Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode--and into a Life of Connection and Joyby Aundi Kolber
We live in a world that overvalues hard work and productivity, constantly teaching us to keep hustling. As a result, we are left exhausted, overwhelmed, and numb to our lives. We learn to ignore the messages our bodies give us—instead, we push through our pain and pretend we have it all together. People have been over-functioning for so long that they cannot even imagine another way. How else will things get done?
We do not need to dismiss the pain and messages our body is giving us. Trying softer is the path that leads to true connection and joy. It begins when we mindfully listen to what is inside us and let that influence how we look and act on the outside.
But How Long Will It Take?
“The process of blooming is as valuable as the flower it produces.”
There is no easy fix to your problems. Healing begins when we release our desire for a quick fix. When we accept the idea that process is part of what it means to be human and change happens in layers, we are less afraid of incomplete goals and are kinder to the wounded parts of ourselves.
Stories refer to the compilation of events, emotions, sensations, ideas, and relationships we have experienced held in our minds and bodies, affecting how we see our world. We have been taught that our stories don’t matter, and we need to let them go. As a result, people run from their stories to minimize the pain they have been through.
Instead of trying to forget our stories, we need to become attentive observers of our minds and believe that our stories are real. Learning how to be with our stories without becoming overwhelmed by our experiences is the best way we will learn how to deal with grief and anxiety.
Actions to take
Mind Your Brain
“When we can lovingly turn toward our pain expressed by our bodies, we often find choices we could not see before.”
The autonomic nervous system controls the unconscious function of giving visceral responses to threats. It has two parts—the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic system drives your fight-or-flight response allowing you to either fight or flees danger, while the parasympathetic nervous system drives your freeze response shifting you into a freeze state as a way of coping when our brain decides we cannot take the threat nor are we able to escape.
The most advanced part of your brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, enables you to be aware of and process your emotions and experiences. When your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze, blood flow is directed away from the prefrontal cortex and distributed elsewhere. This can lead you to either a hyperarousal state where your fight-or-flight response is perpetually turned on, and you are living in a state of continuous tension or to a hypoarousal state, where your freeze response results in constant numbness and lack of energy.
Old wounds may cause us to live in the states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, even after we are safe. These conditions make you unable to connect with the systems of your bodies that allow you to solve the problem. When you feel disconnected from your body, it needs to move towards healing and integration. You will need to strengthen your tolerance for tough parts of your story by building your positive resources and connecting to them.
Actions to take
Why Your Earliest Relationships Matter
Emotional attunement is the ability to recognize, understand, and respond to someone’s emotional state. Our experiences of responsiveness to our needs from our caregivers form the basis of attachment styles. When our childhood interactions with caregivers are healthy—marked by attunement—they make us feel safe, learn to regulate our emotions, and develop frameworks for future relationships.
If children, however, experience unresponsiveness and disengagement during development from their caregivers without apology, their attachment styles may be affected.
There are four types of attachment styles:
Secure attachment style. People with a secure attachment style are interdependent and can connect with others and themselves. The assessment of obtaining security and trust from a person is based on previous experiences. They experience greater success in relationships and adjust to difficulties more easily.
Anxious-ambivalent attachment style. People with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style desire validation and become emotionally dysregulated because of abandonment. They struggle in stating their needs to their caregivers.
Avoidant attachment style. People with an avoidant attachment style have experienced emotional frigidity and rejection from their caregivers, so they tend to isolate themselves to find calm, emotionally distant, and self-reliant spheres to disconnect from internalized feelings of rejection.
Disorganized attachment style. People with a disorganized attachment style might have experienced significant loss, trauma, or abuse. They see themselves as defective and are afraid to connect with other people, as they feel like they would end up getting hurt again.
