Why Girls Who Face Toxic Stress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, Autoimmune Disease and Depression

Hi All,

This blog is about WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences are a #METOO ISSUE. I want to talk about how and why toxic childhood stress – also as #ACEs — is a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

One thing readers know about the work I do and the books I write, including Childhood Disrupted, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and The Last Best Cure, is that I focus on the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and emotion – while shining a spotlight on WOMEN’s experiences.

Connecting these dots is always an underlying theme in my work. Women, girls, toxic stress, the female brain and immune system, autoimmune disease and chronic physical and mental illness — if you care about any of these, keep an eye out for my upcoming three-part blog series in which I delve into the scientific links between them all.

Today I’m posting the first part of my three-part exploration on Growing Up With Female Adversity: The Female Body and Brain on Toxic Stress.

(For those of you who read this introduction to my three-part series in my heads-up post yesterday, skip down below to PART ONE…)

I’ve written this blog, and am offering it up freely, because I think it’s crucial that we address the unique way in which the female brain and immune system respond to environmental influences, including #ACEs, and how, in turn, this unique female brain-immune response contributes to girls being several times more likely to later develop autoimmune diseases, depression, anxiety disorders, and so many other chronic illnesses.

I’m going to break down for you, in a way no one else has, or will, how and WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic childhood stress are a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

In it, I’m offering up the term — and hashtag — #FemaleAdversity — to refer to the chronic societal stress girls face growing up. Girls not only come of age with higher rates of #AdverseChildhoodExperiences, including verbal, emotional, sexual and physical abuse, girls also have to find their way to a healthy adulthood and sense of self amidst cripplingly narrow societal expectations regarding what constitutes acceptable female beauty and behavior.

All this is intensified, 24/7, by imagery of effortless female perfection on social media and in media in general. Meanwhile, girls are witnessing the sexual harassment and sexism so many adult women endure. Over time, this #FemaleAdversity can take a toll on girls’ and women’s immune systems, bodies, and brains in unique ways.

The timing for this discussion seems apt, as today we come to the end of #autoimmunediseaseawareness month as well as #womenshistorymonth and enter #childabuseprevention month. A fitting moment to delve into all of these issues.

So, Today, I’m sharing:

PART ONE: Why Girls Who Face #ToxicStress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, #AutoimmuneDisease and #Depression.

To get personal for a moment, the reason I focus so strongly, as a science journalist, on this intersection between neuroscience, immunology, emotion, toxic stress, and being female is, in part, due to my own autoimmune history. I’ve struggled most of my adult life with the lingering physical effects of having been paralyzed twice with Guillain Barre Syndrome. I’ve had a pacemaker since I was 28. I’ve struggled with peripheral neuropathy, chronic neuromuscular pain, thyroiditis, leukopenia and other medical issues throughout my adult life.

But I’m hardly alone in all this; so many of you, my readers, have faced similar and often much more difficult health issues than I have. My own experience is merely what lead me, as a career science journalist, to investigate the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and the deepest inner workings of the human heart.

What KEEPS ME GOING is the way I’ve been moved, time and again, by the hundreds of thousands of female readers who’ve shared with me their struggles, in the face of #trauma, #autoimmunedisease, #chronic illness, #depression.Wanting to help ease that suffering propels ME to uncover new understanding, new answers and insights that can change lives.

The reason I shine an up-close light on how women’s bodies, brains and immune systems are impacted in unique ways by toxic stress and emotion, and other environmental triggers, is because the science in this area is exciting and also under-reported. And the reason this science is under-reported is because it can be complex and hard to unpack in a media era that all too often relies on simplistic, broad-brush headline-centric, click-bait reporting.

If you follow my work you already know that research shows that #ACEs, such as being chronically put down or humiliated, living with a depressed, mentally ill, or alcoholic parent, losing a parent to divorce or death, being emotionally neglected, physically or sexually abused, as well as many other types of toxic childhood stressors, are linked to a much greater likelihood of developing autoimmune disease, heart disease and cancer in adulthood. Having experienced 6 categories of childhood adversity can take 20 years off your lifespan.

