“I Want What I Want & I Want It Now”
How Instant Gratification Influences the Brain & Deteriorates Recovery
The saying, “good things come to those who wait” has become harder to employ.
Patience was long considered a virtue, but it seems more like an anachronism today.
In today’s world we have access to fast everything—information, food, technology, entertainment, comfort, prescriptions, sex, etc.
Don’t know the spelling of a word? Use Siri or Google it. Feeling hungry but are too tired to cook dinner? Postmates it. Feeling lonely? Launch Tinder and start swiping right. Forgot it is your friend’s birthday tomorrow? Get a gift delivered that day with Amazon.
Instant gratification refers to the experience of satisfaction or receipt of reward as soon as a response is made. Simply stated, instant gratification is the act of receiving a reward and/or pleasure without having to wait.
At the heart of instant gratification is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. Having our desires quickly met is not necessarily a bad thing.
So what’s so bad about instant gratification?
For starters, having an over-reliance on certain instant gratification-fueled impulsive behaviors can create changes in our brains. The repeated exposure to instant gratification disrupts the balance of benefits versus risks in delay of receiving an available reward.
A study at Harvard observed two groups of participants consuming chocolate. Group A indulged in the chocolate while Group B had no access to the chocolate. After the study, both groups were given chocolate and Group B reported higher happiness, savored the taste more, and was in a better mood afterwards. This study shows what people think will make them happy isn’t always what will and that you can have too much of a good thing.
If we experience more pleasure and happiness through delayed gratification, why is it so difficult to choose delayed over instant?
Our brains are constantly changing in response to our actions and behaviors. For instance, if the desire is to lose weight we may impulsively purchase the newest trending diet pill that advertises “Lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks!” rather than going for a walk every morning. Each time this compulsion for instant gratification is acted on, our brain pathways for those actions are reinforced and strengthened, making it easier to fall into the same patterns the next time around and harder to break the cycle.
The start of the cycle may look like having a drink one night after a long day at work to then finding any minor inconvenience the next day in order to justify drinking again the next night.
Getting caught up in the instant gratification cycle can make you susceptible to addictions, jealousy, anger, and impulsive behavior. It also often leads to increased stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.
As it pertains to instant gratification harming our recovery, research has found that individuals with mental health issues are less likely to wait for things they find pleasurable. For example, if symptoms of depression are present, there is an impact on how the brain processes things – particularly our prefrontal cortex which deals with decision making, problem solving, and memory.
As the struggling person goes straight to self-soothing behaviors to give themselves a quick boost, they may neglect their basic needs as a result, harming their recovery.
Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see how vital meeting our physiological needs (like food, sleep, and shelter) is. These needs sit at the bottom of the pyramid, and if the physiological isn’t addressed first, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization fall by the wayside.
In addition, researchers have found that the ability to delay gratification is not just an important part of goal achievement, it might also have a major impact on long-term life success and overall well-being.
So, next time you notice yourself falling into the compulsion cycle for instant gratification, pause and assess your needs rather than act. Rather than rushing to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for ADHD medication, ask yourself: “Am I getting enough sleep?” Instead of going straight to the fridge to pop open wine after work, ask yourself: “Would going for a walk or taking some deep breaths help me destress?”
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Gao, Z., Wang, H., Lu, C., Lu, T., Froudist-Walsh, S., Chen, M., Wang, X.-J., Hu, J., Sun, W. (2021). The neural basis of delayed gratification. Science Advances, 7(49). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abg6611
Koopman, D.(2022). Why instant gratification holds you back from achieving what you want. Lifehack. Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/353923/instant-gratification-short-lived-you-should-aim-for-long-term-goals
Lindsay, J. (2021). How instant gratification is harming your mental health. Metro. Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2021/10/31/how-instant-gratification-is-harming-your-mental-health-15509720/ Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI. Delay of gratification in children.
