Year after year, I have watched my fellow teachers selflessly give drastically more of themselves than they are required to by their primary job description because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. They spend hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) from their own income to create safe and inviting classrooms with activities that engage the senses of their students. Many tutor students during every free moment they have before school, during their minimal lunchtime, and after school has let out. Since much of their ‘planning’ time is taken up by conferences, meetings, and completing required paperwork, they chip at their personal time to manage the tasks that are impossible to complete otherwise.
I see the same thing with school administrators who assume the stance that they be the first one in the building and the last one out (which in my experience has been most). They plan and attend an extensive amount of school activities, juggle the mandates from the district and state, and attend to the constant flow of administrative requirements. They must do this all while attending to the needs and desires of their staff. They also chip away at their personal time to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of an educational leader.
Educator burnout has been cited as one of the leading causes for educators leaving the profession for as long as I can remember. However, many of the colleagues I have watched leave the profession citing ‘burnout’ described something far closer to demoralization. Though, I will admit that I did not recognize it until I read Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession and How They Can Stay by Doris Santoro.
The line of teachers entering the profession has gotten shorter and shorter. Going into the COVID-19 closures, we were already in a critical, nationwide teacher shortage. Veteran teachers were already feeling the strain of teacher shortages with larger class sizes, more duties, and the near-constant need to support long-term substitutes and new-to-the-profession teachers. Alternative certification pathways are rapidly becoming a lifeline for districts as they seek to fill vacancies, especially in their higher needs schools.
We are hemorrhaging good teachers, and there is no stockpile of qualified candidates to fill the voids. We have to stop the bleeding, and that means addressing the issue of demoralization, both for ourselves and our colleagues.
Demoralization Versus Burnout
One thing that has always irritated me was the way that ‘burnout’ puts the emphasis on the shortcomings of the educator. It centralizes the blame on the struggling educator for not being able to continue in the profession due to a lack of resilience, dedication, and skill sets. It is often dismissed by citing the low pay or the demands of a culture hell-bent on maintaining a standardized testing focus. People just assumed that more teachers were coming, so those who burn out are simply absorbed into other professions as the world kept spinning.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is most often caused by prolonged stress. Educators who feel burnout describe feeling overwhelmed, emotionally spent, and no longer able to meet the constant demands of the profession.
Demoralization looks almost identical at this point, but there is one major difference: the presence of a moral source. When faced with consistent and pervasive moral conflicts with their work, educators can begin to feel that they have no power to alter mandates they believe could be harmful to their students or staff. They watch things happen that damage and denigrate the teaching profession while feeling powerless to make positive changes.
Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”
Doris Santoro ~ Philosopher of Education, Bowdoin College (and former classroom teacher)
To put this in perspective, demoralization is one of many processes used during warfare to erode morale 0n the other side and to encourage enemies to surrender or defect. It is psychologically damaging to stay in a state of demoralization for both individuals and organizations. I do not draw this comparison lightly, nor am I implying that it is being done intentionally to educators. I simply want you to understand the gravity of demoralization in order to mobilize you to action.
Causes and Effects of Demoralization
The causes leading to demoralization are a little different for everyone, but there are some overarching themes.
Lack of workplace trust
Ineffective or absent emotional and mental health supports
Having no voice and choice with regard to mandates and management
Being forced to take actions while feeling morally in conflict with them, especially if your struggle is not acknowledged
Not receiving feedback and/or appreciation
Casual disregard of time and workload by leaders
“Lip Service” – being asked for advice and insight with no discernible response to concerns raised
Demoralization takes time as a process. We must catch it early. Then, we should focus on how to prevent it in the first place. It is important that you recognize that feelings of powerlessness play a huge role in the development of demoralization. When dealing with someone who is showing the signs of demoralization (even if it is yourself), finding where the powerlessness stems from is crucial to identifying how to intervene and improve the situation.
Dealing with Demoralization as a Teacher
As you have been reading, you may have developed or confirmed a suspicion that you are feeling demoralized. You are not alone. Chances are you work with several colleagues who are in the same boat as you. Your bosses may even be dealing with it. In truth, much of the nation is feeling demoralized, given the absolute chaos of the pandemic and social crises in our general lives.
The members of our society will be looking for us to manage our own feelings while providing for the needs of our community’s children. That means that the education community must pull together and address demoralization as a whole. It is the only way to stop the nearly constant loss of experienced and effective teachers and educational leaders. There is no option: We have to be healthy and empowered as individuals in order to provide our students with all that they will need.
Ways to address and combat demoralization for yourself:
Build or become part of an authentic professional community (even if you have to leave your school or even the district to find one that fits)
While I wrote the above section focusing on teachers, school leaders are also in a precarious position to suffer the effects of demoralization. All of the suggestions for addressing it listed above apply to school administrators as well.
Please note that by creating a school environment for your teachers that has components to address and prevent demoralization, you are creating an environment that can do the same for you.
When a teacher brings a concern to your attention, look for the deeper moral concern behind it
Recognize that most teacher concerns revolve around three key issues: their ability to be responsive to students’ needs, their ability to meet the demands of the job (time), and things that impact their wellbeing (emotional and mental health)
Even if you disagree with a member of your staff on issues, you can still acknowledge their concern and validate their experience
Be the gateway for issues and initiatives that will impact your teachers. Recognize what is non-negotiable and help them navigate what can be ignored or sidelined
Frequently meet one-on-one or in small groups with your staff to provide support and encouragement
When you genuinely practice mindfulness, your experience of life changes. For many, it feels as if life becomes more intentional as your center of power shifts. When you are consistent with applying the skills, you can truly come to understand how important it is to be present in your life in an effective way. Prepare for feelings of powerlessness and anxiety to diminish.
First, you begin to experience more “space” around your thoughts. There is less mental clutter, and your baseline for negative emotions seems much higher. In time, you become less reactionary to unpleasant thoughts and experiences. For those of us who experience anxiety and/or ADHD, this can be a life-changing experience. It certainly was for me.
As you more intentionally connect with your thoughts, you start to realize how much time you spend struggling with the past and the future. Ironically, all of this struggling serves little purpose. Can you take action in the past? What about in the future? Think about that for a moment. Now consider the toll that stress takes on your body. Most of your stress comes from thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Worrying robs you of your experience of the here and now.
Then, it dawns on you that the only moment in time you have any power to choose and act is the very moment you exist within. Outside of the current moment, your past and future actions are simply memories and projected thoughts. As I discuss later, this is why habits and routines are so important. All of your manifest power exists in the current moment. Mindfulness practices cause us to consciously bring all of our senses and knowledge into the present moment, along with our reasoning skills and metacognition. This can be very impactful when you are a teacher dealing with a classroom management situation or if you are an administrator who gets some stressful news that affects your staff in a big way.
This presence with our thoughts, in turn, evolves into the powerful and liberating realization that you play more of a role in the outcomes of your life if you mindfully experience what is going on around you while harnessing the immense power of choice and action within the current moment you exist within.
Over time, you will train yourself to use your mind as a tool rather than your mind using you to run its negative and harmful narratives. When you do not allow your mind to live in the past or future unchecked, your worrying should begin to diminish. Another positive side effect of a quieter, more controlled mind is that you may start to recall essential lessons and advice you have received in the past right when you can apply them. Best of all, it changes your relationship with anxiety and frustration.
