Ep. 88: Numbing Out When Things Are Tough w/ Anna Smyth, MS, RYT




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Numbing out is a go-to coping mechanism for so many of us experiencing painful and stressful situations and emotions. And it’s not a bad thing! There are situations when we absolutely need to. But when we numb out excessively, we can become hardened and a bit of a shell of ourselves. And we deserve more.

In this episode, mindfulness expert Anna Smyth explains the ins and outs of numbing out and how we can take small and compassionate steps towards choosing to stay present when our kneejerk response is to numb out. As part of this, she leads us through two short mindfulness practices that can aid us in that.

Episode Transcript

Anna Smyth  0:00 

It really is a very common human experience and coping mechanism. We're numbing out because we want to make it through what's happening.


Madeline Cheney  0:09 

Hey, you're listening to The Rare Life. I'm your host, Madeline Cheney. Today, we have a conversation with mindfulness expert Anna Smyth about the ins and outs of numbing out when things get tough and how we can take small, compassionate steps towards staying present in our pain. The idea of this episode arose when so many of you responded to January's Question of the Month, when I asked you what your go-to self-soothing activities are when you're in pain and totally overwhelmed and exhausted. About 75 percent of the answers were various versions of numbing out, mine included, and I'll be totally transparent here, I really struggle with this too. I became really curious on what the effects of this are on us numbing out often or even living in a constant state of being numbed out, and I think it's relevant to each of us in varying degrees. And so, this episode was born. In this episode, Anna and I chat about what numbing out looks like, what it feels like, how it affects us, and when and how we can choose to lean into those powerful and tough emotions. She even leads us through two short awareness practices that we can keep in our toolbox. I'll put the timestamps of each of those in the show notes in case you want to come back to this episode and go through those practices when you need them. I'll also throw a couple links in the show notes of practices you can find on YouTube, so you can just pull those up if you'd rather do it that way. All right, I want to tell you a bit about Anna and then we can dive right in. Anna is the managing director of an organization called Mindfulness Utah and she is the founder of Thrive Utah. She has an impressive list of extensive experience in both studying and teaching mindfulness. I'm so grateful that she agreed to teach our community little nuggets of wisdom that can improve our everyday lives. Anna has a little girl who is almost three, and is a lover of books and gardening. Alright, let's dive in. Hi Anna, welcome to the show!


Anna Smyth  2:58 

Thank you.


Madeline Cheney  2:59 

I'm so grateful to have you here to discuss the impacts of numbing out and how we can stay more present. A lot of us have really hard things that are going on in our personal lives relating to our children, so it's a very common tale to want to just numb out when we get bad news or when we have a particularly hard day. I think this topic will be really helpful to dive into, dissect, and look at how we can make little improvements in our lives. So, first of all, what is numbing, what might it look like, and why we do it?


That’s a great question. With my training and mindfulness, one of the key things that we focus on is cultivating a sense of curiosity, not just about things that are pleasant or joyful or delicious, but also maybe even about the things that are really challenging, the things that we maybe wish were different, like numbing out. We get to the end of the day and we say, “Oh my gosh, I was numb all day today,” and there's maybe some little seed of something that says, “Oh, I wish that this could have been a little bit different.” And so, instead of judging ourselves in that moment and saying, "Why do I numb out? I'm a terrible person, I'm a terrible parent,” and going down that spiral, we can say, “Well, what is numbing out? What does it feel like for me to numb out? What's happening? How do I know when I'm numb? How do I know when I'm not numb? What is the difference in my mind? What is the difference in my body?” That's the place I would start. We have some of the research that shows us that when we're numb, we have limited movement in the body. Sometimes we feel really heavy, we feel like our body is filled with tar or steel or something like that, and the same thing happens in our mind. Our emotions feel really numb or quiet, we're out of touch with those, and then we feel like maybe our thoughts just aren't happening. So that's what the scientific approach would be. I think everyone has a little bit of their own felt experience of, “What is it for me when I numb out? What does it feel like?” I would say, to anyone who is curious about this question of, “What other options do I have besides numbing out,” start there, start with just, “Well, what is numbing out? When I notice myself numbing out, can I just taste it for a minute? Can I just sit with it and say, ‘What is this?’ Let me explore this, like a new room that I've never been in before, like an art museum. Let me just wander around and see this for a little bit and feel this rather than jumping directly into judgment and saying, “This is bad and I shouldn't do this.”


