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Finding Power in Our Brokenness: What a Hindu Goddess Can Teach Us About Self-Acceptance

Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari rides her crocodile.

Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari rides her crocodile.

A Hindu goddess named Akhilandeshvari offers great insight into the path of complete self-acceptance — a path that I have taken that led to transformation into a Pack Leader personality. Her name translates to “The Never-Not-Broken Goddess” — a double negative that is unsettling to grammarians and confusing to ponder. But rather than being a goddess of weakness and brokenness, her message is about the the power of imperfection, confusion and uncertainty.

Rather unexpectedly, she is happy in her brokenness. She shows us the opportunity of being broken into pieces by both disaster and great fortune. Rather than rushing to attempt to heal, she purposefully keeps herself broken wide open, creating and fragmenting and recreating herself endlessly.

Pronounced ah-ka-LAN-desh-va-ree, the deity’s name has several translations. Wikipedia (1) explains it as Supreme Goddess (“Eswari”) who rules (“Aand”) the Universe (“Akilam”). Another website (2)  states “akhila” means bridging of a gap or an unsolvable problem, or completeness.

She is often compared to a spinning, multi-faceted prism, which fractures light yet creates beauty: “She dances and spins and breaks herself into shards of light, tossing out new possibilities for herself like flower petals from a cherry tree.” (3)  She rejoices in the unknowing, the fragility, the confusion and changes her identify willingly.

I have decided she should be the goddess symbol for those of us who work in mental health care: a symbol of trauma, grief, suffering and also positive change. She feels these states and lives them, as all good therapists should do, resonating with their client’s felt experience. She is the role model for personal transformation, but does not force others to engage in change. A website describes this aspect of the goddess well: ”She uses trauma and pain as tools — joyfully, purposefully — to attain her own liberation. And she teaches us that we can do the same.” “We meet her in our grief, in the aftermath of trauma and catastrophe — and our interactions are so personal we rarely speak of them,” says one spirituality website.

When I learned of Akhilandeshvari her message had a special resonance for me. I, too, have used my trauma and pain to grow, change and reinvent myself, changing careers to become a psychologist later in life after my second divorce. Before that I reinvented myself many, many times, with careers as a journalist, freelance writer, golf instructor, screenwriter and others. Throughout these life “zig-zags” I was often harsh and judgmental toward myself:  “Why can’t you figure out what you want to be or do? Why do you move so much? Change jobs so much? Try so many new careers? Why can’t you sustain a relationship?” Now I realize perhaps I was embodying akhilandeshvari. Akhilandeshvari is about freedom from routine, from old habits and wounds. The gift of destruction is new potential for growth

Now in my later life, after significant personal growth and self-acceptance, I am actually very happily never-not-broken.  I am happy for my reinventions, failures, and stumbles, knowing that I may have been breaking and fracturing, but in that confusion was also light. And that light was guiding me to a better place where I now work with patients to embrace their fractured lives and selves and guide them toward self-acceptance and self-compassion. Therapists should not rush in to force quick change and encourage a patient to “move on.” What is most helpful is an embracing of emotion, of full experiencing of the strong thoughts and feelings that many patients avoid.

Many patients have high levels of self-judgment and spend a lot of emotional energy mentally berating themselves, as if trying to fix what they view as broken. This leads to problems we label as “anxiety” or “depression” or “OCD.” I work to help them shift toward seeing themselves as accept themselves as “never-not-broken.”

Akhilandeshvari immediately struck me as significant when I read she is usually depicted as riding a crocodile. Crocodiles represent our reptilian brain where we feel fear. She rides on her fear rather than rejecting it, which in therapy is what we should do — embrace our deepest, frightening emotions. I do quite a bit of education with therapy patients on the power of fear, how we often react with fear to emotional threats, and how to become mindful and both embrace and manage our fear.

She teaches to stay on top of our survival fears, and not be reactive. In learning to be a Pack Leader, I learned to be fearless. I learned to become mindful and to stop automatically reacting with fear to change or rejection or disapproval by others or by myself. I have no fear of the disapproval of others and this has brought me fearlessness in relationships. And this self-compassion and self-acceptance is at the core of how I now help therapy patients reduce anxiety and depression, which are caused by the fear of rejection by others.

In addition, many years ago I had a powerful dream in which my totem animal was revealed to me — an alligator.. For me the alligator symbolized my need to honor my primal nature, trust my primal instincts, and conquer my fears. And this is what it means for Akhilandeshvari. “The very survival-fear that keeps most of us chained to the known and routine is Her flying carpet!” (3)

When I overcame my fears and embraced my primal powers of intuition and emotion I came into my own as an authentic person. I also learned great skills that I now use daily as a psychologist.

She also advises to surrender to tumult and things will work out. This ability to rejoice in the unknowing has been an ongoing journey for me, but so meaningful. Rather than worry and ruminate, I now allow the universe to take care of me and I trust completely that it will.

But as I write in “Pack Leader Psychology,” not everyone can be a pack leader. And Akhilandeshvari’s power is not for the submissive or fearful. “She doesn’t offer a comfortable solution, but an empowered one. She doesn’t give you security, but she displaces your reality so thoroughly that you discover you’ve actually been safe all along.” (4)

So many therapy patients have difficulty placing high expectations on themselves. Akhilandeshvari is about releasing expectations for yourself: You were never not broken, so why expect that you will be some image of “whole” in the future?

