emotional labor: dissociation for hire

A few weeks ago, over the holidays, I was in line at a Starbucks when the mother of one of the employees came into the store to surprise her daughter. “Hi, honey!” she called, from the back of a long line of waiting customers. “Why aren’t you smiling more?” I cringed as the young woman, who was clearly stressed, preoccupied with handling multiple tasks, managed a weak smile.

I worked for 15 years in various customer service positions, none of which paid particularly well. While the job duties varied, what never did was the expectation that I should smile, look happy, and seem to be enjoying my job, at all times. Many of these years were spent on the phone in a call center for a bank, where I had learned that smiling made my voice sound nicer, and so I would fix my jaw in a smile in order to give disgruntled callers the most-pleasant-experience-possible.

I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but this expectation was what’s called emotional labor. Emotional labor is the smiling barista, the cheerful bank teller, the calm person behind the car rental counter in the face of the angry customer.

Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1999 movie ‘Office Space’ may recall this iconic scene where Stan (Mike Judge), the “Chotchkie’s” manager, suggests that Joanna (played perfectly by a jaded and weary young Jennifer Aniston) is not giving off the proper attitude:

Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, okay?
Joanna Okay.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna Okay. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Look. Joanna.
Joanna Yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. Okay? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna Yeah. Okay. So more then, yeah?
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

Joanna Yeah, yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager Okay. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild says that “(emotional labor) requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others—in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”

Emotional labor requires us to dissociate from our own embodied experience in order to perform our work. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that for some people this can be profoundly traumatic over time.

To create a sense of care, or goodwill, or attunement with others that is not authentically felt, we have to act in a way that suppresses not just our own feelings, but in many cases, the truth of who we are. For example, asking a neurodivergent person to connect in a way that is not natural to them will be incredibly difficult, or even painful. Similarly, when an introverted individual is required to engage in extended social contact, this can leave them feeling deeply drained. This type of work requires a tremendous output of psychic energy that is exhausting, and is almost never acknowledged, let alone compensated accordingly.

Emotional labor in the wellness world

My ten years in customer service (from bank teller to branch manager) taught me that if I wanted to do well on performance reviews, make more sales, and move ahead in that career, I needed to smile, push down my frustration, irritation, and tears, and act as though I absolutely loved my job. Telling that crying customer that they were being charged daily until they could pay those 5 overdraft fees? Love to. Let the angry man call me names on the phone? No problem! Maybe I can sell him something and make my unrealistic sales goals! Watch the manager gave my co-worker an unsolicited back rub in her cubicle? Great! It’s all fine! I’ll cry in the bathroom at lunch!

Obviously this was pretty awful, but at the end of the day, I knew that I could remove that persona (I often took a shower immediately when I got home– anything to wash off that feeling!) and be truly “me” again at home.

When I left that corporate world to “follow my dream” and run a yoga studio, you might have expected, as I did, that I’d be leaving emotional labor behind. After all, I was doing what I loved, right?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider some popular stereotypes: What do we expect from a yoga teacher? Peaceful, calm, spiritual, caring, equanimous? Or your favorite group fitness instructor– gregarious, cheerful, full of energy and encouragement? A physical therapist or PT assistant? Patient, caring, attentive, impervious to patient complaints.

Are these natural qualities that these folks feel and exhibit, or just our expectations? While we understand that of course, these people are human, the truth is that we expect these folks to have a certain demeanor, attitude, and approach to their job and to their lives. We might think that emotional labor is most prevalent in service industries, but it’s also a built-in part of any kind of work in the wellness or fitness industries. For self-employed people, this persona may feel like it needs to become their identity– even on weekend trips to the grocery store, we may not be able to fully relax into ourselves.

As the owner of a yoga studio, my students expected me to be ready to address their physical, spiritual and emotional needs at a moment’s notice. Behind the counter, I had to soothe hurt feelings when folks couldn’t get into a full class; tactfully let folks know that their credit card was declined; keep the studio spotless and smelling great. No matter how tired I was; no matter the fact that I was working 7 days a week and sleeping poorly; even if my dog had died two weeks ago, I had a broken arm, and was taking Percocet, I needed to be the person they expected me to be– or my business suffered.

After one incredibly long day, I found myself walking into the lobby and looking at an overflowing trash can that needed to be emptied. I was alone, and in a weird, out-of-body moment, felt that my face had formed itself into an artificial smile. I was horrified to realize that I was smiling at the trash can because I had trained myself to smile when I was frustrated or unhappy. This was a functional, adaptive behavior that helped me to deal with all of the students, clients, and teachers that needed me to be “there” for them– and it was so engrained that I was turning that smile on a basket of tissues, coconut water cans, and used incense sticks. Now that’s some serious dissociative behavior.

