Transcript | PPP085: Facing Your Fears and Learning to Grow with Dr Patricia Zurita Ona
Ellen: Hello, and welcome to the Potential Psychology podcast. I'm your host, Ellen Jackson and it's my mission to share the science of human behaviour in a practical, fun, and inspiring way. In each podcast episode, I interview an expert from the fields of psychology, wellbeing, leadership, parenting, or high performance. I pick their brain to uncover what they know about living well. What tips do they have for you and I? And I quizzed them about how they apply their expertise in their own life. Join me as we discover simple science-backed ways to live, learn, flourish, and fulfill your potential.
Hello, and welcome back to the Potential Psychology podcast. We are back on the air with our first interview in a while, and I am incredibly excited to be back. Not just because producing this podcast with my team fills my soul, but also because I have a really wonderful guest and conversation for you today. We’re talking about fears and uncomfortable feelings, and how playing it safe to avoid feeling the yucky stuff might sometimes seem like the sensible and logical choice, but in the end, it limits us. It limits the possibility of us achieving our potential. And I love this conversation because not only do we explore perfectionism and worry and overthinking and avoidance of taking risks in order to play it safe, we also delve into the challenges of setting high expectations for yourself and how this can be a really double-edged sword. So you might push yourself to meet high expectations, but if you hold onto them with what our guest calls “a white knuckle grip”, there is so much opportunity that you miss out on. And that’s probably a personal battle that I’ve waged over the last 10 years or so – knowing when to let go of the expectations that I’ve set for myself, knowing how to let go, how to let the uncomfortable feelings in and allow them to show me other paths and other ways to take perhaps more risks and get comfortable with uncertainty because that’s a great adventure and this is a wonderful conversation, so let’s listen in
My guest for today's episode is a licensed clinical psychologist based in California, who works with overachievers and overthinkers to get them back into their life and unstuck from worries, fears, anxieties, obsessions, and ‘playing it safe’ actions. Known to her clients as Dr. Z., she is Patricia Zurita Ona, and she's here to talk to us about the challenges of perfectionism, high expectations, overthinking, and how to get unstuck so that we can fulfill our potential. Patricia. It's so great to have you here. Welcome to the Potential Psychology podcast,
Patricia: Ellen, thank you so much for having me. Super excited to have a chance to chat with you.
Ellen: Look, it's going to be a great conversation. I know already because, for our listeners' insight, we've just been chatting already for 20 minutes off-air before we even started to hit record. So it's going to be a fantastic conversation. Patricia can we just start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to do what you do?
Patricia: That's a great question. So here is the background story. I am originally from Bolivia, South America, and in Bolivia, my undergrad and my master's was in school psychology. I have been always interested in understanding how we do the things we do, what are our drivers, how we keep doing the same things? And then I moved to the States in 2001, and that's when I got my doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and I started working a lot primarily with adults dealing with all types of fears, phobias, anxieties, worries. So with time, one of the things that has happened is that my practice has developed a niche on working with people who are primarily affected for having higher standards or having different types of fear-based reactions and getting stuck on that. So that's something that happened organically, maybe because of my specialization in cognitive behaviour therapy and doing a lot of behavioural interventions and also because I think at a personal level, I was born in the midst of a dictatorship in my country, so I have this inside experience about what it means to be shaped by fear, and how we make many decisions driven by minimizing any possibility of things going wrong. So I think it's that combination of how the practice morphed organically and my own background that led me to be super passionate about working with people that really get stuck because of worries, because of fears, because of anxieties, because of obsessions. And I think that especially these days, at a time in which we are experiencing extreme circumstances, and our physical world and emotional world is constricted, who doesn't get scared? Who doesn’t play it safe and try to minimize those reactions or try to handle them to the best they can without being successful or too skillful at times? So I think to me, it's really the perfect time to talk about my passions about fear-based struggles.
Ellen: Yeah. That's so interesting that idea because obviously yes, having come from a difficult political environment in terms of growing up in Bolivia and that impact, just that environment. And you make that connection to how life is at the moment in terms of coronavirus and this global pandemic and the impact that that's having on all of us, that kind of, it's almost an unspoken, latent fear, isn't it, that's out there in our physical environment that has an impact on us? Can you talk to that a little bit about how that does affect us?
Patricia: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a little bit what you are saying that it seems to me that every person I have talked to when I look at my clients and my friends, my relatives, when I talk to you, we are certainly doing the best we can to handle this moment. And yet reality is that at the end of the day, how many of us we go to bed, we lay down and sometimes we're like, ‘Oh my gosh, what's happening in the world? What's going to happen tomorrow? How [is it] going to be for my kids to go to school?’ So I think sometimes we may be aware about how we're being affected right now, and other times it may just happen that our body is on edge. We may feel more irritable, more on the cranky side of things and we don't know what's happening.
So when I think about fear-based reactions, and I think how it shaped us, it [inaudible 06:57] in a way that sometimes we’re aware of and sometimes we don't. It just happened that we start responding to fear in a familiar way. So here are some examples, right? If I put COVID-19 aside, it's quite likely that you and I in our lives may have witnessed how sometimes some people may stay in relationships that are not fulfilling, that are not a good fit for them, but when you chat with them you can just really see how they’re scared, maybe about being lonely or they’re scared about not finding the right partner. So what is familiar, they stay in relationships in which is just too familiar for them to get out, right? So that's one way in which we play it safe. So when I think about fear-based responses, I think that it pushes us to go along with fear, to act based on fear, and sometimes we don't catch the subtlety in which we are playing it safe because it's too familiar, right?
Ellen: Yep. That makes perfect sense. You’re kind of too deep into it to be able to take that step back and see what's happening, how it might not be helping you, even though sometimes the alternative feels really fearful. Often you do that, don’t we? The alternative to any decision can feel more fearful than the status quo, but it's only if we're able to step back a little bit, that we can see what you think is safe is possibly not actually the best thing for you.
Patricia: Exactly. When we think about, let's say people who have higher standards or they are overachievers or they are dealing with wanting to do things right and perfect. One of the things that we know is that it's actually quite appetitive for people to do that, even though-- This is actually quite interesting because even though there are so many books telling people, “You know, if you have high standards, it's not good for your health, you're going to get the depressed, going to be hard on your relationships”, people keep doing that. And in my experience, it's because for some people, doing things right and perfect, it feels good. It feels good. You get a kick from actually when things go right. It's enjoyable. It's very pleasure-based. The challenge is that what happens when a person doesn't do things right and perfect? They are left with fear, they are left with uncertainty, they are left with this strong sense of distress because something may go wrong. So on that way, perfectionistic behaviours are also another way in which we play it safe to respond to that fear, that fear of the possibility that things may go wrong.
