Thought Roll

“Inside Out” and the value of sadness

July 7th, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

The new Pixar film, “Inside Out,” brings to light the vast array of deep emotions experienced in childhood. Told through the eyes of an 11 year-old girl, moving with her family from her childhood home to a new city, we hear the voices of joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust bouncing off one another as she navigates this difficult time.

As parents, we often focus on the external challenges of such a move – new house, neighborhood, school, friends. We tend to equate success with happiness, overlooking the multitude of other feelings that accompany life changes. “Inside Out” poignantly highlights the importance of accessing and accepting all feelings, putting particular emphasis on the role of sadness.

Sadness, like anger, can be perceived as a failure. It is seen as something to “get away from” rather than something to acknowledge and embrace. However, without it, we develop a kind of false sense of happiness– we look “fine” but we feel lost and disconnected. When we truly let ourselves feel deep sadness, we also set the stage for interpersonal connection, which in turn facilitates the unfolding of development.

Adults like to think that children are immune to the deep sadness that we experience. I hear many parents say, “she’s just a child, she will be fine.” In fact, children perceive a range of feelings, but often don’t have the words or cognition to explain or speak to what they feel. Children, like adults, experience deep sadness in the face of loss. They are not “naturally happy,” and, they need all their feelings validated.

“Inside Out” underscores the fact that sadness is not only an acceptable, but also a necessary part of the process of adjusting. It is through sadness, or suffering, that we develop compassion and empathy. Conversely, when one is sad, others jump in to soothe, help, comfort allowing for intimate connection. Experiencing our sadness with compassion helps us settle into change, and move forward.

STORIES

March 22nd, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

“The chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”
-Atul Gawande from Being Mortal

“It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear.”
-David Henry Thoreau

People often come into therapy because some part of their known story needs revisiting. Something, possibly not yet visible, is no longer ringing true. Most people seek help when there is enough pain to propel them to change. They may begin this process with a description of what needs changing in someone else; but if I listen carefully, I can hear them telling the story of themselves.

I have a set of professional skills that include psychodynamic theory, mindfulness meditation, empathy, listening deeply, and an ability to create a safe environment in which a story can be told. I firmly believe that if one is to release themselves from the confines of an old pattern, one first needs to tell the story that has held them, and have it received and understood in the presence of another.

Stories develop from our earliest experiences. Infants come into the world and are quickly identified as “quiet, easy, irritable, quick to startle,” to name a few. They grow into “she was the one who always got into trouble,” or “he was the peacemaker in the family.” While all these descriptions may hold truth, none of them are terribly meaningful without understanding the surrounding context, and felt experience in which they emerged.

In therapy, we sit together as the texture of a life story unfolds. People paint the landscapes of their inner world through the telling and re-telling of their stories. I listen for the underlying themes, the moments that trigger strong affect, sensing the ongoing relational field in between myself and my patients. Together, we map out the contextual and experiential backdrop of what gives meaning to a particular person.

Studies of the brain confirm that the more we repeat something, the more tightly it lodges in the brain structure. The research on neuroplasticity informs us that the brain can re-form itself once new messages begin to take hold. As we speak these stories in the holding environment of another, they slowly begin to diminish, altering the brain. Before we had research to document this, therapists knew that deep listening within a safe connection, allows for releasing and healing of old stories, as new ones inch their way into visibility.

I believe that old stories can imprison us; but I also know that they have served a purpose; that is, they have been our constant companions. No matter how maladaptive they are in the present, they once served to comfort us, give us a sense of connection, and help us make sense of the world and those in it. For example, many people who have suffered abuse as children tell the story of the abusive parent being kind and loving. They often speak of themselves as “bad” as if they deserved such abuse. As children, these stories helped them cope with situations that were traumatic and overwhelming, and because they helped them in this way, those stories stuck like glue.