Yeah, I really like that because I've noticed that I do that, I judge myself for numbing out. Like, “Why am I doing this to myself? I know this isn't good for me. I should have meditated or taken a hot bath and read a book, and just done something healthier.” But when I shame myself and feel embarrassed or bad because I did that, guess what I want to keep doing? I want to go back to numbing out because it doesn't feel good to shame yourself for numbing out. So, I feel like that also creates a vicious cycle.


Anna Smyth  6:22 

Yeah. It really is a very common human experience and coping mechanism. We're numbing out because we want to make it through what's happening and something in our body or something in our mind is saying, “This is the only thing,” or “This is the best thing I can think of right now, the best mode that I can get into, to make it through whatever's in front of me.” Again, there’s a little seed of passion that we can bring to ourselves of like, “I'm doing this because I want to make it through, because I want to cope.” So just quietly stepping away from the shame just a little bit, like you said, and recognizing that this is your brain and your body working, trying to do the best that it can to make it through some really hard stuff.


Madeline Cheney  7:13 

Yeah. And I always think of it as a negative thing but sometimes I wonder if, especially with really hard days or with a lot of emotion, feeling triggered to past trauma or really bad news, maybe sometimes it's okay, helpful in fact, to numb out for a little bit before you can be like, “Okay, now I need to process and deal with what's happening.” Just to give yourself a little bit of an emotional break from what you're experiencing.


Anna Smyth  7:45 

Absolutely. The word ‘comfortable’ in our modern-day society has a totally different meaning, like 200 years ago ‘comfortable’ meant exactly what it says, ‘able to be comforted,’ that we could be consoled in a moment, and now it means, “I just need to be free of discomfort all the time, I need to be happy and things need to be easy.’ It's interesting because if we have that approach to life, what's going to happen in the moments that are unavoidably hard? We're going to bring all of this, like you said, shame and judgment into it. Taking a more compassionate approach, like you mentioned, of, “How can I allow myself to be comforted in this moment? Maybe that means that I'm just going to create a little bit of distance between myself and whatever is going on, allow myself to turn inward, remove myself a little bit physically or emotionally or mentally, and recognizing that, again, this is one of the coping mechanisms that our body and our mind have to help us navigate what's in front of us. So, I think what you're saying is, “Can we give ourselves options?” Can we say, “What are all of my options in this moment?” rather than saying, “Here's this category of good options and here's this category of bad, shameful options.” We just say, “I have all of these options at my disposal.” “What is the wisest choice for me and my family and my life in the moment?” And that changes all the time.


Madeline Cheney  9:15 

Yeah, I really do like that approach. It's such a funny thing because during particularly hard days, or after the day is done and the kids are in bed or whatever, I think, “Oh, it would be so good for me to go do those self-care items that are like, they feed you and they make you feel rejuvenated and stuff, like the bath and the meditation or whatever it is. But when you feel like crap, you don't want to do those things, and I love approaching it that way, where you look at all the different options as like a menu of options and to be like, “If I don't feel up to doing the self-care that might be healthier for me, that's okay.” To allow yourself that license, I think that right there sounds like self-care, to not shame yourself or say, “I'm going to avoid these at all costs, these different coping mechanisms. But to really, truly allow yourself to do what you need to do to get through whatever you're dealing with, that sounds like self-care.


Anna Smyth  10:18 

Yeah. And just recognizing that being a parent is so challenging. Being a parent of a child that has different abilities and needs, it’s a difficult arena that we're in. So, really leaning with compassion and saying, “This is hard stuff. And I am going to let go of an expectation that I somehow need to just be in a blissful, relaxed state all the time.” Sometimes, it's just the ‘letting go’, let it go into a little bit of heartbreak of saying, “You know what, maybe I don't need to fix anything in this moment, I can just let my heart break for a moment because this is what it means to be human. Sometimes life is hard and sometimes our hearts break, and if I want to be present for my child or anyone else, I have to start with myself, I have to be present for myself and my own deeply human experiences. Then I'm more able to be present for those I love.”


Madeline Cheney  11:25 

Oh, I really like that. And I love, going back to what you said about the older definition of being comfortable, that you're able to be comforted. Allowing your heart to break or allowing yourself to feel the pain and to and embrace it, I think that does make you more able to be comforted because I feel like sadness and those painful emotions, they make us more vulnerable. Like, if you're really sad, you could be consoled, whereas if you're just completely numb, it's kind of hard to really have a lot of soothing happening.


