Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Blue Sky Lightning by Jeff Kuhn: Review of an Inspirational Book

Photo of Sparky the Dog in front and Author Jeff Kuhn staring into distance

A couple of weeks ago I had a dental appointment during which I had to sit still for a good couple of hours and let myself be pricked with needles to have my cavity fixed; in addition, I needed to undergo repeated attempts of a crown impression on the neighboring tooth. This second tooth had broken off in half probably due to the fact that I was grinding my teeth overnight, an unconscious habit I have picked up since childhood. This was most likely due to stress, which, when facing dental appointments, tends to increase for some reason or other.

As I was laying there with my upper jaw gradually but steadily losing sensation and becoming downright numb and while I was awaiting - but not looking forward to - further invasive procedures, a thought crossed my mind. Although this was a far from ideal situation and I would have much preferred to bolt home to safety, all things considered, it was not that bad. Some people, Jeff Kuhn, for instance, had to undergo tremendous amount of pain and suffering, and in his case, he not only survived but wrote a book about it to inspire us all.

When my own situation had reached its most uncomfortable moment, I was reminded of a medical practice that is called “debriding,” which in my mind could only be second to torture. The idea of a bath seems rather pleasing, but debriding is when nurses use scissors, razor blades, and knives to cut off the burnt skin segments of one’s body so that healing can occur.

As parts of the skin and flesh are scraped off, the patient must be experiencing tremendous and excruciating amounts of pain. In other words, whatever was occurring to me in that dental office was not even a fraction of what must be occurring during such a debriding session, which used to form part of the horrendous but necessary daily routine of Jeff Kuhn.

In his best-selling book Blue Sky Lightning, a copy of which the author himself had kindly sent me for a book review, he describes how disaster had struck his life not on one but on two separate occasions. The title refers to an unlikely but possible event when one can get hit by lightning even though there is clear blue sky overhead. Everything looks fine and suddenly out of the blue, a bolt of lightning would hit you.

Now getting hit by lightning is a rare occurrence, but blue sky lightning would be even rarer. This may occur when there is a storm a few miles away and somehow it dislodges and unleashes a flash of lightning somewhere else. In the book, it is used as a metaphor for being blindsided by life and being subjected to painful events or suffering when one least expects it.

The first occurrence was a mysterious and unexplained fire that left Jeff Kuhn with more than 80 percent of his body burnt. He had first, second and third-degree burns, and his chances of survival were extremely low. At one point, when he was still unconscious and hooked to machines, he was given final rites by a Catholic priest because his doctors and family members expected the worst possible outcome.

Somehow, he managed to pull through and survive. Yet the harder part seems to have come after that, namely the subsequent recovery period that lasted for years. Despite countless surgeries and daily debriding, just the thought of that sends shivers down my spine, he was given a very low prognosis of ever reaching normal health.

When Jeff pressed for his chances, he was given seven to ten percent that he would regain normal functioning. Yet unlike most who would feel discouraged or lose hope when faced with such low odds, Jeff Kuhn felt motivated that there was still a chance. The situation was not hopeless or futile, but it meant that he would have to do his utmost to make it happen.

As someone who was focused and determined, not to say obsessed, he saw all of this as a challenge to be overcome. Jeff told the doctors that soon enough he would show them that full recovery was possible; one day they would see him dunk a ball into a basket in front of them, a feat deemed on the verge of the impossible. But the main emphasis lies on the fact that anything that is not completely impossible may be indeed somewhat possible, but only if you are willing to take continuous and persistent action in that regard.

For instance, he would have to do daily and painful physiotherapy. Since his muscles tend to detract at rest, it meant that progress he had made during the day would be partially reversed overnight. In the middle of all of this, when he was discharged from the hospital, he faced an empty house, devoid of furniture and wife; the latter had left him and had taken everything with her leaving him with a 300 dollar check to make ends meet. In fact, she ran away with his dentist of all people, and Jeff wisely switched dentists after the incident.

Somehow, Jeff Kuhn managed to pull through. When he was at the intensive care burn unit, one of the main threats to his health was the danger of infection. As the body is fully focused on recovering from its trauma, all its resources are focused on repairing the damage. 