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Emotions can be interesting… Fleeting yet intense, confusing yet our best teachers. When we are in tune with them they can be helpful, and when we are not we might miss something important or feel out of control. If you know me, I could get an award for compartmentalizing and avoiding emotions and, quite frankly, I’ve prided myself on this. I historically have a habit of treating feelings like something on my to-do list. My thought process is often, “I don’t have time right now to feel that” and I often do not come back to it. I have been challenging myself on this recently and that is partly why I write this to hold myself more accountable. What I have found as the antidote to my compartmentalization and avoidance is the simple concept of slowing down. It’s so important yet our daily lives seem to move so fast around us that it is easy to get caught up and run from what our emotions are trying to tell us. As we slow down and give ourselves the chance to sit with and truly be with our emotions, we can, with time learn to not fear and run from them. Once I slowed down enough recently to recognize it, I learned my anxiety has been begging me to slow down and I have even gotten some relief now that I have listened. Funny how that works, right? While I know this is easier said than done and all our stories are complex and dynamic, I invite you to join me in slowing down today. Maybe we can slow down enough together that we will not miss what our best teachers are trying to tell us.
Epistemic trust is a term with which many may be unfamiliar. It began as a term used in sociology before being adopted into the vernacular of psychologists in more recent years. The most basic definition is “one’s trust in communicated knowledge.” However, it can be more specifically described as “the capacity of the individual to consider the knowledge that is conveyed by others as significant, relevant to the self, and generalizable to other contexts” (Campbell, 2021). This communication can be in many forms, such as spoken words, non-verbal communication cues like body language, or reinforced messages communicated across a lifetime. The development of epistemic trust begins early in life as we interact and learn from those around us and is continually refined throughout our lives to adapt to our social environments.
Most of the psychological research studies on epistemic trust focus on personality disorders, specifically borderline personality disorder (Fonagy et al., 2015). However, more recent studies are considering epistemic trust as it relates to other kinds of psychopathology, and its implications for belief in conspiracy theories has even been considered (Tanzer et al., 2021). Unfortunately, due to the novelty of this concept in psychological studies, there is a shortage of available research to explore this topic further, especially in trauma-related areas. However, the recent development and validation of a questionnaire to measure an individual’s level of epistemic trust, mistrust, and credulity can aid in this area. This questionnaire allows for a closer and more standardized look at individuals’ epistemic trust and can be incorporated easily into future research (Campbell et al., 2021).
Considering epistemic trust and how it pertains to clients can also be useful in the treatment planning process. For example, one study highlighted that individuals diagnosed with personality disorders who had an elevated level of epistemic mistrust had poorer outcomes from their therapy experiences (Knapen et al., 2020). This may be the case for many that enter therapy with complex trauma backgrounds or other conditions that have reinforced a distrust in communication from others. This opinion can be supported by the argument that “epistemic trust may be the final common pathway through which aversive relational experiences in the past result in interpersonal dysfunctioning, which in turn result in dysfunctional therapeutic relationships, rendering it difficult for patients to trust whatever is offered to learn in therapy” (Knapen et al., 2022).
Little research has been done on achieving the restoration of epistemic trust, but it is believed that therapeutic interventions may be the most beneficial (Kamphuis & Finn, 2019). To date, there has been no known study that aims to investigate the relationship between trauma-focused therapy and restoration of epistemic trust. Such a study may prove to be a critical piece to understanding how epistemic trust impacts this population of therapy clients and whether trauma-focused therapy is an effective tool in the restoration of epistemic trust. As this concept continues to gain interest, we can expect a wealth of exciting developments in this area that will ultimately lead to improved therapeutic outcomes for clients everywhere.
