We are all on a spectrum of mental health and everyone will struggle at some point in their life. Let’s build a toolbox for living better.

Beyond Well With Sheila Hamilton is here to listen, affirm and share stories to help you feel less alone in the world.

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After the Show Notes from Dr. Jenna LeJeune: Skye Fitgerald, Documentary Filmmaker

Harnessing the power of empathy When I was in graduate school training to become a therapist, a common mantra was “You need to learn to keep your emotional distance.” I kept getting the message that in order to be an effective therapist I needed to learn how to become immune to the suffering that I was sitting with. Well, if you know anything at all about me, you’ll know that if this was actually the case, I was screwed!

Fortunately for me, what I’ve come to learn in my 20+ years of this work is that that message is misguided, at least for me. It is precisely because of my ability to step into the shoes of those I serve that I am most powerful. I imagine it might be the same for Skye Fitzgerald. As an award-winning documentary film maker, he is, at heart, a story teller. But he doesn’t tell the stories of “heroes” and “victims”. His power comes from telling the story of humans.

In doing so, he inspires us to rise to the challenge of our shared common humanity. When we reduce people into caricatures of “hero” or “victim” or “villain”, they become “other.” We distance ourselves from them and, in doing so, we absolve our mere mortal selves from response-ability, that is, literally, the ability to respond. The power in Skye’s work is in his ability to help us step into the shoes of these “others” that we typically only hear about in sensationalized news stories. That is the power of empathy—the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes, to feel what they feel. But while empathy may be necessary for action, it is probably not sufficient.

There is emerging data that shows that empathy in the absence of other tools can backfire. It can lead to things like burnout, avoidance, and further objectification of others. Instead, in addition to empathy, we also need to develop compassion. If empathy is the ability to feel another person’s suffering, compassion is the willingness to act in order to relieve that suffering. A key word there is willingness. We have to have the tools needed to be able to step into that suffering and make space for it, in order for us to be able to act on it.

As Skye’s documentary “Lifeboat” shows, the “hero” isn’t the person who has found a way to distance themselves from getting emotionally involved in the suffering; the “hero” is the person who has found a way to be present to that suffering AND still do what is needed to be done in the face of that suffering. The good news is that willingness, or as it’s often called in my world “acceptance,” is a skill we can learn. And you may want to start with your relationship to your own suffering. You can ask yourself this question: “If I wasn’t struggling with these distressing thoughts/feelings (e.g. hopelessness, fear, sadness, “I can’t really make a difference”, etc.), what would I choose to do in response to this situation?” Then, once you’ve answered that question, you might follow up with “What could I do to help me develop the tools I need to, not get rid of these difficult thoughts/feelings, but rather make space for them, so I can do what needs to be done?”

That answer could include something like increasing the your own self-compassion, expanding your acceptance/willingness skills so that you’re better able to make space for the difficult thoughts and feelings that will inevitably show up in the face of suffering, and/or practicing something like loving-kindness meditation to increase your ability to be present to the suffering of yourself and others. Because the suffering in this world requires not just empathy or sympathy, it requires our ability to respond to it. And that requires willingness.
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After the Show Notes with Dr. Jenna LeJeune and You Tube content from Robyn Cruze: Making Peace With Your Plate. #eatingdisorders #bulimia #anorexianervosa #Food #Binge-Eating #Overexercising

We all are looking for ways to decrease the pain that life gives us. Sometimes we turn to substance use or sex or work or food as a way to try to get away from our painful thoughts, emotions, sensations, and memories. This doesn’t make us “mentally ill,” it makes us human.
For people who struggle with food and eating-related difficulties including things like anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, binge eating, or any other number of diagnostic labels, the struggle is almost never really about food. Very often, it’s not even just a struggle about how they feel about their bodies either. It’s often a struggle with their internal experience. That experience could be the feeling of boredom or “emptiness” or shame from which people are trying to escape through bulimia or binge eating. It could be feelings being “out of control” or anxiety, for which restricting and rigidly obsessing about diet are an attempt to find some kind of control. And some of us have gotten so good at avoiding painful or threatening internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations) that we become completely disconnected from bodies and don’t even know what we are feeling.
In general, our tendency to try to avoid thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we perceive to be threatening, “bad,” or painful in some way is called experiential avoidance. Sometimes avoidance works, and works without negative consequence. Other times, however, our attempts to regulate our emotional experience becomes rigid and has deep and painful consequences.
Avoidance is totally understandable and highly reinforced by our culture. For example, many girls and women in America (and increasingly boys as well) have been taught to ignore their bodily sensations. We’ve learned that we “shouldn’t” feel hunger or sexual desire or anger or any other host of emotions and sensations our culture has taught us aren’t ok for women to feel. So we’ve learned to ignore, tune out, deny, or in some other way avoid these experiences.
The antidote to experiential avoidance is willingness. Willingness can be broken down into two basic steps, 1. Noticing your internal experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations) as it is occurring in the present moment and 2. Develop the capacity to be with those experiences, without a struggle. That first step of simply noticing your internal experience is particularly key for folks who struggle with eating-related difficulties. We need to learn how to get back in touch with our bodies rather than struggling against them. One simple exercise you can do to start practicing this is a mindful eating exercise. Here is a link to instructions for how to do this simple but important exercise (www.dukeintegrativemedicine.org/dukeimprogramsblog/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/08/Mindful-Eat...). By tuning back into our internal experiences and letting go of the struggle to control or avoid them, we regain true control and freedom over what we would choose to make most important in our lives.If an eating disorder provides us with a heads up about what it would truly do to us, what do you think it would say?
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