other mindfulness practices: Bringing one's attention back to one thing (as one does with a mantra or the breath); letting go of the contents of one's mind; and detaching from emotions other than those that occur in spontaneous empathic reaction to the moment; and opening to a deeper understanding of myself.
I approach fatherhood with this kind of intention and use what I have learned from meditation to tame my mind toward achieving my aims. When my mind wanders, I take note of it gently (i.e., with a compassionate attitude) but let it go and redirect my attention to my son’s experience. Over and over, as my mind is distracted by, and responds to, internal or external stimuli, I refocus, reconnect, and join my son where he is. When I am affected by unrelated emotions, I acknowledge this and do one of the following, depending on how entangled in it I am: I try to simply and gently name it and let it go, reconnecting with the meaning, joy, and importance of being in my son's mood, and in a generally positive, uncomplicated frame of mind; or, if I have trouble freeing myself from my state, I shelve it and commit to dealing with it later; and, if I’m still stuck, I dismiss myself from the responsibility at hand by getting a substitute to care in my stead.
As with a mantra or watching the breath, it is helpful to direct attention to something, instead of engaging in the power struggle of trying to stop thinking or feeling; trying to wrestle free of things is like being in quicksand, the more we struggle the deeper we get stuck. Instead I remind myself to be here now and do one thing at a time- this thing. And it helps to remind myself this thing matters and is the most meaningful investment I can make in my son's future. I remind myself that whatever it is that is intruding, "it can wait". The things that seem at the time so important are noted and I commit to dealing with them at a later time when I can be more constructive. As when one is trying to go to sleep at night or in a conversation or working, this is not the time to get internally preoccupied. But a deal must be struck: I hold myself to giving the shelved issue my sincere attention and work to resolve it or make a plan to do so over time, otherwise I won’t trust myself and the shelving technique won’t work.
Dealing with the intrusive emotions or thoughts - when the time is right- means they get resolved (to some degree, anyway) and will be less intrusive thereafter.
Two principles are at work. First, the mind's job is to solve problems, answer questions, resolve issues, and smooth disturbances so it can return to a state of unperturbed rest. It wants to know it will be ok. Problems, questions, and issues clamber for attention until they get resolved. Depending on the person, the mind will accept different kinds of resolution (aka ok-ness). This variable goes a long way toward differentiating people and personality styles. Some people are not ok without a foolproof plan to avoid potential criticism; some without a final acceptable resolution. But some people are ok with faith that things will work out, or trust themselves to work it out one way or another. People differ on how effectively they can resolve the stuff that arises, and how much stuff needs resolving.
Sometimes we can reduce the volume of distractions with effective use of to-do lists and a healthy balancing of the things that matter to us. But sometimes what intrudes requires a more penetrating look at ourselves. Mindfulness can help differentiate organizational problems from deeper issues.
The point of meditation isn't to cleanse your mind and spirit in discreet sessions, as though at a service station for a tune up; it is not simply de-cluttering or defragging. That said, taking time on a regular basis to practice, as with anything, will strengthen our abilities in this regard. Meditation is partly a kind of training exercise to strengthen our ability to control our mind: to be aware of its contents, able to let them go, and to direct our focus where we want it. This can include choosing what attitude we want, and choosing to have a positive frame of mind. Meditation is more than that, though; it awakens us to the nature of the contents of our mind and tells us what needs attention. We start to see tendencies, where our mind tends to go, the leanings of our attitudes, our style of thinking. We begin to see who we are.
Nor is the point of meditation to perfect some ritual of religious significance, to "improve", achieve, or exceed some standard. It is not about the dogma, the text, the posture, or the altar. These things are meant to assist us and are not the point in and of themselves. Yet, the trappings can add dimensions of meaning and spiritual significance to our practice and to our lives. Genuine engagement in any spiritual tradition can lead us beyond ourselves and beyond a limited perspective into meanings that would be otherwise inaccessible.
The point of meditation is not to shop for an instant community of fellow seekers and supplicants. Insecurity and alienation are not the same as loneliness and isolation. Yet, fellowship and community provide deep rewards, connect us and our practice with others who can relate to the inevitable struggles, and weave us into the fabric of a community and its traditions. We are not alone.
The point of mindfulness is to live better and more fully. Being present with people helps us connect, allows us to know others, and to be known. Being present with children allows us to properly attune to, and take care of, them. Being present with any task, be it work, hobby, play, eating, or entertainment, allows us to give it our best and get the most out of it. Being present with ourselves allows us to know ourselves, understand ourselves, and treat ourselves kindly, with love and acceptance, even when we, becoming increasingly self-aware, more clearly see how we might change something about ourselves and the course of our lives.