The Resistance Within
I found that setting the goal to practice mindfulness only frustrated me as other priorities pushed it to the side. I had to decide that meditation and mindful moments were a priority and that I was going to make them a habit. After researching how to establish habits, I made a plan, built-in some peer accountability, and made mindfulness a habit.
Establishing a new, healthier habit that provided me with positive replacement behaviors was FAR more natural than working to eliminate or change my old, less beneficial behaviors through sheer will and external motivators.
After practicing mindfulness daily for three months (the minimum time I set for myself), the positive impact was so profound that the benefits became rewarding enough to break through my resistance ceiling. After almost two years of dedicated practice, I now crave to do a variety of mindfulness practices on the regular. I do them so often that I can even do them in the presence of others at work, with or without them knowing.
It takes differing amounts of time for repeated action to become a habit for each of us. You will have to find ways to motivate yourself to begin and sustain a mindfulness practice before the self-perpetuating motivation loop begins. Even after you successfully establish your practice, you might lapse, and you may find yourself looking for the motivation to start again. No matter what, start again.
Here are some tips for breaking through resistance.
Keep your practice simple. If setting up an elaborate area or wearing specific clothes comes before merely doing the exercise, you are simply adding layers that make procrastination more likely. All I need for my meditations is somewhere to sit and the guided meditation I plan to use.
Use your tech to access free and low-cost guided meditations. I have used the Headspace app on my phone for going on two years. It has been more effective than anything else I have tried. I also scour YouTube for guided meditations with specific focuses, such as Loving-Kindness and Breath Awareness meditations.
Do it every day, even if it is only for five minutes. I had to do it at the same time every day for months to establish the habit. I later began scheduling it at different times of the day to generalize the skills and benefits involved.
Embed your meditation in an established routine. I first chose to do mine during my morning routine: after my coffee, but before I visually map my day. You might do it right after lunch or during your evening routine.
Stop waiting for motivation to do it, and just do it. The motivation will come later for some of you.
Tame Your Monkey Mind
The number one excuse that people use to explain why they don’t meditate is that they cannot quieten their minds enough to meditate. The tendency for your mind to swing wildly from one thought to another is referred to by some as the “monkey mind.”
The misunderstanding that you need a quiet and controlled mind to begin meditating is detrimental to your success. Accept your monkey mind. Don’t judge it; start training it. That is one of the primary purposes of meditation. The images of the serene meditating masters who sit for extended periods speak to the outcome of an avid and long-term dedication to the practice, not to the starting point. You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and rip out a classic hit or compose your opus in one sitting. You must adopt a beginner’s mindset, learn the theory and necessary skills, and then consistently practice with a growth mindset. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are the same way.
Two of the best tools for taming the monkey mind, from my experience and knowledge of talking with others, are Breath Awareness meditations and the labeling technique. I will discuss both below.
Before you get into the necessary details of mindfulness practices, you may want to read about several of the fundamental paradigm shifts that you must make for your mindfulness practice to be most effective. I have summarized them in my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”
Conduct Body Scans at the Beginning of Meditations
At the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I struggled with the body scan. It didn’t make sense to me, and it wasn’t until about a year after I began my practice that somebody explained it to me. I will save you some time and explain the purpose.
The purpose of the body scan is to reconnect with your physical self and to become in touch with the physical sensations you are experiencing in the current moment without judgment. In the process, you also release tension in all parts of your body as you focus on each one successively. You can do a brief scan within five minutes, or use a 15-60 minute meditation to scan more thoroughly. There are many guided meditations out there that walk you through a body scan.
If I am waking up or trying to keep my energy up, I begin my body scan at my feet and move up my body. If I am trying to relax or self-calm, I prefer to start at the top of my head and scan down. Whether to start at your feet or the top of your head is a personal choice. With practice, you will find which one you prefer. Some guided body scan meditations take 15 minutes or more like several of these.
Be With Your Breath
It took me two weeks of sitting through guided meditation before I had my first experience with truly being with my breath. Breath awareness meditations are among my favorite interventions when I need to quieten my mind. Coupled with the labeling technique below, this is where you will begin your journey to the seat of your real power.
Of all the things I have learned about meditation, the strategy of labeling has been the most impactful on both my anxiety and my ability to manage uncomfortable thoughts and experiences. Here is a brief lesson on the basic labeling technique. Note that the only two labels I use are “thinking” and “feeling.” This choice is a personal preference, so you should explore your options and use the label(s) that are best for you. Don’t slap the label on and admire it. Simply note the label as gently as touching the edge of a feather to glass and return to your meditation or mindfulness focus. Sometimes, you will feel like you are constantly labeling (hello, monkey mind), but in time this will diminish in frequency.
What Does This Have to Do With the Anxiety Paradox?
One of the key ingredients for perpetuating anxiety disorders is resistance. The more we stand in resistance to anxiety, the more of an impact it has upon our lives. A notable paradox of anxiety is that it often gets worse when we resist it. Through mindfulness, particularly meditation, you will slowly change the ways you respond to thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, this includes many of the behaviors that trigger and perpetuate the anxiety response. Mindfulness is about letting go of resistance and judgment, which both lead to self-perpetuating anxiety.
Fascinating Science You Can Research Further
Research suggests that when we train the brain to be more mindful, we can actually change the brain’s physical structure.
Consistent mindfulness practices, including meditation, can lead to a shrinking of grey matter in the amygdala (this is a good thing), which plays a huge role in anxiety disorders when overactive. It can lead to an increase of grey matter in the creativity and thought centers of the pre-frontal cortex, where reason and decision-making occur. There can be an increase in the production of positive brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can be reduced in the body’s systems. This fact is also a good thing, as long-term exposure to heightened cortisol levels has many adverse effects on the body.
Simple Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness has become so second nature to me that my thoughts naturally gravitate to the question, “Do I want to do this activity mindfully?” Here are several resources for starting or adding to your mindfulness practice.
Writing an article about the importance of preparing early to teach empathy in response to current events seemed like an easy home run, but then I started researching and realized that focusing solely on empathy would be an unbalanced approach.
Much like the term ‘mindfulness,’ empathy has taken on a pop-culture meaning that is far simpler than the nuanced reality that it is. In order to teach something, it is important to understand the content fully. With this in mind, I went in search of what skills should be taught so that a healthy sense of empathy surfaces in our students.
The deeper you dig down the empathy hole, the more difficult it is to find sources that don’t associate empathy with morality. As a teacher, I start to get unsettled here. Now we’re talking about teaching morality?! Whoa, wait a minute. This is a weird gray area for educators. It is general practice in most American communities for families to impart moral teachings to a child. We, as educators, are to model positive universal truths (i.e. kindness, integrity) and the positive morals appropriate to our community and national culture.
Come on now. If you have ever been a teacher, you know full well you have played a role in the moral development of the students you have taught.
Deeper still: How can we, as educators, objectively teach students the skills necessary to be moral and empathic members of the community, while setting aside our own biases and misunderstandings, if necessary?
Now I am getting to the big question: What factors will maximize the likelihood that our education system helps provide the community with new members who are both capable of empathy and predisposed to continue improving both their own and their community’s well-being through moral acts?