Making the implicit explicit

If it sounds like I hate emotional labor, that’s really not true. I think emotional labor takes a tremendous amount of effort and expertise. Paid or unpaid, it’s a necessary part of any functional society. The problem is that in almost every case, it’s unacknowledged and underpaid. The courteous reply, the smiling response, the understanding voice on the other end of the line are expectations that we take for granted. The workers who change our kids’ diapers or bathe our elderly parents are being asked to engage in acts of intimate care at minimum wage. Flight attendants, nurses, social workers– these folks are all being asked to handle volatile situations with creativity and kindness. All of this is incredibly skilled work that our culture doesn’t value enough to pay well.

In my own work, I know that I can no longer afford to engage in unpaid emotional labor. I have structured my business so that I can take weekends off, as well as four weeks per year of vacation. This means that when I am with my clients, I can attune to them with genuine care, not needing to suppress my own unmet needs. I make sure that my emotional labor is paid. It’s always been implicit in this type of work, and I do my best to make it explicit when I discuss what I do with clients and colleagues. This is how we start to change a culture.

It’s a privilege to be able to do this, of course. Many people need to work in ways that require unpaid emotional labor. If that’s you, it’s important to honor the level of skill and care you are bringing to your work, even if your employers (or customers) do not. At the very least, recognizing that suppressing your own needs or identity while you’re working is going to tax your personal resources can help you to manage them better, or to seek out support and resources. And if you’re self-employed, consider how you can factor in the cost of your own emotional labor when you set your pricing and schedule policies.

As consumers, one thing we can do is to begin to notice and recognize when we are asking for that labor in our unspoken expectations, and to minimize unnecessary demands on it. For example, do we really need a quick response, or can we let them know it’s not urgent? Can we offer to pay extra when what we’re asking for is outside the bounds of the relationship? And, can we recognize that the person behind the counter may not be able to smile right now?

After all, she certainly isn’t being paid for it.

will movement cure your anxiety?

If you’re someone who works with anxiety, you already know how overwhelming it can be. This is especially true for folks with a history of trauma, but anyone can find themselves being swept up in anxiety.

Anxiety might feel like:

  • A sense of urgency
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Body temperature changes
  • Shallow breath
  • An inability to sit still; need to move
  • A feeling of dread or fear

We may have heard that movement can help with anxiety.

In my experience with my own anxiety and in working with clients, I’ve found that movement certainly can be a powerful tool. What we experience as anxiety in the body is often the result of our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic response. If we’ve got some kind of stressor in our lives (and who doesn’t), our system reacts by producing hormones that prepare us to fight, or to run from a potential threat. Those physiological symptoms (heightened heart rate, shallow breath, etc) that feel so awful are actually a weird kind of evolutionary gift to help us deal with the challenge. Of course, if we don’t “use” the energy that comes with this nervous system response, it just hangs around and makes us feel… anxious.

For lots of folks, just adding in more movement can make a tremendous difference, especially if we don’t already have much movement in our lives. It can be as simple as getting in a quick walk around the block, or it might be more structured– a spin class, a game of pickle ball, or a yoga session. If this is what you need, you’ll know it by the way you feel afterward, or even during– there’s often a sense of release, breathing easier, and you might feel calmer, more settled, or in a better mood afterward.

But movement isn’t always the answer.

While getting some exercise can be a quick fix for many people, it’s not a universal solution. In fact, for some of us, a movement practice can actually make us feel MORE anxious.

This is especially true for people who have a history of trauma, but it can happen to any of us. If we’re attending a yoga class and we’re told to pay attention to our bodies, focusing on sensations may increase feelings of anxiety. For example, paying attention to our shallow breath, or noticing the tension in our bodies, can make us feel much worse. “What’s wrong with me?!” we think. “Everyone else is totally fine, but I’m freaking out!”

If you’ve had this experience, you might benefit more from a practice that doesn’t ask you to dive so deep into this inner awareness– what we in the industry refer to as “interoception.” Instead, I would encourage you to focus on external stimuli or sensations, like hearing sounds or listening to music; taking in the sights with your eyes; or focusing on sensations like feeling muscles engage or feet on the floor.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds.

For many people, finding the right kind of exercise can be a problem, especially if we live with chronic pain or have mobility challenges. Many of us don’t feel comfortable or welcome in certain spaces. Additionally, social anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to try something new. We may have fears around being with others; looking foolish; not having “the right body,” etc. Financial or time challenges can prevent us from engaging in structured movement practices or spaces. And going for a walk may not be a safe possibility where we live.

Exercise can also mimic the effects of anxiety or stress.

We should also bear in mind that exercise is inherently stressful. When we move our bodies to exercise, we may find that our breath is more shallow, our heart rate goes up, and our body temperature changes. Sound familiar? Yep, these are the same effects we might feel when we’re experiencing stress or anxiety. This can feel so uncomfortable that some people would prefer to avoid it completely.