Ellen: Oh, I’d never thought about perfectionism in that way. I've thought it through in terms of those high expectations. And as you say, it makes perfect sense because I can be, like many of us, prone to a little bit of perfectionism in some areas of my life, not everything but some, I have some high expectations. But yeah, incredibly satisfying to be able to tick those things off the list or have the house in exactly the state you want it to be, but I'd not really thought about it in terms of that sort of playing it safe because the alternative is so uncomfortable. Is that what you mean?
Patricia: Yeah, exactly. Thank you so much for pinpointing that. So the idea of playing it safe, academically speaking, we call those safety-seeking behaviours. But if you think about it, any time we have a worry, we have a fear, we have an obsession, we have anxiety or experience panic, we try to evolve that experience because we don't like it. It's too yucky, feels too yucky, right? So the way that we respond to it, most of the time it's a ‘playing it safe’ move. Sometimes could be adaptive, a lot of times may not be adaptive. So for example, if I am driving on the freeway and I knew on the sides of the road, and I see something that may look like a dead animal, I don't want to see that. I'm not going to close my eyes because I don't want to die in a car accident, but I would just sadly avoid that. That's also a ‘playing it safe’ move because I am minimizing my distress. But in that context of commuting back from work to home, it's very adaptive; my life doesn't get interrupted. Now, what happens if I am afraid of taking elevators or I'm afraid of giving a public presentation or I want to apply to a job that I'm afraid about not being able to talk in public so I don't apply to it. That ‘playing it safe’ move, that way of avoiding actually doesn’t help me in my life. It narrows the things that I want to do and takes me super far away from who I want to be as a person. So I think what I'm trying to convey is that when we get scared, we play it safe. It's the norm and not the exception. It just happens that we don't know, we haven't learned to discriminate when is adaptive, helpful, and workable and [what] takes us far away.
So the same with perfectionists. Doing things right and perfect, like you, I relate to that, right? I absolutely do. For example, I lost the typography. I love fonts. I love colours, right? And then particular looks and aesthetics I like to have, so my desire to get things right and perfect sometimes kicks in there. But as long as it doesn't delay a project, as long as it doesn't create a nightmare for the people I'm working with, it's manageable. But I think many things we do again, in terms of ‘playing it safe’ moves, are to really minimize the distress, the anxiety, and fear that comes. We just have to remember to check, “Is this really helpful to me or not?”
Ellen: Okay. So I'm going to ask whether this is a good example of this because I know a lot of people who are working on projects that they really want to see get off the ground. So they might be what we call a side hustle businesses or perhaps they want to renovate their home, or perhaps they want to create their website, for example. And I know because I've done this as well, that you spend a lot of time making sure that everything is perfect, that you know exactly what you're doing, that it looks exactly the way you want it to look, that you've got all the [contents 13:30]. It's almost like you are trying to minimize every possible risk down every possible avenue or pathway before you say you are ready to actually make a start on this thing or launch it into the world.
Patricia: That's right.
Ellen: And of course, many of us, myself included, have discovered that what this means is that you spend hours and hours and hours and days and maybe weeks and even months trying to get everything perfect, and in some cases never actually start because you never get to that ‘perfect’. I'm saying this in inverted comments there for those people listening. There is no perfect, so as you're describing that to me, that makes it so it's almost like a protection mechanism to say, if I just keep working on it, I never actually have to get to that point that's really scary where I put this out into the world and discover whether it works or doesn't work, whether that's the business or the plans or whatever it might be.
Patricia: That's a beautiful example. That's a beautiful example about how when launching a project, an idea, we may go into checking multiple times. ‘Does this look good? Is this the right colour? Does it look okay on the cell phones’, right? And every time we experience fear, we respond to it by checking or ruminating about it or we may ask all others, right? You may ask like 15 people around you, ‘Are you sure it looks okay?’ And when maybe your assistant tells you, ‘It’s ready. Let's just launch it. Let's put it out there to the world”, you may have the thought, ‘I just need five more minutes. I need five more minutes to get it done.’ And when working on these and writing about these, I learned that Leonardo da Vinci spent I think maybe seven years, no 15 years actually creating some of his paintings. And the memories or the anecdotes are that he used to go to the artist studio, looks for hours at the painting of the Mona Lisa, and then makes one brush, one stroke. And people say, ‘Master it’s ready’ and he’d say, ‘It's not’ and he takes off.
So I think when we have these high standards about how things [are] supposed to be, we also tend to look at that as a personal reflection of who we are. The way that I think of this is that we want to get things right and perfect because we deeply care about something. The challenge is that as Leonardo da Vinci or in the example you were saying, is that we engage in all these ‘playing it safe’ moves, the safety-seeking behaviours, to minimize anything that could go wrong, and that's what actually keeps us stuck because we don't believe it, we don't keep moving. It's just really interesting when we look at how embedded it's in our life.
Ellen: And it really is another example of those. And I often think, especially when I talk with podcast guests and do my own research around human behaviour, how often it's around kind of walking a tightrope between two challenges. So yes, you want to be able to manage and present things in a way that represents who you are. And as you say, in some ways that stuff is adaptive, it's helpful, it's important, but there's a fine line between doing that and also holding yourself back, stopping yourself from being who you could be or reach your full potential or launch your business or whatever it is you're seeking to achieve. So there's always these fine lines that we're walking in so many situations
Patricia: That's right. It's actually very subtle in the sense that especially with perfectionistic behaviours, because there is a lot of social reinforcement. Let's think about Steve Jobs, for example. An incredible human being that has created amazing, beautiful, and very functional products, but all the things that we have read is that he actually took a long time. He didn't want many computers to be released because they weren't ready. He wanted always round corners on any Apple device that he was creating. So I think the subtlety here is that we need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I willing to put this into the world out there, even though it's never, ever going to feel fully perfect? Am I willing to make room for the uncertainty and this fear of not knowing how it’s going to be and just get it done?’
