Category Archives: neuroscience

How To Stop Yelling

angry-argue-argument-343.jpgVisualizing Behavior

Do you want to keep your cool when life isn’t going your way? Do you wish you didn’t bark at the kids when they’ve done something you dislike?

Visualization can help.

Visualization helps us improve our performance. Long-touted as an essential tool by athletes and professional musicians, we now know that positive thinking is not the reason that people feel they perform better with these techniques. Visualization is effective because thinking about practicing a skill changes the brain as if you had actually practiced the skill.

This is fantastic news if you struggle with any skill in your life–not just physical ones. Using visualizations can help you overcome social anxiety, make healthy choices, and best of all, keep calm during stressful times.

Instead of picturing yourself kicking the perfect touchdown into the goal (sports isn’t my thing), you can picture yourself responding with composure to life’s hiccups.

“Negative” Visualization

I tend on the negative side of things. I tend to worry more about very bad things happening than hoping very good things will. I tend to want to diminish my worst behavior and ignore whether my best behavior gets better. This is a default, not a recommendation–but there is something to be said for paying close attention to your liabilities.

While I visualize smiling each day while I do my exercise, I spend more time visualizing reacting better in my worst situations. Better still, I try to focus on being the kind of person who responds rather than reacts.

Try to think of a single, concrete situation that you respond poorly to. Do you yell whenever a glass of milk is spilled? Do you shut down whenever your child says unkind words to you? Do you hide if the house gets too loud? Just start with one thing.

And then picture yourself responding to that situation in the ideal way.

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Imagining Imagining

For some of us, that is impossible. Calmly reacting in a threatening situation isn’t “who we are”. We can’t even come up with a fantasy world where that would happen.

So–and I know this sounds silly, but trust me–imagine that you can imagine yourself responding perfectly. This worked for me.

I could not imagine being the kind of person who could give an uninflected “Yes” or “No” to questions that start with, “Did you remember to…?”

But I could imagine a theoretical world where I could imagine that possibility.

And now, at least some of the time, I am that kind of person. I’ve spent a minute or two for months picturing Amelia effortlessly saying, “No, I didn’t remember. I’ll do that tomorrow,” or “Yes, I did!” without any resentment in her voice.

Try to use visualization to improve your behavioral floor–the worst of your reactions. Practicing in the moment is often too hard because the reason you react so poorly is that you are hurt, scared, angry, or sad. Being removed from the situation allows us a safe place to exercise our self-control.

 

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It

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Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method

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Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.

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Attention Isn’t a Reward

Connection

I don’t even know if I have the capacity for normal emotions or not because I haven’t cried for a long time. You just stifle them for so long that maybe you lose them, partially at least.”

That is a punch to the gut for anyone who feels like they have to hide their emotions or “true self.” Science continues to affirm that concealing your emotions is destructive. Dismissing our feelings makes us less able to maintain our sense of well-being. Our inner, ignored swamps create a distance between us and those we love.

Time does not heal all wounds; connection does. When someone you care for struggles with their feelings, you reach out a helping hand. Sometimes pain comes in the form of destructive behavior—as a society, we recognize this. We acknowledge that addiction indicates alienation and that the most aggressive among us are hurting.
So why do we admonish people for giving their children attention when they are having a hard time?

What are Rewards?

You shouldn’t reward behavior like that.”

If you pay attention to him, he will just keep doing it.”

Paying attention to someone isn’t a reward. Loving someone isn’t a reward. Love is an automatic reaction. We should not pretend to turn it on and off as a means to manipulate.

Are you a good person or bad person for feeling sad?

Are you an upright citizen or dreg for feeling anxious?

Does your regret make you admirable or awful?

These are of course ridiculous questions.

Rewards are something that you get for doing something good. Punishments are for doing something bad. Emotions are not on a moral spectrum.
Labeling feelings as negative or positive is destructive. Learning to accept a wide range of emotions contributes to our ability to self-regulate, an important life skill which you are teaching your child how to do (or not to do) now. When your child makes bids for your attention, that is an opportunity for you to coach them through their feelings.