That’s because toxic stress changes the way our immune system responds to stressors in the future. When kids and teens experience chronic adversity, inflammatory chemicals begin to flood a child’s body and brain, plunging the body into a state of chronic hypervigilance.

Our genes are ALWAYS in a back and forth dance with our environment. If you’re a child growing up in an environment that is chronically stressful, and don’t have reliable adults to turn to, that meets the definition of toxic stress.

Toxic childhood stress begins to cause changes in the architecture of the developing brain, and it engenders profound epigenetic changes in the genes that oversee the stress response. In fact, Yale researchers recently found that children who’d faced Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress (what I term C.U.T.S.) demonstrate changes “across the genome” in genes that oversee the stress response. These changes re-set the stress response to “high” for life.

They also showed changes in genes that play a role in developing autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and so on.This correlation is particularly stark for WOMEN. For each category of #ACEs a girl faces, her chance of developing a serious autoimmune disease in adulthood increases by 20 percent. For instance, a girl who faces three categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences has a 60 percent greater chance of developing an autoimmune disease so serious she requires hospitalization as an adult woman, as compared to a girl who grows up without #toxicstress.

For every category of #ACEs a man has faced, his chances of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease increases by about 10 percent – still a significant and disturbing correlation and one we also need to pay attention to.

We also know that girls face more #ACEs growing up in general. In fact, girls are 50% more likely to have experienced 5 or more categories of childhood adversity. These include sexual and physical abuse, emotional or physical neglect, growing up being chronically humiliated, or growing up with a parent with a drug/alcohol problem or mental illness, or losing a parent to divorce/death.

These higher rates of #ACEs for girls mostly revolve around the fact that girls are physically smaller than men and have less societal power or equality in family life – and are more vulnerable to, and likely to be victims of, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and harassment.

Just think of today’s #METOO movement. It’s all about systemic emotional, sexual, physical harassment and humiliation and abuse based on being in a situation in which men in the culture (and “culture” can include members of your family of origin) are more powerful than you.

We also know that girls who experience 2 or more categories of #ChildhoodAdversity are twice as likely as boys who experience 2 or more types of childhood adversity to develop autoimmune disease in adulthood.

In fact, the relationship between being female, facing adversity as a teenager or child, and later developing an #autoimmunedisease, is so strong it resembles the link between smoking and cancer, or drunk driving and having a car accident.

Again, the more childhood adversity a girl grows up with, the higher her risk becomes for adult disease, and the more likely she is to end up in the hospital at some point in her adult life in order to be treated for a serious autoimmune condition. As a science journo when I saw these statistics I wanted to know: WHY are women who experience childhood adversity twice as likely to suffer from disease as adults, compared to men?

What happens in a girl’s body, in response to #toxicstress, that leads girls to be more likely to be ill as adult women? EVERY WOMAN WAS ONCE A GIRL. So, we should figure this conundrum out, right?

Tomorrow, I’ll try to do just that for you, in Part Two: Every Woman Was Once a Girl: Why We Need to Talk About the Biological Effects of #FemaleAdversity on Women’s Bodies and Brains

If this topic interests you personally, because it speaks to your experience, or because you work with, teach, mentor, or are parenting girls, or if you work in #ACEAwareness or #trauma prevention, sign up for my blog and newsletter now. If you haven’t yet signed up for my mailing list and/or my blog, you might want to now.

(To sign up for my mailing list and newsletter, click on the link below, and see the “Mailing List” subscription box to your right. To sign up for my blog, scroll down on the right hand side of my website’s blog page to “Never Miss a Blog Post and sign up there.)

You can also find me on Facebook or @DonnaJackNak on Twitter.

Come Join Me For Talks & Booksignings in July 2015 on Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal!

DSC_0090-1Hope you can come join me on Tuesday July 7th at 7:00 at Baltimore’s lovely Ivy Bookshop for a talk, chat, and booksigning!
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa
http://www.theivybookshop.com/

Or, come join me on Friday, July 17th at the Annapolis Bookstore for a talk, chat, and booksigning!
Friday, July 17, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa

http://annapolisbookstore.com/

Hope to see you at one of these!

