Let’s start here: I’m a big fan of hard work.
Growing up in a highly dysfunctional and chaotic family, I developed a part of myself that knew how to push harder than I thought possible, and functioning in this way, I forged many opportunities. I succeeded in school, sports, and leadership positions because of what appeared to be an unstoppable work ethic.
Yet the dark side to my steely resolve and tenacity was that it was born in fear and ultimately stemmed from trauma. Nearly 60 percent of Americans experience one or more adverse experiences in childhood, and I was no exception. In my particular case, I grew up in a family system where I constantly had to walk on eggshells and never knew when psychological and emotional safety would be taken from me. I learned to be an adult when I was small. I learned my voice didn’t truly matter; what mattered was telling people what they wanted to hear. I learned to stuff my anxiety and sadness deep down and—above all—pretend I was fine.
I was the poster child for trying harder.
But even while I seemed to check all the boxes of success in a world that praised achievement and hustle, on the inside I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and alone. My body, soul, and psyche were constantly being pushed past what I had to give. At the time, I believed this was what was required of me—of any person. Yet something in me couldn’t stop hoping there was more to life. I wondered whether maybe we don’t have to live in constant exhaustion, overwhelm, and stress. Perhaps there was a gentler, softer way to be in the world.
There are many reasons why learning to be gentle with ourselves can ultimately be helpful, but one of the most compelling comes from a basic understanding of how our nervous systems are designed. Researchers Dr. Stephen Porges and Dr. Daniel Siegel have identified a physiological window of tolerance (WOT) that is different for each of us and is often affected by traumatic events. This window is the range in which we can feel our emotions, process experiences, and have access to every area of our brains and bodies. It’s what most of us think of when we say we “feel like ourselves,” since all our faculties are available to us when we’re in our WOT. As we go outside our WOT, our bodies will signal that we’re in danger and that we must shift into either a state of fight/flight or freeze to address it.
Why does this matter for everyone, even for those who aren’t survivors of childhood trauma like me and many of my clients? We live in a culture that constantly asks us to ignore, suppress, stifle, numb, and shame our bodies and emotions. When we disconnect from our bodies in this way, because of trauma or culture or the systems we exist in, our ability to tolerate and process our experiences diminishes, and those emotions and experiences that we’ve tried to lock away come out sideways. They present as anxiety, panic, stress, uncontrollable anger, addiction, sickness, depression, and other issues. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk powerfully put it in the title of his wise book on trauma: The Body Keeps the Score.
Indeed, our bodies are keeping a record of the struggles that we’ve gone through, even when we choose to push down those sensations and ignore our feelings.
Developing a compassionate lens
So how do we unlearn this “try harder” way of being in the world? We try softer. We learn to pay compassionate attention to our internal experiences so we can respond to our bodies and emotions appropriately.
In a practical sense, what does this mean? For most of us, it means getting reacquainted with the bodies we’ve often shunned and neglected so we can actually listen to what they’re saying. My favorite place to start with someone who is beginning to try softer is with grounding. Grounding is a form of mindfulness that helps us become hyper present to the immediate moment using our five senses (what can you see, hear, smell, taste, feel?). Practicing grounding can provide a buffer from whatever may feel distressing while still tapping into our bodies' natural ability to process pain.
Of course, I often counsel my clients that our work is less about applying habits in a prescriptive manner, and more about changing our total posture toward ourselves for the long game. This is why I wrote a book called Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us Out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode and Into a Life of Connection and Joy. In it, I teach readers how to develop a more compassionate lens through which to view their whole selves.
As a trauma survivor, a therapist, and honestly, just as a person, I believe it’s time we start using new language and a new lens to help us navigate this world in which we live. It’s time we release the coping strategies that may have once kept us physically or emotionally safe but are now keeping us from truly living. It’s time we recognize that trying softer doesn’t make us weak; paradoxically, it makes us profoundly resilient.