Your approach to adversity

Your approach to adversity holds clues to success

Throughout history there has always been difficulty, and no one can escape it entirely. For a lot of us, the past 18 months have brought challenges to the top of mind. How we each experience and move through troubles or adversity in our lives is an interesting consideration.

Wisdom traditions tell us there are five major ways to cluster our reactions to distress: We might ignore the situation, become angry, fall into low self-esteem, obsessively try to grasp something, or become competitive or do too much. While we might use more than one of these styles, we often have a favorite. Reflect for a moment on how you respond when something stressful is presented in your life. How did you respond when the country was told last spring to shelter at home? What thoughts did you have when your children were home for online schooling? These questions are meant only as prompts for you to gather information, so if they don’t work, try out others.

The reason I bring up our neurotic styles as this topic today is for the antidote, the remedy to these ways of responding. Neurotic is a general word I’m borrowing to describe our negative expression of our positive qualities, our less-than-ideal responses, the ones we probably repeat, sometimes even believing they are correct. We all suffer in one form or another, and in my work as a psychotherapist I hear people’s expression of it. When I ask people what they want out of therapy, it’s almost always some form of “peace.” One person might want to use less alcohol, while another wants to be calmer or less anxious. A different person wants to feel less depressed, and others wants to find purpose in life, or have more time.

The remedy is inside

As we look more closely at the common therapy goals above, we can see neurotic qualities embedded in people’s aspirations. Wanting less alcohol might be related to obsessively grasping, desiring more calm can be about having too much anger, hoping to get out of depression can be the fall into low self-esteem, the person wanting to find purpose might be challenged with avoiding or ignoring situations, and the one who wants more time could be struggling with doing too much.

Remember, these columns are not intended to be psychotherapy so please don’t go out diagnosing yourself or anyone else. This is meant only to give you more boots-on-the-ground tools for working with your own mind.

Now for the good news

Each of the five neurotic qualities are simply obscurations of actual wisdom qualities that we already innately possess. In my office I have a fun snow-globe type thing that when shaken up obscures what is inside. Once we let the glitter settle, it is clear, and we can see the words “Be You To Full.” Most of us spend copious amounts of time chasing glitter only to not realize our true beauty. By chasing glitter, I mean, reacting in an angry manner, ignoring situations, obsessively trying to grasp things, lamenting our horribleness, and over competing.

The corresponding wisdom and neurotic traits are: ignoring/open and peaceful, anger/perceptive and intelligent, low self-esteem/resourceful and generous, grasping/warm and empathetic, and overly ambitious/productive and swift. Take a moment now to reflect on the wisdom aspects of your favored trait and notice how you feel, recognize this is your truer nature, your genuine self. The neurotic display is simply a shaken-up snow globe version of yourself. While it is generally easier to identify the neurotic traits in people, I’m inviting you now to search for wisdom traits in yourself and others – and specifically notice the difference in how you feel.

There is a lifetime of study and practice we could do around this topic so if you are interested feel free to reach out and ask for resources to help support you as you explore. In the meantime, I offer this for each of us to have a bit more clarity. When we notice our own neurotic display or someone else’s (let’s face it, it’s far easier to see another’s than it is our own), perhaps occasionally we’ll remember there is wisdom below. When we notice our own or someone else’s wisdom display, it is a time to rejoice. Think how the world can change if we routinely feel the joy, relief, peace.

May you enjoy getting to know yourself more deeply, below the waves of glitter.

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

Change often requires more

Change often requires more

I listened to a podcast recently that helped me make sense of how therapy works and why sometimes it doesn’t seem so effective. The speaker was describing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT as it’s often known) and the prescribed formula for therapeutic change. She said “thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to behaviors.” The idea is that if we want to change behaviors we need to intervene at the level of thoughts or feelings.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, these prescribed three steps begin in the middle of the recipe! In other words, there are important aspects that precede our thoughts and feelings. For example, someone telling me that I can use synthetic oil for my car and I only need to change it every year rather than every three months is a pretty simple statement. Now that I have the new information (thought), I can easily (feel) confident in my decision to get the car in every year (behavior).