Anna Smyth  12:20 

Yeah, in these moments, we might feel, especially with a rare diagnosis or something, we might feel really alone, we might feel isolated, “I feel a lack of support,” “I feel a lack of clarity,” all these sorts of things. The first step in soothing ourselves in moments like that is allowing ourselves to sit down in the heartbreak of that and say, “Well, I am feeling some aloneness here, I am feeling some confusion, I do feel lost,” and I'm not going to wallow in this, but just saying, “I'm going to allow myself to feel what I'm feeling and to just have this experience as a gesture of self-acceptance and self-care.” And then from there, our thoughts and our behaviors aren't coming from a place of “I refuse to accept my reality and this friction, this fighting against what is placed,” but more of a, “I'm seeing clearly what's here, both in my internal world, in my mind and my heart and my thoughts, but also my external world, with the people around me and my environment. I'm going to work with what ‘is’ rather than struggle against it.” And what we know is that that is better for our health, for our mental health, our physical health, our immune system, even, and our social health as well.


Madeline Cheney  13:39 

Yeah, I totally can feel the difference between when you are hardened, like you say, when I just feel really bitter. And like, “Nope, I don't want to feel that. Nope, this is just too much. I'm not going to allow myself to even think about it, don't go there.” That versus when I allow that heartbreak, like you were saying, I feel a lot more open, softer, a lot more tender, and maybe more authentic. I do feel like it's not necessarily pleasant because a lot of times that entails those really difficult things that you're sitting in and processing but life is just so much better overall when we're more of that softened, opened state, than the hardened bitter state, pulling away from the pain that's happening.


Anna Smyth  14:35 

Yeah. And if you think of every moment of your life and every moment in the different roles that you play as a partner or a parent, etc. that we have, you think of each moment as practice or as training for the next moment, and the next moment, and the next moment. This question arises of, “How am I training myself? How am I training my brain? Am I training myself to continue to be open and continue to be tender and vulnerable and approachable with my kids or with anyone else, or am I training myself to be numb? Am I training myself to be shut down?” And what we know about the brain and the body and how these things work is that if we find these harder spaces in feeling the heartbreak, in feeling the difficulty and saying, “Okay, this is what's here, it's really uncomfortable, it's not pleasant,” but if we train ourselves in that, we develop this proficiency. And it actually does become a little bit easier, like training for a marathon, you're training yourself, you become more proficient. And so, in those hard moments, you're more able to stay, you're more able to be calm and feel grounded and not be emotionally reactive, or numbed out and checked out. And I don't think I'm near the end of my life, but I would like to think that if my life was going to be ending soon, I would be able to say, “I can look back and see that I kept my eyes open as much as I could, and I kept my heart open as much as I could.” And that feels deeply human, that feels like being in this place of openness. And it is hard, hard stuff. But in resilience science and stress hardiness, we know that one of the key things that keeps us hardy towards stress and resilience is taking on a good challenge, having something we can commit ourselves to, something that stretches us. As parents of children with disabilities and rare diagnoses, we're right there. So, leaning into that and saying, “Okay, today is a training ground for the rest of my life, for tomorrow and the day after and the day after.” And that can be daunting sometimes but I think there's also something about that, that feels a little bit exciting too.


Madeline Cheney  16:57 

Yeah, very empowering. And I think, especially with these really rare diagnoses, you're like, “What were the chances that my child would have this?” Or, “What are the chances that this happens?” I think there's this feeling of like, “Well, then anything can happen,” and you're bracing yourself for, and I this sounds kind of dark, but a life full of tragedy. You're like, “Okay, what else is going to happen?” “Anything's possible.” And that may be a cynical outlook, but it’s also kind of realistic. Yeah, hard things can keep happening, we don't reach some quota with hard things. So, I think feeling that we're practicing and we're getting better at receiving hard things and dealing with them and being there for them, feels like, I'm like we're equipped, like we can we can prepare ourselves for future hard things, too. I really liked that idea of just practicing that and practicing that and doing yourself a favor for the future.