I am going to first break down the components of empathy, each of which must be coached and taught for authentic and intentional empathy to take place. Then, I will discuss executive functions and their role in empathy (and…dare I say…morality). But before I do, note the most important factor.
Even with all of these things in place in the classrooms, there is one key ingredient that makes it at all viable: a deep, culturally responsive, and enduring partnership with the parents of our students and the larger community that they live within.
Understanding the Components of Empathy
There isn’t a great deal of literature on the components of Empathy. Most academic papers all pointed back to a single source: Decenty and Cowell’s 2014 article, “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” They describe empathy as a “catch-all” term for three decidedly different processes: Emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective-taking.
Some level of these three characteristics may be instinctual and initiated very early in a child’s development. However, instruction in the areas that inform appropriate behaviors around empathy is critical during the time students’ brains are developing their prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things essential to social interaction: how we regulate emotions, control our impulsive behavior, assess risk, and make long-term plans. It isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. Take note! The things I just mentioned are executive functions, which I will certainly get to shortly.
Meanwhile, take a look at the three proposed processes forming authentic empathy.
Emotional Sharing: The experience of feeling distressed at observing others in distress is known as emotional sharing.
Empathic Concern: The motivation to care for an individual who is either vulnerable or distressed is referred to as empathic concern.
Perspective Taking: When you intentionally put yourself into the mindset of another individual and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, you are taking on their perspective.
I have seen each of these processes played out NUMEROUS times on playgrounds, in cafeterias, and at track practice (which I coached). Our high expectations of our students must include high expectations around their use of intentional empathy. So how do we get them there with the consistency of high expectations in all grades?
Let’s Get a Round of Applause for…
One quote sent me down a rabbit hole that changed my entire view of teaching empathy in the context of conflict. “In resource allocation situations, [when morality and empathy are in conflict], empathy can become a source of immoral behavior” (Batson et al., 1995).
As I processed that last statement, something became very clear to me. It is one thing to teach empathy, but what is the point if empathy can be subverted so easily by the need to belong? That led me down a path to anti-bullying instruction. I began to see a pattern emerging across this and all of the socio-emotional curricula I have taught throughout my career in special education and teacher training.
The common thread was that true empathy is made more intentional by the thinker’s executive functioning skills. If we are going to teach our students empathy, we must also strengthen their executive functioning abilities. I propose that this will also have the wonderful consequence of positively impacting student engagement.
What exactly are executive functioning skills?
As you read through this list of commonly recognized executive functioning skills, ponder two things. First, what functions are necessary for intentional empathy? Secondly, which ones are essential for school success? (Hint: They are all essential for both empathy and school success. More bang for your buck!)
I have included resources for teaching and strengthening each of the following examples of executive functions across all age groups after each function.
The ability to maintain attentional focus on relevant stimuli, such as listening to others, watching a presentation, and listening to instruction. In regard to empathy, this comes into play when you consider active listening, which is necessary to fully understand the experiences of others.
The ability to refrain or delay response to a sudden strong urge or desire to act. Giving the brain time to fully understand and process information is imperative to intentional empathy. This is also a very important skill in the emotional self-regulation toolbox. You could look at impulse control as empathy for your future self, as it allows you to step into your own shoes and consider the effects of your behaviors before you act.
The ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts, particularly the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. The link to empathy and moral action is clear with this function. Understanding one’s own emotions is key to the ability to control one’s emotional expression and responses to the experience of empathy. This is a key function that is often negatively impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma.
This involves the ability to select the most important/time-sensitive tasks, think about the activities required to achieve the task, and to make a plan to meet the goals of the task. When deciding what actions to take during and after an empathic response, planning is important. This is especially true when dealing with a moral issue or when attempting to change factors that are causing distress to an individual or larger groups.
The ability to switch between thinking about multiple different concepts, tasks, or strategies simultaneously. This is a key function in being able to adapt to new situations and environments. This skill allows us to persist with current behavioral strategies for as long as they are productive at achieving goals and to be able to switch approaches and strategies when there is a change in the situation or environment. This is especially important when there is a plethora of information that is available, which with the internet is the norm. It is a required skill for perspective-taking, which is very important for intentional empathy.
The ability to keep anything you need in mind while you are doing something, like a phone number as you are dialing or keeping story events in order as you process the meaning of a book. This is essential when processing cause and effect accurately.
Self-monitoring is critical for actively engaging learners in reflecting, assessing and working toward academic, behavioral, and social goals
This is our ability to become motivated, to take on new tasks, to persevere at those tasks until their completion, even if we encounter challenges. It is one thing to have an empathic response. It is a whole other matter to initiate and persevere at tasks which deal with systemic changes.
The ability to put things together in a logical order, often by creating systems. As we watched the Nation’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that they became more and more organized. Organizing our behaviors is one way to make the maximum impact when we begin taking action. This is also crucial for every type of schooling and career.
The ability to sort specific experiences and information into general rules or classes. Concept formation greatly impacts how students respond when they practice intentional empathy and make decisions about how to react.
Next Week: I Will Discuss Metacognition and Mindfulness
One of the best tools you can provide your students with as they strengthen their executive functioning skills are metacognitive strategies and skills. Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking. If you would like to prime the pump, check out this resource on metacognition from Vanderbuilt University.
As you process this information on executive functions, consider how you can embed practices and strategies for their development within your content area and for your specific age groups. These are skills that will pay dividends in their ability to function as empathic learners.
I hit a wall at the end of last week. Then, I slid into a very dark hole. It wasn’t depression, per se. It was more of a void: a total lack of contentment, meaning, and purpose.
Thanks to chronic insomnia, I have been averaging only 4-4.5 hours of sleep per night for six weeks, but I have used self-care and naps to cope. Aside from missing my tribe, I felt I was managing well.
Perhaps it was my exhaustion along with the cumulative effects of quarantine isolation triggered by the realization that I had fallen into the trap of writing like a textbook rather than from the soul. Maybe it was the suppression of grief from my break up with my partner after a difficult 9 months. In all honesty, I was likely hurtling toward this dark space since March, and I couldn’t see it because I was busy being diligent with writing and helping others through their dark spaces.
But mental health disorders are often unpredictable like that.
I reached out to someone in my social support tribe to ask them whether they had the mental space to help me process what was happening. He assured me that he did, listening patiently as I talked in a stream of consciousness.
When I reached a pausing point after realizing I had been talking non-stop for over thirty minutes, I waited for my friend to respond. He took a long, slow breath and said, “You are one of the most positive people I know.” Another pause. “Do you realize how nihilistic you sound, Jenna?”
The question jarred me. It left me frantically sifting through my segmented memories of the things I had just said to find some shred of evidence that he had misunderstood my message.
“What is the point? My life feels meaningless. My impact on the world is so small. When I die, I will only have mattered for as long as the memories of my loved ones can sustain snippets of who they perceived me to be.“
“Perhaps I will write a book, and someone, a hundred years from now, will quote something I have said. It is unlikely; everything has been said before. Originality is only a function of exposure.”
“I am a speck of stardust on a rock that ishurtling through space. Insignificant to the Universe.”
I had even quoted the Epicurean paradox as I ranted about the pandemic and how the prayers from around the world were not stopping its spread.