My work as a psychologist requires my full attention with the qualities described above. In every minute with every patient I search for profound empathy, understanding the patient on many levels, some of which they themselves are not aware of, while simultaneously providing a safe, supportive context in which their experience can unfold and their awareness can deepen. I am following what is happening and continually choosing which levels of experience to affirm, verbally and non-verbally. There is no room for extraneous or personal thought or feeling; distractions are immediately set aside; I follow the patient wherever they go or might go. To be this present I have to be able to clear my mind of everything other than what is relevant to the patient at the time. I have learned much in this regard from meditation practice and mindfulness training. Also, to be able to extricate, or at least minimize, my own issues, I have to know myself thoroughly, to have resolved my neuroses, and to be able to set aside whatever issues are currently active in my life. To the extent I am able to achieve these aims I am free to connect with the patient for the time they are with me. When one patient exits my office I must completely reset my mind to join with the next patient, and so on throughout the work day. With this intention, and the hard work required to do it, therapy is a practice that strengthens itself.
Aside from attending to my son and work, my time is filled with marriage, friends, sports, and a range of entertainments. I approach all of these things with the same principles in mind, to be present and engaged, honest and transparent, compassionate and accepting; as a vehicle for being and becoming, as meaningful opportunities to become a better, fuller, more capable person; to be well, to give myself to others, to try to affect the world in positive ways; and to experience joy, pleasure, freedom, and fun.
Mindfulness is not a thing to do here and there in sacred bouts of good intention; but rather, is a way of life, applied to virtually all experience. I think of it as living with intention. The goal is to get to where this mindful, present, connected way of being is not a chore but is like a child moving unselfconsciously from one activity to the next, not fighting it, not hanging on to anything, not always looking down the road. There is a shift from energy output to self-perpetuation, where we get back as much as we put in, continually energized by the flow of experience.
This is a worthy goal, to stop fighting experience, stop trying to make it what it is not or can not be; yet, not to forfeit our right and responsibility to lead our lives with direction and agency. This is a fine distinction and a difficult balance to achieve; to engage with life as it is and as it could be if we try to get the most we can from it.
I accept that this is a lifelong process, and acknowledge that in some ways I got off to a good start in the years I devoted to understanding and honing these qualities, and also that I have so much to learn and so far to go. But I’m ok with that and am enjoying the process.
How to Suffer Less
There is a path well known to psychologists, but also to religion. It is discussed in many ways, each seeking to connect with those in pain who want to hear it. It's easy to get lost in the jargon, or distracted by it, as if it is the point. But it's not about healers or wearing saffron robes.
It starts with a growing awareness of what you're experiencing and why. If you are aware of how you feel and the thoughts associated with the experience, you can begin to understand yourself. It helps to know how you feel and why you feel that way.
It helps to know the mechanics of emotion. That feelings result from thoughts. And that thoughts can be worked with, chosen, let go. You change how you feel, and how you feel about things, by changing how you think.
You begin to see how you are affected by uncertainty, not having what you want to have, relating to people who aren't what you wish they were.
You begin to see you have expectations and assumptions about everything. You begin to see that you suffer because reality (the way things are) does not meet those expectations. Think about how the pain you feel (disappointment, anger, disillusionment, resentment, bitterness, impatience, dissatisfaction, shame, embarrassment...) is always related to the gap between the way things are and the way you wish they were, expect them to be, assume they are.
Most of the time we can't see the connection and we may not be consciously aware of our expectations. Many of what I'm calling expectations are the assumptions formed as we grow up in our particular context, the product of learning and attributing meanings to our experience. The same goes for assumptions about ourselves; these are like an operating system that biases our perceptions and determines how we behave and think.
We can learn to be aware of our assumptions and expectations, and thus to see how they contribute to our pain. And then we are in a position to do something about it. We can either work to bring reality into line with our expectations, or we can work to bring our expectations in line with reality.
Many people reject the latter as seeming too passive, as if it is giving up or giving in. Acceptance should not be misunderstood as resignation. Acceptance frees us from suffering, though first it puts us in direct contact with the pain, the thoughts (assumptions) causing it, and what we think those mean about us. That can be intense, but it grounds us in reality. And when acceptance is done lovingly, with compassion, we feel better about ourselves even when we see more clearly that we are not what we thought we were, don't have what we wish we had, and are dealing with people who are less ideal than we wish they were.