But that also means that the immune system cannot function as well as it should as all the body’s energy is actively focused on survival. In fact, most people tend to die from infections and not from the actual burns; as a result, the burn unit was not only kept stringently and spotlessly clean and regularly sanitized but visitors and guests were kept to a very minimum.

Throughout his stay, Jeff had to accept myriad challenges to his health and well-being alongside pain and limitations, but he still maintained his head up high and stoically faced the direst of circumstances. His social network consisted mainly of doctors and nurse staff who took care of him and who treated him quite well.

He also bonded with some of the other patients. There were two of particular interest. The first one is a heartbreaking tale of a three-year-old boy by the name of Eric who had been put in a scalding hot bath and had sustained third-degree burns on his legs. Eric would lighten the place with his good mood as he was wheeled around the burn unit premises in a red wagon, and he would daily stop by and greet the author on his way, something that the latter always looked forward to. 

Yet one day the wagon failed to show up. Unfortunately, the boy had succumbed to his injuries and had died leaving the intensive unit much more desolate than before.

The second notable patient was a macho type kind of guy who would feign to be strong and invulnerable in the outside world but was constantly screaming and complaining that he could not accept or bear the suffering he had to face in that situation. 

Conversely, Jeff used to be someone who generally had a very low pain threshold and his friends would comment how he was complaining about simple scratches. And yet, there he was facing some of the most intense levels of pain imaginable and holding up much better than those who claimed and proclaimed themselves to be “tough” guys.

One of Jeff’s main strengths and what also propelled not only his acceptance but also resilience in this situation was his sense of humor. For instance, in an odd yet affecting amount, Jeff advised the screaming macho guy who adamantly resisted and refused to take part in those debriding baths to bark like a dog throughout the ordeal. Jeff started and soon enough his fellow patient followed suit, and somehow, the other patient managed to get through the sessions not unscathed, but much less so.

Beside humor, it was hope that was the rock that stood steady regardless of the turmoil and torments that were surrounding Jeff on a steady basis. He firmly held onto his unwavering hope that things would eventually get better after those difficult moments and situations. Where most of us, especially those macho guys, might feel discouraged and give up hope, Jeff did not do so; he put up a fight. 

His religion inspired and perhaps guided him throughout his suffering, but in the end, nothing was granted for free and he, like all of us, needed to earn his karma points. Faith is essential and most useful in this; however, merely on its own, it is lifeless and futile. But when it is combined with determined action and focused willpower, it can literally move mountains.

When Jeff not only managed to survive but get well enough to be discharged from the hospital premises, he continued to work on himself and to continuously improve his health. He managed to work out with unwavering discipline and gained muscle mass; in fact, he was fitter than ever before. 

Evidently, he had his “battle scars” as he used to call them, but he was lucky enough that they were for the most part not visible. After all those skin grafts and operations and thanks to the intense and arduous work of his dedicated and caring health professionals, Jeff looked and even felt the best he could under the circumstances.

Finally, things seemed to be going well when the second disaster struck: he was diagnosed with an unknown and rather rare neuromuscular disease. There was no explanation, except that it looked like his nerves were dying causing him intense pain. But even then, Jeff took solace in the fact that it was an unknown disease. What that meant is that anything, including full recovery, was still possible as none of the doctors could pinpoint a reason for - nor could they label - this strange disease. 

Yet through his previous experience, Jeff had built enough resilience and stamina to face this new obstacle. It was certainly not what he would have wanted to happen, but instead of denying it or victimizing himself or even blaming God or other celestial circumstances for his plight, he accepted it, faced it and, once again, managed to overcome it.

As Jeff states it himself, throughout his suffering, he had support and unconditional love. It might not necessarily come from the people you expect, but it is there in certain individuals who want the best for you and who not only root for you when you are down but also help you to get up. For instance, one of his acquaintances offered him a place to stay for free until Jeff would get his life in order.

Nonetheless, his most unwavering support may have come from man’s best friend, his dog Sparky. She was, more than anybody else, the one who always stood by his side accepting him through thick and thin, regardless of what he looked like or how much or little money he had in his bank account. 

Indeed, when he eventually loses his faithful dog years down the road, we feel his pain of losing his beloved life-long companion; yet just like him we are grateful to have had true friends and kindred spirits in our life in whatever shape or form they may have come.