I sat there, stunned. I had unknowingly stumbled into the realm of existential nihilism, and I had wandered in so far that I couldn’t see even the slightest sliver of meaningfulness on the horizon.
Don’t Google “nihilism” and begin judging me as a godless Being without morals. The first definition that comes up is biased in its brevity and dangerous in its assumptions. It is insulting and presumptive to lump me in with Nietzsche as if the direction he took nihilism in is the only perspective that can come from realizing that most of the striving we do in life is pointless in and of itself.
In our darkest moments, we can surrender to the shadows, or we can fight them with our light. I started fighting by researching, as is my way. The starkly pessimistic words of historical nihilists resonated with my dark space. I began questioning whether I was becoming informed or falling farther into the hole, but I kept scanning the texts for a way out.
Then, I was met with salvation as one quote jumped off the screen at me.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”
The Ego Falls Away
When I was 15 years old, my Theory of Knowledge teacher took us to a field and told us to go lie in the grass alone and ponder René Descartes’ declaration, “I think; therefore, I am.” Being the unassuming rebel that I was, I sat there and made a chain of clover flowers thinking that I existed simply because I existed and that I didn’t need to understand why.
How could I have known then that the experience she had gifted me would connect with existential nihilism almost 30 years later only to give me the power and purpose climb out of my dark space?
I have suffered for countless days wondering why I was made to exist in a world that wouldn’t have missed me if I was never born. This is a gift of periodic depressions and the darkness of mood swings.
The roots of my darkness run so deep that so far, I have only managed the symptoms when it takes over. Being bullied by “mean girls” as a pre-teen adolescent tore wounds into my ego that would take nearly three decades and a lot of therapy to heal. This is where the ego comes into play.
I have been consumed by worrying about what people thought of me for most of my life. Even as I write this, I feel the sting of fear that someone I know will judge and reject me as I begin opening up windows into my mental health experiences in this blog.
Psychologically speaking, the ego is “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” (Oxford Languages). Ego is more commonly understood to be one’s sense of identity and self-worth.
Several spiritual and religious paths guide us in releasing the ego for enlightenment, altruism, and the glory of a higher power. We can experience huge shifts in our ego toward peace and acceptance only to find ourselves battling the ego again only days, weeks, or months later. This is part of the human condition.
The negative things that happen to us can feed a pain body within our ego, making dark thoughts part of our personal narrative. It is easy in troubling times for this pain body to take over and move us into dark space.
The first step in battling the pain body of the ego is to acknowledge its presence. Stare it in the face and say, “I see you there. I know you are not me.”
Now that I realized my ego’s pain body had pushed me into the wall and rolled me into the hole, I began searching for inspiration in one of my favorite places. I started watching TED Talks on depression, nihilism, and mental health. Enlightenment came with the seventh talk I listened to.
I have been isolated from the work I love, which is supporting teachers in personalized, face-to-face coaching sessions. I have had very little social interaction. My one remaining connection to the servant leadership that is essential to my self-worth, namely this blog, had plateaued in readership.
Then the epiphany: In the absence of service, belonging, and impact, my ego becomes nihilistic.
I had taken the next step to weaken my pain body after calling it out: I had identified what fueled it. Now I could take steps to dismantle it.
The connections we make with ourselves and others are the fabric of happiness and purpose, and we create that on our own. Even the act of surrendering to a god is a personal choice meant to bring belonging and meaning where there was none; it is part of our essence that we bring into the world by pure will. Call it faith if you wish.
Steps to Grow a Sense of Belonging
Change your personalnarrative with positive self-talk. If you catch yourself ruminating on the rhetoric of your pain body’s darkness, reframe it into positivity by keeping a gratitude journal, developing goals with a plan, creating a vision board, or using positive affirmations with yourself.
Look for ways to integrate the best parts of your various personas. If you have been segmenting your life into work versus social versus the self you give your significant others versus who you are when you are alone, find a way to reintegrate yourself. I am not suggesting you take down barriers that help you. Instead, find what personas and skillsets you like most about yourself and invite them into the various compartments of your life.
Make healing a priority. I would not have come so far in my mental health progress without therapy and other expert resources. The book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown is a powerful place to start.
Service and Impact
The ripples we make in this life define who we are for others and invites belonging.
I am a deeply spiritual and moral woman because I choose to be for the comfort of my soul and those around me. I have always recognized that it is the impact we have on others and the feelings we cultivate within ourselves that brings meaning to this existence in the brief time we are a part of it.
How I treat one person can change them for the rest of their lives. That change could impact how they treat everyone they know and what they choose to do to bring their own life meaning.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Find out how you can provide service to those you wish to belong with. For me, that is continuing this blog despite the fact that I may never have thousands of readers. Even if I only impact one person in a positive way, the ripples of that could spread that positivity to others they know. Ripples.
In Summation: A Call to Arms for Educators
If we are to equip our youth with the tools they need to make their own meaning in this world, we have a moral responsibility to define and strengthen the meaning of our own lives.
We also have a moral responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues. Goodness knows there will be plenty of people dealing with the reality of mental health disorders and emotional struggles as we emerge from quarantine for the next school year.
I am still struggling with my dark space today, but I can see hope on the horizon. Instead of dwelling in the nihilism, I am accepting it as a stage I must move through to deal with the scars of my past. When you feel lost in the darkness, don’t ever stop looking for the light.
You are important. You are worthy. Now, go make your own meaning!
Ongoing anxiety is one of the most horrible physical states I have experienced. It has robbed me of precious time and even made me hide from the world. I had to get control of it. Otherwise, I was on a one-way track to professional and social ruin.
As a teacher with an unchecked anxiety disorder, I found myself crying between classes and hiding trembling hands from my students. The ever-mounting demands of accountability brought on by the authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act stole more and more of the unstructured time that I needed for self-care during the school day.
Worse yet was facing coworkers, friends, and family who didn’t understand because persistent anxiety had never been a problem for them. Though well-intentioned, being told to “just breathe” or that things would be okay, didn’t help. Such “advice” often deepened the shame that came with calling out sick on a day I simply could not face my duties as an educator through the terror that comes with anticipating panic attacks.
So, I began researching and reading everything I could get my hands on, hoping I could find the silver bullet. Note: Nothing pisses me off more than searching “anxiety” in an online bookstore only to receive messages that I can overcome my disorder with quick-fixes and badassery.
Unless your anxiety is short-term and episodic, most of the search returns on “anxiety” simply won’t cut it. You have to go deeper and understand it from the inside out.
After consuming the majority of suggested reading from many websites, I learned that I had to change the way I was thinking entirely. Learning to alter your mindset on anxiety is a far more effective strategy than trying to eradicate it with the snake oil advice in quick-read books. The only thing I will say that you can do quickly to address persistent anxiety is to start being diligent about change NOW.
Typically, we avoid anxiety. We know the signs it is coming, and we reject them wholely. We can change our behaviors to avoid triggers or reject the feelings and consequences of it entirely, but there is a paradox here. When we reject anxiety and its symptoms, we could actually be making things worse. Anxiety often creates a feedback loop in our nervous system. Before you know it, you can become anxious about becoming anxious, thereby bleeding the anxiety into other areas of your life.
