The Gift of Listening to Ourselves: how compassionate self-enquiry can reduce stress and help us heal
Monday April 26, 2021
We all need to be heard, but how often do we truly listen to ourselves? Living or working with retinoblastoma can be emotionally overwhelming. WE C Hope CEO and Rb survivor, Abby White, shares personal experience of some listening techniques that help her cope with daily challenging thoughts and strong emotions such as anger, fear and worry.
Listening is a Gift We Choose to Give Ourselves
A large part of my work with WE C Hope involves listening to parents, survivors, and medical professionals; walking alongside them through the maze of challenges that retinoblastoma creates.
Simply holding space is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another – to be a compassionate witness without judging or needing to make things better. Serving as a pensive allows the individual to safely explore their experiences, thoughts and feelings, and connect with their wise inner knowledge.
Such a potent blessing. So why do we rarely hold space for ourselves? Why are we so slow to give ourselves the same gift of compassionate listening?
In listening to ourselves, we can connect with who we really are and who we want to be, identify our discontent and its origins, and what we need to heal. But listening is a skill (one I fail at every day), and listening to ourselves takes special practice.
When strong emotions like anger, fear, and worry engulf us, it can be very hard to breathe deep and explore what’s happening, what we really feel, and what’s fuelling our reaction. So we create stories about what we think is happening, based on events, surface thoughts and feelings – and too often they are untrue.
Our brains are hardwired to operate most effectively through stories. They help us make sense of our past and present, and shape our future. The stories we tell ourselves affect what we believe, and how we interact with the world. Even at night, we create and process in the storyland of dreams.
In listening to ourselves, we step outside the whirlpool of thoughts and feelings that form our stories, to allow stronger self-connection. We learn and grow in that place of awareness, with profound positive impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Self-enquiry in times of trial requires great self-awareness, compassion and focus, and that doesn’t come easily to most of us, especially in this hyper-distracted world. I’m learning, trying, failing, trying again and growing a little more every day. Below, I’ll share some of the techniques that help me. I hope some of them help you become a kinder listener – for you!
Listening to Our Thoughts and Feelings
We can become overwhelmed by our irrational thoughts and beliefs, especially when it concerns our interpretation of other people’s comments and actions, and what we think they think of us. Often, our emotions and the stories we tell ourselves become so unruly that we prefer to silence them with distractions.
Have you ever binge watched your favourite TV program, dug through to the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tub, bought a bunch of clothes you didn’t need, or simply lost an hour scrolling through your social newsfeeds? These are all classic activities that distract us from ourselves.
While distraction plays a valuable role in our emotional wellbeing, immediate distraction is rarely helpful as it fails to acknowledge the emotions clamouring for attention. Try the following to connect into your thoughts and feelings before replacing them with a distraction activity.
Acknowledge: Bring awareness to your feelings and accept that they are there. So often we allow thoughts and emotions to sit in our mind without paying attention to what they really are, or we simply push uncomfortable feelings away. What are you thinking and saying to yourself? Try naming your emotions and the sensations your body feels. For example: “I feel anxious because I don’t know what will happen. My shoulders are tense and my heart is racing”. Strong emotions control us when we don’t give them close attention. Actively focusing on them, and how they make you think and feel, reduces their power.
Breathe: Give your emotions space by taking some calming deep breaths. Sit or stand up straight, drop your shoulders to help release physical tension throughout your body. Breathe in for at least a count of 3, then hold and breathe out for another count of 3. There’s no need to modify your thoughts or feelings, just continue to acknowledge them, without any judgement.
Counsel: Ask yourself “Why do I feel that? What is really happening here?” Stepping back from the heat of our thoughts and feelings allows us to examine them with curiosity and separate the sticky layers of emotions. Loud emotions like anger and fear grab our attention, but the key emotions we need to listen to and act on lie deeper. Identifying those meta-emotions affords us greater clarity, and empowers us to respond rather than react. I can feel angry and frustrated, AND focus on self-care.