This book is inspirational not only because of its many valid lessons it teaches us, but also because the afflicted person has pulled through in flying colors. He has managed to overcome his many obstacles in life and now lives a relatively financially comfortable life and has been blessed with a beautiful family, including a son who is bound for college. He turned his years of pain and suffering into gold by reaching out to all of us though his book.

Of course, he is not the only one who is suffering; in one way or another, we all do. Some evidently more and to a higher degree than others, but we all have our own crosses to bear and our personal share of ups and downs. 

Yet this type of determination that Jeff Kuhn depicts and personally represents and embodies is most commendable, and we can be inspired by it regardless of what difficulties it is we are facing in our own lives. Now that is indeed inspiring!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Digital Footprints in Cyberspace: Benefits and Drawbacks for Mental Health

Lecture poster of Dr. Insel's Seminar on Smartphones and Brains
As part of Brain Awareness Week, I would like to discuss an exciting lecture I attended this week. It was entitled “Smartphones: What they can tell us about our Brains and our Minds” presented by Neuroethics Canada as part of the 2019 Dana Foundation Distinguished Neuroethics Lecture and given by renowned neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr. Thomas R. Insel, ex-director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and co-founder and President of the tech company Mindstrong. 

I had been excited about this talk ever since it was announced about more than a month ago and I had circled the date on my calendar (both print and virtual) to ensure that I would attend it and that nothing would get into the way of my attending this event.

Why was this seminar so important to me? There are various reasons for this. As someone who occasionally feels steamrolled by the drastic and dramatic changes over the past decade or so regarding technology, I wanted to get clearer and more fact-based information about how this was affecting us emotionally and mentally.

Also, I was a bit worried since I and all my loved family members are rather immersed in this technology. To an extent, whether we notice it or not, we are all dependent on these little devices that we carry around and consult and play with on a continuous basis. 

Some of us use them even during the night; however, I have tried to demarcate a clear line and boundary by having my smartphone in the other room being relatively far away from the bedroom and my sleeping space (though I occasionally sneak into the living-room for a late-night check of my Twitter status and whether I received a like or retweet here and there).

The amount of time we generally spend on these gadgets and their effects on our brain was part of my concern. The other part was regarding what would - and could - my smartphone usage possibly say about me and the status of my mental health. Would it be potentially alarming and worrisome?

In today’s high-tech world, we are and should be concerned about personal data, i.e. the information that we make accessible online, whether in public or private form. As we have seen with recent scandals regarding the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, these personal details can be exploited and in turn used and abused to manipulate us, whether we are aware of this or not.

Moreover, our personal data may make us vulnerable since we have become constant prey to advertising companies and businesses; in this consumer culture of ours, our digital footprints could accurately predict what advertising methods would work best to lure us into buying the products, which we may – but most likely may not – actually need in our lives.

This second point I used to shrug off because, previous to this talk, I felt indifferent whether people had information about my personal interests, likes and dislikes. In many ways, I was already willing to share them on Social Media like Twitter as well as on digital platforms like this very blog you are currently reading. What did I have to fear since I had nothing to hide? Who cares if they had that piece of information about me?

But it turned out, that I was wrong and that there was reason to be afraid, or at the very least to be concerned about my digital footprint. Whether we can do something about it is another matter, but at least we can be aware of it and see past its mechanisms.

Let’s backtrack for a moment to put things into perspective. Dr. Insel started the lecture by giving us an outlook of the myriad changes that have occurred ten years into this technological revolution. For instance, merely twenty-five years ago, the most advanced supercomputer that the world had at its disposal was doing a mere fraction of what our smartphone is capable of doing today!

Plus, it used to be more costly, much bulkier as well as much more expensive; today’s smartphones may be expensive, but they have become much more affordable for the public. Moreover, they are indeed mobile, meaning they do not require a whole air-conditioned room for storage as they fit rather comfortably in our front pocket.  

And they have grown in number. Current estimates assume that there are close to three billion smartphone users with about two billion of them actively using and engaging with social media giant Facebook. This number was in the millions only about a decade ago and has grown at an incredibly high speed.

The other point to mention is its diversity. Smartphones have become much more ubiquitous and exist on nearly every part of the world. Dr. Insel was indeed surprised to see them in a farming community in Tanzania. He asked one of the farmers what they used them for as there would be no pizza or any other kinds of food delivery within close range with the closest town being a three-day walk away. The farmer replied that it helped him to keep in touch with his buddies over Facebook. In fact, smartphones and electronic gadgets may be more accessible and easier to come by than potable water!