If you search “neurobiology and anxiety” on the internet, the rabbit hole you will find is immense. I am greatly simplifying the psychological and chemical processes for the purpose of this article. Still, you can certainly do the search to get more information if you so desire.
There are some strange facts about the science behind anxiety that could change the way you perceive it and help you identify ways to break the anxiety cycle. However, I know some of you need to get straight to the strategies for managing the symptoms. You can skip the science for now and go straight to the unique ways to manage anxiety. Still, I strongly suggest you come back to my discussion on brain science when you are ready.
Reality is Subjective
The part of your brain that drives the anxiety reaction cannot always tell real experiences from thoughts. Please read that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now allow me to explain.
First, our brain takes in stimuli. Sight and sound stimuli are processed through the thalamus, which breaks the inputs down and classifies them before sending the information on to the amygdala and specialized portions of the cortex. Olfactory (smell) and tactile stimuli bypass the thalamus altogether, going straight for the amygdala. This is why smells and physical sensations can trigger memories and feelings far stronger than the other senses.
The cortex, in turn, gives the incoming information meaning, making us conscious of what we are seeing and hearing. One region of the cortex, known as the prefrontal cortex, may be vital to turning off the anxiety response once a threat has passed.
Back to the amygdala, which is the emotional hub of the brain. Note that the amygdala receives sensory input before (or simultaneously with) the cortex. One of the amygdala’s primary roles is triggering the fear response known as “fight or flight,” so it makes sense that this is the case. Evolutionarily speaking, fast action without the need to process deeply has helped our species survive in the harsh environments we encountered.
What is important to note here is that the amygdala itself cannot discern real events from thoughts. If the cortex sends thought messages that our amygdala perceives as a threat, it can respond by dumping the hormones responsible for the fight or flight response into our nervous system.
Chemicals such as cortisone, the stress hormone, and adrenaline can thereby be released by a “mere” thought, even a subconscious one. It is theorized that dysfunctions in this process lead to many anxiety disorders.
The Chemistry of Anxiety Has a Ceiling
As mentioned prior, the amygdala triggers the release of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline into our nervous system when it perceives a threat. Much like medications we take, these chemicals have a maximum effect on our bodies before they wear off. Medical professionals refer to this maximum effect as the ceiling.
Unlike much of the medications we take, our bodies create these chemicals. We have no conscious control over how much or how often our amygdala introduces the stress chemicals into our systems. So each of our stress responses is different, making it difficult for doctors to help us moderate this process with anxiety medication. It really is trial and error.
However, one empowering fact is that the chemicals can only do so much and do wear off over time for most of us when given the opportunity. There is power in knowing that the racing heartbeat, uncontrollable sweating, and trembling muscles are typically temporary.
You Can Retrain Your Brain
Many thought behaviors are learned. We have developed patterns over time, with repeated exposure and habits. Worrying is a learned thought behavior, for example, even if it is an unwanted one.
Metacognition, thinking about thinking concerning learning healthy and sustainable thought behaviors, is not something readily found in Kindergarten through 12th-grade curricula. Sure, we focus on growth mindsets and positive thinking, but direct instruction in how to avoid neurological disorders through conscious brain-training simply doesn’t happen unless someone sees a problem and intervenes.
Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the importance of socio-emotional education that targets self-regulation, but most of my readers have likely missed that boat and must, therefore, self-teach.
To retrain your brain takes dedication because it is only through consistency and repetition that you can change the thought behaviors that have developed unchecked thus far.
Common Advice You Shouldn’t Ignore
Be mindful of meeting your basic needs of sleep, nutrition, hydration, and exercise as consistently as possible.
Consult a professional. Routine mental healthcare is as essential as general healthcare.
Choose your support team carefully and make sure they truly understand anxiety in its many forms.
Finally, The Unique Ways to Manage Anxiety Symptoms
Get Heavy or Tight
Occupational therapists, Special Education teachers, and pet owners have known these next two ideas for decades. Now the secret is out: Weighted blankets and compression shirts are research-evidenced for self-calming.
The first time I heard about weighted blankets, I was in my 2nd year of teaching within a small rural district in the middle of the Carolinas. A student with autism moved into town, bringing with him an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that included the use of a weighted blanket to deescalate anxiety whenever he was overstimulated. That ten-pound, dingy grey blanket worked like magic. I have used one for years now with great success.
Does your pet experience anxiety with storms, travel, or fireworks on the fourth of July? Thundervests have long been used to calm the anxiety of dogs. Guess what: compression shirts can do the same for you. You can buy specialized deep pressure shirts and vests, but in a pinch even a compression shirt sold in sporting goods can help. For best results, though, go for the real deal.
The science is simple: Much like deep touch pressure therapy, pressure on the body from the weighted blanket or compression shirt can calm arousal in your central nervous system and trigger the brain to release more serotonin. Seratonin is the “happy” chemical that increases feelings of calm and well-being.
Be aware that there can be risks associated with compression and weight for some people with preexisting conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, and claustrophobia. Consult a medical professional before trying them if you have concerns.
This Very Moment
There is no power in the past nor the future. This exact moment, which passes the moment it is realized, is the only seat of choice and action. Mindfulness practices capitalize on this moment of power.
Try making it a habit to be fully present in the very moment you are in. Recognize that the past is comprised of memories and the future is made up of subject thought projections. Neither of them are real in this present moment.
Engage all of your senses to be present in the here-and-now. What do you see? Are there any physical sensations taking place, like the wind on your skin? Can you smell or taste anything.
After practice, you will have increasing control over the direction of your thoughts. This is more powerful when coupled with the labeling technique.
Start With Five Minutes (and Learn Labeling)
I was certain I would never be able to meditate. I gave up within a week every time I tried. Then I hit the worst patch of anxiety I had ever experienced and was willing to try just about anything. With the guidance of my therapist and a very user-friendly app, I began with just five minutes a day.
The first technique I learned was labeling. After three months, I was sitting for 20-minutes (a length of time I couldn’t have even imagined just months before), and the technique had effectively generalized into my normal thinking.
I implore you to commit to five minutes a day of meditation with labeling. That’s all…for now. It typically takes longer than five minutes to sift through your social media, make a cup of tea, or to get ready for bed.
Our thoughts can be like a persistent child, tugging at our sleeve and whining, when we attempt to meditate. The labeling technique is quite simple, though its mastery as a habit requires consistent practice.
Assume your meditative position.
Take some deep breaths, closing your eyes on the last breath.
Allow your breathing to return to its normal rhythm.
If you know how to do a quick mental body scan, do so now.
Now focus on your breath. Sometimes, I find it easier to do this if I count the in-and-out movement as “1, 2, 1, 2.”
As thoughts and feelings inevitably arise, silently label them as “thinking” without judging yourself and gently return to attending to the breath.
When you are ready to end your meditation, allow a slow opening of your senses and open your eyes.
Repeat at least once a day, increasing your time when you feel ready.
Labeling gave me the quiet space I needed in my mind to really make positive changes in my longterm anxiety management. Give it a chance.
Put Up Your Shield
Remember how your brain can interpret an idea as a reality? Try using a visualization strategy to shield yourself before entering an anxiety-inducing location or situation. Don’t dismiss this as new-age hocus pocus. Your mind is a powerful tool, and teaching it to shield can be an effective technique.