Campbell, C., Tanzer, M., Saunders, R., Booker, T., Allison, E., Li, E., O’Dowda, C., Luyten, P., & Fonagy, P. (2021). Development and validation of a self-report measure of epistemic trust. PLOS ONE, 16(4), e0250264. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250264
Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., & Allison, E. (2015). Epistemic Petrification and the Restoration of Epistemic Trust: A New Conceptualization of Borderline Personality Disorder and Its Psychosocial Treatment. Journal of Personality Disorders, 29(5), 575–609. https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi.2015.29.5.575
Kamphuis, J. H., & Finn, S. E. (2019). Therapeutic Assessment in Personality Disorders: Toward the Restoration of Epistemic Trust. Journal of Personality Assessment, 101(6), 662–674. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223891.2018.1476360
Knapen, S., Hutsebaut, J., van Diemen, R., & Beekman, A. (2020). Epistemic Trust as a Psycho-marker for Outcome in Psychosocial Interventions. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19(4), 417–426. https://doi.org/10.1080/15289168.2020.1812322
Knapen, S., van Diemen, R., Hutsebaut, J., Fonagy, P., & Beekman, A. (2022). Defining the Concept and Clinical Features of Epistemic Trust: A Delphi study. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 210(4), 312–314. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0000000000001446
Tanzer, M., Campbell, C., Saunders, R., Luyten, P., Booker, T., & Fonagy, P. (2021). Acquiring knowledge: Epistemic trust in the age of fake news [Preprint]. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/g2b6k
I have been at Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) since 2012. One of the most difficult parts of being a therapist is meeting a client in their current crisis and as you join and get to know them better, you realize there is a treasure-trove of historical harms that desperately need attention and may even be exacerbating the issue at hand. In a weekly or bi-weekly therapy model, however, there may be little time to excavate and address the root of the matter.
I’ll give you an example: A client enters therapy for their significant other’s betrayal, and they struggle to find strength and obtain positive traction. Underneath this recent trauma lies the fact they lost a parent in a car accident when they were twelve and maybe they were also severely bullied in high school, or their parents fought constantly and eventually divorced.
It’s not that they cannot heal in weekly therapy, they can; it will just take much longer. Not only because there may be a complex history of trauma, but also because “real life” just has the advantage. We are all familiar with the scientific word “homeostasis”, or as my beloved colleague, Marilyn Murray (PCS Trauma Consultant and author of “The Murray Method”) would say, “the baseline for normal”. It means we have formed a certain muscle memory around how things tend to be, and we become comfortable in that space and often resist change or the unknown. Therefore, it is common for a client to grab important insights within the confines of the one to two hours a week in a therapy office, but then outside the office the pull towards the “old baseline” wins out. They want to make changes but need a space and time to build traction and momentum in a different direction. It is then that intensive therapy becomes an appealing suggestion and opportunity.
The PCS Intensive Program
The PCS Intensive is a weekly offering built around “The Murray Method,” developed by Marilyn Murray in the early 1980’s. Clients begin the process on a Saturday, with Marilyn’s workshop and explore “The Scindo (Latin for “split”) Syndrome,” looking at how adverse childhood events cause “survivor” parts to develop, who try to cope and manage their powerless and painful circumstances, the Circles of Intimacy, helping to organize a hierarchy of healthy intimate connections, and lastly, the Trauma Egg, a document the client creates that chronicles difficult traumatic life events, so the client can understand patterns in negative internalized messages and coping styles.
From there, the client begins the weekly process of over 30 individual therapy hours, which include Family Systems, CBT, DBT, Emotionally-Focused Therapy, Art Therapy, EMDR, and other experiential therapies. Additionally, there are 25 group hours, that includes Equine Therapy, Psychodrama, Anger and Forgiveness, Compulsivity, Codependency, Emotional Regulation, Communication, Mindfulness, Boundaries, Courageous Living, and the Power of Positivity and Play.
The days are roughly 7AM to 7:30PM with a few short breaks in the middle, and the individual work ends Friday at 5PM. The intensive then concludes with a follow-up to Marilyn’s Workshop on Saturday morning (9AM to 12PM).
The groups are mixed-gender and incorporate individual and couple’s clients who are dealing with a broad scope of issues, including substance and process addictions, complex trauma, relational trauma and issues, betrayal, divorce, blended family concerns, grief, career concerns, and severe life crises.
No matter what modality is used, all the therapists speak the same language in terms of helping clients grieve what they needed and deserved, but did not receive. Clients are helped to grow a wise-minded, healthy, balanced Adult Self who can “parent” the parts of self that get activated in grief/sadness, over-functioning or over-caretaking, defensiveness, anger, rebellion, or deception.
A PCS Intensive works for those who are:
- Highly motivated and want to jump-start their therapeutic process and utilize a program where sessions build off one another, creating a greater possibility of transformational change.
- “Stuck” and desire a safe place to face their fear of what change will mean in their life, fear of the unknown.
Making some progress in weekly or bi-weekly therapy, but not the broader changes they are looking for.