Anna Smyth  18:02 

Yes, I think you're exactly right. So, my brother and his wife, their oldest child was born with CHARGE syndrome, and CHARGE is an acronym, so each letter stands for a different challenge that she's working with. In their very early days, they were resuscitating her as often as they were changing her diaper, and that was such a challenge for them. That just hits you right in the heart, what would that be like, to be an everyday thought of, “Is my daughter going to live one more day?” And for some of us, that is our path. We did a lot of numbing, and then we saw that what was happening was our hearts weren’t open to anybody, they weren't open to each other, they weren’t open to themselves, and so this question came up of, “Is this the sort of training that I want? Do I want to train myself to be very shut down and very absent from my life? Or do I want to be present in this miracle of a moment where my daughter is here, and I am here, and that's it.” This is a moment where we're together and, even if it's hard, the fact that there's some aliveness, something that we can open our hearts to. And so, after a long journey, she's beautiful. I think she just turned 19 And she’s just this beautiful, thriving adult now, and I think there's so much learning that they've gone through and probably these moments of self-judgment of, “Oh, I should be better, I should be more present, I should be more this, more that.” But at the end of the day, we're all doing our best. We're all doing our best all the time.


Madeline Cheney  19:50 

Yes. I was thinking too, with your story about your niece, the pain that your brother and sister-in-law were experiencing was rooted in the love for their daughter, it was so painful because they love her so much. And I think about that a lot, I think about how so many of the really, really painful things in life have to do with loved ones, people that we love maybe passing away or being in pain, whatever it is. And when we numb out, we're numbing out that love too because I feel like they’re so intermingled, that grief and the pain and the love, they're all muddled up because they all are caused by each other. I realized that because I experienced recurrent miscarriage, that's one that was really obvious to me, where I was numbing out from the miscarriage, and I was consequently numbing out from that love that I had for that baby. And I'm noticing it carrying over in my parenting too. I'm just more hardened towards my living children. But when I would really grieve and open myself up to that pain that I was feeling, I don't think I ever feel like a better mom than when I'm opening up to that pain. It really opens up that love I have for my children. I just feel so loving and tender. I'm crying a lot but I just feel like when we allow ourselves to not numb out and stay present, that access to that love that we have for our children or whoever it is that we're grieving for or in pain about, that's more readily available for us.


Anna Smyth  21:32 

Absolutely. And we explore that a lot in the work that I do, this idea of, “What if I move towards sadness? What if I move towards grief? What if I invited in a guest and say, ‘Have a seat, what are you here to share?’” Like a good friend, we'd say, “Oh, how are you? How have you been?” And just listen to it. And you're exactly right, a lot of what we discover sometimes is that sadness or grief, and love, are not separate. They're two sides of the same coin. These moments of grief or sadness, or even worry, like I was mentioning with my brother and their daughter, if we sit with it for just a second and we don't numb out, all of a sudden, we become aware that we are so deeply in love with ‘whatever’, with our child, with life, there's so much beauty that we want them to experience, that we want to experience. And that is an incredible realization, to say the source of my sadness, the source of my grief, is beauty and love and joy. To be in touch with that is incredible. When we numb out, we miss that, we miss that connection. We just catch the sadness or the grief or the pain or whatever it is that's uncomfortable, and then we bolt, we run away from it. So, we missed that connection that's kind of on a deeper level of, “Oh wow, this is here because I love you so much.” Or, “I love us so much. I love life so much and I want the best of it for all of us.” That is that is a really beautiful thing. If we can sit with the difficult, then we might start to touch into some of that.


Madeline Cheney  23:25 

Yeah, I really liked that. Here's a question: How do we stay present? We're talking a lot about the benefits and the pitfalls of staying numb too long, so how do we access that presence of being able to stay when things are hard?


Anna Smyth  23:48 

That's the million-dollar question, how do we do that? It goes back to what you were saying earlier. When do we do that? This is not a course in self-improvement where everyone wraps up this podcast episode and says, “I need to be present every single moment of my life for the rest of my life, or else I'm failing at something." We're already very good at judging ourselves and noticing our shortcomings. The first thing I think, is to just soften and recognize that we're all going to have moments where we need to numb out, we need to just do something that is protecting ourselves because sometimes there are really extreme circumstances that we experience. We may as well have some tools in our pocket that we can use so that if we find ourselves saying, “Oh yeah, this is what numbing out feels like for me. Do I want to do this right now? Maybe not. Okay, so what options do I have?” And I've got a couple of practices I would love to take you through. One of them is a short practice, it's the STOP practice. This is a great practice for families because it is very accessible to all ages. I have another practice that is for these times when maybe you're already numbed out, so STOP practice will be trying to catch you before you get there, and then a practice for when we are already in that numbed out place and we find our thoughts have stopped and we're not in touch with our emotions and our bodies feel heavy and really still and empty, what options do we have if we would like to shift? So, is it okay if we just jump right into them?