So I think that's a very important question for people to ask themselves to truly realize that we're living in a world in which many things are unpredictable. And the more that we do checking and re-checking, the more that we just arrange things again, we're keeping ourselves stuck, but it's all because we don't like to feel that we don't know. So I think creating things comes with one side of the coin that we do what we care about and because of that, we want to get it right, but also comes with this other side of the coin about making room for all the things that could go wrong, terribly wrong and that we don't know. We cannot separate them. So I think asking ourselves those questions are helpful to check, ‘Okay. So if I decide to launch my new website, what is my plan? What is my timeframe?’ And when that day comes, it's a natural thing we may check with maybe two, three experts, but we don't have to check with 15 people in our family, right? I’ll text you, I say, ‘What do you think about this?’ So I think it's helpful to have limits in terms of how many times we're going to check, how many people we're going to talk about this [with]. If you're writing a book, how many words you're hoping to write every day, not where they are good or bad, but let's say 100 words a day. And then when the time comes, really, more than dwelling, it's about accepting this urge you may have to check again, to delay, to postpone and remind yourself that it's more important to put it out there, and you can always adjust things as the projects unfold, which is really hard sometimes. But engaging with perfectionistic behaviours in a way that could be helpful for us, in a way that could be adapted requires that we always ask ourselves and that we always make room for all the uncertainty that comes in the world, in life.
Ellen: Patricia, I'll ask you in a moment about that acceptance because I think that's a big chunk of this, but there was something else that you said that intrigued me, and it was around that social messaging, I suppose, that we get, because the examples that you gave of both Leonardo de Vinci and Steve Jobs, they're people who are held up as masters, as geniuses, as all the things in some ways we should aspire to be. And yet when we unpack it a little bit, we start to realize that possibly in various domains of their lives, this may not have been functional or helpful to them. Steve Jobs does have a reputation as not being easy to work with.
Patricia: That’s right.
Ellen: I'm not sure about Leonardo, but from what you've described, I suspect he wasn't very easy to work with. And perhaps he was riddled with self-doubt and anxiety and we can only speculate, but it is difficult for people, for all of us, isn't it, if we've got people being held up as the beacons of how we should be if we're going to be creative or industrial people and yet possibly for them, it wasn’t an easy life.
Patricia: Yeah. Thank you so much for just talking about that. I relate a lot to what you're saying in the sense that we do have incredible, I think, role models of people, especially in maybe the technology world, creative world in which they have really [left] a big footprint, but I think richer lives have multiple areas that we are [inaudible 21:15] and navigating, right? Our career, our products, it's one area of our lives. We also have relationships, spirituality, fun things that we want to do, our health, right? And I think most of these models have focused on one single area in their lives, and certainly, we may have fantasized about that that's the way to be. The reality is that for most of us, for every person walking on the streets, we owe it to ourselves to create fulfilling and richer lives, by paying attention to all areas of our lives.
So I think there is nothing wrong with trying to do things right and perfect and having aspirations. The challenge is when we hold to those aspirations with white knuckles. When I say, ‘But I wanted to get my Nobel Prize. I own it.’ Or ‘I wanted to give a Ted Talk on this and this. This is the only thing.’ I think the world that we're living in requires that we have flexibility to handle these things. And whatever worked for Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci, good for them. But personally, I wouldn't want to relate to their standards because my world is very different and there are other areas of my life that are super important as much as my career.
Ellen: So it comes back I guess, to each of us asking ourselves where our priorities lie and what's important to us as individuals in terms of-- Because I can relate to that as you're describing it. I thought, ‘There are certain things I would love to be able to do in my professional life’ but I just know that certainly at this stage it can't happen because there has to be balance with the other things that are also just as important. And maybe it'll happen one day, maybe it won't, maybe my priorities will change, who knows? But that sort of seeing it as the whole picture and not just-- And I guess that's what happens when we have these role models because we only see one part of the picture perhaps, and that's not the life we live. We live a 360-degree life.
Patricia: That's right. I love what you're saying. That's a beautiful metaphor. We do live a 360-degree life with multiple areas. And again, I think a fulfilling life is going to have pieces in each one of those areas. The reason why I'm also fascinated by this is because we're living at a time in which there has been so much emphasis on productivity and rates and growth, all these buzz words that you hear. I live in the Bay Area, which is full of startups, and every person really wants to be highly productive and people are thinking about optimization all the time. It's like another buzz word. The challenge is that I think that it is important to know what growth and what productivity look like for us, given our context, given that maybe we're raising children, maybe I have to hustle doing these two things, maybe I have to check in with my parents. So I think it's really hard when we let our minds get hooked into comparing ourselves with others, and we create other’s standards as ours. So I think [inaudible 24:20] let's step back and let’s take a look what's in your context and what you feel and how you can actually reach that without sacrificing your mental health and wellbeing. How can you optimize what is optimizable, how you can learn to be productive in a mindful way, but without living miserable, without being cranky, without a sleep binge? So I think this metaphor you use - 360-degree life - is a beautiful one to look at that.
Yeah. And it's, again, a good reminder, I think, of how subtle some of that messaging is that we get from external sources about who we should be and who we are, because when it's described, sometimes it feels very black and white. It's just like, “Oh, ignore what everybody else is doing. It doesn't matter. You've got to run your own race”, et cetera, et cetera. And that sounds very logical and makes it sound like it's a reasonably easy thing to do. “Oh yes. I'll just switch that bit of my brain off and not pay any attention to that.” But that's not how it works, is it? It is so much more subtle than that. It's almost like a bit like we were saying before, being in a fear-based environment, whatever that might be, whether that's currently in a global pandemic or from your experience where you were growing up, that messaging almost seeps into our brains in a way that's not always easy to control.
Patricia: That's right because it's very familiar. So I think for me, one of the things that is important, one of the skills that is important to share with my clients and that I apply in my life, I think, to the best I can, is to really have a flexible response to whatever internal struggle is showing up and to what the world is bringing to me. So in the context of thinking about all these big role models and they were saying, “Well, focus on what's important to you, your context”, I agree with you that it's not either/or. It’s actually more finding this continuum based on my values, that context. And maybe there are particular frames of reference I can admire from other people but that requires that I will adjust from situation to situation, from project to project; they won't be either/or. And yes, I think that applies to every single thing. Am I holding onto these responses with white knuckles or am I checking, in every moment, this behaviour? Is it helpful? Is it helping me to delay this project right now? Is it helping me to overthink about this multiple times in my head? And if it's helping, great. If it's helping me to move towards my values, great. But if it's not, I may want to do something different. So I think the flexible response is important to actually check what works for us.