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The Art of Doing Everything Twice

The Water Lillies at the National Aquatic Garden bloom once, each July.

My mom said something recently that really stuck with me. She’s 82. “It used to be that we did everything once, and now we have to do everything twice!” I kind of brushed it off as a subtle sign of aging, but then I noticed, over the next forty eight hours: the washing machine/dryer repair man left (“all done!”) but the washer still won’t progress to the rinse cycle and the dryer drum still makes a clanging sound as if a rock band is hiding in the laundry room. So we called – the repairman is returning for round two.

Continue reading

A Q. and A. with “Between the Covers” on What Compelled me to Write The Last Best Cure

I recently spoke with Melanie Brevis, blogger at Baltimore County Public Library System, and we had a great chat!

Between the Covers with Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna Jackson NakazawaBaltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.

Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?

The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.

 The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?

I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.

You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?

At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.

In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?

We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.

Are there any new books in the works?

Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong “set point” for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.

How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?

My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.

 

Thank You Readers – The Last Best Cure hit #10 in Bestselling Books in Health Memoir

Thank you readers, I just found out that last night THE LAST BEST CURE hit #10 on AMAZON in BESTSELLING BOOKS IN HEALTH MEMOIR! That made me smile, and I realize I have all of you to thank for spreading the word, one woman, one reader at a time! In gratitude, I thank you.http://amzn.to/1dIIyVd

Thank you all for spreading the word, I'm so very grateful.


Talking on NPR about The Last Best Cure

I really enjoyed a great discussion today with Dan Rodricks, the host of the NPR show, Midday, on WYPR, Baltimore’s Public Radio station. Dan is smart, genuine, and asks great questions. We really delved into why I wrote The Last Best Cure, the science behind it, and how I hope it can help readers with chronic conditions. You can listen to the entire show by clicking on the podcast at this link: http://wypr.org/post/last-best-cure.

photo of dogs with glasses reading

My writing companions, Ashlie and Winnie

This photo has nothing to do with this show — I am just reposting it here because I like it and it makes me smile!

Two Wise Teachers

Photo credits to my daughter, Claire who took this photo during a snowy walk this weekend as we ventured into the woods and stream behind our house.

I spent this weekend at a two day meditation event with one of my dearest friends, and together we soaked in the amazing wisdom of Syliva Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg, who came together to teach as a duo on this snowy, rainy weekend in Washington DC.

My favorite nuggets:

Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching, “May I meet this moment fully, May I not complicate it, May I meet it as a friend.”

Sharon Salzberg’s teaching: “The most important moment of meditation is the moment you sit down to do it.”

And Syliva Boorstein’s teaching about how to handle being in busy, harried family life and not lose one’s hard won peace in the midst of it: “Try not to fall into other people’s states of mind.” I find this really wise as I raise teenagers…

My deepest gratitude to these two wise teachers.

I am particularly grateful that at the end, I received the joyful gift of a warm hug from Sylvia Boorstein, who was so kind to say such lovely things about The Last Best Cure when it came out last spring. As I told my friend Elizabeth, who is one of those wonderful kinds of friends who always keeps me honest with myself, as I grow older, I hope to become more like Sylvia Boorstein — she pretty much glows with metta. And to please remind me, when I am overreactive and small of mind, by saying, “Remember, you want to glow like Syliva Boorstein.”

Sometimes, just to meet someone whom you admire so much, whose teachings you follow, and to see how their presence changes those around them — because their compassion and loving kindness comes from such a deep wellspring the whole room can sip from it — well, that is a teaching in and of itself. Thank you Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg (whose fabulous new book is just out, Real Happiness at Work).

Big News Coming! The Next Book!

I’m just about to announce my next book project — which I’ve signed for with Atria/Simon & Schuster. I’m going to be looking for interviewees for this one! So, stay tuned…I’ll be reaching out to you, my amazing, faithful readers.

I'll be looking for readers who want to be part of my next book... I'll announce it soon!

Subscribe to get my blog posts (option on the right) to stay informed and find out more!

