How can you increase your capacity for psychological safety… for connection? By practicing, that’s how! In this article, I’ll outline five practical and powerful practices that will help you increase your capacity. If you stay with them, you will steadily increase the quality and consistency of your connection. More and more, you will embody “clear mind, open heart, strong spine” and some incredible benefits will flow from that.
Let’s back up a titch. I’ve recently written two articles that relate to this one. They are not required reading, but if you’d like to have a more complete context, they are:
The Secret to Life is Connection. This article covered why psychological safety — or connection — is so important.
Increasing Your Capacity for Psychological Safety–Building the Foundation. This article outlines four cornerstones on which you build the practices covered in this article.
Over the years, I’ve noticed there are four essential things we each need to learn to attend to in order to have the life we want.
- Identify what we most want (and make certain that is an expression of our purpose) — What We Want
- Change our behavior from behavior that prevents what we want to behavior that enables it — How We Act
- Shift how we are in our key relationships to healthy, happy, and highly effective behaviors — How We Connect
- Learn to actively work with our internal state (as this affects are three things above) — How We Are
Let’s click down on item #4.
Learning to work with our internal state is foundational to everything. It is foundational to connection (3 above), to changing how we act (2 above), and it is also essential for sensing our purpose and therefore what we most want (1 above). And, most importantly, this affects how we feel in life and “the shadow we cast”, the “energy” others feel when they are around us.
What does it mean to learn to work with our internal state? The bottom line is this:
Learning to work with our internal state means sensing what is going on within us in-the-moment physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and actively working with one or more of those aspects when our internal state is negative.
What does “negative” mean? Here, negative means just about any state that occurs when we are not fully present to the present moment and are, therefore “absent”… anxious, feeling any of the negative emotions, or feeling disconnected from ourselves, others, and/or life.
Therefore, working with our internal state means working with our:
- Physical aspect (instincts and impulses),
- Emotional aspect,
- Mental aspect, and
- Spiritual aspect… and how these four aspects interrelate, interconnect and interact.
The five practices I share below line up with this — with working with our “PEMS”. The practices are not intended to be end-all, be-all’s, but simply places to start. Simple, yet powerful when one or more is practiced every day.
How the Practices Relate to Connection
Perhaps it is already obvious to you. Yet it is so important, I want to underscore it…
Foundational to psychological safety or unconditional love (or whatever you might call it) is working with your internal state. When that state goes negative — negative thinking, negative mood or emotions, rigid or limp spine, closed heart — your mission is to detect it and attend to it. (I wrote about this in more detail in an article called The Cornerstone of Psychological Safety.)
The more negative our internal state, the more disconnected or psychologically unsafe or unloving we feel, and therefore, become. That’s common, but not what we’re going for.
The practices have this aim: to help you detect this sooner and attend to it more quickly. Over time, you will raise the “center of gravity” of your state of awareness, of presence. You will operate from a higher place, slip less frequently and not fall as far, and recover more quickly. (I have written about this notion of a “center of gravity” of awareness in an article here.)
This usually doesn’t occur in the first week, however. These practices — done daily — are like a daily drip into one very large bucket. But over time, the effects accumulate. You wake up one day and who you once were feels like a different lifetime.
The Five Practices
1. Practicing Self-Observation (Foundational)
This is the foundational practice. Why? Because, as Sara once said, “You cannot change what you cannot observe.” The first step to working with your internal state — your PEMS — is detection. To detect when your internal state is going negative, or is already there and snuck past you. I love this quotation by the author of The Power of Now and A New Earth because it really reflects the state of awareness detection requires:
“Be like a cat watching a mouse hole.” Eckhart Tolle
How do you do self-observation? Good news. I’ve written about it extensively (and even have a free guide for you) in my prior article, Start with Self-Observation. Check it out. It should get you started.
Now let’s move to the practices that are aimed more directly at PEMS.
2. Practicing Awareness of Your Body and Breath (Physical)
Okay, technically, I’m actually lumping three practices together and calling them one. But the fact of the matter is all three are simply ways of starting to work with the physical aspect of your PEMS.
This is a wonderful place to start. And not just a place to start but a “go to” practice any time you’ve lost your way and/or your awareness and your internal state is either negative… or you can’t feel what your internal state is (which is common, by the way).
