Do you love enough?

Do you love enough?

This week in my office, I noticed a book tucked away that I hadn’t seen in some while. In fact, I don’t know where this book came from and it doesn’t have my name written in it like all my others. How it found its way to me the first time is as much a mystery as this time. It was half-way down a stack of others that could have called my name instead. But no, this was the book I brought home.

When I Loved Myself Enough (1996), written by Kim McMillen and her daughter Alison, is a lovely little book one might open to a random page and read what awaits. There isn’t any story or linear fashion to this treasure trove of simplicity and profundity, but each page draws us in more deeply.

This evening from 6 to 8 p.m. (CST), I’ll be part of a panel discussion entitled “Self-Care in the New Year,” hosted by The Repertory Theatre of St Louis. The Rep has swiftly accommodated our safer-at-home situation and found a way to bring community conversations online to you.  You are invited to join, just click on the Facebook or YouTube links to stream for free; no registration is needed. You can click HERE to read more about the event. I’m mentioning this here because in my reflection of “What is good self-care?” I found myself considering if we love ourselves enough.

Let’s face it, we probably all have a good idea what self-care is and how to practice it. And yet we don’t do it, or at least not consistently. I’m curious about this – why don’t we? Do we think we can get by without doing it “this time”? Perhaps we think of ourselves as selfish for practicing self-care? Maybe we think we’re strong enough we don’t need it? Some of us probably see ourselves at the bottom of a long list of demands and can never really get them all done – especially in the past year!

Whatever the reasons we tell ourselves for not practicing self-care, I suggest at least one element of it might be that we don’t really care about and love ourselves enough. We don’t value ourselves, we don’t see our own brilliance, our unique gifts in the world; we take for granted that we’ll be able to keep pushing no matter what happens – we don’t tend to treat ourselves the way we do others we love.

Be fully present – for pain, confidence and love

I just opened the book to a random page, and this is what it reads, “When I loved myself enough – I could allow my heart to burst wide open and take in the pain of the world” (p. 46). Wow – that’s right to the point! Maybe some of you are wondering what loving yourself has to do with feeling pain? This speaks to being fully present, standing in the truth that exists, feeling our humanity no matter how painful; and conversely, not pretending otherwise. Not adding a sterilizing coating to our world, leaving us feeling disconnected and inauthentic.

Another page reads, “When I loved myself enough – I quit trying to impress my brother” (p.61). I’ll take license here to suggest this “brother” is not only our familial siblings but all those surrounding us. How deeply must we love ourselves to stop making a show for someone else’s benefit? This is true confidence and integrity. The wisdom of this book is worth a read from time to time: These pages carry nuggets to ponder or contemplate for weeks on end.

For me, this book points toward an important question: Can we love ourselves enough to practice self-care? And if not, what is interfering with our self-love? If the obstacle is something from the past that we’ve done or has been done to us, can we leave it in the past and love in the present? If the interference is coming from feedback we receive in our life from others, do we understand the information is another’s opinion and may not actually be an accurate description? Finally, if we can’t love ourselves because we’ve not yet reached a certain milestone (fill in the blank here, “when I lose __ pounds,” “when I finish this job,” “when I get the kids back to school”) which by the way can never fully happen; can we leap into a bit of self-love now even though we’re not perfect?

I invite you to ponder if you truly, deeply love yourself and if you are caring for yourself in a manner similar to how you love others? Be kind as you investigate and if you are interested in joining the conversation tonight, I’d enjoy seeing some of you as we discuss ideas and tips about our self-care.

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. Read more about her HERE.

Intensify and relax

Bring a fresh eye to self regulation, wellness and yoga

I just finished another fantastic Kaiut Yoga class (thank you, Kelly and Lori), and was so inspired by what I learned that I decided to postpone my original topic and write this instead.

I’m sure we’ve all heard many phrases like “relax in the midst of crisis,” or “be calm in a storm,” or something similar. This evening I heard, “intensify while relaxing” with fresh ears. And while I heard it on a yoga mat, this simple statement can be generalized and used in so many different areas of life right now.

What does it mean to relax in the midst of the crisis? On the yoga mat it means to hold a standing pose and loosen the neck muscles. It means to stretch the arms and shoulders while relaxing the torso and breathing easily. These descriptions are teaching the body how to do two seemingly opposite things at the same time. The body gets to intensify in one part and relax in another. We are teaching ourselves how to regulate our own system; such an important skill to understand and continue expanding our ability to tolerate more.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the Tiger and Dragon views held by those of us working at the StLWC and I was describing just this sort of thing. Whether on a yoga mat where we learn to regulate our own flight/fright/freeze system, or in therapeutic massage where the therapist directs the body’s attention to the specific area needing to be relaxed while you breathe through the distress, it is all gently teaching and guiding the body and mind at the Tiger level.