The Ones Who’ve Helped us Along the Way

Yesterday I was struggling to manage a few swirling mind states — you know, those fears, resentments and regrets that well up, or at least they do for me. I just could not find any inner compassion for my own life mistakes. My suffering was mind-wrought, and doing me no good, but even knowing all that I could not manage my thoughts.

Then I remembered a type of meditation that has helped me get unstuck in the past. It is taught by many but my favorite version is by John Makransky. It’s called “Identifying Benefactors and Receiving Love.”

So I got it out again, that tape, as a rescue remedy (you can listen to his free 13 minute audio version at this link).

It’s pretty healing stuff. Here’s how a “receiving benefactors” meditation works, in case you feel inclined to give it a try.

Makransky asks us to first think of people in our lives whom we might think of as benefactors, those who have wished for our “deep well-being and happiness.”  Often, these are, he says, the people we most liked to be around at earlier points in our lives.  A dear aunt or grandparent, a friend of our parents, a teacher or professor or coach, someone whom it feels good to remember because we knew in our hearts that they wanted the absolute best for us.  We felt safe by their side.

Thinking of my Own Benefactors

My Dad and I when I was eight-years-old.

I think of my Dad, of course I think of him. I think of how one day, when I was 11, a year or so before he died, we were sailing. As I took the tiller on that blue-green Chesapeake day, my Dad turned to my mother and asked — despite my buck teeth, my horn-rimmed tortoise shell glasses, my frizzy blond hair that inspired my brothers to call me “lampshade head” — “Isn’t she just so beautiful?”  As if he saw something incandescent beneath my profound gawkiness.

Someone who believes we are beautiful, even when we are gawky and awkward, and who knows we need to hear it precisely because we are gawky and awkward, that is a benefactor.

My grandmother, who we called GrandMary, on her wedding day.

I think, too, of my father’s mother, whom we called GranMary. GranMary always called me “my darling girl,” no matter how old I was.  The last time I saw her shortly before her death, she patted my hand between her palms, and, caught in a moment of dementia, asked, “You are going to Jay’s play tonight, aren’t you?”  She was talking about my father, who had been dead for 30 years.  She was reliving one of those buoyant, excited moments of mothering: the opening night of the school play her son had written and directed — albeit half a century after the fact.  “Jay and I have been rehearsing his lines all afternoon!” she said with pride, leaning toward me, our knees touching between the sofa where she sat and the ottoman on which I perched.  “He has his lines down,” she said proudly, patting my knee.

My father, at age 17, the age when he would have been about to appear in the play he wrote and directed, the age at which he would have come in the door to practice his lines with his mom, a memory she held dear after he died.

I recall how she turned and glanced around the room, as if expecting her son to come through the front door of her assisted living apartment.  How she somehow seemed to know who I was and yet not understand that I was also her dead son’s now grown daughter.

“My darling girl.  You are coming to Jay’s play?  Oh, you must!”

I wanted to go to my Dad’s play, yes.  See him as a 17-year-old, directing, acting, taking his curtain call via some kind of magical time reversal.  Or see him on any single day of his life – still alive.  But there is no such magical clock.  I think of how much my father’s mother loved him, how it broke her heart to lose her son without warning.  “The worst thing,” she once told me, in her earlier, lucid years, “is to lose your child while you still live.  It’s an unnatural pain.”  How she loved us all.  How she would tell us at the end of every family party or dinner or day, just that: “I love you all.”

I think, too, of the aunt who comforted me through the years after my father’s death. My Aunt Nan wasn’t related to me, she was my parents’ best friend and our neighbor. When he died, the summer I was twelve, I began spending Saturday mornings at her house, making pancakes, and school day afternoons climbing the pine trees in the field in front of her driveway. We’d run around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle; the same one in which she’d driven me to kindergarten seven years earlier — she’d also been my kindergarten teacher.

She’d leave surprises for me in the mailbox, knowing I picked up the mail when I got off the bus. One day there was a small toy Leprechaun sitting in the mailbox, his pliable legs and arms crossed, as if he’d been waiting patiently for me.

