Sometimes the thoughts that you have in your head can act like an inner critic that will just lower your self-esteem. It’s always best to block out those negative thoughts and focus on living in the present. Self-help mechanisms like meditation, yoga, and breathwork can help. These are all the things Dr. Gail Brenner recommends. Gail is an author and psychologist who encourages people to find their inner peace. She will teach you how to fix your self-esteem and the importance of meditation. She will also talk about her book, The End of Self-Help to further delve into the topics at hand. Join in and learn how to live in the moment in this episode of On Your Mind with Dr. Timothy J. Hayes.
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The End Of Self-Help: Learn How To Live In The Moment With Dr. Gail Brenner
Gail Brenner, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, author and speaker with a passion for conscious living. She’s an expert in healing from early trauma and she’s the author of the award-winning book, The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.
Gail, welcome. Thank you for joining us here.
Thank you for inviting me.
I’m excited to be able to share with our audience about your book. I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about what brought you to write this book and what drives your passion for the content of it?
The book is called The End of Self-Help. I debated about the title and I know it’s a bit radical but I thought that it’s appropriate for the message that I want to get across to people, which is in the self-help industry, we are fed the message that there’s something wrong with us so we need to improve. We need to help ourselves and find something that we are lacking so that we are better, feel better or are more successful. My perspective is completely different than that. It’s an invitation for people to turn their attention inward toward themselves. We investigate and we realize that everything that we want is already here. It’s a matter of realizing that. It’s a matter of uncovering our true essence, natural self, natural passion or purpose, not looking for it from the outside because we are broken in some way.
When I made that discovery on my own and was understanding my own suffering, direct experience and understanding why things in life didn’t feel so good for me, that set me on a long path to figuring out like, “How do I be happy in my life?” That was the question I was posing to myself and exploring. I know a whole lot more about that now. I’m passionate about it and passionate about the possibility of living fully, alive, connected, present and here with what’s happening at the moment. I’m excited to bring that to other people.
Everything that you want is already here. It’s only a matter of realizing that.
How do you help somebody who is convinced that they are damaged or broken, at least begin to explore your perspective?
I don’t try to convince them that they are not but my first question would be to unpack what that means to them. When someone says to me, “I feel broken or I feel depressed,” I want to know what they are thinking, what emotions they are having, how they feel in their bodies and what are the bodily sensations feed into their emotions. We then begin to break it down to what is it about the present moment experience that’s making them suffer and give themselves the label as, “I’m wounded or there’s something wrong with me.” It’s about looking at what’s arising in them in the present moment and then we can work with that.
Once somebody is willing to start questioning a conclusion that they are damaged or broken and you help them begin to explore what it is they are feeling, then what?
That’s a part of anyone’s experience. We can look at our thoughts and the feelings that are arising. We also have senses. We can feel things and look at things outside or inside of ourselves. We have such great capacities with our mind and our awareness that’s way beyond those limited patterns of not feeling good about ourselves. Our human suffering and our patterns and program ways that we make ourselves suffer. Not in any way to overlook that because those need our compassion, love and understanding. It’s possible, even with that, to open up to all of what’s here in the present and include that as well. That’s the direction of being able to be happy and relaxed in our lives.
What was your path to come to this realization?
I started with suffering as most people do. I had gone to psychotherapy for more than fifteen years. I’m a Psychologist so when I look back at that now, I didn’t get many benefits from that. What changed things for me was when I started meditating and that was also the beginning of my spiritual path. I would sit and meditate. In that meditation, I’m able to watch my experience. I saw so much negative thinking about myself and other people. I didn’t trust the world and that’s what’s showing up in my beliefs. There were a lot of feelings as well. For me, it was mostly fear.
It was this gigantic insight for me to realize that there was so much negative thinking in my mind and fear. That’s how I was living according to all of that because I didn’t realize it was there. Once I realized it, I was able to have some space around all of it and find different tools, skills and ways to be more in the present. As soon as I saw that all of that stuff was going on, I said, “There has to be another way here.”
What are the tools or skills to be more in the present as you say?