Ellen: And you said there about that checking in in every moment, and this is something that I've been learning to do myself over recent years, and it is part of that-- We've been talking on the podcast over our slightly scattered season, this season because of global pandemics, and what have you. And we've been talking about adaptability and flexibility and the need for that in terms of our wellbeing and our mental health. And so can you describe for us, or go into a little bit more detail about what that looks like, that checking in, in each moment, because I think that's a really key part of managing some of these thoughts and feelings, isn't it?
Patricia: Yeah. Thank you so much for asking that. That's a beautiful question. I think throughout the day, we know that our mind is going to come with over 6,000 types of thoughts including images. The mind is constantly coming up with content like popcorn is popping up, popping up. At that same time, we experience all types of emotions. We experience some emotions that are like a very small wave, “Do I want chocolate? Do I want chocolate and almonds?” Sometimes we have these very loud emotions like the size of an elephant when we are very upset and when we’re very anxious. So I think every single moment, there is so much inside noise that we are experiencing that for what we are feeling, for what we are thinking, for what we are sensing. And somehow the old model has been that whatever we think, is the truth and whenever I think, I must do or whatever I feel, I should do. But I think being flexible and adapt to the environment means checking with myself, ‘I know I am super upset. My kid just spilled ketchup on my white skirt. I'm so mad I feel like screaming to him. Is it helpful for me to do so right now? Is it helpful to actually get cranky with my partner?” So I think being flexible and being adaptive requires that we check, ‘What am I feeling? What's the thought that is popping up? What do I feel like doing in this moment as I'm feeling X and thinking X? And then can I have my shoulders back, take a deep breath, press my feet really hard on the floor so I can get out myself and check, “Is this workable for me?”’ So it sounds really like something so difficult to do when our emotions are really at a maximum level. And yet through hundreds of research, to all the stuff that has come in mindfulness-based processes, we don't know that our brain is coachable so we don’t have to be prisoners of our thinking or our feelings. So checking what works when I'm feeling X and when I'm doing X, it will allow us to flexibly respond to what's happening outside of us and inside of us.
Ellen: So there’s a link there between that practice of mindfulness, which again, you spoke about buzz words before and mindfulness has been one of the big ones in the last couple of years.
Patricia: It is a big one, yes.
Ellen: But the practice of that and this ability to, and it's really being able to step back and almost observe yourself in that moment, isn’t it? To be able to ask those questions, ‘What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What are my options here in terms of how I respond to this situation?’ And that is a skill, that's absolutely a skill. It's certainly not something that we're taught. So, what is the link there between mindfulness and being able to do that? How does practicing mindfulness say as a practice, help us to develop that skill?
Patricia: I think there are two ways in which I can respond to that question, and it's a great question. One is that for me, I was training in cognitive behaviour therapy, doing a lot of the B of behaviourists. And the last 15 years I have been training and practicing this other form of cognitive behavioural therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The reason why it's important to share this in this question is that I didn't have 20 years of practicing mindfulness; I’m not coming from that. I came through mindfulness to behaviourists. I came through mindfulness by learning to step back and really ground myself and check what works and figuring out ‘What are my values? How do I want to show up to this moment? How do I want to show up to myself?’ Now, for all the people that have been practicing mindfulness as a spiritual practice maybe, for years, I think they have a different experience, but in a nutshell, what I think mindfulness has given us is [it] showed us that we can learn to step back from any intense situation we may be experiencing, that we can detach from our thoughts, that we can learn to watch our thoughts for what they are - content from that mind machine that we have - that we can learn to watch our feelings that help us to develop this [inaudible 31:48] of while having a different perspective of what's happening.
So I think mindfulness really adds that component. The way that I see it also in my work is I like to talk about how there can be a mindfulness practice that is maybe more private. When I have a guided meditation, I have an app that maybe is coaching me how to do some of these reflective exercises, but there is also what I call mindfulness on the go, when actually, you are walking on the street and when someone does something you don't like, when your kid misbehaves, when your pet runs out from you in the park and when we hear the news. How can I learn in that moment to actually ground myself and step back? I think that is what needs to be done because we cannot go to a quiet room all the time. I cannot close my eyes all the time when I'm getting triggered. So I think the biggest thing we are learning these days is how can I bring these principles of stepping back and watching what's showing up in my day to day life when I'm doing the laundry, when I am walking on the street, when doing groceries. And what we know is that when we do that, when I learn to describe what I'm feeling, when I just simply say, “Okay, here comes the anger” or “My heart is beating fast”, or “My legs are shaking right now”, just by describing what I'm feeling and the thoughts I'm having, that helps us at the brain level to step back.
Sometimes we can use our body to ground ourselves, by pressing our feet hard, again, taking a deep breath. Sometimes maybe even rubbing our neck softly to actually have something physical that will remind us that we can handle this moment. And then we can ask ourselves how to do it, how we want to respond. But I think it's an amazing thing that these days mindfulness has given the science and the practice that maybe 30 years, at least in Western countries we didn’t have, we didn’t know. So it has either too much [inaudible 33:48] the work doing.
Ellen: So there's a nice alignment of some of the spiritual practice and the background that comes with that perhaps with some of the scientific practice and the therapeutic practice that especially cognitive behavioural therapists have been working with for some time.
Patricia: Yeah. I think the last couple of years there has been this huge evolution of CBT that we call it the third wave. So most of the third wave approaches right now, they're really integrating mindfulness-based interventions with more behavioural stuff, which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy, they do that, and it's a beautiful blend. It’s such an amazing blend from the best of two worlds.
Ellen: Patricia, let's talk about the acceptance part of this. So I think there's that mindfulness that’s being able to step back and try and notice what it is that is going on first in the moment, and then to ask those questions, ‘Is this helping me; is it not? Is there another alternative?’ Where does acceptance-- Because that's been a big part, especially at the moment. There is so much that's going on that is out of our control. Firstly, what is acceptance and how does it help us, especially at the moment?
