One great source of understanding comes from experience. Gail Brenner, who writes at A Flourishing Life, presents very coherent concepts in her articles. There is much accuracy in her discussion of topics like memories, habits, and anxiety. Some of these articles are also accompanied with audio messages that extend the main topic, or explain a part of the article in detail. I certainly recommend these audio messages for obtaining greater understanding or inner peace.
Gail has 16 years of psychotherapy experience as a Ph. D. psychologist, as is easily evident through her writings. Also, this experiential knowledge comes into play in her Questions and Answers articles, where she has elaborately answered some questions others have provided for her. One relevant example involves help with depression, where many points regarding depression are brought up, such as labeling, awareness, attention, and negative thinking. Analysis of the many interconnected components of an issue is a key to clearing it up or being able to work through it, and that is one item that Gail brings to her material. The following is an interview I have done with Gail, and then some commentary and a summary of the points brought up:
Armen: This one goes right to your psychological background. I think about this every so often. How much of our personality would you say is fixed in place, and how much is able to be altered, and/or what are your thoughts in relation to this?
Gail: This is a great question – a version of the the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Any parent will tell you that we come into the world with personality tendencies, and there is a lot of research evidence supporting this observation. Some of us tend to be anxious, others appear to be comfortable and relaxed, while others are avoidant and reserved. These tendencies begin to show up within days of birth, suggesting that they originate from the structure of the brain and nervous system.
So it seems that we come into the world with a given template, but then we are powerfully affected by the experiences we encounter.
Because a lot of who we take ourselves to be is learned from these experiences, the good news is that a lot can be altered. Our minds are always trying to make sense of the world. When things happen – events, interactions – we develop thought patterns about ourselves and others that become our personalities. As we all know, some of these patterns serve us and some don’t.
Anything that is learned can potentially be unlearned, which creates tremendous possibilities for growth and transformation. If we are willing to untangle our distorted thinking, any habit or belief system that holds us back can be changed.
In addition, we can learn to work with our given physiological structures. For example, someone with an excitable nervous system can learn relaxation strategies that can be very helpful.
There is no substitute for living a conscious life. We start where we are and become aware of our thoughts and feelings. Then we can choose to engage in unproductive habits – or make a different, more life-affirming choice. We have within us the power to express our natural creativity and live fulfilling lives, no matter what tendencies we were born with or what experiences we have had.
Armen: As can be seen very easily in your audio messages, you present your words very calmly and peacefully. Was this ability improved much over time, or was it your natural way to present concepts?
Gail: I’m so happy that you find the guided audio processes useful – it is a joy for me to offer them. They come about quite naturally for me. I like recording them with lots of silence in between the words so people who are listening have time to really be present with whatever they are experiencing.
Armen: What would you say to someone who is stuck in a cycle of weakness, fear, and hesitation, most of which is all in their own head?
Gail: Every problem is a potential learning experience to help us shed habits and tendencies that keep us from living full and happy lives. I don’t have an easy fix for this cycle you describe, but I see it as brimming with opportunities for freedom and possibility.
- First, I would want to know about the history of this cycle. Most habits that prevent us from moving forward have their roots in our childhood experiences. We may look like adults, but when these habits are triggered, it is as if we are five again, with familiar feelings of fear and lack. Understanding where these feelings come from can be a part of the healing process.
- Next, I would be interested in deconstructing the problem by identifying the specific thoughts, emotions, and bodily experiences that occur when the pattern is triggered. This investigation is useful so that the cycle can be recognized in real time as it is happening.
- I would also want to uncover any payoff for keeping the cycle going. For example, the payoff for hesitation is that we don’t risk failure.
- I would encourage this person to let go of self-judgment and welcome in this pattern and all of its components in a field of love. These patterns visit us because at some level we feel we didn’t get enough love and attention, we feel a sense of lack. As adults, it is so healing to know that in any moment we can be a kind and friendly host when these old habits arise.
- Finally, I would suggest making small and gradual changes in behavior to develop a sense of strength and empowerment.
This process takes some time, but is the only way I know of to heal these long-standing habits from the inside out. I write a lot about this topic on my blog, especially the series on Freedom from the Prison of Your Habits.
Armen: Is it healthy to channel a harmful addiction into a healthier addiction, or is addiction in general more of the problem?
Gail: My interest, always, is in freedom. Certainly, healthier addictions, such as exercise, might be better for the body than smoking, for example. However, my experience is that the deepest happiness comes from being free of all addictions.
At the root of any addiction is an unwillingness to face something that is true about ourselves. Some people spend their whole lives running from unpleasant feelings or insecurities. This is a life ruled by fear, which makes deep peace and happiness unattainable.
We are terrified of the true solution – which is stopping, turning around, and taking a look at what is actually driving us. Yet, when we can embrace all parts of ourselves in love, inner turmoil is put to rest, and all addictions fall away.
I have met all my darkest emotions, and I can tell you that for me, the anticipation was much worse than the actual experience. Now, if fear comes, I happily welcome it. It is an opportunity to open my heart even wider. I highly recommend freedom over addictions of any kind.
Armen: Would an introvert or extrovert benefit most from trying to improve their standard traits, or from trying to acquire skills on the other end of the spectrum(e.g. an extrovert working more on their self-thought than their networking and communication)?
Gail: My suggestion here would be to recognize if there is anything that is being avoided due to fear. Introversion or extroversion are tendencies that exist in our bodies and minds. Some people are naturally more outgoing than others, and neither way is right or wrong.
The trap is when we are held back by fear. As an example, if an introvert is afraid of networking, I would recommend welcoming the fear without judgment and acknowledging the story playing in the mind that causes avoidance (e.g., I will be overwhelmed, I won’t know what to say). When the pattern fueled by fear is exposed, we can make a choice that is aligned with what we truly want for ourselves.
The point about how a lot of our personality or characteristics can be altered is one to take note of for those of you who are hesitant to try to change what you have a desire to make different about yourself. There is potential to build up social strength, or work past a fear you have, or so on, and so you have to take the process of correction/improvement into your own hands. You have to remember to tell yourself that you have the capability.
- We have a great deal of control over our personality, and are able to improve upon it with an amount of effort, so living a conscious life is valid and beneficial
- The audio posts at A Flourishing Life are fantastic, and the time provided between sentences in them is there to allow for internal reflection and presence
- If stuck in a cycle of fear or hesitation, there is an opportunity to exit this cycle, and the way to do so includes examining the history behind it, itemizing the various details about how the cycle functions and elicits feelings, being open to accepting the pattern as it is, and then making small changes that either self-strengthen or weaken the power of the cycle
- While healthy addictions are preferred over harmful addictions, it is best to be free of any type of habitual dependency, as they represent an unwillingness to face or accept a quality of ours
- A person who is more outgoing than another is only different, and not better or worse, than the other, and either person benefits from welcoming any weakness or fear they have without playing into a storyline they have in their mind about themselves