If this is something you’re experiencing, I’d encourage you to try to find a movement activity that you enjoy. Love dancing with friends? That’s great movement. Slower walks in nature? Totally legit. The most important thing is that it feel right for you.

If anxiety has prevented you from finding a movement practice that works, there’s hope.

It can be really helpful to find a coach, trainer, teacher or gym who knows how to support folks who have anxiety or a history of trauma. You’ll want to find someone who knows how to work in a thoughtfully paced way that doesn’t push too hard, dive too deep, or work through overwhelming experiences. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get to “work hard”– but that you won’t be pushing past your body’s boundaries when it’s not safe to do so! Truly accessible spaces that welcome diverse bodies (and are not simply focused on “getting fit”) are a great place to start.

Finally, it’s really important to remember that a movement practice may be helpful, but is not a replacement for mental health support. I always recommend having separate, qualified mental health resources to help address the psychoemotional experiences that arise when we start working into the body.

imposter syndrome isn’t your fault

⁣If you’re like me, you’ve experienced Imposter Syndrome in your lifetime– that sense that you should know more than you do, that you’re not really as good as you’re pretending to be, that if other people only knew, they’d be shocked and would certainly denounce you for the fraud you truly are. ⁣

And, if you’re like me, you may also have experienced a sense of personal responsibility around this feeling. That somehow you should be doing BETTER than to have Imposter Syndrome. That if you were only a little more confident, savvy, emotionally strong, you would be able to own yourself for the incredible, capable human you are. ⁣Get yourself together already, jeez.

Imposter Syndrome is real. It’s a complex that tells us that we aren’t enough, that we’re faking it, and that we are to blame for our inferiority– but it’s a liar. It may be helpful to see it as a complex that’s not necessarily personal or individual to each of us, but as a cultural complex that clouds our collective thinking around who should feel empowered and able. ⁣

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Our culture’s neoliberal lens for mental, physical and emotional healing says that it’s YOUR personal responsibility to be well– and that if something is amiss, surely it’s your fault (for more on this, check out this blog on healthism). This sense of ownership is so deep and so engrained that we experience shame around our own shame. ⁣

In her excellent book, “What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to the Change The Way We Approach Goal-Setting,” author Tara McMullin talks about how detrimental it is to see Imposter Syndrome as an individual problem:

“…seeing Imposter Syndrome as an individual condition belies the very real, very loud messages that women and underestimated groups receive, telling them that, if we were really good enough, we’d already be doing better than we are.”

-Tara McMullin, What Works

⁣There’s more at play here than just our own individual lack of confidence. There’s a baked-in cultural implication for many of us that we should be doing better than we are. That our struggles are our fault. ⁣

In fact, these messages are so deep that I often see people anticipating them before others can say it for them. “It’s my fault for not listening to the pharmacist.” “I should have double-checked that receipt.” Can you see how we do our own victim-blaming so that others don’t do it for us? ⁣

Imposter Syndrome is real. It’s a complex that tells us that we aren’t enough, that we’re faking it, and that we are to blame for our inferiority– but it’s a liar. While there may be things that you can do personally to combat your own sense of Imposter Syndrome, the deeper issue lies in the cultural complex which tells us that we are directly responsible for our own failures, despite the systemic inequality of our current socioeconomic reality.

Perception is Embodied (but what does that mean?)

Of course, we all know that each of us sees things a little differently.

For example, if you’re lactose intolerant (or a vegan), dairy ice cream looks very different to you than it might to someone else. If you were bit by a dog as a child, then you don’t see them as the same friendly lovable animals someone else might. And we all have different reactions when we see political messages.

It’s easy to account for many reasons why we perceive things differently, including our history, preferences or mood. But you may not know– as I didn’t!– that our perception of objects and experiences is also affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences.

Our perception of objects and experiences is affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences!

What does this mean? Well, the information we perceive about the size, speed, distance, etc., of an object is not completely objective. That is, there’s not little ruler in our brain saying, “that object is 8″ high!” Instead, our brain considers how we might interact with that object, and how effective we might be in those interactions.

What does embodied perception mean?

Imagine you’re playing baseball, bat in hand, watching as a ball flies toward you. How big that ball looks depends on your perceived ability to hit it. Mickey Mantle once said (after hitting a 500 foot home run!), “I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” In contrast, Joe Medwick (another MLB player, if not as famous) commented that being in a slump was like “swinging at aspirins.”

Rob Gray has studied the effects of embodied perception in sports and found that it’s true– top athletes truly do perceive the ball (or goalposts, net, bullseye, golf hole) to be bigger than those with less skill. In other words, their confidence in their ability causes them to see it as a more achievable target.