Since it is so easily accessible and consumed by a large portion of the human population, it makes it even more important to study its effects. And some of the news, as you may suspect or know already, is not that rosy. We have seen strides and improvements in health care as well as detection and treatment of various diseases, but in terms of mental health we have taken a hit. Anxiety disorders, depression and low self-esteem are on the rise globally and even more worrisome is the increase of suicides.

There are many studies that relate social media use with higher incidents of depression. This is also from the fact that we continue to isolate ourselves from nature as well as face-to-face contact with others. In fact, our smartphones are certainly smart, but they barely qualify as phones anymore. 

When asked about the Top Ten uses of smartphones today, making phone calls landed outside of it at spot 11. The highest usage is the more impersonal and less intrapersonal forms of texting and messaging as well as using social media and watching – presumably a lot of cat and dog - videos on YouTube.

It is also noteworthy that millennials are becoming more and more uncomfortable when it comes to verbally communicating over the phone. In some cases, studies have shown that they even prefer psychotherapy with a bot instead of talking directly to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Considering that the aim of many therapy sessions is to open up about and discuss personal issues, the use of AI for such incidents may in fact be more of a blessing than a curse, which leads us to the more beneficial aspects and possibilities of technology.

Medical health has certainly improved dramatically. There is nearly an app for everything, and health has greatly benefited from such technology. I was surprised to find out that with certain attachments to your phone, you would be able to take pictures of your inner ear infection and send them immediately to your doctor who would then prescribe you the necessary medication - again by texting you the prescription and treatment details.

But how could mental health tap into the possibilities and advantages of the tech industry? The answer is it can do so in many ways and that is for the most part what Dr. Insel’s tech company Mindstrong is all about.

For one thing, this technology certainly facilitates the process. The patient does not need to physically go to the environment - hospital, clinic or medical office - of the mental health practitioner. Patients could be provided with the necessary details and information at the comfort of their home, which would not only be saving time and travel but also associated costs.

Using specifically tailored apps could provide the mental health expert with vital and more objective information. Instead of relying on subjective evaluations and self-reports on mood and happiness, mental health practitioners can use our digital footprint, known as digital phenotyping, to gain important and quantifiable insights about our mental state and health.

How you may ask? To do this, you can try out the website offered by the University of Cambridge and where you can either upload your social media data or alternatively extract written text messages and emails. The site would then offer you relevant information regarding your personality. (I tried it out and put in a couple of paragraphs of one of my recent blog posts. The site predicted my exact current age - which I won’t divulge here - as well as accurate details about my personality, including that I was creative, “random” and fun to be with; however, my Twitter information spread out over various years was not so spot on and turned me into a twenty-year-old!)

There is a lot of information that is included and contained in our written communication, namely in the content we produce, the words we use and the sentence structure we employ. There is also significant information in the fluency and speed of our typing as well as any potential spelling or grammatical errors we make.

In the case of social media, our images, photos, comments and likes – collectively known as digital exhaust - give important clues not only about our personality, whether we are outgoing or introverts, more conservative or liberal, but also about our mental health, whether we are generally happy, sad, depressed, envious or angry.

There is of course an additional dimension that can be added to this diagnosis, which is our voice. Mental health experts can deduce and make accurate predictions about our emotional state based on speech content, intonation, inflection, fluency, pauses etc. There is a wealth of information that can be extracted from one’s voice and speech.

This can be rather easily achieved since many of us are already talking to our phones, asking Siri for directions or information, for instance. Our smartphones with their GPS sensor can also provide information where we are located at any given moment of time and how long we stay there in addition to what kind of videos we watch or what sites we visit or which articles we read. This wealth of information can be very beneficial for various mental health issues like addiction, bipolar depression and could help prevent suicide.

According to a recent article on Scientific American cheekily entitled “The Internet knows you better than your Spouse does” by Frank Luerweg, there is currently an app called Loki that can also track images of your face as you are looking into your phone or reacting to images or content on your phone and it can deduce or rather detect your emotional state.