Madeline Cheney  25:26 

Yeah, let's do it! I have to say, I took a mindfulness class and the STOP practices were my absolute favorite. So, I'm excited about this. Let's do it.


Anna Smyth  25:36 

Awesome! So, STOP practice is an acronym, and I love STOP practice because we have visual reminders of STOP practice all over the place. If you're driving or you're walking down the road, or you see a school bus, there are stop signs all over the place. It's a chance to say, “Oh, STOP practice.” And it is something we can do anywhere, any waking moment of our lives, it doesn't require a yoga mat or a bell or anything else, we can just do it wherever we are. So, the acronym STOP, the ‘S’ stands for ‘stop’. Whatever it is we're doing, if we're in this moment where we feel like, “Oh, I'm overwhelmed and I want to check out,” instead, just taking a pause. Stopping whatever you're doing in conversation or when you're get something done, just giving yourself the permission to pause. The ‘T’ stands for ‘Take a Breath’, or two, or 10, whatever you need to just create a little bit of space. Just take a breath, take a couple of breaths, and just focus on the fact that you're breathing for a moment. We're just disconnecting, just focusing our attention on the body, on the breath. Taking a few breaths, even if they're short or rapid, etc., which they might be if you’re in a stressed-out state, just breathing. The ‘O’ is ‘Observe’. We are gazing inward, we're observing what's in the mind, we're observing what's in the body. What is actually here for me right now? What do I feel? What emotions am I noticing? What thoughts am I noticing? What sensations in my body am I noticing? It might be some connection between those things, maybe there's a really big emotion and it's creating some discomfort in your body. So, we're just observing whatever is here, and then maybe asking this question based on what we observe, “What's needed? What is needed in this moment?” And just letting yourself sit with that question for a minute. And then the ‘P’ is ‘Proceed’. So, ‘proceed’ is to reengage with our life, go back to what it is we're doing, and proceeding to respond instead of react. Doing something that is intentional, that feels like it's coming from our heart, like we won't regret it at the end of the day. So, we're proceeding to reengage from a place of responding with intention and clarity rather than react. And this doesn't mean that we are going to bring ourselves out of a full-blown fight-or-flight or in this really stressed-out state in a matter of minutes with a stop practice. But it is going to give us some clarity about where we are, like, “What am I capable of right now? What do I need right now?” Sometimes that means I need a little bit of a break, I need some space, I need to communicate something, maybe I just need to use the bathroom or eat a snack. Something as simple as that can really be helpful. So that's our really simple STOP practice.


Madeline Cheney  28:39 

Yeah, I love how easy that one is because you could take a full five minutes to do it. You could do it in 30 seconds. I just love how accessible it is. And a lot of times when I do that, when I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I need the bathroom,” or “I'm exhausted, I need to take five minutes now to just rest.” But I think it feels very compassionate to ourselves.


Anna Smyth  29:01 

Yeah. And a lot of times, when we start to pay more attention to the body and the mind, we notice these places in our body where we hold tension. Whether it's my jaw that’s been clenched or my shoulders have been tense, or, for me I have these deep hip muscles that I tense up when I'm stressed. We start to feel this tension and this discomfort building in the body, and that can translate to some mental difficulty. Sometimes, just taking a second to do that STOP practice helps us say, “Okay, I'm just going to let my jaw unclench for a second.” Something as simple as that can really introduce a shift. All of a sudden, you feel a little bit of spaciousness in the moment of like, “Okay, I can take another breath, I can stay present rather than numbing out.” Something as simple as just that moment of awareness, and you're exactly right on whether it be 30 seconds or five minutes.


Madeline Cheney  29:54 

One thing I've tried to do, and I'm not very good at this, I'm just going to put that out there, but I’m so proud of myself when I feel tempted to pull out my phone and scroll through Instagram, that's one of my numbing out go-to's, I think for probably for a lot of people too, there have been a few times where I've caught myself like, “No, I need to STOP practice, what my body really needs is a break, but not this kind of break.” I will feel worse after I'd do that than I would if I lay down on the couch and just take a few of those breaths and do a really quick practice, again, 30 seconds. I just think replacing some of those numbing out go-to's that we have, with a habit of doing a short practice, like this, I think can be really powerful.