So maybe you’re not a pro athlete, or even much of a casual athlete. There are still profound implications for embodied perception theory. For example, a 1999 study by Proffitt and Bhalla demonstrated that people who were wearing a heavy backpack; older or in declining physical health; or of lower physical fitness were more likely to say that a hill looks steeper than those are younger, taller, or not wearing a heavy backpack. Another study determined that those in a sad mood would determine the hill to be steeper than those who did not report a sad mood. And yet another study (these guys like to study hills!) showed that fear can also determine one’s perception of steepness.

There are many fascinating studies that show that we perceive the world around us based on our ability to interact with it. We look at stairs and decide whether or not we can climb them based on our eye height, or limb length.

We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Dr. James Gibson has studied just how animals perceive the world around them. He speaks about it in terms of “affordances,” as in, “What can this environment afford me?” When we look at a wall, we are determining whether or not we can get through or over the wall, or perhaps whether or not it might keep others out. We determine whether or not we will fit into a chair (a major issue for those with larger bodies). We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Using embodied perception to our advantage

This concept of embodied perception means that our mental, emotional and psychological experience of a person, situation, or object is affected by our ability to maneuver it.

If we feel able to move well, we are more likely to feel confident about how we’ll handle a situation. If we don’t feel strong or mobile, a situation may feel more challenging, frightening or dangerous. We may find ourselves avoiding this type of situation or encounter completely.

This is one of the many ways that a movement and embodiment practice can have a positive effect on our mental/emotional health. There are lots of great ways to work on this. Play, strength, dexterity, balance and mobility training are all important. In many cases, I find that my clients simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice– or even try!– doing some things.

One of my clients had been feeling nervous about getting on and off her new boat– the ladder felt challenging for her. As she’s grown stronger and more confident in her body, she no longer fears the ladder– it looks quite different to her.

Another client had learned to fear bending his knee too far as it felt unstable. He would consider any new movement by thinking about how his knee would handle the challenge. The other day, I watched him move effortlessly from standing to hands-and-knees– something that was completely undoable six months ago. His perception of the environment has shifted so drastically that he almost can’t remember what it felt like to be afraid of that knee giving out.

Access to the right tools to assist us is also a big part of embodied perception. For example mobility aids, vision assistance, hearing aids or prosthetics can help us to perceive our environment differently. Before I put my contact lenses on in the morning, I am seriously visually impaired, and it impacts my behavior. I can’t drive a car, watch TV, make proper eye contact, etc. I need to behave in a risk-averse way until I’m able to see properly.

Some things will always be beyond our control or abilities. Many folks lack access or privilege to be able to manipulate the world around them. And few of us will ever see the baseball “as big as a grapefruit.” I’m more interested in folks seeing the possibilities here for greater confidence– not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well– that comes with a movement practice. Embodied perception as a concept means that we have an opportunity to address anxiety and stress with movement– and it can be a lot of fun, too.

what is bilateral stimulation?

In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro went for a walk.

Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered the power of bilateral processing while on a walk!

As she walked, she noticed that her eyes were moving from side to side, and that some disturbing thoughts she’d been having were easing.

She said: “The thoughts weren’t as bothersome. I wanted to see if it would work if it was deliberate, so I brought up something that bothered me, moved my eyes in the same way and saw the same thing happening.”

What she had discovered was something that many of us “know” instinctively– going for a walk can help us to process difficult material, so that its power over our psyche is less painful or pervasive.

Dr. Shapiro went on to create EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing).

EMDR is a treatment that works by alternating left-right brain stimulation to help process and integrate difficult memories. It is often used to successfully treat traumatic stress. In EMDR therapy, the client recalls emotionally disturbing memories while the therapist directs them through an external bilaterally stimulating (left-right) process. The therapist may use finger movements, hand tapping, or sounds.

The EMDR Institute says as a result of this technique, “affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.” Anecdotally, many of my clients report that after working through the process of EMDR, their traumatic memories no longer hold the same emotional charge; they’re able to integrate these into their lives and move forward in ways that weren’t previously possible.

Why and how does EMDR work?

Dr. Shapiro’s theory was that EMDR mimics the eye movements we make during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; this is the time when our brain processes memories. Another theory suggests that when we’re remembering something painful while also focusing on bilateral eye movements, the “working memory” part of our brain has to process so much information that the disturbing memory starts to get blurry and feel more distant.

You can harness the power of bilateral stimulation for yourself.

If you are experiencing active trauma symptoms, please seek out qualified, licensed mental health support. Call 988 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. You can find a list of EMDR providers here.

If you’re dealing with pervasive anxious thoughts, or you keep replaying an uncomfortable memory or stressful fear, bilateral stimulation is a natural activity that can help to discharge some of the emotion. Any activity that alternately stimulates the two sides of the body can be helpful in processing & integrating challenging thoughts.