Years later, when I moved to New York, Aunt Nan tirelessly helped me to find my first walk up apartment. She’d moved to Connecticut, and on weekends I’d recover on her couch in the country in front of her fireplace. We often had a cup of tea together as she listened, patiently, dearly, to my stories of work and love in the city. One day I gave her a porcelain tea cup.

When she died a year ago, her daughter said she had wanted me to have that tea cup back, and gave it to me.

The tea cup I gave my Aunt Nan, which she left for me when she died.

I keep it on my desk beside me and I always think of her when I see it, every single day.

I think of my mother’s mother Gammer; how she was there to hold me with open arms the day my mother broke the news to my brothers and me that my dad had died.  I think of the New Year’s Eves I would spend with Gammer well into my twenties if I didn’t have a boyfriend.  Each time I ditched or got ditched by a guy, she would send me another small tiny ceramic frog with a hopelessly beautiful cliché note that simply read,

My grandmother, Gammer, holding me when I was 8 days old. I miss her everyday.

“Dearest Donna, I guess you will have to kiss a few …”  After a while frogs began to appear with no note at all whenever a relationship bit the dust.  Her collection still makes me smile.

I think of them all, my father, my two grandmothers and my aunt.

“Bring them to mind,” Makransky says.  “Imagine their smiling faces before you.  Envision your benefactors sending you the wish of love, the wish for you to have deepest well being, happiness and joy.”

It is enough to make my breath slow, my throat catch.

I try not to think of whether I deserve their love, or whether those I’ve loved and lost would in fact be proud of me, when I haven’t done half of what I thought I’d do in my life, have been cranky too often and selfish and have my share of regrets and resentments that are, well, the reason why I am doing this meditation.

They were all so resilient, so upbeat despite the sorrows life threw their way.  I am not as resilient, I fear, as the ones who came before me.

The Benefactor Meditation

“Allow the soft healing energy of their love into every cell of your body and every corner of your mind.” Makransky’s voice continues. “Bathe in this.  Heal in this.  Rest in this.”

He suggests we bring one benefactor more to mind than the others, and let that connection “energize the magnitude of the radiance we feel ourselves receive.”

I imagine, of course, my Dad.  He is standing before me.  I try to brush aside the worry of whether he would be proud of me or not so proud.

“Join your benefactors in their wish for you while receiving the radiance of their love, repeating the wish for yourself in your mind,” says Makransky.  May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.

I can’t help but think of the scene where Harry Potter gazes into the mirror of Erised  — the name backward for desire — which shows the deepest wishes of one’s heart.  How he saw his dead parents waving to him, their heads nodding.

This one,” I hear my father say.  “May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.”

My eyes prick with tears.

I hear Makransky’s voice: “Rest in this love until you feel complete, whole.”

Sometimes, I have found I can’t recall the exact contour of my father’s face; the crevices, the smile lines, the five o-clock stubble.  But in this moment I see my father with utter clarity. He is smiling at me, as if to say, Remember what I taught you as we sailed together, as we took in the whole wide sky and bay. Remember that this world is a magical place. Remember to be amazed.

I imagine the love of my dad and the beautiful women whom I have been so blessed to be loved by, how they loved me. How I want to carry that love forward, pay it forward, in the way I am in the world.

As I open my eyes, I feel washed of something. Of all the swirling fear and regret that consumed me just fifteen minutes earlier. I feel a compassion for myself. For all beings.

And I am okay with what is. I trust in my capacity to be here, with what has been, what has not been, and what is.

Try the Benefactor Meditation for Yourself — It’s Worth it

Who are your benefactors? Can you imagine them standing beside you, sending you so much love and well-wishes? How does that feel? Give it a try.

A Thought Challenge

My daughter took this photo while we were walking in the fresh spring air recently. "You should use this photo on your blog," she said. "It's how you really look everyday." And so here it is.

Today I came across a “Thought Challenge” from meditation teacher and writer Jack Kornfield, whose work I so admire. Kornfield talks about separating ourselves from our tightly gripped sense of our “self,” and seeing what happens.