One benefit of getting grounded in reality is that we are in a far better place from which to make realistic changes to any of those things. Or to discern that some wished for changes are futile or not worth the energy. Or that maybe there's not such a crisis or compulsion to change things, to bend the world to your needs, to demand satisfaction, to control others.
So where does this bring us? When we intend to be more aware of our assumptions, and how they cause us to suffer, we are in a better position to understand things more fully, as they are. We might understand that what we thought about someone is only part of the whole picture, or even inaccurate.
There are all sorts of methods for increasing your ability to get in touch with your feelings, see and understand the associated thoughts, and know yourself. These include self-awareness and Mindfulness techniques, psychotherapy, journaling, and engaging with one's religion. It's important to approach these options openly, but with discernment. The point is to seek the help they have to offer. Don't get distracted trying to find proof that this or that method is perfect. Be pragmatic; if it works for you, it's good enough. By "works for you", I don't mean, can it fix you, or do the fixing for you; I mean, can you use it? Does it help you understand yourself better? Accept yourself more fully? Provide guidance to help you make good decisions and act on them effectively? And, lastly, can it help you approach this hard work lovingly, perhaps even with a lightness or sense of humor, an appreciation for the mysteries of being human?
One of the reasons people come to therapy is to deal with the pain associated with regrets. They feel guilty, ashamed, or suffering a more diffuse dis-ease. Sometimes they know exactly what they did and why it hurts, but often people are suffering and don’t know why. It’s not until they explore the feelings that they realize the pain is associated with letting themselves down, breaking a rule, falling short of a standard, saying or doing something they regret.
Few things preoccupy the mind more than regrets. We regret doing or saying something. We feel regret when we do not approve of something we did (past tense); we violated a principle or value; we fell short of a goal; we caused an effect we did not intend. Acknowledging the undesired effect pains us. When something unwanted occurs it hurts and we have to deal with it; acknowledge the cause, come to terms with the effects and accept it and move on. The fact that it’s in the past makes it something we can’t do anything about. The mind wants to solve the problem but can’t go back and change the behavior.
When the mind is faced with something it cannot change, such as something in the past, it tends to ruminate on it, circling it like a moth around a flame. It’s trying to do its job of solving the problem, but it can’t seem to find a way. It keeps looking for an opening, an angle; it tries to undo it, to deny it. But the pain remains. It cannot accept the thing is done, irrevocable, and the consequences are real. We keep “thinking about it” because the mind is trying to resolve it.
Accepting unwanted outcomes is difficult. It is so difficult that the mind usually focuses on blame, which allows it to divert its energies to anger. The mind often prefers anger to regret, the difficult state of having to face something it doesn’t like. It can preoccupy itself with angry thoughts for a long time, but of course this doesn’t solve the real problem. This is why grudges last; because the real problem remains unresolved. A more efficient use of energy is to come to terms with the unwanted reality.
I have been studying self-forgiveness for 20 years. In 1994, at The UW-Madison, where I was studying moral development, I was part of a forgiveness research group headed by Bob Enright, widely considered the authority on forgiveness in the scientific community and popular culture. The group was conducting empirical studies that showed the healing efficacy of a particular forgiveness process. My contribution to the group was to explore whether what we knew worked for interpersonal forgiveness would work with self-forgiveness. That research, and much that has been done since, bears out the relevance and efficacy of a self-forgiveness process, as do my clinical observations and experience helping people forgive.
How to forgive yourself:
Something in the recent or distant past nags at you with pangs of regret, guilt or shame. You may have learned to bury these feelings over time yet you know in the back of your mind it still affects you. Are you ready to let go of that pain?
The basic process of self-forgiveness entails acknowledging the truth of what happened around the regret, including the subsequent consequences to those involved, and how you feel about it; seeking to understand how it could happen considering the context in which it occurred; bringing compassion to this deeper understanding; and experiencing the change of heart and release.
To start you need to get it out. If you have a therapist you can talk to him or her about it. If you don’t and want to work on this by yourself it’s best to write about it. Simply thinking about it is ineffective and permits the mind too many opportunities to avoid uncomfortable realities. Writing things down, and better yet, saying them out loud, to someone else, have a way of making them more real and bringing you in touch with the associated feelings (this is why most people tend to avoid doing so).