But my friends, I think most of us are a bit more complex than this simple exercise depicts. If I had been told this news by someone I didn’t trust, if I followed the annual oil change schedule and my engine suffered, if I had a family member that worked in the oil fields and told me synthetic oil is not good for my vehicle … the list goes on and on. I specifically picked this example of changing one’s oil because it seems so very clear and easy. Now let’s try this on with something more multi-dimensional.

Consider for a moment some of the behaviors you’ve wanted to change lately. Have you wanted to limit your alcohol consumption, lose weight, feel less depressed, relax your muscles … now apply the thinking, feeling, behaving formula to your desired change and I bet you’ll notice something like resistance! That resistance, or confusion, or whatever we want to call it is the part of the recipe that pre-exist the CBT module.

What’s below your surface?

This is the realm of subtle work that requires teasing apart and helping us all understand more clearly the age-old patterns that fuel our irrational or unconscious behaviors. Yes, I know if I want to lose weight, I need to reduce my calorie consumption. But that knowledge (thought) generally does not stop me from grabbing a piece of chocolate (behavior) after a difficult day thinking I “deserve” (feeling) it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for CBT, it has helped many people and is a worthy behavioral change formula. I also think it is often not enough and our complexity as humans in an ever-changing world requires more subtle exploration and a great deal of compassion in understanding what is discovered. After all, the obstruction to change is often an old habituated, painful, even unconscious pattern. We might have embarrassment, or even shame, about it – which keeps the information even more isolated and hidden from ourselves and others. Translate this to mean, we can’t make the desired changes if it remains hidden.

If you’re interested in transforming an aspect of your life you can try the thought, feeling, behavior recipe and then notice if something interferes with your behavioral change. If it is something you understand, then explore that more on your own. If you don’t understand it or can’t get any traction by yourself; please reach out for one of us at the StLWC to offer support and guidance, an outside view, compassionate understanding, and assistance with getting you closer to your goals. Enjoy this internal exploration and all that it brings to your awareness. And remember, tread gently!

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

How we begin

How we begin

Have you ever had the experience of wantingsomething to change, waiting, being frustrated, and then finally you wake up one day and see clearly how the change needs to happen? From there, it’s only a short step to putting together a plan and before you know it, you’re making changes. This is fascinating to me every time I experience this phenomenon. I drag along until I cannot stand “it,” then finally I’ve had enough and act. I didn’t realize other people also do this, so imagine my surprise when I heard a teacher talking about this very thing recently.

My teacher described this moment as the exact time in which we realize, have awareness that there is in fact an alternative, a different way, and then we reach for it. We become curious, we investigate, we might even plan or commit – for certain, we act. This arouses even more intrigue for me – why is it then that we move from lamenting to action? Yes, I know all the theories and techniques for helping folks get from pre-contemplation stage to action stage; but still, what are the conditions under which we move into action?

Two motivators

Someone else said recently that we make changes out of desperation or inspiration. I’ve been considering that, too. Maybe those are the two main motivators for change. Either things have gotten really unbearable, or we recognize a more positive alternative. Think for a moment about how you’ve made changes in your life: do you have a particular style? You might further consider if your style is working well, needs updating, or has been established by conditions that no longer fit you.

I’m guessing most of us have been making decisions and changes in the same way we learned as children. Maybe we look outwardly for an authority figure to establish the “correct answer,” or do the opposite of what is asked of us, or don’t decide because we get stuck or overwhelmed. Whatever your style, here’s a thought: If you’re struggling in your life in an area, perhaps your decision-making-style-into-action needs a tune-up?

Time, awareness, change

A key component of the change process is awareness of what’s going on in our lives. We need to recognize and realize how we’re living and how we might want to change. Foundational to awareness is time. Do we take the time to notice, or are we speedily running from one thing to another? This past year has offered many people a different experience of their own lives in relationship to time. Maybe you recently gained new awareness that is now beginning to manifest into action, or conversely your awareness got swept away once life got busy again?

Whatever your situation, I’ll invite you to notice your life from time to time and maybe even be curious about a change. The change could be sizeable or small, whatever it is go for it! Make a change and see what happens next, it could be only the beginning.

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

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.