Patricia: So what I am going to share is coming through the lenses again of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, because that's my background. And the way we think of acceptance is more like having this attitude and making a decision to open up, to see it, to notice, to describe all the internal notes I go through. Why this is important [is] because we have been socialized and we have been raised in a world in which having a negative thought is a bad thing, or having an uncomfortable feeling like anger, sadness, disappointment, it's a bad thing. We have been told that we should try to avoid having those thoughts. We have been told that we should get rid, suppress, or deny or minimize those feelings. And if we think about it, my mind quite often comes with this thought that I am not a good enough daughter. My mind tortures me with that thought that, ‘Patricia, you are not a good daughter. You are not showing up to your mom.’ And it's a thought that has been popping up in my mind my whole life, my whole life. Now, with the old model, the intervention would be to tell myself positive things, ‘You are good’, listing all the qualities, how often I talk to my mom, and then I will feel okay for a couple of months. I will have relief until it's a mother of time the story pops up again. Or with anxiety, how often we have heard things, ‘Mind over mood’ as if we can control our emotions? Ellen if I tell you right now I want you to be as sad as possible you can be, will you be able to do that?
Ellen: I could probably try a few techniques to help me along the pathway, but I don't think I could just instantly be sad, no.
Patricia: That’s right. You may show some sad behaviours - you may pout, you may look down - but even though we try really hard to control what we feel, we don't have a switch that goes on and off; the same with our mind. If I tell you, ‘Ellen, I want you to do the best you can to not think of your kids’, what happens?
Ellen: The first thing you think about is your kids.
Patricia: That’s right. It pops up, right? So I think what the research has shown us is that all those messages we had about counter arguing, fighting back, minimizing, acting as if I'm not feeling this, actually worked for a short term. However, making room for them, again, saying, ‘I'm feeling X. My mind is coming with that thought’, or even naming our stories. I have a very judgmental story that comes sometimes, I call it ‘ere comes, judgy, judgy Patricia’, or ‘Here comes cranky, cranky Patricia’. And I imagine this little old lady that is just chatting, chatting, chatting, right? So I think doing those things helps me to actually make room for those experiences without judging them, without criticizing them or without criticizing myself for having those thoughts. So the acceptance part, it's more like this attitude and approach you're going to have to internal struggle, and it always comes with willingness. And willingness, we think of it as a decision that you make, as a behaviour that you say, ‘I am willing to be the person I want to be, not act on my anger, and make room for this other stuff that may come up’. If I think about perfectionist again, it may look like I am willing to accept that sense of not knowing, the things that could go wrong, that things could be bad, and still deliver my project, I’ll still send that email. So acceptance and willingness go together, and maybe acceptance again, is the attitude I have, and willingness is a personal decision I make to say yes to this yucky stuff that may come when doing the things [that are] important.
Ellen: And there are lots of other words and ideas that pop into my head as you described that. So things like courage, having a little bit of courage around being okay to just feel what you're feeling and knowing that you don't have to act on it. And perhaps something around even a little bit of shame. When you're talking about the feelings that we've been socialized to kind of fight against, and then perhaps there's a little bit of shame maybe when-- I'm coming over all Brene Brown now - when we feel those feelings, you know? I shouldn't feel anger. That's a bad thing to feel. And therefore, I feel ashamed that I am angry in this situation. So it's interesting, isn’t it, that all of these kinds of ideas just coalesced together around this notion of acceptance. And I think from talking to people who don't come from a psychological background, which is the majority of people, there seems to be a thought that acceptance means, ‘I have to be okay with what I'm feeling’.
Ellen: And it’s not [inaudible 39:48] to be okay with it, is it? It’s like you say, it's just about making space for it. Ans self-compassion is probably in there too. It's about saying to myself, ‘I'm a human being and sometimes human beings get angry and that's okay, and I don't need to fight against it or feel ashamed for it’. Is that the essence of the difference?
Patricia: Yeah. I love the link you're making, and Brene Brown definitely has done beautiful work in vulnerabilities, right? I agree, and all of this frame and the experience that it's a courageous thing to notice what we're feeling without judging ourselves. It’s a courageous thing to say, ‘I am having this thought where I notice this story that I’m broken, or something is wrong with me’ and noticing the pain that comes with that without acting on it. I think you're right that there is so much misconceptions about acceptance that [it] means that you’re agreeing with the feeling or that you are giving up on the feeling. We're not talking about that. We're talking about simply can you notice what you're feeling without judging what you're feeling or what you are thinking or what you are sensing and just taking it for what it is? And doing that, it can be actually so liberating for people. Making drawn for the negative stories we have ourselves, just because we're human beings, it will leave our mind to have more energy and more space to focus on the stuff that we want to do. But I think when we're trying to respond to thinking with more thinking then that becomes a trap a little bit and that keeps us stuck.
Ellen: Yeah. That's a really lovely linkage there, that idea that if we spend a lot of time in our heads fighting against the thoughts, the feelings, the things that we shouldn't, then that it takes up space, doesn't it?
Patricia: It does. It does. It's a very interesting thing. I think it was Descartes who said, ‘Because I think so, therefore I am’ or ‘I think and therefore it exists’, or something along the lines. But I think at some point in the history of humanity, we have given so much importance to our thoughts. They mean every single thing about us. And then when we have these negative thoughts about ourselves, ‘Oh my gosh, it means it's the truth’. When in fact, the mind is just coming up with all types of content, our brain is this old device that actually is catching danger and is planning for danger wherever it goes. And it's always trying to protect us in very complex ways coming up with those stories because the brain [doesn’t want us [to] make fools [of] ourselves 42:20]. But that doesn’t mean that every time my brain comes with a story or with a [inaudible 42:28], I have to act on that. But I think what usually we have done definitely has been responding to all those negative experiences with more thinking, listing or trying to fight back or telling myself ‘It's going to be okay. You'll be okay’. When in fact, even though we may experience a tiny relief, that's actually not long-lasting because it's a matter of time we’re going to feel what we feel, it's going to feel very uncomfortable, our mind may come with all types of disaster forecasts or thoughts, but making room for that actually without fighting them, without judging them, it really can create not only a more gentle response, a more compassionate response, but also give us more energy, give us more energy to do other things so I don't have to be dwelling in my head. So I think I can tell you that for me, one of the biggest changes has been noticing that every time I respond with gentleness to my own struggles, I am not spending all mental resources and all mental energy fighting back, which means I can do more of my writing. I can do more of this podcast with you. I can play with a kiddy. I can call the family. So I think practicing acceptance, responding with gentleness to our own struggles really can be liberating in ways that we didn't know it's possible.