Read – Destroy – Write
There is a very specific reason the title of this section begins with the word “read” even though the first step in the process is to write. This is because the habit you will form after writing for the first time moves in this specific order: read, destroy, and write.
Day One: write whatever comes to mind. Nobody will ever read this except you. What are you feeling? What are you worrying about? Whatever comes up, write it down in a stream of consciousness. Some people benefit from writing their thoughts in pictures or with bullet points. Whether it is pages long or just one sentence, get it out of your head and onto the paper.
The next day, read what you wrote without judging yourself. (This is where the daily pattern of Read-Destroy-Write begins.)
After reading it through once or twice, destroy it completely. I chose to burn mine, but shredding works just as well.
Repeat steps 2-4 each day.
If you are in a situation where you do not feel secure in waiting until the next day to destroy your writings based on the sensitivity of what you wrote or the lack of privacy, you can adopt the pattern of Write-Read-Destroy each day. It is almost as effective.
Make sure you buy a notebook to go with it, as it is an active read with written exercises. In my opinion, this book is the closest replacement for an actual therapist I have found. It is my go-to recommendation to anyone who needs a therapist but is unable to get one for whatever reason.
Some Holistic Supplements Aren’t Snake Oils
Let me start by saying that I am not a trained medical doctor. You should consult your physician and do research of your own before taking any medication, even holistic supplements and herbs.
Personally, I have used both kava kava (the tincture is best) and Levium for acute anxiety symptoms with significant success. Again, do your research first and talk with a medical professional if you have concerns, but don’t dismiss all supplements as snake oil.
Use Your Brain in New Ways
One of my favorite quotes comes from John Dewey (as in the Dewey Decimal System used by most libraries to catalog books), “Growth is the only moral end.” When you dedicate your mind to learning new skills or practicing some form of creativity, there is less mental space for anxiety-inducing thoughts to intrude upon.
Taking free self-paced classes, watching how-to videos on YouTube, or buying creative supplies to just get going are a great place to start.
Rituals and Routines
This is not a case for religious rituals, although those often work, too. I am talking about habitual patterns of behavior that result in positive outcomes.
Some key routines and rituals to consider trying:
Invite More Anxiety to the Party
This one can be tricky, and if you are working with a mental health disorder, it should not be tried without the support of a trained medical professional.
What if I told you that it is possible in many cases that by accepting and leaning into anxiety, and even asking for it to do more of its tricks, can actually short circuit the anxiety loop and provide relief that may even reshape how your brain responds to anxiety on the regular?
The core of this strategy is acceptance and it capitalizes on the chemical ceiling I mentioned earlier in this article.
These days I need some face-to-face coaching interactions with my teachers so I can feel connected and effective within my career as an educational leader. I will also need paper products and disinfectant soon, but that looks less and less likely each time I see the empty shelves at my grocery store.
I find myself needing to identify ways to continually learn and help others to overcome the melancholy that nips at my heels with my life so disrupted. I need my second job to start up again. None of these are wants for me. I need them to experience the full breadth of well-being that stimulates my most healthy and creative self.
Needs are required or essential things. Recent events surrounding the spread of the coronavirus have made me get very real with myself about what I truly need and what I give my energy to.
Educators around the world are all assessing their needs. Some need new skills in distance learning to ensure they are meeting their job security and esteem needs. Many are faced with needing financial security when their second job could no longer function. (Yes, I know what it is like to teach and still need side jobs due to the increasing cost of living!) People all over the internet are talking about needing the sunshine, time with separately quarantined loved ones, and a return to normalcy.
I have been toiling away at my esteem and self-actualization needs as a coping mechanism for quarantine. However, I find myself still struggling emotionally with unmet needs that I could not quite put my finger on. That is, I couldn’t name them because I was repressing them while I targeted my more pleasant needs, such as activities that calm my anxiety, social connection, and creativity. This led me to authentically reexamine where I am in regard to my needs. I assure you it is worth the time.
Let me take a step back just in case you are not familiar with the framework I will be considering as I further discuss needs. Look at the graphic below, which depicts the hierarchy of human needs as perceived by a man named Abraham Maslow.
As you examine the hierarchy, take a moment to note any apparent needs you might be deficient in at this time. We will explore each one as I make practical suggestions and provide you with links to guide you to possible next steps you can take to address them even while quarantined.
First, bear with me as I round out the background of the hierarchy for educators who may have come in through alternative certification pathways and such. They may not have had the benefit of exploring Maslow’s framework within educational coursework.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist and philosopher practicing early in the 20th century. He developed the hierarchy of human needs pictured above. Maslow argued that for a person to obtain the highest levels for personal development, which he referred to as self-actualization, their more foundational needs typically must be met.
I will admit that the first version of this article went straight to self-actualization because, again, that is how I have been coping with the recent isolation driven by the shutdown of our society.
As I was meditating earlier this week, a persistent thought pierced through my peace: Not everyone is capable of addressing their self-actualization needs right now. Perhaps my discomfort comes from trying too hard to meet my own higher needs while repressing the fears and insecurities around my shaky foundation during this time. Self-care, after all, should be an essential part of my every day life if that is the message I am putting out to the world.
If your basic needs are currently met, and you want to target self-development, skip to the section on Self-Actualization now. I have some intriguing assessments and tasks for you there to help you explore characteristics about yourself you might not have considered before.
Tier 1: Physiological Needs
Let’s face it: Quarantine refocused the world’s attention and shifted our needs. How can we safely obtain food? For those of us without in-home significant others, are there ways to meet our sexual needs in fulfilling and ethical ways? What will we do about hygiene if we run out of toilet paper?
If this is where you are, stop beating yourself up about not reorganizing closets and struggling to manage all of the requests for your social presence online. Permit yourself to BE present with your basic needs.
There is grace in being mindful about your physiological needs. Most of the profoundly effective mindfulness strategies take place in the realm of savoring the fulfillment of basic requirements. Mindful eating, doing a moving meditation while you sweep the floor, and attending to your breath are just a few examples.
Strategies for Meeting and Maintaining Your Physiological Needs
Keep a food journal on what you eat to help you find unhealthy patterns.
Create meal plans while using inexpensive and healthy foods.
Keep a sleep log to establish what sleep habits are healthiest for you and develop routines that maximize your sleep needs.
Use your breath to connect with your body and quieten your overbusy mind. Breathing meditations are a core practice in mindfulness and other meditation methods. Start with just 5 minutes a day and see what happens. What do you have to lose?
Get hydrated. I keep finding myself dry lipped and excessively thirsty, so I know I have been ignoring my hydration needs while I work online all day. Chronic dehydration negatively affects every system in the body, including the brain.
Track your moods and gain new insight on strategies to maximize the positive feelings while managing the less enjoyable ones. Yale has developed a mood tracker. It does cost 99 cents, but it is a great way to find patterns in your mood so that you can take preemptive measures to minimize undesired mood shifts.
Practice gratitude. Somehow, focusing on those things we are genuinely grateful for daily can have a profound effect on our mental and emotional well-being. (There is even scientific research supporting this!)
Tier 2: Safety Needs
My brain is hardwired to continually attend to my personal development and self-actualization needs as a coping strategy. However, I find myself struggling in areas around safety and security right now. When I fight the urge to dwell on such matters, it undermines the progress I make in my personal growth.