Anna Smyth  30:34 

Absolutely. And I love that you brought up scrolling because I have recently been kind of playing around with punctuating my scrolling with a STOP practice. I'll be in the middle of scrolling through some social media and I'll notice that I am reacting to something I'm seeing, and so I'll kind of pause and say, “Okay, I'm going to take a breath, observe what's going on, what are the thoughts I'm having related to this thing that I just saw, what are the emotions that I'm having, maybe my breath has even stopped because I'm holding my breath because of something I just saw and it's brought up a certain reaction in me.” So, I think there's even an opportunity to bring a STOP practice into those go-to's, video gaming or scrolling or whatever it is that we do to check out, even inserting a little bit of STOP practice as a way, like we said, at the beginning of being curious, like, “What are my tendencies? Who am I? How do I run my life?” And I just get curious about some of that.


Madeline Cheney  31:34 

Yeah, I mean, this is kind of a tangent, but that made me think of that curiosity. That was one of the things I loved learning about with mindfulness, like yesterday for example, my son got a new pair of hearing aids and I was so excited. I was like, “Yes, this is awesome! He has these new capabilities,” He was excited, they were red and he loves red, it was all very positive. And then the rest of the day, I just was like, “I feel kind of terrible.” But then I was able to, instead of shaming myself for feeling terrible, which I felt tempted to, I got curious. I was like, “Okay, what kind of emotions is this bringing up? Oh, I'm remembering the first time he got hearing aids. That was like hell. And I'm also remembering this little bit of sadness, like, ‘Oh, he's hard of hearing.’ I feel these old feelings of feeling kind of sad about that. But I haven't felt sad about that in a long time.” Recognizing, like, “Okay, that's why I feel sad right now. Oh, interesting.” Just that right there, I feel like, it wasn't as big of a deal. It was able to pass through. I felt it and it didn't trip me up as much as it might have if I had been just like, “Oh, why do I feel terrible? I'm just going to go. I'm just not really curious about it.” I think that curiosity really can help it not get stuck, I guess is what I'm trying to say.


Anna Smyth  32:50 

Absolutely. And it's interesting because what you just described was a way of you attending to yourself, and that skill translates directly to being a parent. If there's a little part of me that’s saying, “Oh, I don't feel good, something's wrong.” And we can say, “Oh, well, let me listen, what's going on here. Let me attend. Let me be present. We can do that internally.” Then, when our child comes to us, that place is like, “Oh, something's wrong. I don't know.” We can just be more present. We can just say, “Oh yeah, I've been there. I felt terrible before, I've had sadness before, and I can sit right down here with you because I'm a human too,” and we can sit in that place of love with them. I think that's one of the coolest things about mindfulness practice as a parent, that if you can give yourself that space, it does directly translate as a skill set that you can give to your child, which is just so cool.


Madeline Cheney  33:44 

That's a good point. I do I feel that, I think I bashed myself for not doing meditations every day like I wanted to and stuff. But yeah, I think I have developed that skill of being curious. And now you're saying that, like, yes, that does carry over, I do feel more patience to get curious about my children's freak-outs or whatever big emotions they’re having. That is a really, really helpful skill to have in life, both for yourself and for others that you love.


Anna Smyth  34:12 

Absolutely. I think just one other thing to say about that is that's an easy thing that can turn into a slippery slope of self-judgment, of saying, “Oh, well I better do that with myself because I'm not present enough for my kids." We don't want shame to seep into any of this, and we know from secure attachment research, all we need is 30 percent. We just need to be present 30 percent of the time for our children to be able to develop a secure attachment. And so, when I learned that statistic, I took a deep breath in. “Oh, good.” So sometimes, what you were talking about of feeling terrible, sometimes in those moments, our child is also needing something. It's a little bit of a choice of, “Do I attend to myself or do I attend to my child? Who do I attend to first?” And that I think can sometimes turn into judgment, of, “Oh, I should always attend to my child first.” We've got that airplane oxygen mask analogy, and I would maybe just add, “What if we give ourselves the choice every time? Should I attend to myself? Maybe just for a moment, right? Can I give myself permission to attend to myself, knowing that 30 percent is good enough?” And developing that skill is really important at attending to our needs as well as our kids’ needs, that's going to help us stay more present and not numb out as much.