Ellen: Yeah. That win-win of feeling better, but also being freed up to do more of what we want to do and be more of what we want to be, and really, it starts to step into that. How do we fulfill our potential, how can we? And part of it might just be this letting go, stop fighting all of these thoughts and these feelings and accepting that we're human. And I love that because now as you've described it, that idea of making space has taken on a whole new image in my mind of not just making space in terms of that gentleness, but making space in terms of having almost more time and energy to do the other things. And that's one of the things that we all say we don't have enough of is ‘I don't have time’, you know, whether that's to exercise or look after myself or cook healthy meals or do the things that we feel we ‘should’ do. And if we can create more space and we can create more time, that's absolutely what everybody wants. Isn't it?
Patricia: There is something about that. To live our potential, we need to get better at feeling the yucky stuff that comes under our skin. I don't think we can be the person we want to be, or show up to the people we love as the partners we want it to be, or as the parents we want to be, without making sure, without getting better at feeling all that yucky stuff that comes. So I think it's a different time frame, right?
Ellen: It is.
Patricia: Because we have been told that we should just work really hard to feel better, but we cannot feel better without getting better at feeling the yucky stuff, the things that we don't like, to have the thoughts that we don't like.
Ellen: And that's interesting. I was having a conversation recently with an individual who's very interested in men's mental health.
Patricia: Oh wow.
Ellen: And he was talking about the fact that for a lot of me - and this was his observation. It’s not based on the science or anything like that. But certainly, his observation was that for a lot of men, when there are those uncomfortable feelings, when those things, the demons that perhaps they're battling with, their response is to work harder. ‘I will just work more. I will work longer hours. I will put 110% of myself into my work as a response’, but it becomes that double-edged sword of not having enough mental space to really give it what you want to. And so you actually end up putting literally more hours into it to seek, perhaps or receive the same response and it goes around and around it around. It becomes a real problem.
Patricia: Yeah. Actually, you're raising something very important. Most of the people I interact with that are non-psychology oriented or they are not psychologists or clinicians or mental health providers, I see most of the world has really socialized with a message of powering through things. You have to power through all these difficult moments. And I look at that in my own family. The message was you had to work hard and just have to keep going, just have to keep moving. I think taking those messages again, as absolutes and with white knuckles without making room for the internal struggle we go through, can be actually so debilitating and creates these loops in which I keep engaging in ineffective behaviours. If I can work in like 120 hours a week, my body is not going to be able to function. At some point, I'm going to collapse and crash. My mood is also going to be affected. So I think always stepping back and checking, ‘If I work this 120 hours a week, does it help me to be the person I want to be in all these areas of my life?’ So I think having that flexibility is going to be important. And it feels counterintuitive because we haven't been socialized with that model. It's a different way of looking at what experience, different way of looking at what demands, but I think it's extremely important to learn the skills because not only [are they] promoting psychological wellbeing, but they really help us to be the best version of ourselves.
Ellen: Yeah. And as you said, that powering through idea, what comes to mind is things like exercise. There's a social message that says, ‘Go hard with exercise. You should be running every day or go to the gym every day’, not that we can do that at the moment, but I suppose it manifests in every area of life, doesn't it? ‘I've just got to power through the housework and, get the house tidy and clean’, or ‘I need to power through this task or job’. And maybe it's really unhelpful messaging. Maybe we need less powering on and more stepping back, or maybe it is self-care, or I don’t know.
Patricia: I remember when I was a kid, there used to be this advertisement from Nike. They had these beautiful shoes and the slogan says, ‘Just do it’, right? And they have these athletes running and powering through. Here's the challenge, I think doing the same thing 1000 times is not going to help us to get better at something, psychologically speaking. But watching how I am doing, watching what's my intention, checking what's the purpose, the process of doing [those] even 10 times is going to be more powerful than doing things in a more robotic or machine style. With a ‘Just do it’ approach, we're going to praise that, ‘Oh my gosh, this person ran this marathon like 100 times’. Yeah, that's okay, I guess, but what happens with maybe the relationship this person has, or her body, or the knees? So I think considering that more than doing everything with a powering through model, it's about checking, ‘What's my intention? How am I doing? Am I being gentle with myself?’ I know it's really hard, and sometimes when I talk about gentleness my clients look at me like, ‘What is that? Or ‘Why do I have to be gentle?’ And I think the way that I like to invite people to consider is that the harsh, critical approaches, that beating ourselves up, may look like they're motivating us, but know what's the behaviour. Do you really, really do more in your life or do you really do something in a moment? So I think this idea, again, it's a counter-response to not go along all the time with a ‘Just do it’ approach and just throw yourself at things.
Ellen: And that beating yourself up part is so important in this as well, isn't it, to be able to acknowledge that. And again, that is hard because even our-- And I did a podcast episode on this. It was probably last year now on psychological understanding of motivation versus perhaps the everyday understanding of motivation, which is still very much tied up in that reward and punishment model that we use with ourselves too, don't we? ‘I didn't succeed in this thing that I aspired to and therefore, I will beat myself up psychologically and emotionally as punishment’ in what is ultimately a futile attempt to change things for next time, but it doesn't, does it? It just keeps us trapped.
Patricia: It does keep us trapped. I think it was maybe five years ago, I attended a workshop by Paul Gilbert who is the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, and his work is very consistent with the work of Brene Brown and Kristin Neff. And I think one of the things I appreciate a lot is that in his research, he's talking about how we have three systems in our brain. We have the soothing system, we have that motivating action system and we have the threat system. And when we are engaging or when our mind comes with all these criticizing, negative thoughts, the threat system gets activated. The challenge when the threat system gets activated is that we cannot think clearly because we're driven by the emotion in the moment. So practicing gentleness or practicing self-compassion with the small things saying like, ‘I am hurting right now. I am scared. I’m anxious’, just saying those things help that soothing system in the brain to get active. And when that happens, my brain can relax a little bit, enough that then I can think what's important for me. So all of the criticizing harsh feedback, sometimes it just activates more the threat system and it keeps us there because my body and my brain are on edge. So I think compassion really and gentleness and responding with kindness, helps our brain to step back so we can actually have more energy and mental resources to decide how to handle the moment. Now in our day to day life, given all the stresses we have, wouldn’t it be helpful to access that? Wouldn't it be helpful to tap into that so I can keep going with all what's coming up to us?