Attention

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It is easy for us to forget in today’s society what attention actually is. It is even easier to forget as adults because we feel and believe that we “take care of ourselves.”

Attention is our lifeline. Without the attention of others—in our evolutionary past and today—we either die or simply survive. In harsh environments, ostracism is used as an extreme punishment because we are social mammals; being ignored by your community is a threat of death and not an idle one.

Our attention and love are not rewards for our children. Once we recognize belonging as a fundamental human need, we can let go of the fear that we are rationing it incorrectly. You wouldn’t take away air, water, or food from your child as a punishment for their bad behavior. You shouldn’t take away your love.

Wanting attention is a legitimate need. If you find yourself thinking that the desire for attention is something that needs to be fixed in yourself, reflect on this belief, where you got it, and how to fix it. As trendy as pathologizing basic human desires and behaviors is, your family will benefit if you resist the urge.

Overwhelm

In the name of authenticity, we should admit that we want to show our love for our children when they break down. Breaking down can be palatable—the shuddering of shoulders, the “blue zone” that Dr. Siegel talks about where our children clam up and avoid eye contact. Or it can be the dreaded “red zone—the tantrum, yelling, crying, screaming that everyone seems to think they will be able to avoid because they will parent right.

Both of these are normal human reactions to being overwhelmed. Children feel overcome with emotion more often and more easily and have outbursts to match.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum? You don’t need to tell them that their behavior is great. You certainly don’t need to actually reward the behavior with ice cream and toys. You don’t need to help them quickly get over the emotion. Stop harmful and destructive behavior (physically, if you need to), and just be with them. You don’t want to be alone in your tough emotions. Neither do they.

All behavior is communication. Sometimes that behavior is communicating, “I need your help to stop. I feel out of control.”

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The Quote

The quote at the top was made by a really famous guy. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I’m not saying that your child is going to cannibalize people if you ignore their emotions. They could grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. They may learn how to regulate their emotions.
You are your child’s emotional coach. What are you teaching them?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Comment below: How do you handle your children’s tough emotions?

Cry It Out

It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.

Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.

Mild Deprivation
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.

The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”

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Sleep Associations
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.

Cortisol
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?

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Hyporesponsitivity
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.

Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?

Inoculation
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.

Answers
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.

As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.

Self-Care Isn’t Fun

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I am making friends.

I am making friends because they are something my children and I will need.

I am making friends even though it is draining and often feels like a waste of time.

I am making friends even though the results won’t start to really shine for a couple of years.

I am making new friends as a form of self-care.

What do you think of when you hear the term self-care?

If you think of chocolate covered strawberries and $150 massages, then you are thinking the wrong thing.

True self-care is not about what feels good in the moment. It is often the things that we don’t want to do. It is about restructuring your life so that you don’t feel you have to run away from it. It is about creating habits that make you a healthy, energetic, centered person.

Self-care is about reducing the influence of people who you love dearly who are unhealthy and unhappy. Even if they’re not toxic to you, personally. Because they are dragging you down physically and mentally. And it isn’t correlation.

It means delaying gratification. It means working 10 to 20 minutes a day on some project or skill and seeing no results for a long time. It means reframing your thought process and not being able to take a picture of it. It means focusing on immeasurables with little to no short-term payoff and no end in sight.

While meditation may some day feel good, you might hate it. But it doesn’t matter.

While exercise may some day feel good, you might resent it. But it doesn’t matter.

While journaling may some day feel good, you might look down on it. But it doesn’t matter.

Self-care is about doing these things that make you happier and healthier in the long run.

 

Many of the people who do them regularly do not enjoy them. Most of the people who work out 5 times a week are not thrilled to be going to the gym again; and many of the people who meditate feel like idiots with racing minds half the time when they sit down.

But they do it any way. Not because it is fun or because they’re disciplined, but because they know they need to in order to have a life that doesn’t scare and exhaust them. They do it because they’ve created automaticity for all of these healthy habits—they’ve set up a systems that make them feel odd if they don’t do these unexciting practices.

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Self-care is about creating those systems.

About adding extra steps between yourself and the easy, destructive thing you want to do; and creating fewer steps between the difficult, healthy thing you know you need to do. It means putting the soda in the garage and putting the toothpicks out right next to your toothbrush.

