Do you ever feel like you are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you aren’t actually truly living?
Does life sometimes feel like one big to-do list?
Is your mind often occupied with things that already happened and can’t be changed?
Does it feel like if you keep thinking ahead and trying to prepare and fix potential problems, everything will go smoothly?
If you answered yes to ANY of the above questions, congratulations, you are human!
Three years ago, like many working parents, I rushed home from work in order to be home in time to put my daughter to bed. I sat down to read her a bedtime story – the moment I’d been waiting all day for since I said goodbye to her that morning…
“Mama, all done?” I heard my daughter ask. I realized the book was over.
Where had my mind been? Rehashing an email to a teenage client’s parent that I could not unsend, as well as remembering to add baby wipes to the shopping list. Since Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Martin, Jr.,1967) is not necessarily a challenging read, particularly on the 175th time, I had been able to say the words while my mind was lost in worries and to-dos.
My body was present, but I was not.
Shame flooded me and I chastised myself, “What was the point of leaving work if I wasn’t really going to leave work?” along with that familiar “I’m a bad mom” story (more on that in future blogs!) Ironically, I had just been teaching a group on mindfulness, so another old story “I’m a hypocrite” also joined the party.
Perhaps because I taught mindfulness that evening, I noticed my self critical thoughts and regrouped (I just made that seem very easy and it is not! For more on how to notice and pause, click here). I took my daughter’s hand and did one of my favorite, simple grounding exercises. I traced the outline of her hand with my thumb breathing in as I went up each of her tiny fingers and breathing out as I went down. I noticed the sensation and warmth of her skin and my skin and a thought that I needed to use more moisturizer! After we finished this short and sweet practice, I asked if she wanted to reread the book and she gleefully accepted the opportunity to further delay bedtime.
S – Stop. T – Take a breath. A – Accept. R – Re-start.
Let’s see how this relates to my example…
ST- STOP AND TAKE A BREATH
In her book, Be Mighty (2020), Dr. Jill Stoddard points out that we can choose the “me we want to be” in each moMEnt! (See what she did there?!) Definitely check out her book! Noticing helped me catch a moment where I was not being the me I wanted to be. I stopped and did a breathing practice with my daughter.
I accepted that the first reading was not the experience I wanted it to be and allowed the feelings of shame and disappointment that came with that. I unhooked from my “bad mom” and “hypocrite” stories by realizing that those thoughts were just thoughts and not helping me make a choice that moved me towards my values.
I then restarted making a different choice using three additional steps.
1. I used my senses to ground myself in the present moment.
I noticed the smell of Dove shampoo in her hair, the weight and heat of her small body on my lap, the sound of her voice as she imitated each animal, and the feeling of contentment I felt as I focused only this moment…and then the next…and the next.
2. I noticed when my mind started to wander again. (This is what minds do!)
Despite wanting to be in the moment with my daughter, my mind still naturally started to drift. Each time I caught this, I brought myself back to my sensory experience in order to anchor back in the present moment. I noticed myself saying “ugh you’re doing it again, idiot” in a critical tone and practiced trying to kindly say “your mind is wandering again. That’s normal. Bring it back.”
3. I asked myself “who is the me I want to be at this moment?”
Similar to Dr. Stoddard, Dr. Marc Brackett, a research psychologist and Founding Director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, shares that he asks himself “What would my best self do?” particularly when faced with strong, uncomfortable emotions. Check out his great book Permission to Feel (2019). He says that his breath deactivates his habitual response and activates his best self. With this in mind, I like to visualize my in-breath pumping my metaphorical brake pedal and slowing me down and my out-breath pressing the “on button” for my best version of myself.
A former supervisor used to call a similar idea the “pillow test” meaning asking yourself, “when my head hits the pillow tonight, will I be proud of how I acted today? Did I try my best? Were my responses to situations in line with my values?” Of course, none of us are our best selves at all times, but these questions can help bring what matters to us and how we want to show up to the forefront of our minds.
The second reading was a more pleasurable experience for me and I would guess my daughter also felt more connected to me, although she was too young to articulate her experience. It was a few minutes where I was living in my values and being the mom I want to be. Mindfulness helped me stay present and soak in the joyful experience of reading to my child. Within this, I was also able to model grounding for my daughter and teach her a practice that continues to help her regulate her emotions.
I invite you to try STAR this week and see what happens. You may want to first start with minor annoyances and problems before working your way up to bigger, more emotionally arousing challenges just as athletes practice in lower stress environments prior to games. As with any new skill, this takes practice. This is not easy stuff, but for me, it has been worth the effort!
Dr. Christina Contrastano
Dr. Christina Contrastano is a clinical psychologist and mom whose mission is to make mindfulness and evidence-based therapeutic skills more accessible to busy parents to help them survive, and even thrive, in their parenting journey! Read more about her here: https://cbtcenterofcentralnj.com/drchristina-contrastano/.