Busy with work and home and find it difficult to keep consistent weekly or bi-weekly appointments and would prefer a shorter, but more intensive span of time to create movement.
Experiencing an intense current crisis and struggle to manage daily living, needing a space to stabilize and strengthen in grounding and coping skills.
Making some gains in recovery, but still experience relapses due to their need to process the deeper causal roots to their problematic or addictive behaviors.
A PCS Intensive does NOT work for those who are:
- Signing up because someone else in their life is making them do it, and they otherwise would stay home.
- Pointing the finger in defensiveness and blame, struggling to face what makes them difficult to those around them.
- Using the intensive as a checklist, and uninterested in making genuine changes.
- Resist transparency and are not ready to tell the truth.
- Experiencing severe mental illness, including auditory hallucinations, extreme paranoia or delusional thoughts.
- Actively suicidal or homicidal.
- Continuing to act out or use substances.
The work I get to do with intensive clients is a unique and fulfilling aspect to my job, because I typically get to help heal deep, difficult life experiences and I get to do that work as part of a therapeutic team. Each intensive has a Case Manager and a team of 4-5 additional therapist who are assigned different areas of focus, such as a genogram, a trauma egg, setting up targets and processing with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), somatic experiencing, experiential work, addiction and relapse prevention work, relational processing, understanding offensive behaviors and patterns, healthy intimacy, boundary-work, and health and wellness work.
Typically, clients arrive guarded, unsure and at times, overwhelmed. Still, the process begins very quickly by excavating their history and significant life experiences, in order to understand patterns and themes that have impacted their lives. As clients gradually begin to open-up, they start to positively affect each other and instigate change. The bonding begins early with Equine Therapy on Sunday evening and intensifies as they experience their first Psychodrama Group process, where they help a volunteer from the group put a piece of their story in action with the goal of experiencing catharsis and resolution. By Tuesday morning, they typically are ready to share in a meaningful way in their first processing group. The more clients talk about what is uncomfortable to share, the more they inspire others in the group to do the same. The sharing is spiritually powerful and moving, because clients are allowing themselves to be vulnerable and experience real connection; a connection they are encouraged to replicate with the important and healthy people in their lives.
Many clients will express how much they “get it” in an intellectual way. However, what frustrates them is how much they do not feel it. The most satisfying aspect of my job typically happens closer to the end of the week when I witness a client fundamentally shift what was once intellectual, into a “felt” experience; they no longer know they are lovable, deserving, worthy, good-enough, empowered or trust-worthy, they feel it.
At the end of my first week at PCS, I saw a client from the East Coast who completed a 2-week process, smiling, whistling and practically skipping to his car. He jumped in and was headed to the airport – back home, back to his family. I don’t think his journey ended that day, in fact, he was really at the end of the beginning, but it was awesome to see how good he felt!
Please excuse me, I am asking for a moment of your time. This seems presumptuous for someone who has spent most of his adult life “never” having enough time. I know it seems overstated but trust me I never have enough time. It seems a chronic condition – no matter how far ahead, in short order falling behind circles back. Certainly, a tendency to say yes (do not want to disappoint anyone) and an ongoing difficulty to pronounce the word “no” (do not want to hurt another’s feelings) contribute to my ailment. Additionally, there is the ongoing distortion if I get this or that completed the illusive experience of calm and peace are waiting for me.
It seems I may fear peace and calm. Perhaps these fears partly explain working the ridiculous hours I have – maybe I could “buy” more time. Truth be told it has more likely served to shorten my time on this earth. Sure, there are moments of boredom and perhaps even periods of depression where life moves more slowly and yet I always return to the belief I am running out of time. One contribution to this chronic stressor is the belief I can do just one more thing. Of course, this has served to frustrate those around me as I have developed a consistent arriving 5 to 15 minutes late, because there was one more thing I knew I could squeeze in before leaving – “to save the time of doing it later.” This is the dilemma of never having enough time, if you avoid doing it now, you have to make time for it later.