One that I use with people a lot is simple and it’s the breath. You don’t have to do big formal meditation practice. Some people like that and I find that valuable but it’s not necessary. Lots of people don’t like that and that’s fine. Everybody knows how to take a relaxing breath. When we are caught up, and we all get caught up, we get stressed about things, get angry at someone and feel bad about ourselves. We get stuck in these stories that define us and create our sense of reality.
It’s always possible with a breath to be able to take a pause, find our way back to the present moment and be able to look clearly rather than be involved in all that thought process to be able to say, “What am I thinking now? Is that logical in this situation? Is it helping me or hurting me?” We get the option of being able to choose how we want to be in the moment. One way into that openness of having a choice is to take a breath, relax, stop everything for a second, get a new perspective and do a reset so that we can see what it is that we want here.
It’s a real good thing, start with the breath and get centered at the moment, and then what? What other tools or techniques do you offer for somebody who’s recognized, “They’ve got a lot of negative content going on?”
It’s helpful to look at the relationship that we have with those thoughts. For example, before I recognize all that negative thinking, I was living according to that. The relationship that I had with all that thinking is that I 100% believed it. I believed the world wasn’t safe. I believed I needed to contract to protect myself. Some people believe they are not good enough or live in shame or difficult feelings that they are holding because the feelings relate to the stories that we tell ourselves.
First is to recognize that this is the thinking that’s going on and then to question our relationship with that thinking. Once we have the awareness that there’s so much negative thinking going on, we can begin to question and acquire, “Is this true? Is this something that’s helping me? Can I get by without believing all this stuff?” It involves questioning, inquiring and experimenting with something new. In addition to that, when we recognize that so much thinking is going on and it’s usually in some kind of pattern that we are used to thinking, it uncovers certain emotions. That has probably been living in us for a long time because that’s what’s behind this repetitive thinking. We are feeling grief about what happened in our childhood or we hold a lot of fear. We feel sad and there’s anger for some people.
Underneath the thinking is all of that feeling that’s also here, whether we recognize it or not. We can learn how to be with those feelings in a loving, compassionate and kind way. My experience with myself and the people I work with is that changes everything when we can bring kindness toward ourselves, feel shame and anxiety. Instead of going into a negative thought pattern like, “Not that again, I’ve got to get rid of this or this is horrible. There’s something wrong with me.” We can take a breath, come back to ourselves, and be kind for the feelings and reactions that we become aware of.
When you’re all caught up and stressed, take a breath to find your way back into the present.
I remember listening to an interview with Sylvia Boorstein and she was asked about this part in her book where, what if she has a negative thought or emotion, she puts her hand over her heart space and says, “Sylvia, you are in pain. Take a few deep breaths, calm down, then we will look at what’s going on, and then we will decide what to do.” It helped move my work personally to the next level when I trained myself to catch the negative and move over to being gentle.
These feelings that arise are a human thing to feel sad, anger or fear. They are visiting us. These are feelings that arise and they probably have reasons we can figure that out but the in-the-moment experience is the pain of having that feeling. The question is, “How do we relate to it when it’s there?” You can say, “I hate this feeling. I want this to go away. If it would go away, everything would be okay.” That’s a resisting relationship with that feeling but a welcoming, accepting and loving relationship with that feeling is to say, “You are here. Come in. I will make space for you while you are here.” Not to have that resistance and pushing against it.
How do you feel about the perspective that says that these energies that we call emotion are energies and they have information for us?
They do have information. We can certainly take a look at what these emotions are telling us. Fear is an example of that. Is there something to be afraid of? Is there something that needs to be done? If there is, that’s great. Fear is an example. Most times, it’s spinning, repetitive and it comes from a more primitive part of the brain. It’s a habit and we can learn that, too. We go, “There’s the habit of fear. I feel that.” I also find that it’s super useful to be aware of how emotions show up in the body.
In my work, I include attention to the body a lot because it matters. When these emotions get lodged into our bodies, it happens when we are young and for many of us, before we have language. The first experience we have of an emotion is a physical contraction, tension, panic or something like that and it’s physical. If you take a look at an infant, they can’t process information. They are all physical. If we don’t get a chance in our childhoods to be able to resolve and digest all of that, then those feelings get lodged in the body. It’s super important to always bring attention to the body and be open to that part of the emotion as well.
