Self-Talk Saves The World
May 14, 2020
By Lissa Carter
Inner Light Counseling Collective
Hey, PSA: If you have been irritable lately, if you have been lashing out more frequently or finding yourself feeling keyed-up, judgmental, and selfish, there’s a reason for that.
Collectively, we are experiencing a decrease in oxytocin and an increase in cortisol.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone released when mothers nurse their babies, when partners make love, and when friends hug. It also functions as a neurotransmitter that aids us in feeling a sense of connection and belonging. When we do not hold each other, when we do not engage in warm and caring physical interactions, our oxytocin levels diminish.
Cortisol is a hormone that, when released, takes us out of connection and drops us into fight-or-flight. When we feel fear about our own physical health or the survival of our family, when we ruminate on the state of the economy, the planet, and the species, the amygdala perceives a threat and sends signals that increase cortisol. When cortisol surges, so does vigilance, violence, and reactivity.
Over time. a chronic reduction in oxytocin and uptick in cortisol will shape a personality that is less connected, empathic, and creative and more vigilant, reactive, and avoidant.
Given that close connection has been our best evolutionary strategy, these neurological changes do not bode well for a successful response to the crises our species is facing. We do not do our best thinking in fight-or-flight. We do our best thinking when we are connected, aware, and focused not only on our own survival but on a more allocentric sense of the survival of the whole.
So what is a socially responsible mammal to do? On the one hand, we need to care for each other by maintaining careful social distancing. On the other, we know that abstaining from connection can shape personalities that are less empathic and more reactive.
Kristin Neff’s research on self compassion points one way out of this double-bind. It turns out, the microcosm of your relationship to yourself generates oxytocin and cortisol just the way your relationships to others do.
This means that even as you practice social distancing, you can reshape your neurochemistry by relating to yourself differently.
Let’s create a completely hypothetical situation to demonstrate how this works.
Let’s say, in this 100% made-up scenario, that I’ve been noticing myself acting selfish. Specifically, I’ve been responding to feelings of scarcity by hiding chocolate from my children. When I notice myself doing this, I respond with self-castigation: why am I hiding the chocolate from my children? I am a self-obsessed monster who doesn’t care about anybody but herself. I am just like that terrible, terrible man in Anne Frank’s diary who stole food from children in the night!
My amygdala hears this self-censure the way it would hear anyone else yelling at me, and prepares my body to release cortisol and adrenaline in preparation for a fight.
Here’s the problem: I am now disconnected from my empathy and creativity and plugged into my shame and fear. These two states are reciprocal inhibitors — if I am locked in shame and fear, I am more likely to behave selfishly, not less.
Fight-or-flight turns us inward; it removes the focus from the well-being of the whole and absorbs us in relentless self-protection. I cannot access empathy from this place.
What if, instead, I were to notice myself hiding the chocolate and smile the way I smile indulgently at a dear (if quirky) friend? What if I told myself tenderly “wow, you must be feeling really afraid to do something like that. This is really different than who you want to be, so you must be super uncomfortable.”
Now, instead of releasing cortisol, I’m generating oxytocin. Instead of shunting all of my consciousness toward fight-or-flight, I am maintaining awareness, empathy, and a connection to logical, creative thinking. From this place, I am far more likely to take a deep breath, remember who I want to be, and call the kids into the kitchen for brownies.
This works whether you believe it or not; it’s in the wiring. Even if you feel silly hugging yourself and telling yourself you’ll be okay, your brain will still generate oxytocin as you do it. And your brain doesn’t care if you’re a lifelong pacifist; if you continue to criticize and judge yourself your cortisol will spike and you’ll become more prone to lashing out.
We are, individually and collectively, sitting with the shadow. All of the convenient distractions and helpful Others to project our issues onto have vanished, and we are forced to face uncomfortable, distressing truths about ourselves that we’ve always been able to dodge before.
If we are going to survive this with our empathy intact, we face a twofold task: we must learn how to relate to ourselves with compassion even as we come to terms with unwanted, shadowy parts of ourselves we would prefer to avoid.
Shadow work isn’t easy, but it is simple. In a nutshell, it looks like this:
Catch yourself doing or saying something that you don’t like, take a deep breath, and excuse yourself. Don’t let yourself get caught in justifying your actions or blaming someone else (even if they are being shadowy too!)
Let yourself notice what it feels like in your body. As these thoughts and emotions swirl around you, what does it feel like beneath your toenails? How fast is your heart beating? What colors are showing up behind your eyelids?
Imagine a loving, compassionate friend laying an arm across your shoulder, or squeeze yourself in a hug. Breathe. Let the emotions and thoughts get as big and painful as they are going to get. Let yourself see and feel the thoughts and actions that are out of integrity, notice what they cost you, and refuse to abandon yourself.
Rock, squeeze, breathe. Listen to what these emotions and thoughts are trying to tell you. Offer yourself compassion for the discomfort you are feeling, and stay present until the worst of the painful thoughts and feelings has passed.
When you feel ready, ask yourself what will help you step back into integrity. Then do that.
If we can maintain tender connection to ourselves even when we are uncomfortable, we begin to learn how to stay. If we can stay — connected, aware, kind, and thoughtful — even in the middle of big scary uncomfortable emotions like shame and scarcity and fear and loss — we might just get out of this okay.
So that’s our work, alone in our “alchemical huts” as Martin Shaw has described our little units of quarantine — to befriend ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were. To tend the connectedness and belonging of the one relationship we all have access to, the relationship with ourselves. To not turn away when we do something scary or gross or icky, but to keep a compassionate witness.
The more familiar we are with this territory in ourselves, the better we can navigate it out in the big, shadowy world. We’re going to need your ability to face the unattractive parts of human nature. We’re going to need your oxytocin supply as we face greater and greater storms of human vigilance and reactivity.
As Dr. Steve Aizenstat says, it’s the intolerable image that holds the healing. If we can sit with that intolerable image, if we can face it instead of pushing it away, we will learn how to maintain relationship under even the most difficult circumstances.
If you can learn to stand yourself in your moments of deepest ugliness, you can learn to stand anyone’s ugliness without losing your ability to love. And love is what makes us a species worthy of survival. Love is what will get us through this.