Selflessness, Kornfield teaches, is not about seeing “how selfless I am.” It’s about stepping away from identifying everything as “me” or “mine.” Selflessness, he writes, “does not reject our experience in any way. We don’t get rid of anything. The experiences are the same…. All that’s changed is that we have stopped identifying with them….When identification with the small sense of self drops away, what remains is the spacious heart that is connected with all things. The Wise Heart.”

I am always in search of my Wiser Heart. So I was drawn to Kornfield’s suggestion to try this practice — to notice what happens when we stop identifying so tightly with our sense of self and me-ness. Here is his challenge: “Try today to study the sense of self. At regular intervals, pause to check in and notice how strong the sense of self is. At what times of day, in what roles or situations is it strongest? How does your body feel then? How do others respond to this? What might happen in the same situation without a strong identification with the self?”

So I did try it. I wanted to challenge myself to note in what situations (and, for me, with which people) my sense of self looms strongest. And the exercise proved so profound I felt I had to write about it here, and share what I found.

Trying this exercise helped me to have a difficult conversation with a person I often find to be trying in my life — and to handle that interaction with a wisdom and grace I had been unable to find within … until I tried Kornfield’s exercise.

The person with whom I was interacting has a good heart but also has what I like to call “Oppositional Conversational Disorder.” Have you ever met anyone like that? I’ve found that whatever I say, this person disagrees immediately, often before my whole sentence is out of my mouth. Call it conversing in a Culture of No. For instance, I say, “I was thinking…” and this person says, “Oh no, that’s not how it works…” And if I say, “That made me sad…” this person says, “Oh no, you shouldn’t feel sad.”  This person is wedded to “no” and “it isn’t” and “don’t” and “but” and “shouldn’t” and argues so reflexively it’s a habit of mind that has permeated their very nature.  But this person is also a good person, a really really good person, just not an easy person to have a meaningful conversation with, because “Oh no” or “Don’t” proceeds every sentence they say.

So I tried it. I tried letting go of my sense of me, my point of view, my being right, my… me-ness. As this person’s Oppositional Conversational Disorder reared its head and they said “Oh no it’s not because of…” I took note of how my jaw tightened. They said, “You didn’t” and my upper palette locked down on my tongue. I heard, “You shouldn’t” and a band tightened around my chest. “Don’t do it that way…” The muscles in my thigh tightened. I took a mindful breath. Look how tightly clenched my chest feels, my legs, my throat.

I replayed Kornfield’s question in my mind. “What might happen in the same situation without a strong identification with the self?”

I reminded my “self” that I am not my thoughts. Indeed, new research tells us that our feelings shift every 90 seconds.

I asked myself, Why am I identifying so closely with my sense of self, with having myself be heard and be right — when I don’t even really know what “self” is? When I know my thoughts shift every 90 seconds?

If I am not my thoughts, if I am not my ever-changing feelings, including this feeling of irritation and frustration and anger that now threatens to overwhelm me, what is my “self?” And why is my “self” reacting so strongly to what another person is saying that seems to be in judgement of “me” if that self is not real?

Gosh, I hope that makes sense.

By interjecting the question, I could step back.

This was such a freeing experience. I began to breathe. My jaw relaxed. The bands around my chest fell off. It felt so freeing. When I stepped back from that strong sense of self that I had been nursing as I heard “don’t” and “shouldn’t” I felt something else. A bubbling up of awareness. I am not my reactivity. My “self” is something much larger, much wiser. For a moment I had to hold back my sense of inner glee, and keep from laughing out loud – not at my conversational partner, who was still talking, but with the freedom I felt within.

I highly recommend trying this. In the midst of your next difficult interaction, especially if it is with someone with Oppositional Conversational Disorder, let go of your tightly held sense of “self” in your conversation. See what happens.

Here’s what happened to me. The person I was talking to stopped. They breathed. My oppositional conversational partner just looked at me after ten more minutes of conversation or so and said, “Oh, okay.”  Two words they had never said to me before.

To let that strong ID with self go during that difficult interaction changed its outcome.

I have so much left to learn.