This at times leads to never getting around to something, “there is not enough time,” which provides the wonderful excuse – “I did not have enough time.” There is a certain level of anxiety and stress this game with time creates. Yet it is this very experience of stress which drives me. I live life with intensity, rushing to accomplish, and yet looking as calm as a cucumber (although I have no earthly idea if cucumbers are emotionally calm and cool). I certainly would have written about this chronic condition earlier if I had enough time… As it turns out moving into my 60’s, there is a certain truth to this statement, “at 61 I am running out of time.”
Age has also promoted greater reflection, something you typically do not take time for when you are constantly “short on time.” I believe the truth is there has always been enough time, I just did not believe there was enough time for me (i.e., childhood belief). It must be time then to let go and grieve this relationship I have developed with time and move toward acceptance there has always been enough time. Acceptance in the reality I am not what I accomplish, rather I am an individual deserving of time to slow and just be. I could write more, but…well, you guessed it, I am out of time.
Like many of you, I traveled to work today using the Interstate system, bright and early, my coffee in hand. As I entered onto the I-10, I sighed at the usual sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The much-dreaded rush hour greeted us all with open arms, as if it had jokes and all the time in the world. On the radio came the old Bangles song, “Manic Monday” (written by Prince if you did not know).
As I listened to the song, I decided to practice some mindfulness and be aware of my experience as it was happening. After all, I preach mindfulness to my clients. It is important to the process that I practice what I preach. Mindfulness means to be present in the moment, to be aware of feelings and sensations you are experiencing in the moment without judgment. “This is frustration,” I thought as I looked at the hundreds of cars slowly moving before and behind me. “This is what frustration feels like. This is what feeling trapped feels like.” Memories of convoys during military deployments came to mind. “Thinking,” I pointed out to myself. “Now, you are thinking again.” I gently and kindly brought myself back to the present moment. I noticed the tension in my back. My hands feeling the steering wheel, I began to pay attention to the different sounds I was hearing. The Bangles song came alive. The different instruments came to the forefront of my hearing, some playing continuously throughout the song while others made small contributions here and there. Some of the instruments provided the rhythm while others provided the melody. Some were higher notes and others were lower. All of it blended together to make an upbeat song that, if you were around in the 80s, you loved to sing along with as it spoke to the common blues we each often feel saying goodbye to the short weekend and hello Monday work. Some of the instruments caused me to feel happy as I felt the melody lift my spirits. “This is happy,” I thought without judgment. “This is what happiness feels like.” I sang a few lines, feeling my voice vibrate through my vocal cords and just noticing what that felt like.
Then, clarity: You know the moments I am speaking of when something shifts and you see things in a completely different, fuller light, or when you can see random pieces of your experience suddenly become linked in a profound way. In that moment, I realized all of these instruments playing in the song, each so different from one another in their roles, the diversity, it was all of us. The instruments, the song: it contained each of us. Some of us were playing continually, others only now and then, and it was all okay because it created an experience for the listener. Some of us are high notes; others are low. Some of us are the rhythm; others are the melody. However, it is each instrument playing in balance and in sync together that creates a song that can inspire, motivate, entertain, and/or heal. If we could only give one another the space and trust to play their part. If we could only give ourselves the space and trust to play our part. Each of us showing up authentically, adding to the song in our own unique way that can create a remarkable, even spiritual journey for both the players and the listeners. Life can be a struggle, yes. It can also be a really good song.
We all know about self-care, and resilience has become a word I seem to hear around every corner these days. The horse is the true definition of resilience. They have evolved from small pig-like, three toed creatures into the majestic strong animals I have the pleasure to work with every day. They embody the definition of resilience: “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” How do we develop this in ourselves, our children, our employees?
While I am a licensed professional counselor and my perspective comes from my work in the Eagala (www.eagala.org) model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, I hope I am able to help the reader see that this is relevant to everyone, every day, everywhere.
In our Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) trainings we learn to use the acronym SPUD’S. We look for Shifts, Patterns, Uniqueness, and Discrepancies in the actions and words of our clients and the presentation and interactions of the horses. I chose to carry this out of the office and into my world. It forces me to pause and helps me stay objective. The SPUD is the easy part. It is the ‘S that gets tricky. We run entire workshops focused on the ’S. It’s the three fingers pointing back at yourself when you are pointing at someone or something else. It represents our own Stuff. As a therapist I need to continually be aware of my triggers, projection, transference, counter transference etc and how it affects my interactions in the world. I have to be willing to actively engage in my own therapeutic work as it presents. In the office, it can be easy to miss or to put aside the ’S. However, in the arena it is another story. The horses know when someone is incongruent and/or they know when we are bringing our “Stuff” into the arena. They will call us out right in front of our clients. We have to check our “stuff” at the gate. If there is something lingering out of our awareness they will call it to attention.