How can I self-actualize when I feel uncertain about my finances and my health? The truth is that it took a friend to clue me in to the fact that I am doing myself a disservice when I always push for growth in tier five of Maslow’s Hierarchy without addressing my deficits in the area of security.
Strategies for Meeting and Maintaining Your Safety Needs
Build a plan for paying off debt. The limitations on travel and entertainment during quarantine may afford you some extra cash to put toward the first debt you target. When that is paid off, you can allocate the payments that were going into the first debt toward paying on the second.
Research skills you need to maximize your employment. Take online courses to level up your current situation. There are great sources for free learning all over the internet.
Find ways to exercise that maximize your overall well-being. Why not take advantage of free yoga classes?
Tier 3: Love and Belonging Needs
This one poses a unique challenge in the time of the coronavirus. If you have loved ones with whom you enjoy spending time within your safe space, celebrate that! Now more than ever, our children and significant others need our time and attention. Find ways to give of your time without giving too much. It is about balance.
Strategies for Meeting and Maintaining Your Love and Belonging Needs
Hang out with friends and loved ones virtually. There are tons of options here like Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Zoom.
Research interest group meetups in your area so you can go socialize with people who get you when the stay at home orders are lifted. Reach out to the organizer and ask about books and websites you can use to develop your understanding of the common interest.
Join online groups, read free books, and seek out online social outlets that target your interests.
Find your Love Languages and begin discussing with your loved ones on how you can exercise your top languages in ways that meet their needs. Get them to do the same and calibrate your efforts to make quarantine as pleasant as possible.
Write love letters to your friends and family and mail them. There is just something compelling about the written word arriving in the mailbox.
Beware social media paradox. Some studies have shown that the very outlets we use to connect to people can lead to depression and low self-esteem if they are accessed too often or during dark moods.
If you are single, online dating sites are still an option. If this is an avenue you are taking, be cautious in this time where meeting them in person may take a while. You never know who is on the other device messaging you. Avoid the urge to bare your soul. Instead, get them involved in meaningful conversations by asking thought-provoking questions.
Tier 4: Esteem Needs
There is a reason that esteem is often used as a reward. High levels of esteem feels good. Many of us are struggling with this as we toil at work from home. There may be nobody to see and truly acknowledge what we are accomplishing. You are doing great things. This is simply one of those times where you must find ways to meet your esteem needs from a place deep within.
Esteem could be defined as the need to respect and genuinely appreciate ourselves. So while external validation is always enjoyable, it is the internal validation that means the most in the long run.
Strategies for Meeting and Maintaining Your Esteem Needs
Make a list of things that make you feel successful. Focus on things that are doable right now. At the top of my esteem list is helping others with my knowledge and having systems in place that make my house run well. Turn your list into a series of goals. Make sure they are realistic, given your current circumstances. Do something on the menu you created every day that you can.
Altruism is the act of selflessly regarding the well-being of others and taking action to improve their condition. Acts of altruism can trigger positive esteem even when nobody knows what you have done. That is the point. People all over the world are struggling right now. Can you help in some way without the expectation of something in return?
Self-actualization is the realization of our intellectual, creative, and social potential achieved through intentional thoughts and behaviors. It is guided by our intrinsic motivation to be our best selves rather than by external motivators, such as money and fame. Maslow developed his hierarchy in a way that has self-actualization at the pinnacle.
I contend that we can apply self-actualization strategies regardless of where we are on the pyramid so long as we are also attending to our essential needs. In fact, in doing so, we can often optimize conditions for other more foundational needs to be met.
Happiness is a strange thing. The very things we think will make us happier (more money, for example) don’t after a certain point. There have been studies and research done on this paradox. For example, a study done by Princeton University reports a direct correlation between income and happiness until an individual brings in about $75,000. Beyond that, more money does not make for a significant increase in satisfaction. Time to pursue habits that do elicit joy.
Maslow discusses this leveling up of need in his work, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” wherein he contends that as soon as a prepotent goal is met, the next higher need presents itself.
Thus, man is a perpetually wanting animal.”
Abraham Maslow, 1943
Start Self-actualizing with Some Character Building
Our behaviors are often driven by our character. Fortunately for us, our character is not static. However, it can be challenging to develop and change the mental and moral qualities that distinguish us among individuals. It takes intention and dedication.
Much like a fingerprint, typical attributes of character may be present in each of us, but how we exercise and present our nature makes us one of a kind. How we live out our principles and values can evolve. It can be overwhelming to decide where to start when we set out to self-actualize by developing our character. Let me get you started.
There are easy to use assessments available on demand (and for FREE) that can help. I have linked them within this section to help you get started. They will open in a separate tab so you can use the tool and then return to this article to further explore how the information you ascertain through these resources can be applied within the context of connecting with your core self.
Each of the tools will require you to develop a profile. The information and resources they provide are beneficial and worth the time. I have used each of them personally, and you can easily control how the sites contact you. I despise spam, and none of these have opened me up to unwanted contacts.
Let’s Start with Your Primary Archetypes
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist who is best known as the founder of analytic psychology, developed what he referred to as archetypes in the early 20th century.
Archetypes are the personas that manifest in the ways we behave when we interact with the environment and other individuals.
First, take a moment to identify your primary archetypes. Note that this tool has adapted the concept a bit and includes a few contemporary archetypes that replace some of those identified by Jung. After you take a brief quiz, you will be presented with an image of your top three archetypes, such as mine below.
Once you have identified your fundamental archetypes, you can use them to guide the exploration of your strengths and challenges through a more focused lens.
In addition to defining archetypes, Jung also identified what he called “shadow archetypes.” These shadows help us to understand our more deep-seated instincts. They exist as part of our unconscious mind and consist of desires, weaknesses, repressed ideas, and possible shortcomings. Typically, they are formed through high-impact life events and out of our attempts to adapt to cultural norms and the expectations of others. The tool above also identifies your shadow archetypes.
Having a better understanding of the overarching themes in your persona allows you to zoom in on those aspects that best serve your personal and professional goals. It also guides your thoughts as you research ways to develop your social interactions and to address the deficiencies that may be hindering you.
Now Let’s Explore Your Character Strengths
This one took me by surprise, and I would like to think that I know myself pretty well. When I took the Character Strengths assessment linked below, it wasn’t the top strengths that took me off guard. It was the bottom five strengths that gave me pause and allowed me to get very real with myself.
Before proceeding, use this tool provided by the VIA Institute on Character to develop a ranked list of your character strengths. Try not to overthink it or rate the questions on how you wish you were. That will just affirm your misconceptions about yourself, and there is no growth there. Go ahead. I’ll wait…
Print the list if you can. If not, jot down the top and bottom four character strengths in the list. My first four made complete sense to me, but I was a little taken back by the bottom four.
It is important to note here that all of the items on your list are strengths. They are all things we should aim to be, and they cannot all be at the top. The bottom ones should not be confused with a list of deficits. They can, however, help us to identify parts of our character we may wish to grow. So, then why did it bother me so much that zest, prudence, and humor were at the bottom? Gut check time!
The truth is that while I am a very self-motivated and active person, I do lack some self-regulation. I can blame it on my Attention Deficit Disorder or coping mechanisms when my mental health is a struggle, but the truth is I had never given it much thought. THAT is what this next exercise is all about.