In therapy, I listen to people tell their stories over and over again until in the telling, and the attuned listening and inquiry, we together begin to push the edge of the truth. I often say, “it certainly is real, but is it true?” That is, together, we acknowledge and later befriend, even the most tenacious of stories, so that we can release them gradually, and with compassion.

We tell our stories repeatedly when we are close to something new. We need another person, to listen for the opening to the entrance of the next door.

SEEING WHAT IS

March 22nd, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

“Rather than having to “be” or “do” more, can we simply begin to “see” more?
-Trudy Goodman, founder of Insightla

You can’t change anything until you’ve engaged with it. Eastern and Western cultures view change in very different ways. Western thinking focuses on “if there’s a problem, jump in and fix it.” That is, “do first and think or reflect later.” In contrast,  Eastern thinking advocates a gentler approach: In simply beginning to bring awareness to something, you have already begun to change it. Concepts such as “start where you are, “just start over,” or “the point where you begin is always the right time,” are powerful ways of thinking, albeit a bit foreign to Westerners.

In my work as a psychologist for children, parents, and individual adults, I attempt to slow down the “fix-it” process by setting a tone of deep listening, engaged inquiry, and reflection. The notion of slowing down the “doing” and increasing the “looking and inquiring,” does not come easily for many of us. And, in the face of parents living with worry, fear, and anxiety about themselves and their children, the impulse is often to act first and reflect later. In a calmer, kinder holding environment, we are better able to delineate what is the parent, what is their child, and what’s in between the two. Setting a goal, or developing behavioral strategies are fine ideas, but in my experience, these things can’t be imposed onto a situation from the outside. Ideas or strategies may emerge from knowing the parents and the child, and from non-judgmental encouragement for the process of “seeing what is.”

ON VOICE

June 3rd, 2014 by Dr. Nina Asher

What is it to find one’s voice?

I like to think of finding one’s voice as a progression involving

  • TALKING
  • SPEAKING
  • VOICE

Most of us talk quite easily. We find connection in conversing, sharing opinions, tossing ideas around. Often we talk to hear ourselves talking, as we release the anxiety we feel when we are quiet. We also talk to sort out ideas, express feelings, and tell our stories.

In the work of therapy, people begin a conversation with a trusted other in which they can know themselves. This begins with talking, sharing ideas and feelings, and describing one’s experience. Gradually, talking becomes speaking as the words take form and texture. Chatter dissipates, morphing into the speech of deep conversation as the truth of experience emerges. Finding voice is a relational process.

So what is speaking from within? Some people call this wise speech. That is, speaking with the intention of non-harming, and yet, having the words come from an authentic place inside which I call voice. From talking to speaking and being heard, one begins to know the sound of one’s voice. Voice evolves from a quiet presence with oneself. It is an outgrowth of speaking and being heard.

If listening is a big part of the work I do, then speaking is the other side of the equation. People come into my office to share their stories – to find their voice – to be heard and known deeply, so as to release themselves from the confines of old stories as new ones are written. Giving voice to oneself requires a listener – a companion of sorts – in the process of growing and out-growing.

NOTEWORTHY

February 17th, 2014 by Dr. Nina Asher

We often find ourselves “efforting” or “trying” to do or be something. These words define the something as outside of us – a place we must “get to,” before we can actually do or be something else. Often viewed as a perfect place, we strive to reach something that actually lives inside each one of us. Once we release the trying, we are reminded that we are already there, just doing the best we can. There is no other outside ourselves who can do it better.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

SITTING STILL LIKE A FROG – MINDFULNESS
EXERCISES FOR KIDS (AND THEIR PARENTS)

By Eline Snel (2013)

This is a handy, user-friendly book of relaxation exercises for children ages 5-12. I particularly like the way Dr. Snel talks about anxiety, repetitive thoughts, body experiences, and breathing. She is insightful into the multitude of reasons kids experience anxiety, as well as providing useful tools for helping these states.

Book comes with a CD for use in guided meditations, and can be purchased through Shambala Sun and Amazon.