It means getting rid of things that clutter your house, the stuff that reminds you to be sad or to have a drink. It means setting upper limits on your sugar consumption and setting lower limits on how much time you spend walking each day.

Self-care is about recognizing the things in your life that matter and take work, and then working on them, even though you can let them slip by on any given day and it would be hard to notice.

It means putting work into your relationship each day so that you aren’t just coasting along on comfortable until your partnership succumbs to entropy.

It means seeing that you’ve addressed the healthy mind platter to make sure you’re getting all of your little mind-nutrients so that you can be fulfilled.

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Treating yourself can be nice. Go get the massage, have a piece of chocolate, take a vacation.

But this is not what self-care is. Self-care is making the decision to build up the nitty gritty habits that take away what makes you feel frazzled, hectic, and beaten down, and replacing it with things that make you feel full.

How To Help Your Child Tell the Truth

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There is your beautiful daughter sitting next to the fridge, on the floor. Laying right next to her is an empty Snickers wrapper. She has chocolate all over her face and hands. She is smiling and licking her fingers. She looks up and sees you. She looks scared, guilty.

You ask her, “Did you eat that candy bar?”

And she looks you straight in the eyes and says, “No.”

How could she do that? You can tell from her look that she knows that what she did was wrong. And she is sitting there telling you a lie right to your face even though you know what she did!

More and more, this is happening. She lied about hitting her little brother. She lied about breaking the vase. What is going on with her?

I mean, doesn’t this four year old have a strong moral compass?

The answer is: Of course not.

She understands that she is saying something that isn’t true, but she doesn’t understand that it is wrong.

Because we so often note that children are the same as us—just developmentally different—we often imbue them with characteristics they don’t have. Like the ability to understand morality. Or abstract reasoning at all.

In reality, your child is not telling you a lie. Not with any of the connotation that this word comes with. She is making pretend because she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she wants you to be happy with her.

She looks guilty because our children understand our cues, and understand what has happened in the past. This sort of social-emotional reasoning is most of what they’re doing age 7, when they begin to develop more sophisticated views of the world.

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When lying, your child is doing an excellent job building the skills she will use later as the foundation for her moral reasoning. In particular, lying shows she is developing a theory of mind. She is beginning to understand that your mind isn’t a copy of her mind, and that both of you can think things that aren’t real. It is not a coincidence that lying appears in all children around that time that pretend play with monsters and tea parties begin. She is becoming extremely skilled at reading your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression to find out what you’re thinking and wanting from her. It’s a developmental leap!

What she is not doing is trying to “deceive” you in the traditional sense. She is trying to please you.

She is not yet at the point where she can exercise much self-control. So, instead of asking: how can I get my child to stop lying? Ask instead: how can I set my child up for success?

The first answer is not giving them a chance to “make pretend” that they didn’t eat the candy bar. Just say they did it and talk about what that means for now and what that means for the future. “You ate the candy bar. We are going to have to pick up our mess. In the future, you try not to eat that food when mom asks you not to; and mom will try not to make it so easy for you to reach!”

I always try to tell the child I take responsibility for setting them up. I say, “Hey, I made a mistake there.” I say it with a laugh and a smile. “Why’d I leave that out there! Of course you wanted that candy bar! Mommies can be so silly sometimes, huh?” This is not to guilt them, but to say demonstrate understanding and model character—you really do need to take responsibility for doing that. You don’t leave firearms and knives out because you don’t want them touching those things, so don’t leave out your candy and chocolate, either.

Nobody has to feel bad about what has happened. You have more information for the future, and your child just did what you would expect a child to do: eat a yummy thing and not want their parents to be mad at them.

You can also accept their make pretend at face value and move from there.

“Did you eat that candy bar?”

“No! A dinosaur did!”

“Okay. Can you help me clean up the dinosaurs mess?”

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This conversation can be used to illicit the truth out of them, or to talk about how you’re not mad at the dinosaur. You can use this make-pretend to talk about how it’s okay to make mistakes, and it may make your child interested in saying that it was them. If they help to wash up and cooperate, then they’re being pro-social, which is fantastic and a real consequence of what they did.