A few ways to explore bilateral stimulation might include:

  • taking a walk or a run
  • drumming
  • swinging Indian clubs
  • butterfly hug/tapping
  • rhythmic dancing
  • tapping feet or hands to music
  • rhythmic flow movement, such as alternating lateral lunges
  • rocking back and forth

What others can you think of?

While we may not understand exactly how or why bilateral stimulation works, you’ve probably already had the experience of its benefits. I incorporate it frequently into my client work.

Bilateral stimulation can:

  • help us to feel more relaxed in our bodies
  • let us think about other things (instead of being stuck or preoccupied)
  • “distance” us from the problem (so we don’t feel like we’re directly IN it).
  • allows us to feel less direct worry or anxiety about the issue

What’s your experience with bilateral stimulation– have you found it to be something you do naturally? How has it helped you?

open to new patterns:

three important lessons from The New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” game

I love words and word games. I love etymology, the nuanced imagery that a perfect word evokes, the cultural implications of a word choice. I even love thinking about spelling words. So it’s not terribly surprising that one of my favorite daily activities is the New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” puzzle.

It’s a simple enough game: you’re given seven letters and asked to make as many words as you can from the combination. You must use the letter in the middle, but you can use any of the letters as many times as you like. There is at least one “pangram” in each day’s puzzle– a word that uses all of the letters at least once. Sometimes it’s fun and easy; other times it’s incredibly frustrating. No matter what, you only have 24 hours to work on it, and then there’s a new puzzle– and you can see which words you missed the previous day.

The game has its flaws– its dictionary is heavily biased toward western culture– but otherwise it feels like a really wholesome way to engage my brain. Once you’ve paid for the subscription ($5/month or $40/year at the time I’m writing), there are no intrusive ads. It’s not the kind of game you get lost in for hours and hours (at least, not for me). And I’ve found that it’s helped me to remember some important lessons about how we use our mind.

1. Daydreaming is essential for problem-solving.

I often open Spelling Bee at the beginning of my morning walk with the dogs. While they sniff and do their dog business, I find my first few words, and then close the app while I walk. It’s during this time– looking at clouds, thinking of nothing in particular– that a word combination drops into my awareness (in fact, this happened in the puzzle below with the word “elect”). It’s not by staring at the letters or thinking hard that this happens– although those are important parts of the process, too. It’s the empty space I gave my mind to simply rest that allowed the problem to be solved. Studies have demonstrated that our most creative ideas can come during periods of “mind-wandering” or daydreaming. In another study, researchers found that “compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problem.” For me, this moment of discovery feels surprisingly delightful. Out of (seemingly) nowhere, an answer emerges!

Cultivating periods of deliberate quiet, rest, or “non-productive” time can feel, well… counter-productive. Our culture rewards the appearance of busy-ness. In what Tara McMullin calls “The Squeeze,” we tend to fill every moment with activity. Simply gazing out the window, or taking a nap, or an aimless walk, feels difficult, if not wrong. Yet it’s in these moments that our brain creates connections, makes creative leaps, solves problems that have been eating away at us.

Can you find the pangram? This was a tough one for me– I’ll put the answer at the bottom of the post!

2. Constraints can boost creativity.

The theory of creative constraints suggests that when options are deliberately limited, unexpected results can occur. In this case, rather than having 25 letters, we have 7. We know that there are limited options– in fact, that’s what makes the game fun.

This is the antithesis of our innate negativity bias– the evolutionary/ biological feature of our brain that keeps us scanning for danger, problems, the bad things. If we followed the logic of our negativity bias in working this puzzle, we’d do pretty poorly (“WHY AREN’T THERE ANY “‘S-ES?!”). Instead, this type of puzzle encourages us to look for the possibilities that do exist. We are forced to become innovative.

I’m often faced with constraints in my career. Some of them are clients’ physical challenges– they can’t put pressure on a knee, for example, or they aren’t able to reach overhead. Or I may have a time constraint– how much can I meaningfully share with someone in an hour? The constraint becomes an opportunity to find a creative way to work with the client. These creative solutions are often more meaningful and useful than the original solution would have been, and they open my mind to greater possibilities for future scenarios.

3. Getting stuck in a pattern can make it difficult to see other patterns.

Occasionally, there’s a puzzle that seems like it should be something. There’s almost a word. And once I get stuck in seeing that pattern, it is really, really hard to see other patterns.

For example, in the puzzle above, my brain insisted on trying to spell “catalyze.” If only that “I” were a “Y,” I thought, again and again. It took me several hours to let my brain find another combination.

Getting stuck on what we think we should be seeing can keep us from seeing what’s really there. Ooh man, is that a metaphor for just about everything in life, or what?

Sometimes, in order to work with this, I try to open Spelling Bee and simply let my mind take in the letters. I don’t start finding smaller words– I let my mind take in the letters and see if the pangram emerges naturally. After a few minutes of resting with the puzzle in this way, if I can’t easily find it, I’ll start working the “harder way.”