If you noticed yourself doing a distracting activity, ask yourself “why am I doing this? Is this really what I need right now?” In that space, you might recognise you are actually hungry or thirsty, exhausted or over-energized, afraid or excited, craving human company or personal space. When we know what’s driving our emotions and actions, we’re more able to give ourselves what we truly need.
Defuse: Emotions are not who we are. Think of them as waves of experience we can choose to surf. When we consciously release it, the troubling thought or feeling flows away. When you notice an emotion or thought process pulling you down, disrupt it by saying something like “this is making me unhappy. I am not doing this anymore. I deserve to treat myself more kindly”.
Exchange: How can you view the situation more positively and relieve tension in this moment? Take active steps to replace the negative emotion with positive ones. For example, using gratitude, or a deep breathing exercise, listening to a happy playlist, or a funny recording of your children. Laughter, smiles and singing create some of the best emotional healing. Do you have to continue the task at hand, or can you take a brief mental reset break, and return later with a clearer, calmer mind?
Feelings: What are you thinking and saying to yourself now? How do you feel, physically and emotionally? Name those sensations and feelings, for example “I am calm”, “my muscles feel relaxed”. Paying close attention will reinforce the value of this approach, and help you adjust your action responses as you go along, to discover what works best for you.
You will need to practice over and over again before managing your emotions like this becomes natural. It will be so worthwhile.
Listening to Our Anger
Anger is a universal emotion, but how we handle it differs widely. Common reactions include:
- Lashing out.
- Fixating on the cause, either loudly complaining or quietly boiling away until pent up emotions erupt.
- Repressing the anger, believing it to be an unacceptable emotion.
Some people may do all of these. I’m not easily angered, but when over-tired or stressed, this mild INFJ personality can be whipped into a terrible storm, with lightning flashes of rage that thankfully dissipate fast.
Understanding what happens when we feel anger rising is critical to diffusing it.
As with any riveting story, anger begins with an inciting event – we don’t like what happened, or something we or someone else did or said. We feel a momentary flash of emotional pain in response, and then we’re flooded with anger.
We start telling ourselves a story about the event, the people involved, and why we’re angry. Retelling it keeps the event fresh in our mind, and the more we retell it, the more we distort it away from the reality of what happened, fuelling our anger.
So how can we gently edit the stories we tell ourselves when we’re angry?
Anger is a loud emotion that seeks to distract and protect us from more vulnerable thoughts and feelings. Those primary emotions are the momentary flash of pain we feel in response to the inciting event.
We can get to the root of our anger by asking ourselves what we were feeling just before anger swept in. Common underlying emotions include fear, rejection, irritation, frustration, grief, guilt, and shame. When we identify what’s driving the anger, we can more effectively diffuse it by addressing that underlying need.
Responding to our anger with compassionate self-awareness helps break the cycle of negative storytelling. When we’ve identified the underlying emotions, we can more objectively re-assess our anger story. Knowledge empowers us to rewrite, inserting the true emotions involved, validating ourselves in the process.
All feelings are okay. Even anger is an important character in the story of our human experience, and it is possible to turn anger into joy.
Listening to Our Past to Reconnect with Ourselves
“Nothing I do works”. “I’m such a failure, I’ll never achieve anything”. “No one wants me”. Sound familiar? These are all stories my monkey mind often tries to tell me – stories that could lead to bursts of anger.
There are many possible roots to this kind of negative thinking, but it often stems from learned helplessness in childhood.
As a child, I regularly heard phrases like “that didn’t happen” and “but you don’t think that” from a key person in my life. I’ve only recently come to understand these and other hugely impacting behaviours are gaslighting. Recognising these words and actions for what they are, separating them out from who I am, is so helpful. I find I’m kinder and more patient with myself.
I often hear people say that we should forget about the past, but that’s nonsense. There are things in my past I’d rather forget, but I know those unsettled memories are asking me to pay attention for a reason.