Actions to take
Finding Your Window Of Tolerance
“We are not defined by our best days or our worst days. We are his beloved. ”
The ‘window of tolerance’ describes the best state of arousal in which we can function effectively. When we are in our window, the brain stays integrated with the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to pay compassionate attention to our emotions and experiences.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. The ventral vagal complex, a section of the vagus nerve, enables us to move in or out of the window of tolerance and controls the social engagement system.
For instance, when an unknown banging sound in a house triggers a person’s brain because of unresolved trauma, this activates the ventral vagal complex, dissociating the body from the social engagement system, and the person moves out of his window of tolerance. This can lead to fogginess, disconnection, immobilization, or a complete loss of awareness of time.
If we never practiced feeling our emotions in the presence of others, our window of tolerance remains small, and we face emotional dysregulation quickly. To expand our window of tolerance, we can give our nervous systems a break from uncomfortable experiences and come back to them when we choose to, rather than feeling trapped as they are happening to us. This is known as containment.
Actions to take
Boundaries Bring Us Life
“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”
Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves and others within relationships. When our caregivers continually communicate that we can’t deny their wishes, we carry these perceptions into adulthood, having poor boundaries. Rather than going into fight or flight, we go into a fawn state, in which we suppress our emotions to satisfy the needs of others.
The reason we do not define boundaries is that we are afraid of disappointing people. Our childhood narrative has taught us that failing to fulfill others’ expectations can cause intolerable consequences. Our minds have stored the repetitive ideas of pleasing others and ignoring our needs as subconscious understandings that inform our later perceptions of situations to repeat the same actions without thinking about them.
Violation of boundaries can narrow the window of tolerance as the prefrontal cortex disconnects from the amygdala, the core of the neural system for processing perceived threats and ensuring survival. This makes the body feel unsafe, and it automatically shifts into hyper- or hypoarousal, implying we do not have a voice of our own in the relationship.
To experience safety in our bodies, we can practice attentional control, choosing what to pay attention to determine the present situation's safety, or grounding, paying attention to sensory information to calm the nervous system.
Actions to take
Try Softer With Your Attention
“When we hunt for beauty, we learn to pay attention.”
Learning to try softer with your attention will not erase the pain of shame, anxiety, or trauma. But it can change how you deal with it. It can predict whether something becomes integrated into your experience and loses its intensity or builds in power to where you feel it might overwhelm you.
We need to turn our attention toward our hearts, mind, and soul with kindness. When we are not paying attention to our inner worlds, we become highly susceptible to exhaustion and emotional dysregulation.
Simply being aware of an intense sensation is not the same as maintaining a mindful posture towards it. Think about the difference between being stuck in the middle of a rainstorm and watching a forecast for that upcoming storm. When you’re in the storm, all you can do is react. But when you know the storm is coming, you can respond to the threat by staying inside. Instead of just reacting, you respond deliberately.
To cultivate compassionate attention, we can use resources such as pendulation, beauty hunting, and tracking.
Pendulation involves switching between comfortable and uncomfortable sensations, allowing a person to move between a state of calm and arousal triggered by a traumatic event. As you learn to embrace uncomfortable sensations, the intensity of your pain will lessen, and you will move forward.
Beauty hunting allows people to turn their attention toward pleasant things. This beauty is about an emerging fullness, a deeper sense of depth, and a homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.
Learning to notice our sensations as they change and responding to them is known as tracking. For example, if you notice a pain in your neck during a tense meeting, tracking may help you realize how you can find some relief when you move positions, change your posture, or attend to yourself in some other way.
Actions to take
Try Softer With Your Body
“I promise not to see my body as separate from me. As a commodity. As something that must earn approval. Just as I am beloved, so is my body.”
Our bodies are the physical extension and expression of ourselves. We must learn to live in our bodies in order to pursue wholeness and integrated lives with ourselves.
We have learned to value the spiritual over the physical. People meditate to resolve their mental issues but punish their bodies when they do not reach a certain standard. We are not simply bodies walking around; we are our bodies. When we don’t allow our bodies to process their experiences, they will certainly communicate with us through tingling sensations, anxiety, heaviness, and sudden alertness. Our memories and experiences do not simply go away, as bodies are their keepers.