This has been such an enormous reminder for me in how I work with clients. There have been so many times where I was sure that I was seeing a pattern– which prevented me from seeing a fuller picture. Or I got caught up in smaller pieces, creating shorter words, so to speak– rather than pausing to let the bigger picture emerge.

So, not all technology is inherently evil.

I can be pretty cynical about the role of technology and how it funnels our thinking into narrow pathways, discourages critical thinking, and creates more division than connection with fellow humans. But there are some really good things, too– and this game has been an excellent reminder of the ways in which we can use technology to support overall wellbeing.

Did you find the pangram? It was “italicize!”

working hard is not the same as suffering

I’m going to say something a little revolutionary here: it’s possible to work hard without feeling absolutely terrible.

I think our culture gets this confused a lot. We think that if we are working hard, it should feel and look like we are working hard. Furrowed brow, sweat, exertion, maybe some angry noises. Does that sound right to you?

In fact, we’re often rewarded for the appearance of hard work: “Wow, you’ve really been working hard;” “I can see how much effort you’re putting in!” At one point in my banking career, I recall being promoted to management and being told that I was expected to be at the office more than 40 hours a week– even if I wasn’t actually working while I was there. The appearance of working hard was just as important as (maybe even more important than?) the actual results.

I believe that being seen working hard is a virtue that encourages us to exert ourselves unnecessarily. This dynamic is really common at the gym, working with a trainer, and even in the yoga studio.

The thing is, if folks think they should be working hard, or if their trainer, coach or community encourages it– they will screw up their face, open their mouth to breathe, use their whole body and psyche to really push.

It’s true that if we really need to exert a max effort or are trying to break a personal record, we will benefit from using whole-body tension (irradiation). We might have to change our breathing or make an involuntary grunt. The rest of the time, though– it’s possible to work hard without a lot of extra “I’m-working-hard-drama.”

There’s no inherent benefit in starting with tension, grunting, and labored breathing. Even when we’re working our hardest, it’s possible to be relatively calm; to breathe through our nose; and to be using the most efficient muscular actions, rather than gripping everything we’ve got as a knee-jerk reflex. Sure, we might sweat, get our heart rate up, have a hard time holding a conversation, but we don’t have to be really feeling miserable in our bodies.

This “less-effortful effort” can be something that takes time to learn, especially if we’re in the habit of feeling like hard work should feel really hard. For some people, this might mean learning to stop when they’re in pain. I’m not talking about the discomfort of muscle burn, but a range of motion that is painful in your joints or an injury that you’re accustomed to working through. Working through this kind of pain is actually detrimental in most cases. Instead, try working up to the range of motion that feels pain-free. You can still get lots of good work done there.

Learning to nose-breathe during your training is another way to encourage less suffering and calmer affect– and to be more efficient, aerobically. The next time you find yourself “needing” to open your mouth, try slowing down and maintaining nose-breathing instead. Over time, your ability to nose-breathe throughout your practice will increase.

The benefits of working hard without suffering include greater sustainability, greater pleasure, and greater joy in movement. When we have to over-exert, when we have to mouth-breathe, when we feel a sense of urgency in our bodies, we’re outside of our window of capacity. Learning to work within our window of capacity– what our systems are able to tolerate without feeling unsafe or unstable– helps us to expand that window.

For folks with a history of anxiety or trauma, this is a game-changer. It teaches us how to be activated without being out of control; better able to handle difficult situations without needing to freak out. We can work hard mentally and emotionally, firm in our convictions, strong in our boundaries, ready to do what needs to be done– and still feel settled and steady.

awakening intuition through embodied practice

Our intuition is our gut instinct, our deeper knowing, Jung’s “perception via the unconscious,” which guides us when logical information isn’t enough. In my last blog, we discussed the ways in which our unconscious mind and body collect information that our conscious brain may not track. While some of this may feel relatively simple (such as recognizing that body language or “Freudian slips” convey important information that we call “intuition”), I don’t want to set aside the more mystical dimensions of the word.

Our intuition is like an inner guide strewing breadcrumbs through a mysterious forest. We don’t always see these clues, and when we do, we can doubt, or be confused! Our conscious mind can shy away from the darkness between the trees. I know in my own experience, there are times when my intuition has led me places that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. I felt called to take a particular class, which led me to a new career. Or I was compelled to ask a client a question that seemed strange or out of context, but which led to a deep insight (“it’s funny you should ask!” they say…).

I have learned that my intuition can feel like a “no” in my body, even when my mind thinks it should say “yes.” Sometimes it can feel irrational, impulsive, a little wild. Most importantly, I’ve learned that to ignore my intuition will inevitably lead to pain or a problem to be solved. The client I wasn’t sure I should take on, the teacher I wasn’t sure I should hire, the purchase I wasn’t sure I should make– my intuition was infallibly right.