Ellen: Yeah. And I think that's probably a perfect way for me to ask you because if we wrap a lot of these ideas up together, we are in a situation at the moment where there's a lot of external sources of threat or perceived threat, both from a virus, but from the news that we're receiving and the changes to our lifestyle and the not knowingness of how long this is going to go on for, which is very uncomfortable. How do we try to activate the compassion part of our brain and practice a bit of compassion to get through day to day life right now?
Patricia: That's a beautiful question, Ellen. So I think I can share a couple of tips, maybe, for your audience so they can put [them] into action. To me, the biggest thing always is, start with describing what I'm feeling. And sometimes some people have difficulties labeling their feelings, and that makes sense. Not everyone went to psychology school, right, so I think it makes total sense. So I think I want to remind people it doesn’t matter what's the name you're giving to the feeling. It doesn't have to be the perfect name. You can also start by describing the sensation in your body. ‘I am noticing tension in my shoulders. I’m noticing butterflies in my stomach’, then you can give it a name. And don't worry if it's a perfect name; it does say matter, but doing that, it's a first step. And then I think I will invite people sometimes to do some grounding, and they can do it again by using their body, things that I mentioned that I use a lot, actually. Sometimes pressing my feet really hard on the floor so I can notice the tension, and that's a prompt for me to step back. Or placing one hand on my stomach and taking a deep breath - so pushing the air all the way so I can notice that. Sometimes for some people, it can be rubbing their hands a little bit or their wrists because that’s another cure for them. And then I will invite people to answer the question of how can they remind themselves that they are doing the best they can in that moment. And that's going to look different for every single person. But in life, we don't walk with an agenda of hurting ourselves or being mean with other people, right? We may have some moments like that, but humans were actually wired to connect and to be compassionate and caring with others and with ourselves. So we ask ourselves, ‘What can I coach myself in the moment to remind me that I am doing the best I can?’ So for me, sometimes it looks like, ‘I did the best I could in this moment’. When I say that, I acknowledge that may not have been the perfect move, may not have had the ideal outcome, but I genuinely did my best in my moment. And then I will invite people to check what comes next in their life, why this is important. Because sometimes our minds can go into a critical mode, not because our mind is our enemy, but because it's trying to protect us so we don't make the same mistakes again. But the challenge is that some folks, they go into massive hours of criticizing themselves.
When we hear the things it's like, ‘Oh my gosh. Was there any other thought there?’ So I think after you practice that acceptance, describing your feelings, giving them a name, again, you can do some visualizations after you coach yourself, how you can remind yourself that you're doing the best you can, then remember that life is in front of us. So the question will be, ‘What's next for me that I have to engage?’ And there’s always something to engage - can be a movie to watch, it can be the person I am talking to, it can be the pet I am playing with. So there is always left happening outside of us. The reason why this is important is because going into five hours of criticizing yourself and dwelling [on] how you messed up a situation are going to keep us stuck. But moving with gentleness, without the powering through approach, but just describe what I'm feeling and just re-engaging with what comes next in my life, it actually helps me to recharge and to reserve, to keep moving and to keep trying. So I think that would be my advice.
Ellen: Wonderful advice. And I'm thinking through as you described, especially those first pieces about the physical ground. I was trying to imagine what I do, and I know for me, because I notice when I'm tense or stressed, and our audience can't see this, but I'm showing Patricia. My shoulders end up right up around my ears. And so that noticing - and I think for me, probably many years of practicing yoga has helped me with that noticing part too, you become just more aware of your physical self. But for me, it’s shoulders back, deep breath in. And then what I say to myself is, ‘Okay, that wasn't great, but I'm human and humans make mistakes and mess up’. So I think that was one of the things probably I've learned from Kristin Neff’s work is just that common humanity. ‘I'm a human being just like everyone else, and we all make mistakes and mess up’. And then it does, as soon as you say that to yourself, or certainly, my experience is, as soon as you say that to yourself, it almost liberates you to say, ‘Okay, what do I do next?’, which moves you into that next piece that you were describing, doesn't it? That kind of, ‘Okay, let's move forward here. And is it self-care that I need? Do I need some time out because I'm stressed? Do I need to engage in something fun? Do I need to get a task done?’ because I think that can be a self-care practice as well, is to actually just get things done that need to be done. ‘What is it that I need, but it is that future-focused step that then helps in all of those different domains?’ So thank you for describing that so beautifully. I've been able to kind of work through the process myself. I'm hoping that our listeners are also working through that process too, to say, ‘Well, what is it I do? And what could I do?’ Because you're right that losing five hours of self-criticism and rumination and distress is so not functional for us in terms of our health and wellbeing, but also in terms of liberating us, like you say, to be able to be our best selves and achieve what it is we want to achieve. We don't want to be stuck, especially at the moment when life is forcing so many other challenges on us.
Patricia: That's right. I love the example you gave, Ellen. I think it's beautiful that you have experienced it first hand - how [it] is for you when you actually practice this, and how you can free yourself to do more, or that I think finding stuff that you want to do, or do some self-care, or just get things done. I appreciate a lot that because many times there are so many misconceptions. For example, when we think about self-compassion or gentleness, I will hear things that, ‘That makes me weak. If I acknowledge I am hurting, that makes me weak’. No one says that in my [file 59:39]. We cannot say that we’re tired or that, I should just slow down. No, that makes me weak’, which is a block for gentleness. Or sometimes I hear people [say] that ‘If I am gentle with myself, I'm getting myself off the hook, and that means I actually could make the same mistake again’. My invitation for anyone listening, if you have any of those thoughts, I want to invite you to look, do they work in your life? If you go along with those thoughts, do you really become the person you want to be? Does your life expand? Or do you have maybe a temporary gain, like a short gain that makes you believe it's working? But in life, there is going to be a matter of time in which there are going to be uncomfortable moments and we're going to mess up, and sometimes we mess up a lot. So I think gentleness and self-compassion have nothing to do with being weak, has nothing to do with getting us off the hook or not being accountable. It just simply has to do with allowing myself to be at my best, by helping my brain to go into that place, by helping my body to go on to a place in which I can decide. So I think that is a beautiful way sometimes to share with people. It's not going to be perfect, but you're not helping yourself by fighting against the gentleness that we're inviting you to have.