This information would aid psychologists to better evaluate a patient’s emotional condition and then be able to contact the individual in real time when they sense an oncoming manic or depressive phase in that given individual; alternatively, the psychiatrist would immediately notice when a patient is not taking their prescribed medication.

As always, there are benefits and drawbacks to everything and there is no easy and quick fix or solution. There are many issues of ethics, accountability and how and in what ways as well as to what means and ends our current technology is used. If we use it to promote and establish higher and better access to overall health and well-being, then it is a certain boon.

If it is to predict and evaluate our digital footprint to manipulate, control or bribe us, then we are in deep trouble. Hence this debate on privacy and personal data, whether we choose to engage in it or not, is of paramount importance for our future and will determine the path and direction that technology shall take over the next years. In the meantime, we cannot say that we did not know nor complain that we were not forewarned.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Being the Best Version of Yourself versus Becoming More Yourself: A Psychology Workshop

Image of a pair of snow-covered trees
In the month of February, which was among other things and events also Psychology Month, the BC Psychological Association offered two free public talks on interesting topics related to mental health and self-help. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the second one of the series entitled “Being the best version of yourself.” The quest for oneself is not only my daily bread and butter (it has been since my early teens at least), but it is also the main incentive, guiding force and philosophy behind my upcoming book, so I knew I had to attend this workshop.

But I almost didn’t end up going. There were two valid and plausible reasons for my hesitation. One, this event occurred on a Saturday morning and since it was a bit of a commute for me, it meant I had to get up early and have a quick and rushed breakfast with the family instead of a slow and languid one, which is usually the case on weekends. The second reason was even more pertinent: There was a snow storm outside, which apart from being uncomfortable and cold would also signify delays in traffic, so I would have to head out even earlier than planned to ensure that I would make it there on time.

In fact, I arrived there way before time and had to idle away my extra time with the help of a self-help psychology book on how to handle anxiety. Finally, we were allowed to enter, and the room was not as filled as everyone would have assumed or expected for such types of talks; many of the prospective attendees had been most likely discouraged by the wild weather outside.

Yet when Dr. Sara David started on the importance of acceptance, I immediately felt embraced and accepted and forgot about the turmoil of getting there. Acceptance is the main missing ingredient in mainstream popular thinking. Accepting yourself the way you are. This came on the heels of me watching the moving and inspiring documentary Won’t you be my Neighbor on the incomparable Fred Rogers. When I was much younger, I used to watch and enjoy his program very much.

Both the message of Fred Rogers and Sara David was that you are special exactly the way you are. Although we all supposedly know this to be true and it may seem obvious and self-explanatory, you would need to ask yourself two things with complete honesty: Do you indeed accept yourself exactly the way you are, your special and unique qualities as well as your warts and shortcomings? Because if you do not, then you would not fully embrace and love yourself, but only partially and conditionally so.

The second question is of importance as well: Do others accept you for who you are? By others, look at your parents, family members, friends, teachers, co-workers, and so on. Most often, they do not, but surprisingly there is a significant overlap between us not fully accepting ourselves and others not doing so either.

Sara David mentioned trauma at the beginning of her talk. Although she has personally worked with the worst trauma imaginable, from Holocaust survivors to indigenous people whose loved ones had been brutally and heinously murdered by the hands of serial killer Robert Pickton, we have to keep in mind that we all in our own ways carry our emotional trauma around.

And this trauma can have various sources. It often starts with parents who do not love and accept themselves, and then - consciously or unconsciously - dump their own anger and frustrations onto us. It could also be teachers who were not interested nor cared about our health and well-being and even made us suffer in our youngest and most vulnerable years.

And finally, and equally important, it could be the conditioning that our culture, society and nation imbues us by bombarding us with various messages that mark and traumatize us from a very young age onward. The latter is of quite importance especially in Western capitalist structures. Western society and culture consistently push us to be the best we can be, namely, to be our very best version. This has led to continuous hard work and at times material success among individuals.

Yet there is often a fundamental and essential difference between being oneself and being who our culture wants us to be and therein lie the very issue and the very heart of acceptance. Western society, culture and religion tell us from the get-go that we are not good, deserving nor worthy enough and that we must work hard to redeem ourselves in order to become special. They all give us clear indications and images of what is considered worthy and admirable; everything else that does not conform to this ideal we are asked to avoid or shun.