For some of us, it can be hard to connect to our intuitive nature.

our movement practice is the perfect place to connect to our intuitive nature.

If we think of our intuition as a deeper, more primal way of knowing, then it’s easy to see how our culture has attempted to domesticate or tame this knowledge. From early childhood, we are not taught to listen to our inner wisdom, but to follow external authority about things like when to move, what to value, how to behave. Perhaps you can remember times when you were instructed to be affectionate toward someone that made you uncomfortable; to go along with the group when it didn’t feel right to you; to “hold it” when you had to use the bathroom. We learn to suppress our desires and ignore our embodied wisdom. We lose our connection to the inner voice that would guide us.

“We feed the deep intuitive self by listening to it and acting upon its advice…. it is like the muscles in the body. If a muscle is not used, eventually it withers. Intuition is exactly like that: without food, without employment, it atrophies.”

-Clara Pinkola Estés , Women Who Run With the Wolves

Awakening the intuitive muscle

Remember, your intuition is unique to you, because it comes from the singular constellation of your psyche. The client who wasn’t right for me IS the right client for someone else. This isn’t about “right” or “wrong” so much as it is about guiding you forward. I say this to remind you that we can’t apply everyday logic to this often mysterious process. We train this muscle not by applying someone else’s rules– there’s no set number of “reps” here. Instead, engage it gently, curiously, and with a little wonder.

One way that I work with this is within the structure of a mindful movement practice. We can explore questions like:

  • What am I noticing in my body right now?
  • For some folks, it may be less of a body sense. Instead we can ask or notice, are there memories, images, or sounds that come to mind? Am I reminded of a song, or an experience?
  • How does this make me feel? Is there an impulse or idea that comes up?
  • If (this thing that I am noticing) had a voice, what would it want to do? How could I support it?
  • If given a choice between different types of movement, what “feels right” to me? As I explore that movement, what is the effect? How did that movement feel?

When we engage with ourselves in this way, our curiosity becomes a catalyst to awaken our intuitive “muscle.” We notice the internal validation we receive when we act on that intuition. For example, if I decide that today I would rather go for a long, slow walk rather than do a vigorous yoga practice, I might find that the slower pace allowed me to process my thoughts in a way that my yoga practice would not have done.

Gradually, the muscle builds. We begin to recognize the unique ways in which our intuition “speaks” to us. Notice when you feel things like, “that’s just what I needed,” or when you receive an inner feeling of relief, joy, and gratitude. Let yourself soak in that feeling. Each time we find another breadcrumb, we take a step further onto that mystical trail that only we are allowed to traverse– as unique as our own psyche, and rewarding in a way that is designed just for us. This is the treasure of the intuitive path.

intuition: perception beyond the conscious

Have you ever met a new person and felt an immediate sense of unease or distrust– something about them just doesn’t feel “right”? They are saying the right things, perhaps your friends or co-workers even like this person, but there’s something inside of you that’s telling you they’re not okay.

Or maybe you’ve had the experience of listening to a friend as they tell you about their new relationship. Something about what they’re saying feels a bit “off”. They’re telling you things are fine, they’re happy, but you can’t help but feel that perhaps there’s something underneath the surface that doesn’t match what their words are saying.

Where do we feel that sense of intuition in our bodies? It might feel more like a there confusion– your “logical” brain is telling you that things are one way, but you’re not quite convinced. Or you could experience this as a “gut instinct”– sometimes, literally, a sensation in your chest or belly seems to be reacting to a situation. You may feel an inexplicable impulse to move toward or away from the person or situation. For some people, it feels like the brain is saying one thing, but the body another. For others, there’s just a feeling of not being 100% sure.

Intuition is perception via the unconscious.

CG Jung

My understanding of intuition comes from Carl Jung, who spoke of intuition as “perception via the unconscious.” He defines the unconscious aseverything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; and everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things that are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness.”

What we call intuition is often just a deeper state of perception.

“Everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind.” These perceptions, or intuition, often speak to us somatically- that is, through the body. For example, as human animals, our bodies are always communicating information to each other. Some of these can be discerned, if we slow down and become more perceptive. For example, we may notice facial expressions that don’t quite match words, or an almost-imperceptible widening of the eyes or nod of the head that says “yes,” when the words say “no.” We can learn to recognize closed-off body language (crossed arms or legs, for example) or to watch where eye movements go.

In other cases, we may not be able to understand how or why we are having an intuitive thought or feeling. Perhaps something about the situation reminds us of another situation that we can’t consciously recall, but that left an impression on us. Or it may be that we’re receiving information in our bodies that our logical brain can’t process, but that creates a resonant effect. Intuition is highly individual. It can be a sensation, an image, or words. We all experience it differently.

But is it “real”?