Self-regulation in fight/flight/freeze

I also realized this evening with a newness (I’ve only heard this about a gazillion times before), that once I’m striving, out of a calm state and snagged by the desire for MORE, the benefits of regulating the nervous system in the pose are over. This is especially interesting since a great deal of our society is based upon pushing and acquiring more. We aspire to greatness – who cares that we’re actually doing damage to ourselves, our relationships and our society. To be fair, we come from a long line of ancestors who had to strive to stay alive; this is in our DNA. I propose, though it doesn’t make it correct, to continue engaging in behavior that damages ourselves and our world. We need to learn and practice relaxing, and in this way while also intensifying.

Right now, while we are in crisis after crisis, let us aspire to understand and remember to relax at every opportunity. You might try right now: Tighten your right fist and loosen your neck muscles. Hold this pose for a few rounds of breath, maybe 8-10. Do you feel that? That is your body/mind regulating itself. Try another, pull your left toes back toward your shin and relax your shoulders while breathing. Again, notice what you feel in your body. That spaciousness is your body’s innate healing.

If you’re inclined the next time you hear frightening or harsh information, see if you can also let the shoulders drop down, breath into your belly and notice you are safe, you are ok. Over time, this conscious shift can become automatic and begin to make inroads in your system regulation and getting out of fight/flight/freeze. After all, it is a fool’s errand to try to stop all the stress in our lives. Or, as Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live says, “You can spend your time carpeting the world, or just wear houseshoes.”

Have fun playing with these ideas this week and remember always to have a light touch as we reprogram our systems for health and wellness.

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. Read more about her HERE.

How we approach wellness

How we approach wellness

Like the Tiger and the Dragon – oh my! – we are diligent, unafraid and still see the Big Picture 

When people ask me the impetus for founding the St. Louis Wellness Center, I find myself a bit stopped in my tracks trying to locate a succinct answer. The reality is there were and are many reasons for the StLWC to exist; even as times and conditions change, the need remains stable. I’ve been reflecting lately on what is unique about the StLWC, and what can provide our community. In my typical visual style, I will try to show you a picture of what we offer and how you might benefit immediately from considering some of what you read.

In Indigenous teaching, four particular animals appear as symbols for us. Each of the four animals has a distinct personality, style of interaction, wisdom, downfall, outlook, even a color. The list goes on, but I think you get the idea. Once we know about these animals (and when we can remember) we can bring them to mind guiding and supporting us in times of difficulty. Although there are two other animals in the series between the Tiger and the Dragon, I’ll share a bit about these two today.

The Tiger lives in the jungle and suns itself on a rock until it becomes hungry. When hunger approaches, the Tiger goes out hunting for a meal. It is patient and modest, not needing to hunt before hungry or show off for the other animals nearby. This Tiger is diligent, mindful, and filled with purpose and exertion – it is not afraid. Meanwhile, the Dragon flies high in the air and can see everything below. It is said that the Dragon’s powers are like the fire of all fires and the wind of all winds – inscrutable, we could say. Being able to see everything below, this Dragon has what I would call the “Big View” of how things are on the earth and it certainly doesn’t get pulled down into small matters. The Dragon is a very all-knowing, regal and majestic creature.

Considering the whole, interconnected person

By now we all know humans are interconnected, moving pieces and parts. Our behaviors, thoughts, feelings, illnesses, injuries, troubles, happiness – everything – is connected. My broken toe for example effects my gait, which impacts my hip alignment, which shifts my shoulders, which produces tension in my head, which influences my acceptance (or lack thereof) of irritations. This series might continue on to create an additional impact if I bring another person into it this process by being snappy or rude.

If I went to a specialist hoping to address any of my issues (hips, shoulder, head, irritation …) whichever specialist I chose would provide me an answer based on that complaint. If I went to a hip doctor, I might get pain medication or physical therapy. If I saw a specialist for my headaches, I might get told to reduce my stress and consider allergy shots. If I visited with someone about my irritation, I’d be taught to do cognitive behavioral therapy and talk to myself differently about irritating things. I’m not saying these suggestions are wrong, but I am saying they are not the total – the Dragon view – of what’s happening in my life.

