It doesn’t need to be so hard. Therapy, life, change – it doesn’t have to be so dark. I’m not implying people don’t have very serious, very real difficulties and struggles – sometimes tragic in their magnitude and impact. Psychotherapy is one of the few places people can unburden themselves and directly experience their pain, loss, anger, confusion. This is the usual work of therapy and it’s hugely important. And, there’s real benefit to helping people lighten up and soften toward themselves and their life experiences.
Lightening up is kind, gentle, and helps us have an open, empowered perspective on our troubles. We don’t always have to put our heads down and muscle our way through our problems – nor do we have to avoid, check out, or demand someone fix us. We can practice noticing our feelings fully and then step back and open our senses to being safe and o.k. in the moment, opening to a bigger perspective.
The idea of not taking ourselves so seriously, even while we honor sometimes debilitating self-criticism, emotional distress and trauma, is consistent with meditation practices from the 2500-year history of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists teach “not too tight, not too loose” to point toward a balance between tight focus and expansive view to develop mindfulness skills for moving choicefully between the two. This is quite similar to current brain research, using the power of attention and intention to increase skills and opportunities for choice.
If we experience distress as something which happens to us and about which we believe we have no choice, we reinforce the habitual brain networks for old beliefs and repetitive reactions. “What fires together, wires together,” making automatic reactions the norm. When we practice slowing down and notice what we’re experiencing directly in our body right now with attention and intention, we can help our brains rewire toward positive experiences.
Lightening up is good for us in therapy – all the time really – whether it’s pausing to notice the sky, have a good belly laugh, soften a self-judgment, or simply feel our bottom in a chair. We mindfully slow down and carefully notice again and again, back and forth, inner and outer, deep and light. In sharing some lightness with our clients, we build inner resources and support the (sometimes) difficult work of therapy.This blog borrows generously from the writings of Pema Chodron in “When Things Fall Apart,” and from Daniel Siegel in “Mindsight“. If you’re interested in learning more, check out their wonderful writings.