In essence, the body scan is taking a few minutes to scan your body from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, or vice versa. You just notice how each part of your body feels without attempting to change anything. Need more guidance? You might want to listen to meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg step you through it in just a little over 7 minutes, here.
How Do I Feel?
And if the body scan is too much, you can simply start here, doing this every day. Ask yourself spontaneously, “How do I feel?” And then notice what comes up for a few minutes and get on with your day (or argument, or presentation, or kiss, or whatever).
Does it get any simpler than that?
This is a practice of placing your awareness on your breath and returning it there when your mind inevitably wanders. Pure magic. There are all kinds of guided meditations on this, and as good a place as any to start is again with Sharon Salzberg. This time you will need to invest 8 minutes, here.
All of the options above are about returning your awareness to the present moment by becoming aware of what is presently going on with you, within your physical body. There are an overwhelming number of books and guided meditations on all the above. Check out Amazon or my favorite app for such things, Insight Timer.
Note: There are other sophisticated, dynamic, deep ways of working with your body and breath, too. Such as Feldenkrais (check out teacher Lavinia Plonka), or find a local instructor of Pilates or Iyengar yoga. These are outside my realm of expertise, though not outside my realm of experience and I have benefited from the work I’ve done in some of these areas… and intend to do more in the future.
That’s the physical aspect. Now let’s move to the emotional aspect.
3. Practicing Compassion and Self-Compassion (Emotional)
What? How do compassion and self-compassion relate to working with emotions? A lot, it turns out. I won’t attempt to cover all the reasons why, here, when you can simply find out for yourself by doing the practices. If you want to learn more, you might want to check out A Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., or the article Mind of the Meditator in Scientific American magazine.
What might happen emotionally, as you experience these compassion practices? I can share what happens to me, and you can compare this to your own experience.
Self-compassion interrupts all of your awareness being collapsed into negative emotions (where it isn’t doing you much good) and re-directs a part of that awareness to helping you feel unconditional love, warmth, and support towards yourself. Self-compassion, to me, loosens or displaces self-loathing, shame, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, low mood, frustration, irritation, and the like. It also tends to shift a negative internal state towards one that is more positive.
Self-compassion makes us feel safer. And when this happens, we are in a much better position to support others in feeling safer. Safety is foundational to connection.
What about compassion?
Compassion teaches you to hold a connection to others, including those you are having problems with. This shifts your internal state towards them from more negative towards less negative or perhaps even somewhat positive. They will feel this. You will evoke a more cooperative state rather than provoking their most negative behavior. (Read that again, please.) And, you will be thinking more clearly and more expansively, because you won’t be thinking as self-centeredly as we typically do when we are disconnected from others.
Sara has written instructions and guided meditations on compassion and self-compassion for you here. That’s all you really need in order to get started with a compassion practice. Also, I have written an article called Solving Difficult Problems with Compassion that may be helpful to you as well.
There are certainly other practices for working with emotions — the above are simply the most effective ones to start with. For more information, you might want to check out Dr. Richard Davidson’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain or Dr. Daniel Seigel’s Mindsight.
4. Practicing Disruption of Story-Telling and Meaning-Making (Mental)
The essence of this practice is noticing and interrupting story-telling and meaning-making. I’m not going to get into the “how” of this, and I don’t know of a great resource to give you on this (if you know of one, please let me know). But the bottom line is this:
Human beings are meaning-making machines. We love to make meaning of things… entire cultures have been held together by the power of story. Stories seem to drive TED Talks, too. The problem is that we conflate the facts with the stories we tell ourselves about the facts. And the stories are often distorted. We do not see things straightforwardly, yet we believe we do.
This practice is about noticing what you are telling yourself when you are thinking of something — particularly something negative — and asking yourself some tough questions like:
- Is this fact (which means something everyone would agree to), or story- or meaning-making?
- How do I know this to be a fact? Can I give three points of proof?
- What assumptions might I be making?
- What do I tend to do when I think this thought or these thoughts, and does that ever actually work?
This one is hard to get your head around because it involves using your head to get your head around itself. (That hurts my head to even write it.) But, if you simply start, you would be astounded at the number of assumptions you are making, about the meanings you are making, about the distorted stories you are telling… yourself. And these thoughts stir emotions and prompt actions and internal states that are harmful to you, harmful to others, and harmful to life. They cause you to act in psychologically unsafe ways.