If you choose to write about it, carve out an hour in a private, uninterrupted space and write about the regret. It’s important that you trust the medium you use to be private. Something you can burn or delete or otherwise keep safe. Confidentiality is important so you will not edit the flow of associations, or consciously or unconsciously craft an edited story out of concern that others will read it and learn your secrets. The important thing is you feel free to be completely honest with yourself.
The goal of the first step is to understand your offense. At first focus on subjectivity; take yourself back to the event and free associate about the facts of it; everything you remember and all the associations you have; what happened, how it felt, whom it involved and their reactions; everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about making a coherent story; just get it out. Don’t be overly concerned with timelines or how the story strings together. Discrepancies and alternative notions of what happened, and why, are to be expected. You can always go back and look at them and consider how all your thoughts are relevant to the event. Allow your mind to wander into the longer term effects stemming from the event, even effects you fear or imagine and cannot verify, how you may have changed because of it, how you may have subsequently compensated or vowed to be different from then on. The point is to try to keep the flow of associations open so you have more to work with.
This process is painful, if you truly consider the realities and are in touch with the associated feelings. If it’s not painful, you may be intellectualizing; i.e., thinking without feeling. This is a psychological defense that the mind uses to protect itself. If you are unable to get into the feelings you may need to work through your regret with the help of a therapist.
The goal of the second step is to find your offense understandable. Bring more objectivity to bear on the unfolding story. Assume a new perspective, as though you are an observer of someone else’s story. Try to be open minded, tolerant, and accepting. Consider if what you did is understandable, reasonable, given the circumstances. Consider the context, the possible personality, developmental, and psychodynamic issues that might have influenced it. Free yourself from conventional judgment. You can judge something as wrong and still understand how it happened. For example, you might think, “spitting on another person is wrong, but under those circumstances I can see why she did it; understandable because she was provoked and is human and was incredibly angry and lost control.” The point is to understand the offense in the context in which it occurred, including acknowledging that people aren’t perfect; we do things we regret. It’s normal.
The effort to understand is important because it is the basis for empathy and compassion: a softening and change of heart that allows you to feel love toward the “sinner”- in this case, yourself. You are the one feeling compassion. You are the one feeling your own compassion. In those terms can you love this shameful thing about yourself? Can you place the offense in the context of where and who you were at the time, and in the context of a much broader sense of who you are, someone capable of goodness despite the offense; someone who usually lives in accord with your standards?
In the process of thinking deeply about the regret expect to experience intense emotions; instead of trying to avoid and regulate them, welcome them as real and important to the process of letting go of the pain. The more authentic these emotional reactions are and the less they stay in your head, the more likely this process is to set you free.
Don’t, however, expect a big “a-ha” moment or huge sigh of relief. It’s not exactly like someone pulling a thorn out of your toe or giving you the Heimlich.
Pay attention to how you feel afterwards, and after you sleep on it, and the following days. You will feel calmer and at peace, less anxious, more dignified, self-respecting, and happier. You may recognize that you feel more deserving, have more “rights”, and stick up for yourself more than you had before.
What it’s not:
Forgiveness is not the same as letting yourself off the hook; it is not a dismissal of the pain or the offense. It is also not about getting someone else, including God to let you off the hook. It may help if others excuse or forgive you or you ask for God’s grace, or, these things can interfere with your process.
It is important to differentiate the forgiveness process from related concepts like justification, rationalization, excusing, pardoning, and denial. The difference is that forgiveness involves a sincere intention to own the realities and feelings as your own, of your own doing, and that empathic understanding is not meant to undo the feelings or realities, but rather to accept them, and accept them with a warm, open heart. (You will know the difference in how effective the process eventually is in releasing you from your pain.)
Letting go of regrets should not mean committing to a life of pious righteous abstinence from anything other the conventional upright life. Regrets end up enriching our lives by telling us about ourselves, expanding the range of our experience, showing us humility and grace, clarifying our values, helping us understand others, and a variety of other positive affects.
Consistent attunement is the single most important thing we caregivers can do to lay a solid foundation of psychological security, a sense of safety, agency, and the establishment of a coherent self and self-confidence, not to mention perspective taking, empathy, and moral sensibilities. Attunement provides the psychological foundation for developing useful skills and abilities, be they personal, social, physical, or occupational. We believe caregivers are responsible for this foundation, particularly his basic psychological security and budding sense of agency.