Madeline Cheney  35:36 

Yeah, as a reminder, you are also human and deserve love and attention, and it's probably good for your kids to see if like, "Hey, I need a timeout. I'm going to go upstairs and do a STOP practice by myself. I'll be back in one minute.” So, then they’ll be like, “Oh, that's what mom does when she's struggling.” And I think kids learn from watching us like that, too. 


Anna Smyth  36:05 

Should we do that other practice?


Madeline Cheney  36:05 

Yeah, I was just going to say, let's dive into it. I didn't know if that’d be too much of a U-turn here. Let's do the other one.


Anna Smyth  36:05 

Yeah, let's do it. So, I really like this practice. In the 2020s, I've been sharing this practice a lot because I think numbing out has become a really frequent coping mechanism because there is just so much going on, especially for parents who have these additional challenges to navigate, and having that community so important, in some cases it has not been as available. So, this is an interesting practice because typically, with mindfulness, we just jump right into the body, we start with the breath or we start with some part of the body where we can feel sensation. But with this practice, it's a little bit different. We actually start with our emotions. This is kind of something that we use when we really are in this heightened dysregulated state, where we're like, “I'm going to numb out,” or maybe we're hyper regulated and have a lot of sensation and a lot of thoughts, and everything's just going crazy inside of us. The first thing you want to do is make sure you are in a place that is safe and stable. That might mean you need to close a door, it might mean you need to go sit in your car, just giving yourself a place that is safe and stable. So, you can just focus for a minute, and then the first thing we do is tune into whatever is the primary emotion that you're feeling. What is the most prevalent emotion that’s showing up? And sometimes you just need to sit with that for a second because you're like, “Well, is it anger? Is it sadness?” It might be a whole bunch of things but just sitting with that question, “What is the primary emotion that I'm feeling right now?” And again, we're leading with curiosity here, so what is that primary emotion? And if you're having a hard time identifying it, maybe seeing which of the four primary emotions it is closest to. Fear, anger, sadness, and happiness are our four primary emotions. If you're having a hard time labeling it, maybe seeing which of those four it is closest to, and then from there we ask ourselves, "On a scale of one to 10, one being hardly noticeable and 10 being extreme, how intense right now is this emotion?” And again, we're leading with curiosity here instead of pushing it away and numbing out, we're leaning in, we're saying, “What is it that I'm feeling? Can I label it and put it on a scale of one to 10? How intense is it in this moment?” And then we shift to the body, we feel all of our emotions in our body. So, asking the next question of, “Where in my body do I feel this emotion? Do I feel pressure in my chest? Do I feel heat in my forehead? Do I feel the topsy-turvy-ness in my stomach? Where do I feel this emotion in my body?” And this is a huge question. I love this question. So, we don't usually pay attention to, “Where is my emotion showing up in my body?” So just saying, “Where's the emotion in my body and what does it feel like?” And maybe sitting with that for a moment and just feel into it, and then when you're ready, moving to the last question which is, “Can you be with this emotion and how it feels in your body with some friendliness?” So, can you offer yourself some friendliness with this emotion and how it feels in your body in a friendly way? And if that's hard to grasp, maybe thinking about someone that you care about. A good friend, someone you love, maybe your child and if they came to you, and they’re in this state, they were feeling this emotion, they were feeling this discomfort in their body this dysregulation. What friendliness, what kindness, what compassion would you give them?  And offering that to yourself, to whatever degree you can, sometimes we have impatience towards these things, and that's fine. Whatever amount of friendliness you're able to offer yourself, doing that for just a moment, sometimes in compassion practices, we might just put a hand over our heart or we might hold one of our hands and the other or maybe even put a hand on your cheek, some of these gentle gestures that we offer to others, and be just doing that for yourself for a moment to bring some of that friendliness, and some of that kindness. And so, this practice really gets us into the body, but in this really gentle way. And then just sitting with that friendliness for as long as it feels needed or as long as you're realistically able to, and then just bringing that practice to a close with a few deep breaths.