Each day, I want you to determine whether you are in a place where you need success or if you are in a growth mindset.
If you are craving success on a particular day, perhaps to improve your mood, try to exercise each of your top four strengths. Just last night, I felt the need to find a happy place. So, I took some virtual tours of architectural wonders to admire their beauty and excellence of craftsmanship.
If, however, you are in a growth mindset, you will find ways to put your bottom four strengths into practice. For example, I have begun reading books and taking online classes aimed at improving my humor, mainly while speaking publicly.
I appreciate the time you took today to read this article. It demonstrates your dedication to personal growth: an admirable quality. These are crumbs leading the way to clever thinking and action that you should continue beyond my examples. Remember, a brain that is involved in active doing and learning is less likely to get stuck in dark places.
Setting aside the normal stressors of being an educator, we are now experiencing life and teaching in unprecedented ways while managing the mental and emotional effects of quarantine.
Today marks the first day of the fourth week since my District’s closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I have only had in-person interactions with six people within that time. Normally, I have interacted with 20-30 people before 8:00 AM on a workday. I have spent more time by myself than I ever have before. Even as an introvert, I need human connection to feel vital. I feel bereft.
Part of my job includes coaching and supporting mentors and first-year teachers. I find myself at a loss of what to say as they look back at me through virtual eyes, unsure of the future and stressed out by the demands of our New Educational Order.
Truancy means our students didn’t, or couldn’t show up for our virtual lessons. We are getting dressed up for faculty meetings that we attend in our living rooms. Many of us are juggling job requirements and educating our own children. While we are still getting paychecks…pause for a moment of gratitude…an alarming number of our spouses are unemployed or risking exposure by showing up to work. The list goes on and on. You know; you’re in it.
Amid all this, two things I am most grateful for are my therapist and the gift he gave almost five years ago when he suggested I explore Mindfulness. I was in the middle of a crisis. My anxiety and racing thoughts were out of control. Before that day, I had given up on meditation, and Mindfulness sounded like a trendy buzzword. I don’t do trends; I want sustainable solutions, but I had nothing to lose.
He suggested some books and an app called Headspace. I set aside my many attempts at meditating in the past and began with just five minutes a day. Within four months I was sitting for twenty minutes twice a day. I was running through books, videos and classes like my life depended on it…because it did.
Mindfulness saved me from psychological self-annihilation.
Before it could do that, I had to make some extreme mental shifts. I implore you now to stay with me on this one because what educators need now more than ever is Mindfulness.
Brace for Change…the Good Kind
Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, and philosopher defined a paradigm shift as a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. In time, this concept broadened into the science of human psychology. Within this context, a paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions. Mindfulness requires some serious paradigm shifts.
Before I dive into some of the more profound shifts, let’s get some foundational understandings established.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the basic practice of being fully aware of what is going on in your mind and the present moment without being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around you.
When practicing mindfulness, we do so in a manner that acknowledges our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations calmly and without judgment.
Over time, this practice allows the Mindful individual to put space between themselves and their experiences so they don’t get carried away when undesirable thoughts and events occur. Instead of just reacting, Mindfulness helps us put space between the stimulus and the response, which in turn allows us to conscientiously decide how to proceed with intention and full awareness. It is within that space that we are also able to look for patterns of thought that do not serve us so we can intentionally release them.
Does this sound too good to be true? I thought so until I had more to lose by not committing to it than I did by ignoring its call. It is called a “practice” for a reason. Much like yoga, playing the guitar, or flying a plane, you must commit to it over time. This requires some pretty significant changes in our approach and underlying assumptions. There are several paradigm shifts that occur within a Mindfulness practice.
The Oxygen Mask Principle
Educators are often highly empathic. The field tends to attract servant leaders. We give of ourselves and are quick to put the needs of our students and staff before our own. This is an admirable quality, but over time it can be detrimental to our own well-being if not balanced in healthy ways.
Most of us have been on a plane in our lifetime and can recall the flight attendant’s presentation before take off. Thankfully, I have yet to need any of the advisements given me during preflight announcements, but I encourage you to pay attention to one of the most important things they advise:
Secure your own oxygen mask before you attempt to help others.
Education is a social service that may require some sacrifice, but there are three essential factors that I ask you to consider with this metaphor:
Self-care ensures we are able to assist others more effectively over time.
Healthy boundaries are important in developing sustainable relationships and effective teaching and administrative practices.
Without self-care and healthy boundaries, you may be depriving yourself of something as essential as oxygen: maintaining positive mental health.
The Beginner’s Mind
When you enter into a Mindfulness Practice, you must do so with a beginner’s mindset.
In education, we often refer to developing a growth mindset. Many of us consider it a non-negotiable for effective learning to take place. For me, the beginner’s mind falls into the category of having a growth mindset.
When we adopt a beginner’s mind, we must release our expectations and preconceived ideas about what we are doing, learning and experiencing. It requires an open mind and fresh eyes.
Please note that it is not only when we are beginning a new Mindfulness practice that we must assume this mindset. Rather, the beginner’s mind should be maintained throughout the practice.
Educators are typically expected to behave as ‘experts’ most of the professional day, but this can lead to a fixed mindset if we are not careful.
So, how do we adopt a Beginner’s Mind?
Avoid taking a single perspective on anything.
Treat every experience like it is a special occasion. You know that feeling when you travel to a distant place? Everything looks new. Sensations are heightened. The senses are more aware. Colors, flavors, and experiences are more vivid.
Attend to your expectations, and release them.
Become at peace with the state of not knowing. Invite childlike curiosity.
Stay grounded as your mind explores with the wonder of a child.
Beware of the stories your mind tells you, and see things as they actually are.
Biases based on past experiences and assumptions are helpful when we use them as tools to consider options, but they can cause unnecessary suffering if we allow them to create psychological stories and illusions. In other words, avoid forming judgments. This leads us to the next shift.
Let me start by saying that you cannot stop the mind from forming judgments. It is impossible to avoid the natural tendency to categorize things as good, bad or neutral. It is human nature to seek more good, avoid the bad and pretty much ignore the neutral. The importance is in how we respond to our mind’s judgments.
The practice of non-judgment involves letting go of automatic judgments as they arise. Release the urge to grasp for more good, resist what you feel is bad and pay attention to the full experience, even if your mind tries to convince you it is unimportant.
Akin to non-judgment, this shift requires acceptance of ourselves and our experiences as they are. When you assume a stance of non-striving, you refuse to be in conflict with yourself and the events of your life. By working with what is there, you intentionally avoid adversarial relationships with what is happening.
For me, this is where I struggle the most in my Mindfulness practice. Yes, I see the irony in that statement, and this is where I must be most conscientious about acceptance and release. I am not asking you to stop growing and learning; I am suggesting that you do so with full acceptance of what might feel like a struggle. Release yourself from the judgments that come with it.
Am I asking too much?
If you are just considering Mindfulness, or if you are actually beginning the practice, these shifts can seem unattainable as a whole. They do not happen overnight. It takes dedication and perseverance. I am not telling you it is easy; I am telling you it is worth it.
Take baby steps if you need to, but start now. In fact, you already have by finishing this article.