By attunement I mean giving the child the experience of being seen, acknowledged, and accepted. As with empathy and compassion, attunement involves understanding what the child is feeling, caring for him, and wishing him well. Attunement begins with paying close attention to the newborn’s facial expressions and movements, perhaps at first guessing what motivates them, but eventually knowing him well enough to understand accurately what your baby is experiencing, and all the while acknowledging that experience lovingly, loving what you’re sharing for its own sake; inherently acceptable as one of the million moments that comprise his development as a person.
Attuning to your child, done consistently, would go a long way to establishing psychological security. It is hard, but not out of reach of most parents if they put in the effort. This will sound idealistic, or at least aspirational, but to attune optimally parents must be present and attentive, emotionally available, spontaneous and responsive, emotionally mature enough to share feelings, “hold” the child in it, allow it to be real yet not let it be too much for either the child or the parents themselves, to hold back their personal reactions and then calmly convey to the child they understand the situation, the feelings, and that it will be ok. It’s easy to see how someone who is depressed or anxious, or absent or critical, or drunk or hung over, or overly self-involved, would have trouble at every step. Unfortunately, children take it all to heart and can’t protect themselves from our misattunements.
Newborns come into the world with some basic survival instincts and the need for attunement rivals eating as priority number one. They constantly look to us for attunement; their waking hours are dominated by experiencing their new world and looking to us for our reactions. Hundreds of times a day. It’s easy to see how our style of attunement gives the child a tremendous amount of information about themselves, us, and the world. They begin to adapt immediately and these adaptations become their personality; how much of the time they feel ok, how safe they feel, how important they are, whether to trust their feelings, how safe the world is, how outgoing, how shy, how guilty and ashamed, how proud, happy, calm. The foundations of personality and self-concept are being formed before the child can speak.
It’s hard to relate with what newborns must experience. Imagine yourself going into a completely new environment with high stakes – a new job, a very foreign culture – and the heightened feeling of needing to figure out what the rules are, the customs, what is expected of you, what is verboten. You would crave guidance, devour feedback, experiment carefully; anything to gain a sense of comfort and certainty. Try as you might you could never imagine a context that feels as new and foreign as the world your baby has entered. Want to express your love? Help him come to believe you’re paying attention, he’s not alone and every need will get satisfied, every pain will go away, and the world is a kind and caring place that provides for him.
A child’s budding personality is comprised of hundreds and thousands of attunements, not genetics or commandments or lectures. No amount of new toys, enrichment activities, or “I love you’s” matter more than simple attunements. The most important thing is our emotionally available, non-verbal attunement; this primitive exchange between parent and offspring was occurring long before our species achieved speech. But our verbal reassurance and explanations matter, so long as they aren’t overly disconnected from the emotional attunement. It helps kids to hear the calm tone of our voice as we reassure them and narrate our understanding of reality, and eventually they make the associations and come to understand the words and meanings we convey. We are explaining the world to them one experience at a time. And we are defining them with each experience. Even when we’re not speaking directly to them, they’re paying attention. So we should too!
Attunement answers the basic question, “Am I ok?” and validates one’s experience in increasingly sophisticated ways. It’s like bringing one’s view of oneself into focus. Attunement informs the child that what they feel is accurate, so with each instance they can with increasing confidence identify those feelings accurately, and thus be more accurately and comfortably self-aware. Since their experience of the feeling, even pain, was “ok”, they do not seek to avoid it and, thus, become more spontaneous, open, and at ease with themselves.
The gifts of attunement put children on the right track and give them so many advantages that will help them throughout their life. No parent attunes perfectly and it is impossible to know how a child will adapt to its unique context of caregivers, opportunities, and challenges. We do, however, know a lot about what can happen when attunement does not happen consistently. See related post on misattunement.
You are the Space
The goal is to be able to experience the ups and downs of life spontaneously and meaningfully, riding the crest of the wave, free to move into the next moment unencumbered by attachments to what came before, or by fears or expectations about what is to come.
The goal is to create a mental space in which we can be aware of our experience with an attitude that is open, fascinated, accepting, forgiving, and ultimately loving. In this space, thoughts and feelings are welcomed and respected, dignified and legitimated by the mere fact of their having occurred within us. Yet, though they are real, they are not presumed to be accurate, important, or right-sized. We may become aware of multiple reactions occurring during a given experience and welcome them all into the space. We can try to get to know them and evaluate the relevance, veracity, and value of each.
This is talked about in the Buddhist literature, which encourages us to observe our thoughts and feelings with an uncritical, accepting attitude and to let them pass by without getting attached to them. Some camps go so far as to encourage us to label these thoughts and feelings generically (e.g., “thinking”) and to let them pass without paying any attention to the specifics. That's often a good strategy for managing our state of mind. But, when we do engage in a feeling, the idea is to welcome it, embrace it, really feel it; to try to understand it and its associations; and to love it as part of our humanity - inherently worthy of love and dignity.