People working at the StLWC have both the Tiger and the Dragon view as we listen to your concerns and help you navigate a healthier outcome. Our specialists can recognize that sometimes heightened irritation has to do with a physical need not being addressed, for example. We understand that the body, the mind, and the spirit are inter-connected, and the location of a symptom is not necessarily the location for the remedy.

I picture it in a 6-squared grid:

In each of those squares lies both a potential issue or problem and also an antidote or remedy, and each are very important and interconnected. The Tiger view is one of ensuring we’re doing what needs to be done and not doing extraneous things. If someone comes to me with issues of anxiety or depression, we’re going to explore Tiger things like: when, what, and how they eat; patterns or lack of patterns of sleep; technology use; exercise patterns and frequencies; water intake; chemical use; calming and centering abilities; introversion and extroversion patterns … this list is endless. I think you get the idea though of what we’d consider a Tiger view – most of which don’t typically fall into the category of “psychotherapy.” Once we get the Tiger stuff established, we can move to more Dragon areas: how the person understands her own symptoms, noticing when they appear and abate, seeing the patterns and not getting pulled down into them, using the right skills and tools for the issue at hand. Again, this is a small sample here for you to notice and begin to recognize the difference.

Finding a way to live better for the long term

While these Tiger and Dragon examples are from my own perspective and work as a therapist, this style permeates the way all the providers at the St. Louis Wellness Center function. We all have attention toward the boots-on-the-ground needs of the Tiger and the vastness of the Dragon – both simultaneously, but also in order. If you’re like me, you’ve probably suffered already in your mind, body, spirit, or most likely all three. Maybe you’ve also had the experience of going to a helping professional who didn’t quite get into the right part of the matrix for the problem or the solution, leaving you thinking you would need to live this way the rest of your life. That, my friends, is why the St. Louis Wellness Center exists. You don’t need to live “this way” anymore. You just need some folks like us who understand and are skilled in using the fuller matrix of life.

If this sounds interesting, you might begin considering your life now in this multi-dimensional way; attending to Tiger and Dragon needs. You’re invited to be playful and inquisitive about it, no need for heavy-handedness as you begin to explore. Just remember, we can’t go flying around like a Dragon until we’ve developed the confidence of the Tiger: First things first. If you find some outside help would be nice along the way, you can always contact us, and we’ll gladly join you in your discovery.

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. Read more about her HERE.

The soul’s dark nights

The soul's dark nights

One of my favorite considerations in life is how we relate to dark times, probably why I became a psychologist. A book titled Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals has been sitting on my bookshelf since near the time it was published in 2004. I probably read through some parts of it, at least enough to know I wanted to buy it and read it more; but I have never read it cover to cover. Recently as the phrase “dark times” has been entering my consciousness, I found myself drawn back to this book sitting on the shelf.

Author Thomas Moore has drawn upon his experiences and skills as a Catholic monk and later a psychotherapist; he seems well qualified to write about both dark times and the soul. Right out of the gate Moore begins this book with quite a provocative statement, at least for many folks who are interested in health. He states that all of us will at some time or another have experiences that are filled with sadness, loss or failure that are so disturbing they can be called dark nights of the soul. Here’s the outrageous part: he says if we are mostly focused on health and getting through it, we can quickly try to overcome the darkness and lose the important insights that come in the form of meaning, character and personal substance about ourselves and life.

Considering this for a moment, there is a pretty clear implication that we should not try to rush through these dark times, but rather have a less hurried pace, noticing and capturing what is offered. The outcome might not always be positive or even something that makes sense; at times, the ending might not turn out well at all. I am not painting this approach with a broad stroke intimating that all difficult times end splendidly. In fact, we all know life is filled with many experiences that are challenging throughout the process and end painfully. What I will say, however, is that when we hurry through the pain and suffering, to a more sanitized life, we are really missing the enormity, fluidity, and texture of life – of our lives.

A time for deep healing

What better time than now – 2020. Amidst the jokes of “what a year it’s been,” certainly many of us have encountered our own dark nights of the soul this year. And many people are attempting to get back to when “things return to normal.” Instead, might we consider this as an opportunity to transform as an alchemist those elements that have been forgotten in the haste of our former lives? Might this be the exact best time to be curious, consider, turn inward, and ultimately engage more with our world and our lives? The time to consider “under a microscope” as I like to say, the various aspects, nuanced as they may be, of our former lives lived on autopilot and the recent changes that have been made?