Stepping out of the arena and into the world, want can we do to minimize how our “stuff” impacts our relationships? I believe self-care is key. I see self-care as having 3 levels – the big get away vacations and our own therapy, the common bubble baths, massages, treat yourself sort of things, and the moment to moment daily practices that become part of who we are. All are important, but it is in the daily practices that we build resilience. The resilience skills that we teach as daily practices become the pebble in the water. First an increase in interoception – with this comes increased awareness and mindfulness – followed by greater insight to identify the ’S and address them. By knowing ourselves better from the inside out, we can then better engage with those around us. As a bonus, when we have mastered these skills and regulate ourselves, others become better able to regulate themselves. Experiment with this… the next time your kids, coworkers, family members are quarreling or having a disagreement take a moment to pause and notice your breath. Maybe take a step closer if you can. Just keep noticing your breath. See what happens. I know it sounds way too simple. It is simple – it is not easy. This is where intention comes to play. When we can pause and be more intentional in our interactions and observations we can often step away from our ’S in the moment and feel more confident in addressing them in a professional manner.
I tell our clients that the horses are here to meet them in the moment, without judgment and ask them to offer themselves the same. The last spin I will put on this blog is a reminder to look at your world through the lens of information. The lens of judgment does not allow for healing, growth or learning. Encounter your ’S with excitement in the knowing that as you address them you become lighter, brighter, more self-aware, and better able to engage in the world with clarity and intention.
As a 28 year old non-binary Trans masculine individual who has gone through multiple self-evaluation periods, I’ve come to the conclusion, deep down we are all beings looking to grow strongly and beautifully. It is partially our environment that either hinders or helps us do so – PCS has provided a supportive space which made room for me personally to garden an environment that allowed growth. I realized, the grass is greener where we water it.
I began to really sit with myself and I began to water myself. I started to focus on my physical health with the theory that, “If I don’t use it, I lose it.” I began to focus on my mental health as I needed to fix the foundation I was building within. The more I stayed in tune with what I wanted instead of what others may have wanted of me, little shifts subtly took place. I started to plant seeds of how I pictured my garden, not one envisioned for me.
In a world where it seems scary to be authentically who I am, I haven’t allowed it to keep me from blossoming. We were meant to go through seasonal circumstances and within each season, there’s handsomeness and beauty. There’s self-love that transpires and when we have a hold of it, we shine.
My recent light brought me to write the below poem,
“March coming to a close,
Yet I’m more open than ever.
An anticipated chapter; I knew this time would come.
This time where every step feels worth the lunge.
A time where the shoes I’m wearing finally fit.
I finally see – myself in mirrors.
I finally hear – myself in echoes.
It’s like, I finally let go.
I let go of fear,
And replaced it with faith.
I let go of anger,
And replaced it with love.
I let go of judgment,
And replaced it with acceptance.
Yesterday prepared me for today.
God knew I would see this day.
I was always worth it,
I just had to believe it too.”
And, I believe in you.
-Vané R. Moreno
Empathy. This word seems to be thrown around a lot, but what really is it? First, it is important to differentiate between sympathy and empathy.
According to Mariam Webster Dictionary, sympathy is defined as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.” For example, a common gesture and expression of sympathy is sending a sympathy card when a good friend loses a loved one. It shows this person cares and is offering support.
Empathy takes it a step further. Empathy is connection. Empathy is the “let me step into your shoes” emotion. Sharing the emotions of another is one way people find connection. To truly step into the shoes of another involves risk and vulnerability. It involves being in touch with your own emotional experience to truly experience and share the emotions of another.