Madeline Cheney  40:57 

I really love that. I think, again, it feels so compassionate, and it feels so nurturing to ourselves, which, we spend so much time nurturing other people, especially as parents nurturing our kids, and I just love the idea of nurturing ourselves and what's going on for us. I can see how that would really help us become in-tune with what's going on and how we're feeling, and trying to sit with that.


Anna Smyth  41:27 

Yeah. And there's some powerful stuff with bringing curiosity to what you're feeling right now, especially when it's uncomfortable. Everything that happens to us is not only usable and workable, but it actually is your best teacher in this moment. Whatever's here is your best teacher, so if we can turn towards ourselves and say, “What is going on for me right now on an emotional level?” Again, a transferable skill to parenting, I've noticed that with my little girl, we have an emotions chart on the wall that has all these different faces with emotions, and she can't read yet so she can't see all the different ones but if she's feeling upset, I'll say, “Go point out your feelings on the chart. “And she'll go from this frustrated or angry or whatever state to, “Oh, let me go point out my feeling on the chart.” And sometimes just that will neutralize it, she hops up and she's engaged in this game almost, and it really can be quite a neutralizer for her. I watched it and I say, “Wow, that was amazing.” But then I say, “Oh, of course, this is what mindfulness practice does for me so of course she has the same sort of brain wiring as I do.” This sort of thing, it's a transferable skill.


Madeline Cheney  42:38 

I love that because I feel that too, sometimes, even with the hearing aid thing yesterday, like, being able to name how I was feeling and why it really took a lot of its power away, I wasn't feeling nearly as sad or down as I was before, and I do think it has that neutralizing capability. One thing that my therapist did for me, she sent me an emotion wheel is that what it's called, where it has all the different emotions. That's kind of like a grownup version of the chart you have for your daughter, but like, I'll put a link for that in the show notes because that has been super empowering to me, to be able to look at it and see all the nuanced emotions. It divides up the different emotions. I'm sure you know this, but for listeners, it divides up the different main emotions and then within those there are much more nuanced emotions, and to be able to really name exactly what you're feeling does feel very empowering and it helps you feel understood, I think.


Anna Smyth  43:39 

Yeah, absolutely. I think emotion wheels are so helpful for adults because what we're talking about here, this question of, “How do we not numb out and how do we stay present for what's going on?” There's an assumption that if we do turn towards our emotions and ask these questions, we're going to be able to answer them, like, “What emotion am I feeling?” And a lot of times, we don't know because we don't go to school and take a class on emotions, so a lot of times, we don't know what's going on, we don't have the right label for it. But there's an example on this, the emotion wheel. There are the basic emotions in the middle, one of them is fear, but then if we divide fear out into more nuanced emotions, we've got scared, anxious, insecure, submissive, rejected, humiliated. And then on the outer circle, they’re even more nuanced from there. So just seeing something like this can be so helpful.


Madeline Cheney  44:38 

Yeah, it's amazing what just narrating or neutrally seeing what's going on and being curious, what that can do. How powerful that can be.


Anna Smyth  44:49 

Yeah, absolutely. Just being able to label something, to see it as an object that I can witness. Then instead of feeling like I am this emotion that is uncomfortable I just, “Oh, this is something that's here, like a cloud in the sky or a bubble that is sort of floating and eventually will pop or go away.” And some part of me continues to be here so we feel maybe a little bit less stuck, like you were saying, in those difficult moments, and maybe we can continue through them without needing to numb out.


Madeline Cheney  45:22 

Yeah. Well, I loved our conversation today. Thank you so much, Anna. I really do feel like I've learned a lot and I'm so confident that so many of my listeners have learned a lot too. These are such valuable skills and techniques to bring into our lives and just understanding that can really go a long way in our everyday lives and in handling what we're handling. So, thank you so much for coming on today.


Anna Smyth  45:53 

Yeah, thanks for having me.


Madeline Cheney  45:56 

Check out the show notes for a link to Anna's website to learn more about her. There are also links to find us on social media. Join me next week for a solo episode, all about how damaging it is when we are gaslit as we share our struggles alongside our disabled children, and the harm that is done when we gaslight ourselves. Unfortunately, I know this is something that all of us struggle with, so do not miss it. See you then.

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Ep. 111: Season 7 Kickoff lake and snowy mountain https://d3ctxlq1ktw2nl.cloudfront.net/staging/2023-0-26/309450441-22050-1-63bc800d4419a.m4a


Hex Code

68: Dipping My Toes into Educational Advocacy