You feel that stress again, seeping into a mounting restlessness, a background frustration, a drive to keep going as if the days were a race. You have so much to do; you’re not sure you can manage. You’re exhausted, but you’re not sleeping well. You feel that irritating tension in your shoulders and neck again, creeping up into a headache, a foggy cloud in which you can’t think clearly. You don’t need this now. Your lower back is blocked and uncomfortable again, draining your energy. You don’t have time for this. There’s too much pressure to do things well. It has to be good enough, quick enough, the right decision…
Many of us struggle with elements of this picture, and usually understand them as our individual situations, as personal ‘failings’ or ‘weaknesses’ that we should improve: I should deal better with stress; I should get over this. Countless self-help books or internet lists fuel our drive for self-improvement. But shifting how we look at this picture can make a big difference to those struggles. I want to zoom out to look at social structures, and then zoom right in to the level of the body, using both steps as ways to practice a greater kindness to or gentleness with yourself, which makes it much easier to create changes.
1. Performance and judgement
We live in a world obsessed with performance. We are supposed to achieve, to succeed, to add value, to produce. We are supposed to show something for ourselves, to look a certain way, to be doing as much as possible. And we know others are watching: so many others. To go unnoticed would be to slip off the social radar, to drop a career, to feel worthless. It’s a performance that must be seen: that’s not to be missed. You need to try hard, to prove yourself; you are not (yet) good enough.
These messages are echoed all around us, from advertising to social media, to the way the education system and work places are structured. These social norms, which we move in and through, put a huge pressure on each individual, and keep us locked in being constantly active, as if stuck in the top gear. They keep us in a state of watching ourselves, which means splitting away from ourselves to look on and judge. From this point of view, the things we suffer under are problems we need to solve, so that we can perform better. We criticize ourselves harshly about our failings or weaknesses, ordering ourselves to change.
We can of course do valuable self-work by looking at ourselves and getting to know which patterns of thought and behavior are driving our situation, by understanding where they came from earlier in our lives, and by using this to change aspects of how we are in the world. But from the position of needing to ‘improve’ ourselves and be ‘better’, this can be like trying to remold yourself with a sledgehammer. It brings an extra layer of pressure, stress and frustration to the very things we would like to change, pushing against patterns that often emerged to protect us from being pushed in some way or another in the first place, as if punishing ourselves for them. The patterns push back. What’s more, viewing our personal histories as our individual burdens can make it feel like solitary, hard work, with an extra layer of guilt and shame added to the pressure to change.
Even though our individual struggles owe a lot to our personal histories, we must notice how strongly our high-performance social environment fuels them, shapes them, and holds them crystalized hard enough that pushing against them meets resistance. We must also notice how much our own ‘performance’ depends on social structures of privilege and discrimination, that have channeled or hindered our ability to meet the standards we’re supposed to live up to.
Acknowledging the force of those social norms and structures does not mean you become passive, without any power to change. It means you can take some of the pressure away from you and your burdens, and become gentler with yourself. It means taking a more accepting approach to how you currently are, with a bit less blame or shame directed to yourself; those structures were not your fault. Seeing them might also make you notice that many others suffer with similar struggles, and compassion for them might make your own situation feel less isolating, and again less pressured and more gentle. Taking a softer approach to yourself tends to create an easier path of changing yourself than using a sledgehammer. To consider why, we’re going to zoom in to the level of experience and physiology.
2. Experience and physiology
A useful tool in changing our responses is to pay closer attention to how an experience feels, rather than noticing only the thoughts. Looking again at the story from the start, if you take a moment to sink into the atmosphere, there is a frantic, hectic character to it, slightly panicked. There is a feeling of pressure and urgency, and a great deal of anxiety, like being wound up, ready to spring.
If you sit longer in the experience of stress or anxiety, noticing it’s character, for many people it feels like being afraid of failing, or of being judged, or hurt or rejected by others, or of something threatening happening. Going further into that experience, it can feel like trying to hold things together, being very alert, or trying to hide or disappear, or like collapsing. Or it can be like trying to be strong, protective or defensive, or ready to fight and prove yourself. These efforts are all very physical, involving a lot of tension and rigidity in the body. Ultimately, the feeling is that things are not okay unless you make these efforts: you must keep trying in order for things to be okay. This often blurs into a feeling that you are not okay or good enough as you are.