I wrote about being in the muck together and how this could offer us opportunity for deep healing sometime last Spring (seems like a decade ago, or was it yesterday?). I was inviting us to all slow down and look closely when our dark nights appeared, knowing it would be inevitable as the world we knew was being pulled right out from under us. We’ve been given such an opportunity to recognize our mass dark nights right now. Going this way requires a great deal of courage though; and also, discipline, dedication, openness, and probably a fair dose of willingness and curiosity to question certain ways of life.

There have been many others before us who’ve gone through communal darkness and difficulty, others who have struggled and gained insights that have taught us how to manifest and live in better ways. Let us draw inspiration from them staying the course of our own dark nights in order to learn and ultimately develop a robust and proper world for those who follow.

I remember now why I bought this book and can hardly wait to finish it! Book club, anyone?

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. Read more about her HERE.

The big view

The big view

In a daytime dream, last week I found myself flying high above the earth. I was with someone inviting me to look closely at the people below and notice what was happening. I’ve had this daydream before and find it both interesting and helpful to consider. I often invite others to look from a higher view – especially when we’re stuck in something, taking a bigger view offers fresh perspective. But this time I looked a bit more closely and was amazed at something I’d previously missed.

What I’d seen before was how interactions between people and groups of people, even animals and the elements, have a profound impact on each other. But this time, I was stunned to see those interactions at a more subtle or energetic level. What I mean here is that if person A (let’s call her Jane) was suspicious of person B (let’s call her Mary), even if Jane didn’t voice that suspicion, energetically the suspicion was present. Mary could experience or feel the suspicion even if there was no name or action given to it. As I watched this unfold, I could see the impact Jane’s suspicion had on Mary and then how Mary carried this into the rest of her day, her relationship with Jane, her thoughts and beliefs about herself, her treatment of others – everything. There was no thing that Jane’s suspicion of Mary didn’t touch. The interdependence of all the pieces and parts is tangible.

Understanding how we are connected

Encouraged by my guide, I kept watching this progress and expand from one person to another to another until the entire planet was connected in a web of confusing energetic soup. Once I got back to my living-on-earth view, I started thinking: a) most of us don’t know this is happening, b) we try to understand our lives from a coarse, or boots-on-the-ground perspective, c) this subtle, ever-present, multi-faceted level influences so much, and d) there’s nothing that can change this dynamic from taking place. In other words, this is the reality of how we live and likely a significant cause of our confusion and suffering.

Throughout the week I’ve gone back to this daytime dream, considered further implications and wondered how we might implement some drastic changes. The example of Jane’s suspicion of Mary brings with it negative feelings, so I wondered what would happen if we began experimenting with stopping that type of insidious, subtle promotion of the negative and instead began noticing and advancing positive energies? Since we’re all affecting each other and being affected, might we use our power of affect for the good?

Two things are required of us to take this on: more honesty and more courage. In this example, if Jane is feeling suspicious of Mary, then she’d need to have an honest and direct conversation with her; they’d need to express and listen to each other explicitly. All too often, we have thoughts and feelings and believe we can somehow keep that information from having an impact, keep it from being known. The more accurate truth though is that it is recognized by others. That’s how our nervous systems are designed, to recognize this energetic undercurrent in the world. When we don’t speak up about our issue, it gets tossed into the pool of shadowy, unspoken confusion where it lives, taking on a life of its own. Our nervous systems are designed to resonate with one another without words. In other words, even if we don’t say it out loud, we pick up on it from each other. As we all know, this causes pain and dissent, separation and doubt. 

Find the positive and hold it close

Another requirement for changing this energetic soup is we need to be able to actually notice positives about people, and that’s a tall order for a lot of us! Can we notice positive, life-affirming things about others when we are more easily struck by our perceived negatives of them? While it’s tempting to call attention to people’s shortcomings, in the end it does not help us or them. It does not assist, support or affirm anything or anyone to be critical or harsh toward others. What it can do is temporarily help us feel superior or even safe; but those feelings are short-lived, not true and carry a heavy cost. 

As I continue to revisit my flying-around-the-world time, noticing the soup of confusion and suffering for us all, I am also considering ways I can change my own negativity to positivity. If you’re interested in a transformation, or curious about what I’ve written here, I invite you to your own experiment. Find the positive, no matter how buried or small, and hold it in your mind/body. When the negative sneaks in (and it will), notice and let it not take root; go back to the positive. Repeat this frequently as this habit of ours is generations deep and not easily dismantled.

We’ve got a lot of change ahead of us if we want to live in the completely attainable place of clarity, honesty, and courage. This is our birthright; the time is now for us to do this!

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. Read more about her HERE.