It is rather ironic that in a system that so much praises and prides itself upon the importance and relevance of individuality, the very starting point implicitly denies expression of one’s full-fledged individuality and merely accepts those who fit the mold or convention, meaning those who conform to and match those preset and preconceived ideas. As a result, people have been marginalized for different reasons, be they of different color, sexual orientation or disabled. A society that is truly free and accepting would not keep any of its members at a margin, or worse, segregate among its own population.

Sara David’s message was first accepting yourself and then deciding how you can improve upon yourself, meaning to get even better at who you are or want to be. Her philosophy is based on the idea that we already have inner wisdom, a spiritual source and light that could and would guide us in the best possible direction in our lives, but this fountain has been polluted, in many cases even poisoned by toxic thoughts and feelings, people and environments.

And that is exactly where our trauma stems from. We feel inadequate, not good and worthy enough because that is what and how we have been taught throughout our lives. Two important observations and parallels can be made here about the Mr. Rogers documentary I saw the day before. One, it is a foolish and erroneous accusation that telling children that they are special would make them spoiled or directly lead to feelings of entitlement. That is certainly not true; narcissism occurs in our society not because one accepts oneself, but rather its opposite direction: it comes from a complete lack of acceptance as well as festering insecurity about one’s being.

Love and acceptance are not about feeling better than or superior to others because for a person who fully loves and accepts him or herself, there can simply be no possible comparison. How can you compare two completely different individual entities with each other, and why should you? Love means accepting yourself the way you are and that you are indeed unique, while arrogance is a denial and rejection of both love AND acceptance. The arrogant person is driven by fear and rejection; they think they are superior to others because inside they feel inferior. On the other hand, narcissists do not accept anybody and use all beings, including themselves, as pawns and objects to move around for shallow egotistical reasons.

The second observation - and this one is more painful and disheartening in itself - is that throughout those years that Mr. Rogers preached (he was an ordained minister after all) of love and acceptance and of being special, he himself felt unloved and inadequate and not special at all. This is sad but not hypocritical in my mind. It just shows how deep the recesses of pain and trauma can reach us and how they can affect us for entire lives if we do not do something about that.

What can we do? Here is where Sara David gave us tools to deal with and slowly undo and untangle this deep trauma inside of us. For healing to occur, there are seven Cs that we need to build on and develop, and she explained and elaborated them in some detail.

Most of them are rather self-evident terms and truths, but they are of vital importance for acceptance, love, growth, and moreover healing, so I shall name them here with some quick commentary. First off, for any kind of substantial change to take place, we need two things to occur, namely Calm and Clarity. Put differently, we need to act from a calm center of ourselves and need to be clear and honest about ourselves and about our subsequent actions. This state can be aided or achieved through meditation, visualization or other brain and emotion-calming activities. This would then enable us to tune into ourselves, in fact, to gain access to the most inner recesses of our being.

The next big C would be Courage. For any change, for any habit or automatic response or conditioning that we want to replace, we require courageous action. Courage also signifies the willingness to face fear. In fact, those who are courageous are not magically free from fear; they are simply not as constrained or trapped by it. In other words, courage is not the absence but rather the mastery of fear.

Most of us react to fear by avoiding it because it is an unpleasant feeling and experience, but instead we need to face and deal with those situations with courage. This again does not mean we should reject or repress fear; instead of pushing it away, we need to welcome it. Anxious feelings are more often than not messengers or signals that something in our lives is amiss, is not working as it should or is simply out of whack. We also need to get past the emotional conditioning that tells us that we are weak because we are afraid; in fact, the very opposite is true, vulnerability is strength, and with courage we can listen to it more clearly and act upon our anxiety.

All this would then help us get to the next step: Confidence. Our natural confidence often gets eroded by our thoughts and experiences, so we are tasked with rebuilding and reconstructing our own ability to trust in ourselves again. Reclaiming confidence is very different from being narcissistic in that the former is not as judgmental and self-critical and rather comes from constructive feedback that helps us grow and develop our innate abilities.

It would then lead us to Compassion. This step is very important because by being compassionate with ourselves, by taking care of ourselves and treating us well, we can heal many parts and aspects of our lives. This is an essential ingredient in mobilizing us to become the best version of ourselves. It cannot be reached without empathy and forgiveness towards ourselves and others.