Do you have any movements or exercises that you work with people to help them get in touch with the somatic part of their emotional experience and the connection to the thought structure that sometimes are conditioned responses?
They are totally conditioned to responses. Many of us are in our heads. We are blessed and cursed as humans with a lot of thinking capacity so it makes us do amazing things in the world and get stuck in our thinking. When we are stuck in our thinking, we are missing what’s happening in the rest of the body. Many people, when we first start working together, will realize that they haven’t been paying any attention to their bodies. Maybe they have even been holding their breath and they don’t realize it. Our attention is up with the head gigantic and then we are missing all this information that’s here in the body.
Simply, the beginning is to pay attention to the body and I do that often with a guided meditation or an invitation for people to do a body scan to notice, not to judge, not to figure anything out or not to find solutions to anything. It’s not about that. It’s about finally being able to include what’s happening in the body in our present moment experience because it’s here. It’s becoming aware of something that’s already here anyway. Opening to that, allowing that and the more that we bring our awareness into the body, there are layers of emotion that are revealed. It’s liberating to illuminate the body with the light of this awareness and attention. It frees up what’s happening in the body.
In freeing up this energy, allowing it to be there and getting feedback from it, is there something to do? Does the next step come to me when I stay in touch with the body and the energy system?
It comes. That’s my experience. When we stop trying to figure out and that’s in the mind and maybe from fear, “I have to figure this out,” or a feeling of inadequacy, “I need to make myself look good and be successful so that I please other people and I feel okay.” These are examples of conditioning patterns that don’t use all of the information that we have available to us. My experience is that when we relax away from all of this thinking, we open into the body and make a lot of space for sensations and energies to come and whatever is there. Maybe the body and the mind get quiet for some time we begin to have access deeper, where the psychological meets the spiritual. We have access to another form of information where we know something. When we make this space for that information to arise, we find that it does.
I have the experience often when somebody is trying to make a decision, “Should I do this or should I do that?” We can get into pros and cons and write up a list and all of that. I will invite people to contemplate one of the options and stay with that. How does that feel in the body? Go deep with that, erase and then put the other option in. How does that feel in the body? 99% of the time right away, the answer comes. There’s a knowing in there that we have if we give the space for that to be shown.
What’s your experience about how long it takes to help somebody develop that ability to listen to their inner wisdom?
Some people have easier access to it than others so it’s hard to give you a time amount. Some people have a lot of layers on top of that. You mentioned the phrase inner wisdom, they have no idea what that is. They are used to going out in the world, trying to stay safe, keep functional and not paying any attention to other sources of information. It might take time to go through the layers and learn how to relate to those ways that we suffer. Eventually, there’s more space to be found. If people stick with it, they will find that.
I like the way you talk about that. Some people have so many more layers so it’s not a lack of ability or skill so much as it is. There might be this habit pattern of negative thinking that’s layered deeper and has more emotional intensity behind it so it might take me more time to practice to get through it. Essentially, what you are saying is everybody has that capacity.
When you’re stuck in your thinking, you’re missing what’s happening in your body.
That’s the case, everybody has that capacity because it’s our true nature. It’s who we are at the core beyond any of our ideas about ourselves. We all have the potential to have access to them.
I wonder if you could share with me how you work with somebody who has one of the more common difficulties that I see in people, which is low self-esteem. How do you use what we are talking about here so far to help somebody whose presenting an issue like that?
We are going through a pandemic and it’s a pandemic of low self-esteem and personal inadequacy. It’s common in our culture, unfortunately. It’s about unwinding. The way to begin to work with that is to unwind like, “What is happening in the present moment experience that’s making me say I’m worthless, or I have low self-esteem?” It’s with gray curiosity looking in like, “What are the thoughts that are coming? What are the beliefs that I learned in my childhood?” We don’t come into the world thinking we are worthless so we have to figure out, “How is it that I have come up with that belief about myself?”