Oftentimes sympathy is easier to access, as this emotion does not require as much personal discomfort. Empathy, on the other hand, feels risky. A frequently difficult moment to feel empathy is when we ourselves have wronged and/or hurt someone else. This often leads to a sense of shame, which often carries the message “I am bad”. Shame is quick to block empathy, promoting disconnection in our intimate relationships where we truly desire the most connection. Shame hinders our ability to fully step into the shoes of another even if we are under the impression that we are being empathetic.
Thus, a powerful question to ask yourself might be “Am I being sympathetic or empathetic?” The answer to this question can be answered in how you are responding to the person hurting. For example, if you are in a space of attempting to “fix it” for them, you are most likely experiencing sympathy. Empathy does not provide answers. Empathy resembles sitting in the uncomfortable emotion with the other person and tolerating the discomfort. Empathy will undeniably breed more connection with the people in your life if you are able to access it. It does undoubtedly take practice as it often does not come natural to some.
Here are some practical steps to cultivating more empathy:
- As stated above, work to get in touch with your own emotions. If you do not have empathy for yourself, you will likely have trouble expressing empathy to others.
- Address your shame (if you have it). A good way to reduce shame is to share, and share again, and share some more. The more people who can hear your story the better.
- Practice sitting with uncomfortable emotions. We often work very hard to avoid any uncomfortable emotion. Empathy requires us to find comfort in the discomfort.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Sympathy. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathy
The increase in discussion around self-care in our society today is important. Our culture tends to praise success to the extent that our well-being is compromised leaving people feeling overworked, overwhelmed, malnourished, and under slept to name just a few harmful effects. The pervasiveness of these damaging consequences has fortunately led to a rise in discussion of the importance and value of mental health and, in turn, self-care.
Self-care qualifies differently for different people. For some, self-care may look like taking a warm bath, curling up to read a book, or going for a walk outside. For others it may be taking an hour to go for a solo car ride, getting to bed early, or calling a close friend. And still for others, self-care may include playing a round of golf, journaling, or prioritizing a nourishing meal. The way self-care looks may be different for everyone but the overarching factor that ties these things together is the recharge, revitalization, and reset that these relatively small, but intentional acts provide for a person.
But can we take self-care too far? Self-care can, in fact, swing to the far end of the pendulum. For example, a person may not “feel great” one or multiple days in a row and consistently judge this as reason enough to call in sick to work. Another instance may be a person discounting time and energy devoted to friends or family for long stretches of time in the vein that their time alone should always reign supreme. Another experience may be that responsibilities to self, family, friends, work, school, or the like are continually swept to the side, saddled on the belief that self-care must be the priority. And while there can certainly be times in a person’s life when these actions are, indeed, appropriate, I think it is important, even vital, to be able to discern when self-care is being utilized too heavily at the expense of a person’s own self-resiliency and growth.
Our trajectory of self-care and self-resiliency can be thought of as a bit like a slingshot. Stay with me here. We want to provide ourselves with enough experiences that push us and allow us the beneficial types of stress; the stress that allows us to get a bit uncomfortable, expand ourselves, and grow. And at the same time we want to aim to balance this with enough time to come back to our safe places and people in order to rebuild and recharge. It’s this delicate balance where we are pulling our slingshot back enough that we are headed toward growth, but not too much so that the sling shot snaps. Nor are we pulling it back too little so that we simply remain stuck, not stretching ourselves into the spaces that offer us the golden duo of discomfort and the ensuing growth and development that we need to thrive. When we can hone in on this balance of taking time to care for ourselves while also respecting the responsibility we owe to ourselves to grow and promote self-resiliency, we can settle into a healthy sweet spot. We can know the difference between needing to take a day off from work or needing to call a friend to get things off our chest. We can learn the difference between when we need time alone and when time with friends or family may actually be very valuable and fruitful. And we can know the balance between our responsibility to our commitments, and when we need to take a mental health break. But how do we know where that sweet spot is? Through trial and error, of course. In getting a bit messy, in seeing what works and what doesn’t, and in reminding ourselves of the beauty of our imperfection and humanity. No one has this down perfectly. Our lives continually change, ebb, and flow, and we will continue to come up against new and unique challenges that put our current modes of being into disarray. When this happens we can either hole ourselves up, afraid to make the wrong moves, or we can remind ourselves that there is no perfect way, trust ourselves, and pull back that slingshot.
By Michaela Ortega, Intern