“That means that this feeling of confusion and brokenness that every human has felt at some time or another in our lives is a source of beauty and colour and new reflections and possibilities. We are already ‘never not broken.’ We were never a consistent, limited whole. In our brokenness, we are unlimited. And that means we are amazing.” (5)

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1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akilandeswari

2 : http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-KejPGd2xKVo/UYXPzuXTRVI/AAAAAAAAA6k/GL_XDXOPChw/s1600/050413+akhilandeshvari+1.jpeg

3: http://www.wicca-spirituality.com/akhilandeshvari.html

4: http://www.wicca-spirituality.com/goddess-akhilandeshvari.html

5: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/why-being-broken-in-a-pile-on-your-bedroom-floor-is-a-good-idea-julie-jc-peters/

Parenting: Dealing with a Teen’s Need to Fit In

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoorsOverheard in therapy from a teenager to her parents: “You made me look like the biggest retard ever.” First: Apologies for the socially incorrect statement. But what does this say about teenagers? (Other than that this comment has not changed in the past 4 decades since I was a teen!)

It signifies that their biggest fear is the fear of social exclusion, a fancy way to say they don’t like to feel left out.

Teenage brains are actually heavily wired to focus on social inclusion, acceptance, belonging or fitting in. There is actually a biological and evolutionary reason for this. In our ancient past, to find mates who were not biologically related young adults were often forced to leave their tribes or clans to venture out and attach themselves to a new tribe. What skills would be needed for a solo young adult to approach and join an unknown group of people? Great social skills!

These “pro-social” skills of approval-seeking, caring, submission, compliance, altruism and a need for acceptance would be life-savers in that scary situation for an adventurous teen.  (See, there is an actual reason your teen MUST HAVE that brand of jacket.)

The teen who uttered that phrase in therapy wanted to go to a party and feared being ostracized by her friends if she did not. Her parents, in attempting to keep this teen safe physically, were provoking an emotionally driven fear response in her. The fear response triggers “freeze-flight-fight-fold” responses as a means of self-protection, either from physical or emotional threats.

If parents react to statements such as this one merely as an attack they may lose sight of the fact that the teen is actually acting in a self-protective way to reduce the feeling of fear she is experiencing. Many human emotions and behaviors are a means to reduce a feeling of fear or to attempt to calm or soothe dysregulated emotions. At this point in her life, the fear of being rejected by her peers is surmounting her fear of being oppositional to her parents.

But today, in situations where teens want desperately to fit in, parents may only focus on the statement above as defiance and strive to get the teen to submit and comply. “Don’t disrespect your parents,” and “You’ll do what you are told,” may be phrases parents say to a teen in this situation. But parents would be forgetting an important fact that underlies the teen’s comment and behavior.

I urge parents of all ages of children to always remember that kids act in ways that help to keep them feeling safe or they may act out with defiance when they feel scared. My parenting takeaway is based on the fear response. Ask yourself: “What is my child really afraid of? Is my parenting making my child feel safe or scared?” A scared teen, whose main fear is being cast out of her tribe of fellow teens, will protest anything that increases that fear. Being kept from a party of her peers will trigger fear and she will protest — scream, sulk, sneak out of the house.

Reflective listening is always a great parenting solution. Rather than immediately impose your opinion as a parent, ask the teen what her real concern is. Reflect back to her what you understand — that she is fearful of being called “a retard” and being rejected by her friends. This fear is normal and age-appropriate, so parents should be accepting of the fear and work to understand it, rather than punish it. If the teen feels her fears are understood, it may de-escalate her fear and then her cognitive brain might be able to comprehend her parents’ decision to keep her away from the party. Or maybe not. But at least she will feel heard and understood, which is a great way for the parent-child relationship to be repaired and to flourish, even if there is disagreement on whether the teen can actually go to the party.

Parents Must Be the Umbrella

Parents must be the umbrella for a child’s black clouds. The parent’s problems must never be the black cloud.

I spoke recently about attachment theory in parenting, which, in its simplest form is the fact that parents must be attuned, responsive, and engaged with a child’s emotional state to help her learn to manage her emotions well.

To be attuned, a parent cannot be overwhelmed with her own fears or insecurities.

Sadly, too many parents “over-share” with children and do not mask their own problems. This over-sharing might be about financial concerns or it might be a parent’s phobias or anxieties or depression. I have so many children in therapy who can speak at length about a parent’s fear of spiders, depression episodes, panic attacks or other emotional problems.

This leads the child to belief that a parent’s emotional needs are more important than the child’s. It leads a child to wonder if a parent is going to be emotionally present for the child’s concerns. Deferring to a parent leads directly to a child with low self-worth, lack of sense of self and, possibly, emotional problems such as anxiety or depression.

A parent must get her own emotional house in order first, before she can be a good parent. A parent must be able to regulate his own emotions and remain calm, so that he is able to help the child learn to regulate his emotions.

Parents: Be the umbrella, not the black cloud.

 

Benzodiazepines linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax (alprazolam) and Klonopin (clonazepam) as if they have no side effects or long-term risk, but a new study links the use of these “benzos” to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Just a 3-month course of benzos was related to a 51 percent increase in the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis. That’s significant! The disclaimer is that this is not a causal link, and that benzos are often used to treat the symptoms of dementia, but… why take the risk.

I’ve said for years that Big Pharma and Big Medicine are using psychotropic medications to treat emotional problems with a chemical solution. Why not try therapy FIRST to address issues of anxiety or depression, rather than just slather some chemicals on the brain? Anxiety and depression are merely the body and mind’s use of emotions, such as the alarm/fear response, that has gone into over-drive.

Another disclaimer if you are currently taking benzos:  Do not abruptly stop using these drugs. Work with your doctor to slowly wean off of them. And get a therapist!

Compliments: Can you give or accept them graciously?

 

Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.

People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.

At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.

Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.

These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”

Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”

In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.

She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.

A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.

To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.

When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!

I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.

With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.

Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!