It takes courage to be aware, because some of our feelings and thoughts are associated with intense pain. Sometimes the mind senses that the pain would be too intense to bear, and hides it from our awareness; sometimes we suffer and don’t know why, and sometimes we suffer by not feeling at all. It takes a strong sense of psychological security, to trust that we can tolerate the experience and survive it. It requires trust to believe this is worth it, that we will be better for having done it. This is hard work, which is why we tend to avoid it except when we can’t. But this is what gives meaning to the old adage that pain can be the gateway to personal and spiritual growth.
It’s not about finding the real "me", or ignoring or over-riding the real me in service of an identity we might prefer. We are the totality of our experience, the space we create for our experience, the contents flowing through the space, the attitude we take toward them, the decisions we make, and the meanings we make of any aspect of all this.
The Self Project
Developing a greater understanding of yourself, though difficult and painful at times, engenders a more accepting, loving attitude toward yourself (and others), and allows you to be more at ease, calm, and comfortable in your own skin. You will be in touch with your emotions, feel more real, experience life more directly, and be better able to discern who you are, what you want, and how to go about it. It prepares you to be a more effective agent in being who you want to be and getting more of what you want from life. You will see that you are not alone, and have the love and support of others. You will see that although there are things you do not like about yourself and what you have done in the past, you are nevertheless worthy of love and acceptance, can get past those things, learn to love them, and let them go.
As you proceed with this project, it is important that you allow yourself to be honest and open. Try not to edit what you write. It is particularly important to think of this as a private document that no one else will see unless you decide to share any part of it. There may be highly sensitive parts you want to hide or delete; and it’s perfectly acceptable to do so; but it is important that you write it first. Some people find they feel safest writing the most sensitive parts on a separate paper that can be destroyed ceremoniously. The order in which you answer the questions is not important and you may wish to skip – and return to – any question you are struggling with.
This exercise is an exploration of your life and who you are. There are no wrong answers.
1) Work on this exercise in short sessions, maybe just 15-30 minutes per session. For example, spend one session separating the chapters, and one session per chapter adding relevant events. Proceed at a pace that works for you.
2) Use a word processor (smartphone/CPU) so you can easily rearrange the items on your lists.
PART 1: The Chapters of Your Life Story
This section helps reacquaint you with your personal history, organize the events of your life into a personal timeline, and provide a framework from which to respond to later steps.
1. Divide your life into chapters
2. Make a list of relevant events for each
3. Highlight the most significant events
Think about the chapters of your life in chronological order, from birth to present. Identify as many chapters as you feel are necessary, perhaps distinguished by age, where you have lived, relationships, school/career changes, what was important to you then, or a combination of these.
Give each chapter a title and provide a brief summary of what was important about each chapter. This can be a simple list of ideas, places, characters, themes; or sentence fragments; or a brief narrative summary (e.g., moved to x city; First job after college; “Health-food phase”; “moved to city after break-up with X”…).
Focus on one chapter at a time; start with whichever chapter draws your attention. Don't feel obligated to start at the beginning. Maybe thinking about the chapters gets you thinking about your earliest memories, or your high school years, or what you did after college graduation, or when you moved to a new location. Go where your mind goes.
This is a brainstorming exercise. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Try to put them in chronological order, but don't get bogged down in that; you can rearrange them later. In this first step the most important thing is to let your mind open up to your past, your personal history, who you are, and the life you have lived so far.
As you go along, make note of any events/thoughts that stand out as relatively significant, meaningful, positive or negative. Highlight them in bold type for later reference.
Recap of STEP ONE:
You are making a timeline of the events of your life, divided into chapters.
You do this task in a series of short sessions, in which you focus on one chapter of your life.
You are highlighting events that stand out as particularly meaningful for whatever reason.
Now that you have described the overall framework of your life story, the task is to focus on the key events. Use this exercise to explore the details and meaning of each event: when and where each happened, who was involved, what you experienced, what you were feeling and thinking. What did it mean to you then, since then, and now? How did it shape you and your thoughts about yourself or others? How did it shape your values? These might be singular events or something more general.
Spend one session per event, or category. Or, if you have momentum, keep going.
Start with the events you highlighted in STEP 1, or select from the following categories.