We must listen to the messages our bodies are sending us. To value our bodies, we need to recognize that our brains are interwoven through our bodies. From our earliest growth in the womb, clusters of neural cells create our spinal cords and brains. But some neural cells become part of all the tissue in our bodies. Hence, the same neural cells that make up the brain also help form the rest of our bodies.
When we are aware of our bodies’ sensations, we practice embodiment. A core concept within embodiment is listening to our felt sense. A felt sense informs how your body, brain, and spirit can remain aligned in difficult situations. We experience this sense when we compile all the sensations in our bodies to create a larger picture of what is happening inside.
Actions to take
Try Softer With Your Emotions
“When we approach our distressing emotions with curiosity and compassion, we can learn to soar.”
Alive people feel and embrace emotions. They are a response to our stories, physiology, and environments—those parts of our lives that make us who we are. When we cannot express our emotions, we remain impaired in our ability to love ourselves.
People love to criticize their emotions as some might feel weak and sinful to have it. Even if we ignore our emotions, the wisdom of our bodies will connect with us. When our emotions make us feel overwhelmed, we go into a state of hyperarousal. When we feel disconnected from our emotions, we go into a state of hyperarousal.
To be softer with your emotions, permit yourself to have emotional experiences. Doing so will create the conditions that allow our bodies to metabolize our experiences. Our bodies process our emotions so that they no longer feel intense and just become memories we can reflect on and assimilate into what we have learned.
Actions to take
Try Softer With Your Internal Critic
“No matter how hard we try, we cannot hate or shame ourselves into change.”
Self-hatred is the most common reason people consciously or unconsciously ignore internal mental warnings to cope with overwhelming situations. There is nothing wrong with identifying your weakness and working on it. However, there is a difference between guilt and shame. Healthy guilt allows us to recognize that we are loved and valuable despite imperfections, while shame is a critical assessment that we are not valuable and deserving of connection.
Our inner critic depends on the way our caregivers interact with us. When caregivers prioritize love and safety in their interactions with their children, they internalize a sense of connection, empathy, and personal responsibility toward themselves. Those who grew up with negative interactions likely have a narrow window of tolerance and dysregulated nervous system.
Self-compassion can erase the hatred we have for ourselves. Our ability to be self-compassionate strengthens the internalized secure base within us and calms our nervous systems. This comprises three fundamental elements:
Mindfulness. This lets us observe our emotional experiences without judgment, allowing us to honor our suffering without getting stuck in the emotion.
Self-Kindness. When we practice self-compassion, we extend the same kindness to ourselves that we might lend to a stranger, a friend, or a loved one. Instead of thinking we deserve harsher treatment than others, we give ourselves grace.
Common Humanity. Suffering is common to humanity. When we recognize we are not the only ones who suffer, we feel more connected with the human experience and see ourselves worthy of compassion.
Actions to take
Try Softer With Your Resilience
“The hard things that cracked us open have the potential to create space for deeper joy and resilience.”
Surrender looks like a tricky concept, as we have been living in the pattern of continuous hustling and disconnecting from our emotions. Surrendering might seem like giving up in threatening situations, but it means being kind to yourself.
Surrender—when done voluntarily—is a way to be gentle with ourselves, recognizing that trying to control everything can wear us out rather than lift us up. When we permit ourselves to try softer without resilience, our nervous systems stay within our window of tolerance, and the prefrontal cortex remains online.
Once we know how to stay in our windows, we can expand them. We can work to keep the vagus nerve healthy increasing our body’s ability to live within the window of tolerance. The health of the vagus nerve is a measure of how quickly our bodies can recover to a normal physiological state after experiencing stress. The stronger our vagal tone, the easier it is for us to connect with and return to our window of tolerance. We can improve our vagal tone with activities such as singing, meditation, exercise, and conscious breathing.