We can all choose to purposefully reflect on the past to reconnect with ourselves. Experiences that lie behind us have so much to give. We can learn more about who we are, understand, accept and deepen our relationship within.
Reconciling the past can be very difficult after traumatic life experiences – memories of a trauma repeatedly intruding on daily life is a key diagnostic feature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Support is often needed from an experienced mental health professional. Please seek expert guidance if you need help working through difficult life events.
Tracing the roots of our thoughts and feelings into our past can be excruciating, but the revelations are illuminating. The knowledge we gain enables us to challenge our erroneous stories, and ultimately frees us from the past to live now with more grace.
Along the way, it’s important to validate all emotions, and let tears flow when they needed to. I cry – tears of anger, sorrow, grief, guilt, shame, regret… I cry even when I’ve laid pieces of the past to rest. Tears are cathartic. They allow us to be real and tell others we care, and healing doesn’t mean you stop crying.
Listening to Our Fears and Worries
The emotions generated by our stories are real, even if the story engulfing us is not. I don’t just fear that the physical pain I have will turn out to be a second cancer, I feel the grief of that diagnosis sweep through me as I imagine the conversations with the doctors, with friends and family, with myself. Mark Twain expressed this very well: “I have known many sorrows, most of which never happened.”
The idea that we can live fearless and worry-free is fantasy. Fear is not our enemy. Primal fear alerts us to real danger, modifying our behaviour to protect individuals and society. And if we’re willing to enquire and listen for the answers, emotional fear can direct us to places deep within that need our compassionate attention. Just like anger, fear and worry can be welcome characters in the story of Us.
Unfortunately, many of us are unable to distinguish real danger from imagined fears, especially when our judgement is distorted by chronic stress, past trauma, or bias. So how can we tune into ourselves to recognise primal fear as a genuine warning sign, distinct from another fearful story we’re telling ourselves?
I love this simple gratitude technique by Ingrid Helander for effectively responding to danger by calming our daily worries. Ingrid beautifully describes how we can identify practical tools and develop strategies that help strengthen self-connection, clarifying thoughts and rebuilding trust in ourselves.
Many self-help leaders tell us we have no reason to worry. Either we can control the situation, making worry unnecessary; or we can’t, in which case worrying is pointless. Unfortunately, worry is not binary. This mountain landscape has many craggy grey faces, and worry thrives in these shadowlands.
You’ve surely encountered situations in which your initial control, or ability to regain control, is unclear. This is my daily experience, living with sight loss: I encounter physical and digital systems that are difficult or impossible to use independently because they weren’t designed with accessibility in mind; and ablest attitudes become barriers to service, opportunity, and inclusion.
Like many retinoblastoma survivors, I live with a second cancer risk. I can’t control whether cancer develops again, but I could impact an early diagnosis by pressing for symptoms to be investigated when they arise. My sense of control is stripped away by the lack of follow up care designed with our unique risks in mind, and by healthcare professionals not taking concerns seriously.
Most of us can’t avoid worry because we can’t escape our daily lived experience. But like all emotions, worry is okay – we’re simply reacting to circumstances. Trying to resist, ignore or bury that trains the mind to doubt and mistrust its own messages. As with anger, fear and other flamboyant emotions, asking what lies underneath the worry, and listening for the answer, is a way through.
Purposefully considering negative scenarios can actually be very beneficial. We can plan, identify solutions, develop coping strategies – it’s at the core of child life procedure preparation work.
Try productively embracing your worries. Consider what might happen, how you could respond, and the coping tools you could use. What can you do now to be prepared – such as create a back-up plan or practice coping tools? Expect the best, but be ready for all eventualities, and your worry will likely quieten.
Creating Mind Space Every Day
Sometimes we just need a break from our noisy thoughts and feelings. I find these two techniques helpful in creating quality mind-space.
