Awareness or the ability to recognize states and emotions

Note: This is part of a 7 lessons challenge spread over 14 days called “Say Yes to Your No”. It is meant to help you become more confident in saying NO to what doesn’t serve you anymore so you can say yes to yourself. This is lesson 2. If you’re not already subscribed you can join the challenge here.

What is Awareness?

Awareness is the 2nd A of healing in the book “When the body says NO” by dr.Gabor Maté. The following paragraphs in ” ” are excerpts from the chapter “The 7 A’s of healing” in this book.

“All those looking to heal – or to remain healthy – need to reclaim the lost capacity for emotional truth recognition. This ability is wonderfully illustrated by Oliver Sacks in his book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” – in it there is an anecdote about a group of aphasic patients who were watching a discourse of the then president Ronald Reagan.”

The story of the aphasic patients

Aphasics are people who have suffered brain damage and have lost of the ability to speak or to understand spoken language.

“The aphasic patients had different reactions to Reagan’s discourse, some looked outraged, some looked bewildered but most of them seemed amused. They were picking up the incongruence between the president’s tone, body language and facial expressions and his spoken language. They read the emotional reality not the one that Reagan was trying to convey.”

Previously in the book Dr. Maté tells Ronald Reagan’s story, one of the most famous people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 83. Reagan grew up with an alcoholic father and the early traumas he has suffered made him unable to express his true emotions. His mantra was “Really, there are no words” ​whenever he was asked to talk about what he felt. 

Research shows that adults are pretty bad at telling truth from lies. “But animals and young humans are highly competent at picking up on real emotional cues.”

The conflict between words and emotions

“If we lose that capacity as we acquire language, it is only because we receive confusing messages from our immediate world. The words we hear tell us one thing, the emotional data say something different. If the two are in conflict, one will be repressed.”

“We repress our emotional intelligence in order to avoid an ongoing war with the crucial people in our lives, a war we can’t possibly win, and so we lose our emotional competence even as we gain verbal intelligence.”

“Aphasics, it would appear, go through the reverse process. Just like a blind person will develop extraordinary hearing, the aphasic develops an enhanced ability to perceive emotional reality.”

“Full awareness would mean we regain our lost capacity to perceive emotional reality and that we are ready to let go of the paralysing belief that we are not strong enough to face the truth about our lives.”

The ideas I most resonated with and how I use them

Learning to trust my internal states beyond what my mind or someone else is saying and to pay attention to how I really feel in any given situation is an ongoing process for me.

I’m practicing self-awareness by coming back to my breathing from time to time throughout the day, especially when I start to feel pressured, agitated or nervous.

Instead of running away from these states or numbing myself with food, mindless browsing on the Internet, talking on the phone or whatever other distraction method I’m practicing staying with what is.

As much as I can. Of course, I’m far away from the level of awareness of a Zen monk, but hey, I’m not one.

I’m doing my best every day and that’s OK for me.

Awareness & the ability to say NO

Without awareness of our internal states and without trusting our perceptions both internal and those of other people’s emotional cues we can’t really say yes or no in an informed way.

Impaired awareness leads to a higher risk of putting ourselves in dangerous or unhealthy situations. It makes it difficult for us to leave toxic relationships, no matter if they happen at work or at home.

This happens because we’ve become masters at numbing our own body’s stress signals early in childhood.

My journey to cultivating Awareness

As a highly sensitive child growing up in a family with constant conflictual situations alternating with cold war like times, I’ve learned early on to listen more to other people’s cues than to my own.

I had to do that to be able to detect the slightest sign of mood change in my choleric father so I could be prepared and try to avoid an explosive situation. I was also very attuned with my mother who has been suffering from depression for many years.

So there I was, caught in an atmosphere of rage and depression, trying to survive. Although I was aware that this is not how a child should grow up I didn’t know anything else. So I had no idea how much that environment had affected me.

On one side I’ve become very good at reading people’s emotions and at putting myself in their shoes, becoming very empathic.

On the other side, because I was always focused on the outside I’ve lost the ability to recognise my own body’s stress signals. I had to relearn all that, and I’m still working on it.

I did that by intently taking part in all sorts of conscious movement practices such as 5 Rhythms Dance, Dynamic Meditations, Ecstatic Dance and the practice of Yoga asanas.

I’ve realised early on that talk therapy could only help me up to one point. Practicing all these types of conscious movement and breathing methods have been and continue to be a major contribution to my healing journey.

Next steps – Practical exercises

Advice from dr. Maté for developing awareness

To develop awareness we need to practice to pay attention to our internal states and trust these internal perceptions more than what words – ours or anyone else’s convey.

1. Pay attention to the non-verbal cues and to the way you feel when talking with someone

  • What is the tone?
  • The pitch?
  • Is the smile relaxed or tight?
  • How do you feel? Where do you feel it?

2. Pay attention to your own stress signals

One of the main causes of burnout in my opinion is the lack of awareness of the stress signals our bodies telegraph to us when our minds have missed the cues.

Hans Selye with his book “The stress of life” cited by dr. Gabor Maté, made a compilation of physiological danger signals. Today notice if you experience any of these and remember they are symptoms that can be read not only as problems to overcome but as messages to be heeded.

  • physical signs: pounding of the heart, diarrhea or dryness of the mouth
  • emotional signs: emotional tensions or over-alertness, anxiety, loss of joie de vivre
  • behavioral expressions: unusual impulsivity or irritability and a tendency to overreact.

Once you’ve gone through today’s exercises go over to the Facebook group and share your experience. If you are not on Facebook leave a comment below and let me know how it went.

Not subscribed to the 7-days challenge yet? Click here to sign-up.

If you missed day one you can read it here.

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