This can be potentially a long process for people to grieve what they might not have gotten in their childhood, identify that and feel all the feelings that come with that and then ultimately begin to keep bringing themselves into the present moment. One of the phrases I say with people and I don’t mean this lightly at all is, “To lose interest in your thinking is not the easiest thing to do but if you keep working at it, you can realize, ‘My thinking is not helping me.’” The thinking in someone with low self-esteem is the inner critic, self-judgment, “There’s something wrong with me.” That thought pattern is people who have that no can be super harsh and hurtful.
To begin to recognize, “It’s optional to think that. It doesn’t define who I am. It’s a habit of thinking and it might have served in my childhood, got stuck in there and keeps going.” At some point, we go, “That’s old news.” When I look at my life now and my capabilities, there’s something more beginning to take shape. There’s something new that sprouting that’s bigger, more true and aligned with our life, passions, aliveness, what we want for ourselves and our relationships. We slowly begin to experiment trying on something new, some new way of being that’s not living according to that pattern of low self-esteem. That’s a short version. It’s a big process. I want to instill hope because it’s possible to feel better about yourself in your life.
For a lot of people, that might end up being a longer process if they have a long history of feeling these negative self-judgments and low self-esteem. What I’m hearing you say is if a person gets grounded in their breath and then begins to question all of these old beliefs that lead to the negative experience within themselves and negative emotions, then eventually it loosens its hold on them. They can get a perspective from, which they don’t necessarily have to believe or act from their negative thoughts. Is there another major portion of your book, The End of Self-Help, that would be a next step from there?
From there, we begin to untangle our attention from these beliefs. That was beautifully said, by the way, that we learned that there’s more space. Maybe we don’t have to live according to this mindset. Let’s take someone who’s steeped in that mindset. They are bringing the past into the present. They can’t be fully open to what’s possible, what’s here and what’s alive in the present moment because they are thinking about feeling bad about themselves and stuck in the thoughts of self-criticism. They are worried about what other people think of them. That’s the reality. I have been there. Many of us know exactly what that’s like.
When we are in that, it’s like tunnel vision. Our view and way of being in the reality of our lives in this-moment reality are limited because we are so stuck in that thinking. It’s layered onto the present. When that begins to release, there’s more space, openness and availability to the unknown. One of the things that come up with people is when they get right to the edge of being able to question these familiar mindsets, fear comes because their thinking is, “If I don’t have that, how am I supposed to be in the world?” We get to not know, be open, explore and be in something new.
You can think of it as going from doing, we are doing our lives according to our belief system, to being. When we are being, we let ourselves be moved and be led into whatever we do. An example of this is people often ask, “How do I find my passion in life?” My experience of that is you don’t have to find your passion. You have to have the willingness to explore these old patterns that are limiting what’s possible. What we are passionate about, what we love, what we can move to do, all of that has space to come. When we stop bringing the past into the present because of our loving, kind and accepting investigation of these patterns, we are poised and ready to be open to what life wants to offer us.
That’s how I live. It’s a free way of being and it’s based on deep listening. I see myself as a servant of life. Whatever messages I get, I have learned to trust that inner voice, that inner knowing. It doesn’t come from my mind like, “I don’t decide but it tells me, shows me and it sometimes comes strongly so I know exactly what to do.” With that surrender to that voice and the allowing of that, there’s a life that’s lived in service, aliveness and connection, which is what we all want. That’s what’s possible once we can begin to untangle these thought patterns that define us.
I get the idea of clearing the path and off the table before you start a new project. I’ve got to clear a way enough of that attachment to those old thoughts for this space to be there for that inner knowing to surface or for me to calm down that I can pay attention to that inner knowing. Some call it that still small voice. It’s like a whisper in the beginning. One of the things that helped me in looking at the question of, “How do I know if it’s my logical mind, my ego or this inner voice?” The answer I’ve got was when it’s the inner voice, I will always feel calm. If I have a fear, confusion or anger, it’s not my inner voice talking.
That’s beautiful to recognize that because this voice doesn’t come from fear, anger and resistance. It shows itself.