What are the biggest regrets you have experienced? Describe each regret, focusing on how you became aware of the regret, the nature of the “offense”, how you felt/feel, and how you got over it, or how it still bothers you. How has it shaped you and your values?
What are the biggest resentments of your life? Describe each resentment; who was involved, the nature of the offense, and what you have done to get over it. How did it shape you, your values, and your own behavior and attitudes?
Describe some close calls in your life; times when something bad almost happened but didn’t, something that might have been very hard or bad but turned out ok. For each, what was the effect on you?
What was the single greatest challenge of your life? How did you handle it and how did it affect how you see yourself and your outlook on life?
Describe some of the high points of your life; peak experiences, moments of great joy or pride. How do these experiences continue to affect you?
Describe any experiences that, as you look back on them now, were turning points in how you thought of yourself, others, or the world; experiences that altered your course; choices you made that changed the direction of your life.
Positive Childhood Events:
Describe one or more positive (happy, beneficial, meaningful) experiences from your childhood. What happened, who was involved, and what did you feel and think?
Negative Childhood Event – Describe one or more negative (unhappy, detrimental, meaningful) experiences from your childhood. What happened, who was involved, and what did you feel and think?
Describe an important loss. It may have occurred during any chapter of your life. How did you feel, cope, and recover?
What are your biggest secrets? Are there any you wish to reveal to someone in particular? What stops you from sharing your secrets?
Describe the most significant health issues you have had to deal with. How have you coped with them? How did they change you or affect your outlook on life?
PART 2: Personal Characteristics
Describe the main influences on, and contributions to, your personal ethics, values, and morals. Think of one or two that are particularly meaningful to you. How did you come to believe what you believe? How have your values changed over time, and why?
Shame and guilt:
Describe how you feel when you break one of your own rules? How do these feelings evolve over time? How do you cope with these feelings, or get over them?
Aside from the positive and negative events you have already described, take a more general, thematic view of your early childhood – before age 8 - and write about how consistently you were attended to by your caregivers. How often did you feel misunderstood, or that what you felt or needed wasn’t seen by others, or was not understood accurately? What effect did this have on you? Also, comment on your tendencies to accommodate to others, to be a people pleaser, or to be self-centered. How did you feel about being alone?
What are your best attributes? What are you most proud of? What are you most confident about? Include anything that perhaps no one knows about you. What things do you wish more people understood about you?
How would people describe you? What words do you hear people say about you, or, what do believe people think about you? You might find it helpful to break this into two groups: those who understand you and like you, and those who do not like or “get” you. What kinds of things would be said in your eulogy?
General attitude toward yourself:
Consider the role of shame, guilt, and self-doubt in how you think about yourself. Assuming there is a continuum for each of these factors, how significant has each one been in your life?
Most people are aware of an inner dialog that comments on their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Sometimes it is critical and judgmental, sometimes it is positive and encouraging. What is the tone of your self-talk?
People vary in how much they worry. Some tend to focus on things that could go wrong, even the “worst case scenario”, and can’t help thinking about dangers and risks. Some people appear to be oblivious to danger, or tend to think things will work out and be ok. Where do you fall on this continuum? What role does trust play in your attitudes?
Describe the role spirituality has played in your life. Include any transcendent, mystical, or “religious” experiences you have had. Include any significant positive or negative experiences related to organized religion.
Describe any significant experiences you have had in nature. What makes these experiences meaningful?
Make a list of people you could count on to help you if you really needed help. Some might be counted on for support, to “be there” for you, to listen, sympathize, or give you a hug or prayer. Some might be counted on for advice or guidance. Some might be counted on for material or financial support. Some just to know they are there.
Describe a time when someone helped you in a significant way.
Make a list of people who love you and wish you well. Identify the person who knows you best.
Describe a time when you helped someone in a significant way.
Make a list of people you love.
Who are the villains in your life? Do you have any enemies? Who hates or envies you, or wishes you ill?
Looking back over your past and current relationships – those most important to you, especially the romantic ones – and describe the role you tend to fall into. Are you the dominant one, the leader, the one who tends to make decisions? Are you the one who gives more than you get; or vice versa?
Filling in the Gaps:
By now, you have already thought about and shared a tremendous amount of personal information, perhaps more than you ever have. Now is the time to add anything else you wish to share or explore. Anything from your life story that would help complete the overall picture of who you are and what’s important to you.
PART 3: Life Management Skills
This section will help you bring into focus things that are working for you, and some that aren’t.