Next, we have Curiosity. We need to be mindful and curious about ourselves. We need to observe ourselves and our emotions because they are essentially well-meaning messengers trying to get our attention. If we listen to them instead of judging, ignoring or repressing them, we can make important headway in our quest for healing.

In this case, we need to silence the critic, the remnants of those toxic voices of our past that we have internalized within ourselves, and we need to stay away from shaming and blaming. Instead, we need to be curious about what is the source or the origin of any given anxious feeling, what are the reasons and motivations for their existence, what is it that fans and feeds them. This would lead to both discovery as well as solutions instead of negative feelings of stagnation via blame, anger and resentment.

This combination would then unleash our Creativity, which is important for finding the best actions and resolutions to one’s emotional issues. Through our creativity, we may also realize the importance of the next C: Connectedness. We can achieve close bonding with others by opening our hearts, first to ourselves and then outwards towards others. When we are open-hearted in this manner, we see each other with the eyes of love, and our interactions become indeed heart-felt and are not just based on thoughts or selfish reasons.

A person who is genuinely interested in you, feels not only curiosity about you but is also fascinated with who you are. They will be present for you, giving you their undivided care and attention. This is also the main difference between a caring parent or caregiver versus an absent or toxic one. The latter is not fully present or grounded with you, and they often harbor cold, angry feelings. They may be physically present and supposedly they are there for you, but it is not a nourishing or loving presence and it is certainly not genuine or honest.

But the person who is genuinely interested in you is an interested witness of you and your growth and will provide affection and warmth to protect and take care of you, not to change or use you for other means or motives. Through this, we can achieve healing and evolve and grow like a tree by expanding our branches and leaves yet remaining firmly rooted in our own existence.

Finally, it is most important to protect and shield ourselves from toxic people around us. They may include family members or colleagues, but if you are surrounded by them, their bad vibes and negativity are contagious, even if you think you may be immune against it all. The fact remains that there are mean-spirited and negative people out there, whether they do it intentionally or unintentionally, is not within our purview, nor should we pass judgment upon them. But it is still best to avoid them like the plague and deal with them only when necessary, even if they be close family members. We should not feel guilty about weeding them out of our lives because if not, we would merely further hurt and damage ourselves.

To sum up, we can use the analogy of the body; we need to release toxins and assimilate all that is good. We need to avoid and shun all that is bad and unhealthy for our body and mind and embrace everything that is good, healthy and nourishing for our well-being, growth and development. For this to occur, we should use an “emotional enema” (her exact words) to erase, remove or replace all the obstacles and hurdles that are in the way of who we want to be. We want the best possible food, and we want to surround ourselves with positive people, that is people who have good vibes and are kindred spirits. By being around them, we can catch their good vibes, and they can aid us in our quest for our true self.

Fear mongers in all their shapes and forms plant the seeds of fear and hatred within us, but at the same time, we can ourselves plant seeds of love and nourishment by reaching the best version of our self, which is, in and of itself, natural and aims to connect with others in a genuine and heart-felt way.

However, there is an element of confusion or a minor contradiction here. On one hand, we should accept ourselves the way we are, yet we still need to become a better version of who we are. This is misguided in my point of view. If you can fully tap into the inner wisdom deep inside of you, that light will guide you and there shall be no need for improvement because you already are perfect exactly the way you are.

So why is there this constant need and drive to get better? This is one of the problems of cognitive behavioral approaches since unlike psychoanalysis, they do not tap deep enough into the human psyche and its unconscious drives and motivations. In other words, they still retain traces of the conditioning that they want to undo. The idea of being the best you can be smacks intentionally or not of Western capitalism thinking and conditioning. Being yourself is simply not (good) enough, you should not remain idle but keep improving on your skills and abilities.

My point is not to dismiss self-development and improvement, but I think that by accepting yourself the way you are and by being able or having found the way to tap into the innermost recesses of your core being, then you are simply perfect as YOU. You are already the best and perfect version of yourself.

Getting there of course takes effort and diligence, but it is most certainly worth the labor and turmoil. This is a path that I intend to trace in my upcoming self-help book that sees the cognitive behavioral field as a useful tool, but not as sufficient enough to uncover and unveil one’s core self and being. But it represents an important and essential first step or mechanism, and this informative and enlightening talk proved and underscored this to me.