Tune in to Sensory Experiences
Reading is a very physical activity, but I often want to be consumed by the story, to forget I’m wearing earphones, or doing tasks as I listen. So I disengage from sensory experiences to connect more deeply with the story and my imagination. It’s a common focusing method, because we can’t effectively process narrative and sensory information together.
We can reverse-engineer this technique to distance ourselves from our negative storytelling. You can mindfully shift attention from your thoughts to a physical sensation. For example, how the ground feels underfoot, the sensation of wind blowing through your hair, or the contact of clothing on your back.
As mindful sensory focus grows more natural with practice, we become much less vulnerable to either creating negative stories, or letting them dominate us.
Give it to the River
Every day brings new events that irritate, frustrate, and grieve us, and defusing that resentment before it reaches the tipping point of explosive anger is vital. I often use this meditative strategy to let go of negative reactions, and reduce the build-up of stress from numerous daily micro-aggressions I experience.
I imagine myself standing on Winnie-the-Pooh’s Poohsticks Bridge, sunlight dancing through the Ashdown Forest. I transform the offending situation into a stick held in my hand, with a word written on the stick that represents the situation – and throw it into the river. I picture myself crossing the bridge, watching the situation-stick flow further away from me. Of course other situations arise – they always do, but the river will always flow too.
This is a really simple approach, but it takes practice, and some preparation so you can call the image to mind quickly when needed. Try this:
- Where is your river (mountain, forest, desert, city, imaginary or a real place)?
- What is the river like (wide or narrow, deep or shallow, flowing fast or slow)?
- Where are you (standing or sitting, on the bank, on a bridge, at an overlook)?
- What’s the weather like (warn or cold, sunny, clear, cloudy or wet)?
- What are you sending down the river (stick, leaf, rock, ice)?
What do you need to give away to your river today?
Poohsticks Bridge in the Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, England. Built in 1907, Posingford bridge was a favourie play spot for Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne, and inspired the story “Pooh invents a new game” in the book “The House at Pooh Corner”.
We all have a deep need to be heard, and we can begin right now by listening to our internal voice. Daily self-enquiry strengthens the connection with ourselves so we become more able to recognise and trust our thoughts, feelings, and intuition. With practice, we become adept at giving ourselves what we need, when we need it.
We tell ourselves stories daily in response to each new experience – whether we are actively aware of the creative process or not. Our power lies in understanding the stories we tell, and our choice to edit when needed. Asking probing questions of ourselves may be daunting, but our mindful responses enable us to revise the harmful stories we create. Keep editing them, as you uncover more of yourself.
We will inevitably make mistakes; we improve with practice. If we find we can’t rewrite the story, it’s probably because we haven’t found the true emotion that needs to be heard, or we haven’t yet given that emotion real space to work itself out. So we can go back a step and gently ask again “what’s really happening here?” Each time we ask this question, we give ourselves grace in which to heal.
Retinoblastoma, and other life experiences, can leave a huge emotional legacy that is very difficult to navigate alone. Therapy with an experienced professional helps many people coping with strong emotions and traumatic stress. Sadly, too many people don’t have access to affordable therapy, or a safe space where they can share their pain without judgement, or fear of judgement.
I hope some of the ideas and approaches shared above will help you build resilience, and reduce stress. Maybe you’ve come across them before and you’re already dismissing them. Please don’t!
When anxiety and depression overwhelm us, every solution sounds idiotic, far too simple to dissolve the enormous rampaging emotions, and also far too hard to implement. I know, because I’ve been there. But I promise these approaches can be life-changing. Please tell your cynical voice to shut up, take a breath, and let your quiet inner voice speak. You are so worth it!
Later This Year…
Watch out for our follow-on blog in the summer. Listening to ourselves requires a lot of self-compassion, which can be hard to muster when we’re giving all our energy to those around us. We’ll focus on self-compassion, self-love and self-care – what they are, how they differ, and how to bring them effectively into daily life to support emotional and physical wellbeing.
About the Author
Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.
Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries. After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.
Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.