People develop routines to structure their days, weeks, and seasons. What routines are most important to you? Which routines do you feel best about? Which routines are more difficult to maintain? What is your strategy for implementing a new routine? How important is structure in your life?
List your bad habits and describe those you most wish to change. If you have struggled to change any of these, what gets in the way?
Are you able to focus and stay on task? Do you tend to finish the projects you begin?
Consider the condition of your overall health. What areas do you feel good and bad about? Describe the healthy attributes you have achieved. Describe in detail the changes you most wish to make.
How satisfied are you with your current career path? What goals do you have for the near and long term?
Describe any important projects you are working on, or wish to begin. Include any dreams you hope to accomplish in your life.
How to Breathe
We must learn to breathe properly. We take this basic function for granted and underestimate the effects it has on our physical and mental health, emotions, thinking, and performance.
And it's so simple!
To breathe properly, we must breathe from our belly, not our chest.
An easy trick to learn this is to sit up straight (or stand) and place one hand lightly on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a couple of deep breaths and see which hand is moving more; the one on your belly should be the one moving. If the hand on your chest is moving, you are shallow breathing, even when taking "big" breaths. This kind of breathing is common and normal, but contributes to a range of mental and physical problems. And it misses the benefits of breathing properly.
How to breathe properly:
When you breathe in, try to stick out your belly.
It helps to engage the muscle underneath your lungs called the diaphragm, which presses downward and makes space for your lungs to fill with air. (Contracting the diaphragm expands the volume in your chest (thoracic) cavity, and thus shrinks the volume in the abdominal cavity, which makes your belly stick out. This kind of belly breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing. )
Notice how you can draw air into your lungs by pressing down the diaphragm.
Try to inhale through your nose.
Notice that releasing the diaphragm and pulling in the abdominal muscles, you can exhale the air from your lungs.
Try to exhale through your mouth.
You can take control of the pace at which you inhale, hold a breath, and exhale.
Try counting to 3 as you draw in a deep belly breath. 1, 2, 3... then let it out.
Now take a long deep breath in, hold it for a second, then count to 5 as you slowly exhale.
Repeat this cycle and find a comfortable pace of inhaling and exhaling. Try to relax as you experiment with this breathing technique.
Make sure you feel like you're getting plenty of oxygen and not "holding your breath".
You should feel a bounty of oxygen; try to imagine the oxygenated blood invigorating every capillary in your body and brain.
The diaphragm, like all muscles, can be trained and strengthened. Take it easy at first and gradually strengthen this muscle by practicing this technique.
Belly breathing will become increasingly natural, second nature, and automatic. You will find yourself taking fuller, deeper, more thoughtful breaths, and ideally, gain a sense of wellness with each breath.
All of us are helped by reminders to breathe this way: with long, deep, belly breaths.
You may develop a routine or habit of practicing deep breathing, perhaps just after you awake in the morning, or in the evening before sleep.
You may set reminders in your calendar; or wear something on your wrist that - when you see it - reminds you to breath well.
There are various apps that can help you learn to breathe properly and that provide a breathing pacer (e.g., "Breathe", "Long Deep Breathing", and "Hear and Now").
Diaphragmatic breathing is a central aspect of ancient traditions such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and martial arts. Intentionally paying close attention to one's breathing is a way to train the mind to concentrate, stay focused, deal with distractions, and let go of intrusive thoughts and troubling feelings.
This kind of breathing has a direct effect on the nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing can be used to positively affect and balance your body and mind. One method, called biofeedback, can be used to optimize your functioning; to enhance high-level cognitive and physical performance among athletes, professionals in intense, highly demanding roles, public speakers, and performers in many arenas.
Paying attention while breathing is a central component of most forms of meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and martial arts. Developing your ability of focusing on breathing is as important as the breathing itself.
Making sound (aka chanting) when exhaling can add benefits to deep breathing. A common method is to use the traditional word OM, starting with your mouth open for the O, then narrowing your lips to a whistle, then closed as you articulate the M until you drawn in your next deep breath. The vibrations associated with these sounds add further benefits.
Further, you can expand the benefits of deep breathing by adding healthy, positive intentions to the exercise. When you inhale, imagine how the fresh air is activating your immune system sending waves of healing throughout your entire body (organs, brain, and tissues). When you exhale, imagine releasing toxins and negativity, leaving a healthy balanced system in their wake. You might want to focus on "cleansing" specific parts of your body that could benefit from this kind of positive attention. The intention to heal and help, as with prayer, is as important as the act itself.