Grow a Key Inner Strength

Grow a Key Inner Strength

What do you need?

The Practice:
Grow a key inner strength.

Why?

We all have issues – including demands upon us, stresses, illnesses, losses, vulnerabilities, and pain. (As Alan Watts put it: “Life is wiggly.”) Of course, many of our issues – in the broad sense I’m using the word here – are related to important sources of fulfillment, such as starting a business or raising a family; still, there’s some kind of challenge.

This JOT offers a basic road map for how to deal with issues – for healing, well-being and effectiveness, and personal growth. It’s a little longer than usual, but the approach here has helped me a lot – and I bet it will help you, too.

Some issues are out there in the world, such as financial concerns, an aging parent with dementia, a baby with colic, a tough quarter at work (or in college), a combative neighbor, or conflicts in an intimate relationship.

Some issues are in the body, such as an illness, injury, or vulnerability to dysregulated hormones.

And some issues are in the mind, like anxiety, depressed mood, low self-worth, trauma, lingering pain from childhood, learning disability, fear of public speaking, or grief over a loss.

Of course, an issue could be a combo (oh joy), such as feeling angry about being treated unfairly at work.

To deal with issues, we need resources. A fundamental model in psychology and medicine says that a person’s course – over a day or a year or a lifetime – is determined by just two factors: issues (challenges and vulnerabilities) and resources. As issues increase, so must resources as well.

How?

Resources can be found out in the world, in your body, and in your mind. The location of the resource does not need to be linked to the location of the issue. For example, better health insurance (resource in the world) could help with a chronic illness (issue in the body), and more self-confidence (resource in the mind) could help with the need to assert yourself at work (issue in the world).

I’m going to focus here on resources in your mind: what I call inner strengths. These include capabilities (e.g., mindfulness, emotional intelligence, resilience), positive emotions (e.g., gratitude, love, self-compassion), attitudes (e.g., openness, confidence, determination), somatic inclinations (e.g., relaxation, grit, helpfulness), and virtues (e.g., generosity, courage, wisdom). This is the good stuff we want to have inside ourselves.

Sure, it’s also good to do what you can to increase the resources out in your world (like nurturing a friendship with someone at work) and in your body (such as getting more exercise). But it’s often slow and difficult to build resources in the world and the body; you likely have more influence over growing resources in your mind. And as the resources in your mind grow, that will help you build resources in your body and your world.

To grow your inner strengths – particularly the key inner strengths that will help the most with an issue – consider the four questions below. You can use them for yourself or explore them with others. Throughout, it’s good to have an attitude of curiosity, kindness toward oneself, and resourcefulness.

1. What’s the issue?

Pick an issue. (Maybe you’re the rare person with just one.) Try to be reasonably specific. “Life sucks” could feel unfortunately true, but it doesn’t help you focus on resources or solutions.

If the issue is located in your world or body, be mindful of how it affects you psychologically. Sometimes we just can’t do anything about a condition in the world or body, but at least we can do something about our reactions to it.

2. What psychological resource – inner strength – if it were more present in your mind, would really help with this issue?

This is the key question. It can be interestingly difficult to answer, so an initial confusion or struggle with it is common. Clues toward an answer could come from exploring these questions:

  • What – if you felt or thought it more – would make things better?
  • What – if you had felt it more as a child, or whenever the issue began – would have made a big difference?
  • Does the issue ever get better for you – and if so, what factors in your mind (e.g., perspectives, feelings, motivations) help it be better?
  • Deep down, related to this issue, what does your heart long for?

There could be more than one resource, of course, but for simplicity and focus, it does help to zero in on just one or two key resources at a time.

Sometimes we need to grow an intermediate resource (e.g., capacity to tolerate feeling rejected, so that we are willing to risk experiencing that feeling) in order to get at the key resource we need to develop inside (e.g., inclination to ask for love).

3. How could you have experiences of this inner strength?

In other words, how could you activate it in your mind so that you can install it in your brain? This is the first step – Have – of the HEAL process. You can learn more about it in my book, Resilient, or in this video on Taking in the Good.

It could be that the resource is already present and you just need to notice it (e.g., the feeling that the body is basically alright right now). But often, you need to deliberately create it (e.g., call up a sense of determination from the emotional/somatic memory of times you pushed through a difficulty).

4. How could you help this experience of the inner strength really sink in to you?

In other words, how could you enhance the installation, the neural encoding, of this experience to grow this resource inside yourself?

This involves the second and third steps of the HEAL process: Enrich and Absorb.

If you like, you can be aware of both the resource (e.g., feeling determined) and one or more psychological aspects of the issue (e.g., feeling helpless) so that the resource starts associating with and helping with these aspects of the issue. This is the fourth, optional step of the HEAL process: Keep the sense of the issue small and off to the side of awareness while your experience of the resource is “big” and rich in the foreground of awareness.

* * *

Whew. This probably seems like a lot. But in practice it’s simple and straightforward. To use a metaphor, if you have scurvy, what would really help would be some vitamin C. What’s your vitamin C these days?

When you know what your vitamin C is, daily life becomes full of opportunities to notice or create experiences of this inner strength, this key psychological resource. And then you can take it into yourself, making it a part of you that’s with you wherever you go.

If this key resource is not yet clear for you, you can always look for authentic chances to feel cared about (such as included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved). Love, broadly defined, is the ultimate multivitamin!



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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