Many of us may feel naturally skeptical about this sort of “knowing.” Our culture values facts, logic and science– all of which are important. At the very least, however, we can be open to the possibility that there are subtleties and nuance in embodied communication that our conscious mind misses, but which our unconscious mind is receiving and interpreting.

We should also consider the fact that each of us has a different history and experience– as in Jung’s “everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten.” For example, if I’ve been in a dangerous situation before, I may be more attuned to warning signs than from someone who has not. I may not even be consciously aware of that memory, but it’s still alive in my unconscious. In this case, we can’t express how or why we’re picking up on those signals. Instead, we call them intuition.

Intuition in client work

In my experience with clients, I assume that anything the client communicates to me is important information. From the moment our session starts, clients are feeding me information about how they’re feeling, what they need from our time together, their mood, their relationship with me and with the world. I treat all this information as though it’s something they want me to know, even if they weren’t sure they consciously wanted to tell me, or if they seem confused about it.

For example, they may casually mention something they’re dealing with in their personal life. On the surface, it might not seem relevant to their practice with me, but I understand it as something that’s affecting them in some way. I’m always especially interested when someone says, “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,” because it signals a subconscious need to share something with me that their conscious mind doesn’t quite understand.

I’m also informed by things like their posture or gait; how they take off their shoes, or sigh as they come in the door. Are they looking at their phone, or fussing with their clothes? All of these can be unconscious ways of communicating. Of course, I can choose how to respond (or whether to respond at all), but I don’t disregard this information– it’s an important part of working together.

Yesterday, a client said, “You always seem to know just what I need!” I responded, “You knew what you needed when you came in the door. I just listened to what your body and spirit were saying.”

resentment doesn’t mean you’re a bad coach, personal trainer or yoga teacher.

One thing that we don’t speak about in the movement/wellness/healing arts world is resentment.

It feels a little weird to even type that out, honestly. Like a dirty secret. But it’s something that I’ve experienced quite a bit personally, as have the other professionals I’ve worked with.

Our role with others often requires us to spend time with others prioritizing their needs over our own.

This is completely appropriate– it’s our clients’ time to take care of themselves, and it’s our role to support them in that process. This means that we’re holding space for their bodies and minds in addition to whatever energetic processes may be coming up for them during that time. In many ways, we’re using our own bodies and psyches as an additional container for anything they’re trying to hold or deal with that may be beyond their capacity.

But what happens when we, as the professionals, aren’t feeling rested, recovered and resourced? In these cases, we don’t have the capacity to handle that other person’s experience in addition to our own. This means we’ll have to suppress our needs or even dissociate from our experience in order to take care of them.

There are definitely times where, despite our best intentions, this is going to happen. Finances or schedules often demand that we work even when we’re not at our best. On a short-term basis, or once in a while, this can be managed. Over a longer period, however, it becomes problematic. If our own needs are not being met, and  we are having to take care of someone else’s, then it won’t be long before that shows up as resentment.

Our energetic boundaries are more porous when we are feeling depleted– which means we may end up carrying other people’s “stuff” even after their session ends.

All of this has a profound and cyclical effect. Our energetic boundaries are more porous when we are feeling depleted– which means we may end up carrying other people’s “stuff” even after their session ends. We’re tired, less effective, and more prone to feeling depleted.

Resentment can also be a sign of a crossed boundary–maybe not even one that we’re consciously aware of. We may not feel like we’re being paid enough (a financial boundary), or that someone is taking more of our time than we are comfortable giving, or that are able to give (an energetic boundary).

We may think it’s not “showing,” but our clients will feel the effects of our resentment, physically and energetically. It’s not healthy for them, either.

Resentment doesn’t mean you’re a bad provider, coach or teacher, but it is a sign that it’s time to make a change.

Being consistently tired and under-resourced for our students or clients can lead to resentment and burnout for yoga teachers, personal trainers and health-care providers.

Resentment doesn’t mean you hate your clients, or that you’re a bad person. Sometimes it’s as simple as hoping a client is late so you get a little extra time, or thinking, “I wish someone would give ME a massage like this one.” Maybe you’re feeling less empathetic toward them that you’d like to. Or you might find yourself yawning, or taking frequent glances at the clock. For some folks, resentment may not show up during sessions, but as an emotional or somatic response before or after.

If you’re experiencing resentment, there’s no need to feel shame. It’s just a warning sign that tells us we need to slow down or consider some changes if we want to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue.

A few questions to consider if you’re beginning to experience resentment in your client or teaching work:

  • Would I feel differently about this if I were compensated differently?
  • How do I feel about the time and schedule boundaries I’m holding with my clients or employer?
  • Am I feeling financially challenged and taking on more work than I can reasonably handle? If so, is there any place I can cut back to feel less financial constriction?
  • What am I longing for? More time, more rest, more feelings of being resourced and supported myself?