From a physiological point of view, this is a description of fear. In one sense, it doesn’t matter what is creating that feeling: whether it is social pressures, experiences carried over from earlier in life, or being chased by a tiger. Whatever the trigger, our primitive, biological responses are just as powerful, creating a defensive vigilance. These responses include the sympathetic nervous system (‘fight-or-flight’) and the stress response (HPA axis), both of which are activated in the amygdala and hypothalamus. These structures are deep in the brain, below the parts associated with conscious processing. They set off a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones (hello, cortisol and adrenaline!), which result in your body’s systems being ready for action: higher heart rate and blood pressure, increased muscle tension, release of stored glucose, and less digestive and immune activity (a waste of energy in an emergency).
Normally, this state of heightened physiological arousal should last for a limited period, followed by being able to rest and relax so that you can return to homeostasis, via the parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and digest’). In fact, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are supposed to constantly fluctuate during the day, controlling your organ activity and levels of energy and activation. But in a high-performance world, the ability to relax and come down again seems far away. We stay over-activated, our systems flooded. No wonder it’s difficult to get to sleep, muscle tension stays high, our immune and digestive systems are altered, heart-related problems and the risk of type 1 diabetes go up, and that our over-flooded systems either feel like a restless buzz, or eventually shut down into a burned-out flatness. An effective way to change those physiological processes is to work with various kinds of mind-body approaches, and this is where gentleness comes in again.
3. Body attention as self-love
The key aspect of many mind-body approaches is that they work with paying attention to or noticing your physical experience in the present moment. This can mean working with breath, movement, touch, or simply noticing physical sensations. While some approaches focus solely on the level of physical experience, others combine this with noticing emotional states. The latter can be more profound, but ultimately to address the physical is already to address the emotional, since they are so intimately interlinked, as we saw above.
The power of noticing is that it is non-judgmental, which is to say that it means accepting what is there, and this acceptance brings us back to being gentle with ourselves, or being more loving towards ourselves. We need to befriend the sensations in our bodies, to get familiar with them, to explore them. When someone is living with constant physiological arousal – being stressed or anxious – it’s like living in constant danger, which can trigger attempts to shut down those feelings by freezing, panicking or spacing out. The inner sensations can be uncomfortable or overwhelming, but getting to know them allows you to start to take control over your inner landscape.
The act of noticing in itself already starts to take the power out of the experience. It becomes less threatening, starts to shift, and allows other sensations to start taking up more volume. A heavy, tight chest can start to feel vivid and expansive. A foggy head can start to feel clear and bright. The sensation of feeling locked and paralyzed can shift into being fluid, flexible and powerful. You can then start to explore the more pleasurable sensations instead of being locked in the limiting ones.
In effect, noticing and working with your physical sensations allows you to start being able to regulate your own physiological responses, which means to be able to self-soothe and relax instead of staying in an alert state of tense, vigilant defensiveness. You are re-training your nervous system, and this allows you to regain a sense of agency over your situation, instead of feeling powerlessly pushed around by your environment. While cognitive, behavioural and psychological approaches have great value, bodywork approaches are vital because the fear/stress systems are driven by subcortical regions of your brain that are mostly inaccessible to the understanding, thinking, reasoning parts of it.
The tricky part is that paying attention to your physical experience with the intention of trying to change it (just relax!), tends to slow down the process. We’re back to the sledgehammer. The first step has to be a gentle kind of attention, like the act of listening or holding. This is to notice that what is there is a part of you in this moment. It is to notice an experience without needing anything from it: an open-ended attention. Rather than needing it to change, you can give it lot of respect; it’s a part of you that is there for a reason. You may not know exactly the reason, but with guidance you might notice how it’s connected to feelings that seem to be deeply ingrained within you, like hiding, protecting, or being ready to fight. You can give respect to yourself for having the ability to react in this way, and then start to explore other ways of being or qualities that also exist within you.
4. No performance
As a final thought, if part of this gentleness comes from noticing the pressure of social structures, there might also be a movement in the other direction. Noticing those social patterns might make it seem more important to try to change them, and following a gentler path of self-change rather than self-optimization is a powerful way to resist and go beyond the high-performance system. You are already good enough.