You can also just ask your child if it is “For real or for pretend?” Again, take it out of the moral realm. They aren’t bad or good for what they did; it is just what they did.

We do want to encourage truth-telling in our children. We don’t do this by using shame and disappointment. Feel free to make it clear, calmly, that you prefer the truth. “I didn’t like that you played pretend when I asked you that. I won’t be mad at you when you make mistakes.”

You can also use a lie as an opportunity for connection and creativity. Again, just stating the situation can be a starting point for this.
“No! A dinosaur did it!”

“That’s so silly. I know you ate the chocolate, but that’s a good story. Can you tell me more? Can we draw a picture?”

When you take away the incentive to lie—anger, punishment, etc.–then your child will be less interested in doing it. It’s not that it will stop altogether; and if they’ve been punished often for it, it will take a while to earn their trust in this area. Mention that you like truth, but don’t give them a 5 minute spiel about it. It doesn’t help their understanding. A kiss and a “Next time, you can just tell me you did it, okay?” will suffice.

At toddler age, lying is very simple and is easy to detect. While we do want to emphasize the importance of truth telling, the best way to do this is not by talking about telling the truth, but by showing that we are allowed to make mistakes without being punished. That our love is not based on performance. This sets the stage for honesty later in life when their ability to lie gains subtlety and complexity. It will count when what they can choose to hide is much more important than a candy bar.

When our children are struggling and making mistakes are the times we most need to connect with them. Lying is another opportunity to do this.

Metta

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Mindfulness meditation is a big focus of this blog because it gives you a lot of benefits that are well-studied.

But mindfulness meditation is not the only kind of meditation available. Today, I want to talk about one of the other types that I find useful.

This meditation is about filling you with loving-kindness. It is called metta. It is a meditation that is used to cultivate compassion. Compassion is a very important part of leadership; it is one of the best way to relate to children—better then empathy. We use compassion so that we can feel for people, instead of feeling with them.

It is one of the easiest meditations to do without being guided.

You can use some variation of these words:

“May I be happy, may I be free. May I be comfortable, and at peace.”

Traditionally, you expand outward from there. To a loved one, you send the thoughts:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

I usually just set a ten minute timer, but any meditation app will have loving kindness meditations, and there are tons on Youtube.

Then you move outward from there. To an acquaintance, you say in your head:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

You keep expanding your circle outwards, even to those with whom you have conflict. You say:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

All the while, you are still practicing mindfulness. How does it feel, in your body, to wish yourself peace? How does it feel to wish your enemy peace?

You can become all-inclusive. Picture the whole world. Everyone you’ve ever loved, hated, or seen; and of course, your self.

“May we be happy, may we be free. May we be comfortable and at peace.”

Metta is most important to me on my hardest days.

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If ever I am having a hard time with my partner, I use metta to make sure I don’t let feelings go sour. Sometimes we can accidentally let occasional thoughts become habitual thought-patterns. This is one way to protect against that.

If ever I am feeling frustrated around my child’s sleep, I use metta to make sure I remember that he isn’t giving me a hard time, he is having a hard time.

Oftentimes, I don’t move past the first one. Loving kindness’ biggest advantage is for my feelings towards myself.

I sometimes feel like a bad mom. And when I do, I skip my mindfulness meditation. I skip most of the metta meditation. I just focus on feeling good towards myself. More than anything, I need to Love Myself Like My Life Depended On It, because if I’m not at my best, I can’t be at my best for my child.

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Practicing radical self-acceptance is tough. It might be tough to accept it is a good idea. You might think that practicing self-acceptance gives you some kind of pass to not improve. But it is the opposite. When you don’t think your self-worth is attached to your performance, you are more likely to identify your faults and try to improve yourself. You aren’t locked in by your self-identification as smart, or strong, or whatever it is that it is a label you feel necessary to uphold. It’s the growth mindset.

Just as for our children, acceptance does not mean accepting all behavior, it means accepting emotions.

Set up a routine for metta. Put it into your rotation, or just call upon it when you need it most.