Ellen: So it's the difference between perhaps that temporary, incremental improvement and real growth as a person? That's what strikes me as you're saying that, that if we stay trapped in those cycles of self-criticism-- And there is, there's a lot of people, I think probably for a long time, I thought I was letting myself off the hook if I allowed myself to not maintain certain standards or if I stepped back or if I didn't battle my way through a situation because that is messaging that we have, and it probably does come with those high expectations of self that we've mentioned right at the beginning. But I've noticed the difference between doing that, which as you say is short term, it's temporary, it's incremental, and then having more an accepting approach, having a more self-compassionate approach and therefore actually growing as a person as a result because you do become bigger, better, faster, and more of yourself.
Patricia: Thank you for sharing that. I remembered a conversation I was having maybe two months ago, and I think sometimes people confuse that in order to grow and be better people, they also get confused that self-reflection equals being critical with yourself or criticizing yourself. This may not be the best way to explain the differentiation, but I think being reflective and giving myself feedback, it can be gentle and I can experience growth and it can even be soothing, but notice that every time when I am actually reflecting by criticizing myself, by putting myself down, by telling me how much I hate myself, it feels yucky. So I think the quality of going into this self-reflective mode, how you feel about yourself is also going to help you to discriminate. When we are growing, when we are experiencing as something, maybe, long-lasting, there is something a little bit soothing about it. It's not pain-free, but this actually not these other very harsh emotions that come with that voice. So I think something to think about that is helps us to distinguish a little bit which one are you doing. Are you growing by self-reflecting or are you actually criticizing yourself without realizing, but you're telling yourself that you are self-reflecting?
Ellen: Yeah. So, again, paying attention, I suppose, to the words that we're using with ourselves, the language that we're using, whether or not it is critical, harsh, putting ourselves down, negative, or whether it is more compassionate, hopeful, kind, gentle, as you say, acknowledging our humanity.
Patricia: It's very interesting how these days, although we know there is so much science showing us how self-compassion-based approaches and practicing gentleness with ourselves has so many benefits for our health, for our body, for our relationships. There are still so many misconceptions about it. Hundreds of them right, which also, I think when we talk about these things, it's another content movement a little bit. Instead of just keep living fast, and in this automatic pilot mode, let us step back a little bit and let's see what I would really do it, how are we living life?
Ellen: And it's one of the wonderful things about self-awareness, psychology, personal development, is that it is always shifting and changing. We're always learning all the time. And I think anybody who tells you that ‘This is absolutely the only way to do it and will be the only way to do it forever’ is probably telling you the mistruth. But this is the best of what we know right now based on the evidence. This is what we've learnt helps, but we'll keep looking. We'll keep exploring. We'll keep finding new ways and we will change things as we go. And that's all part of growth as well, isn't it?
Patricia: I love it because it really capitalizes flexibility and adaptability. This is what we know now, and we can hold it as life principles, and maybe 10, 15 years we'll learn something new and we may have to adjust again.
Ellen: But that's part of being human.
Patricia: That's part of being human, yes. That's part of being alive - adjusting and adjusting constantly.
Ellen: Patricia, it has been delightful to talk to you today. You've shared so much with us that is insightful and interesting and helpful, and really, I think helping many of us to think differently about the way we think. It's a mindset thing, which I'm hoping if we haven't all nailed today because we won't, we at least have enough to be able to implement a few simple tips and tools to explore further, to be curious about it, and to learn and then start implementing it in our lives in a way that works for us. So thank you very much. It's been fantastic. We will share a whole lot of the bits and pieces including all of the information about you and where to find you and the work that you do. And you have your podcast yourself so we will share that as well in the show notes for our episode today. And I'm quite confident I'm joined by all of our audience in saying thank you very much for being here.
Patricia: Ellen, it has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for chatting with me. I am a big fan of what you're doing and the tips and skills you're sharing with your clients and with your audience. Thank you so much, and if I can be of any help in the future, please let me know.
Ellen: How cool was that? I hope that conversation with Dr. Patricia Zurita Ona got you thinking about where in your life you might play it safe, allowing your fears to limit your potential, and how you might push through that. Although to be honest, there was so much fabulousness in that conversation that you might have been inspired to get comfortable with uncertainty and discomfort, or perhaps you’re rethinking your self-criticism or exploring how you might label your emotions or how you might exercise some self-compassion. There was a heap of great stuff in there and if you’re keen to learn more from Patricia, she does host a podcast of her own called Playing it Safe. She’s also written several books, and she has a monthly newsletter also called Playing it Safe. We’ve included links to all of those resources, as well as some of the other resources that we mentioned in our conversation, in the show notes for today’s episode.
So what’s coming up in next week’s show? It’s not next week. It will be in two weeks’ time, actually. I’ve got to get out of that habit for a little while. We have a return guest for you. I spoke to neuroscientist, Dr. Sarah McKay about her book The Women’s Brain Book: The Neuroscience of Health, Hormones and Happiness, and Sarah joins me again for our next conversation to help me answer some questions that popped up when doing some work recently with the Potential Psychology Self Care Club on emotions. It seems there’s a lot of confusion out there regarding the structures of the brain and the role that they play in our experience of emotions. There’s talk of lizards and emotional hijacking, and I found myself getting a bit confused about how all of this works within the brain and how much we should believe it. So I’m turning to Sarah to get a better understanding of how our brain works when it comes to how we feel, and then of course, maybe what we do with that information once we’ve got it. Here’s a sneak peek.
Sarah: The impression it gives is kind of little cold, reptilian brain, there’s part of me that sits inside at the core of everything that’s scared and twitchy and is waiting for something to go wrong and all of our responses are kind of being primarily based on fear and this automated feeling inside us that we can’t do anything about. It absolves your responsibility. It also removes any sense of agency that you do have, not only over your thoughts and behaviours, but also your emotions. And that’s where the current neuroscience understanding is, I mentioned also psychology.
Ellen: That is our next episode, episode 86 of the Potential Psychology podcast on the air in two weeks’ time. I'm looking forward to being back in your ears then, but in the meantime, stay safe, go well, and take small steps to fulfil your potential