When you said we bring the past with us into the present, it reminded me of David Whyte, the Irish poet who has a saying about the past. “The thing about the past is it’s not the past,” which to me meant exactly what you are talking about. I bring it with me into this moment. If I’m remembering the past, I’m giving it its life now. It is that focus on those thoughts, memories and energies that are keeping me from being awake and aware of the moment.
That’s beautifully said that there is no past. It’s finished. There’s memory and emotional memory, and we could tell the story but we are doing that now. What we feel, we feel now and what we think and remember, we are doing that now. That’s great news because that says we can do something about it. We can learn a new relationship with these thoughts and feelings. We can disempower them by investigating, questioning and experimenting outside of what they tell us about ourselves. I find that exciting.
People don’t come into the world thinking they’re worthless.
It’s echoing in my head. One of his other quotes was, “Sometimes it takes the dark and the quiet of our aloneness to realize that anything that does not bring us fully alive is too small for us.”
That’s a scary thought for a lot of people. How do we live with that? When we stop limiting ourselves by our thought process, anything is possible. There’s also space for creativity, inspiration and excitement. Not necessarily that you do some gigantic thing that changes the world but to be in your relationships in a fresh way, be alive with your family, your friends, nature and whatever you are doing.
To get there, in that quote, he’s saying the same thing you are. I have to slow down, clear out the negative, and have the darkness and the quiet of my aloneness before I realize that. There is something in here that wants to give me more than I have been experiencing so far as I’m stuck in the loop of negative reactions from the past.
We have been overlooking that. I love the slowing down part because my experience is that’s necessary. Our culture moves fast and it’s also distracted. We are on phones and we have all kinds of media that attract our attention. It’s a bit counter-culture to slow down, not pick up the phone and decide you are going to have a day off of all media. These are radical things in our culture now. They are so nourishing and they give us the space to do this work if there’s work to be done or enjoy things as they are without being distracted by all that input.
The thing I like about your book and the premises in it is that you give people some sense of where to start with the tools. I have dealt with a lot of people and I have some friends that are frantically running from what’s inside them that they will not allow any downtime. They feel every waking minute and they get irritated if somebody cancels on them. They scrambled to put another activity in that place. If you’ve got a book like yours that helps people start to take a look at how to deal with what comes up when you have free time or if you choose to slow down, then it’s an empowering thing rather than a terrifying thing.
It’s important to acknowledge that it might be scary because it’s a bit into the unknown. “If I’m not going to pick up my phone, what am I going to do?” There might be boredom. We have a different relationship with boredom in our culture than we used to. We were afraid of it. It’s okay to be bored and it’s okay to not know what to do next.
It’s important to be able to be gentle with myself. If I’m afraid to slow down or I’m terrified at the thought of letting myself go down the path of this conversation, to be gentle with myself about that and to understand that at some level, in my experience in the past, that has been a valid response. I can go slow and explore it. I don’t have to dive in and say, “This is not a valid emotion.” I can go back to the beginning and say, “I can welcome the emotion and ask what information it has for me.” Being in my breath and gentle with myself through that process, I’m sure I will make more progress that way.
Everything is included with love, care and kindness. My life has changed as I have looked at everything from that perspective. The things we used to do when we are young, that we learned when we were young, that play out in our patterns, develop for a reason. In my upbringing, I learned to go away and close off. I could judge myself for that but I have learned to be so incredibly compassionate for that young part of myself that came up with that as an adaptive strategy in the situation that I was in. We all have that. I have come to have great compassion for those patterns that come up that we develop and get reinforced out of our childhoods.
We are doing our absolute best at the moment and they serve, and then eventually, we grow, develop and have new experiences. Those patterns aren’t serving anymore. They are old news. That’s when that spark comes to investigate like, “My life isn’t working for me now. It was working back then because we had an appropriate strategy. Now that strategy is limiting my growth. I want to blossom more and that’s a beautiful place to be because we get to then inquire into, “What is it that’s holding me back?” Also, be able to answer the call of that something bigger that wants to give birth in us.