That’s a mental practice. What about the spiritual aspect of ourselves? What’s that practice?
5. Practicing Spiritual Connection (Spiritual)
This one should be in alignment with your faith or spiritual orientation, so I can’t really guide you on this one. Depending on what you think or believe about such things, you might pray or ask for what you need, including healing and surrender.
What is it to me? If you were to ask me, what I’d say is that the essence of this is to still the mind and become receptive to the spirit, true self, soul, higher self, the one life, or whatever name your religious or spiritual orientation gives to the “S” in “PEMS”.
This story speaks to me. An interviewer–Dan Rather, in fact–once had an exchange with Mother Teresa that went something like this.
DR: “When you pray to God, what do you say?”
Mother Teresa” “I listen.”
DR: “Well then, what does God say?”
Mother Teresa: “He listens.”
Dan was stunned for a moment, and she said:
“And if you don’t understand that I cannot explain it to you.”
What if you don’t believe in an “S” or if this is “becoming receptive to the spirit” thing is too abstract to you? Two practices that are intensely practical that I’d advocate actually are forms of this type of practice are:
1. Better Live your Purpose and Values. Know your purpose, and systematically live closer to that purpose. Know your values, and systematically live closer to those values. We are often living off course to our purpose. And we often act in ways that violate our highest values. Sense and close those gaps.
2. Make Repairs You Don’t Usually Make: I can’t explain why, but making amends in situations where we normally don’t is very powerful stuff. I think it has something to do with placing our knowing of what is right and good and true over our egos and its machinations and defenses and wanting to save face. In short, humiliate the ego and delight the part of you that knows what is right.
Where to Start?
Five practices can be overwhelming. Should you start all of them at once? No. I would not recommend that. I’d recommend starting with the one you feel most attracted to start with. But what if you don’t have a feeling? Work them in the order I have presented them. There’s a method to the madness.
And I would most definitely recommend — over time — doing every practice at least seven times. They actually can and do all work together. If you experience them and practice them separately, you may find yourself able to spontaneously do more than one or even all of them at the same time… in the situations where it matters most. And — believe it or not — in the blink of an eye.
Just not necessarily in the first week, barring divine intervention.
Just one thing.
Frequency is much more important than duration. Two minutes a day is more powerful than 60 minutes a week. There’s something about the focus, discipline, intention, and attention of the daily practice versus the longer, less frequent practice. Move up from 2-3 minutes a day as you can. When you can increase to 10 minutes a day, you can really start to feel a benefit. But just start with 2-3 minutes, every day. Every. Single. Day.
Don’t break the chain. Jerry Seinfeld once famously said in response to someone asking how to become a great comedian, in essence, ‘Write every day. Don’t break the chain.’ Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to practice every day. For 2–3 minutes. And don’t break the chain.
If you break the chain, don’t allow more than one day to pass. Get back on the horse. Ride.
Over to You
If you want to increase your capacity to hold a high-quality connection to others — to engender psychological safety — you must cultivate the ability to work with your internal state. Your internal state profound impacts both your behavior and the safe or unsafe vibe you send towards others. So you will need to become aware of your awareness, to watch your PEMS in action, to be like that cat watching the mouse hole, and to have practices and strategies for better directing and working with those invisible forces coursing through you.
When you harness those forces, something incredible happens. You heal. You awaken. You gain self-knowledge. You embody your highest values. You can abide. You can serve. You become concerned with something much larger than yourself. You do behaviors that do more good and less harm. Others feel safe around you. Because they are.
Alternative? Those PEMS forces run amok, as they sometimes do now. And, as you know, that ain’t pretty. This runs counter to psychological safety and connection.
The choice is yours. And that, my friend, is one life-changing choice.
Read all the books you want. Study all you want. Get the deepest and broadest intellectual grasp you want.
But the only way to increase your capacity for psychological safety is to practice. Only through practice can we come to know and skillfully work with the forces — PEMS — inherent within us, within every human being. And the only way to do that — in the moments that matter, which is every moment by the way — is through practice.
Good luck! And I’d love to hear how it is going for you.