You said a couple of times there are some statements to the effect of, “I’m doing the best that I can.” Another tool that’s helped take my work to the next level is to take this lens that says, “Everybody is doing the best they can in each moment with whatever resources they have.” The more I put that lens on when I’m looking at anybody else, eventually, one day I wake up and realize, “I was doing the best I could at that moment with my resources.” I do the best I can until I learn better, and then I do better. That age said, being gentle with myself.
That also helps in relationships. It’s a little bit more of an edge but when we connect compassion for other people and that person was doing the best they could do in that situation, it’s a stretch but it’s possible. It’s true also that they weren’t doing what was needed in the situation but they were doing the best that they can. That brings up this surrendering in a sense of compassion. It brings us into the acknowledgment of all that’s involved in the human condition. That’s where we all meet. We all have our challenges and we all have our joys.
Try something new that is not living according to the pattern of low self-esteem.
As I was saying that filter that I put on that everybody is doing the best they can, I have to use that with other people. I think about M Scott Peck who wrote a few books and one of them was the People of the Lie. He was trying to figure out how do everyday regular people end up doing truly evil things. The conclusion he drew and his observations proved it out over and over again is that only people who are running from their internal pain and fear ever heard anybody else, whether it’s intentionally or inadvertently.
If I open myself to use that filter even if somebody is doing something that’s overtly nasty, insulting or intentionally hurtful and I say, “They must be in an incredible amount of pain and they are doing the best they can at this moment,” I will still duck. I’m not going to willingly take one in the face. I don’t have to have raged in response. I can have compassion. If I do that enough for other people, I wake up one day and realize, “I don’t need to beat myself up either for this thing I did that was silly in the past, etc.”
Stop taking personally what other people do.
It’s never about you. Whatever comes out of somebody’s mouth is about them. I looked at that time and wanted to ask, is there something about your book, your work, some projects or classes you are offering that we haven’t even talked about yet?
I offer courses regularly. I’m finishing one up now. It’s about this intersection of spirituality, spiritual awakening and all that’s possible when we bring our attention into the present moment, and then looking at these condition patterns, early trauma and how they developed early in our lives. Mostly I do individuals and a lot in groups because I find that the group is so powerful to do these deep investigations. We create a safe space together for these deep inner inquiries into what’s happened to us and how we hold what’s happened to us. There’s this sense ultimately of liberation and we learn from each other. I do groups and individual sessions. I’m still writing. It’s all on my website.
Are you doing virtual things, online groups these days?
Yes, at this point, online. I have done live things in the past but everything is online at this point, which I love because we get to come together from all corners of the globe. There’s so much like-mindedness, like-heartedness and desire. People have used this pandemic situation well to find groups and come together. It has been beautiful to be a part of.
I have tons of content on there.
Do you sell the book through your website or is that mostly through Amazon?
I didn’t want to try that because I would have gotten 1 or 2 of those messy scary, brilliant things messed up but I love that.
It’s supposed to portray this humaneness. Human life is messy and we can find peace and happiness, even including all the messiness.
I greatly appreciate your taking the time and sharing this with us. I hope people take you up on the offer to go to GailBrenner.com, check out your offerings and read your book.
Thank you so much.
Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.
Gail brings to her work years of experience with individuals and groups and is known for creating the safe space needed for inner exploration. Gail has special expertise in working with older adults and their families in the transitions of aging, death and dying. She has also the offer of Suffering Is Optional: A Spiritual Guide to Freedom from Self-Judgment and Feelings of Inadequacy. For more, please visit GailBrenner.com.
- The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life
- Suffering Is Optional: A Spiritual Guide to Freedom from Self-Judgment and Feelings of Inadequacy
- Sylvia Boorstein
- People of the Lie
- Amazon – The End of Self-Help
About Dr. Gail Brenner
Gail Brenner, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker with a passion for conscious living. She is an expert in healing from early trauma.
She brings to her work years of experience with individuals and groups and is known for creating the safe space needed for inner exploration. Gail has special expertise working with older adults and their families in the transitions of aging, death, and dying.
She is the author of the award-winning The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life and Suffering Is Optional: A Spiritual Guide to Freedom from Self-Judgment and Feelings of Inadequacy. For more, please visit GailBrenner.com.
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