When we share our anxiety with friends we’re not actually asking for solutions, we’re simply needing to be seen, heard, and not judged. If someone you love needs your support around their anxiety, be conscious and intentional about providing them just that — support. Not solutions, not a pep talk, not reasons to NOT feel anxious, just be a loving witness.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mollie Birney.
Mollie Birney is a Clinical Coach in private practice in Los Angeles providing life coaching with an eye towards mental health to high functioning professionals. She has a wide array of clinical experience as a Therapist in inpatient, residential and outpatient treatment programs, as a Consultant and Interventionist for families in crisis, and as a Private Coach for high-performing individuals seeking efficient, authentic transitions and behavioral change. She holds a master’s in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University with a specialization in Addiction Studies, and based on her own recovery has a personal soft spot for working with disordered eating, chronic dieting and other self-destructive patterns around food.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve always been drawn towards a certain kind of raw truth-telling and personal growth.I grew up going to 12 step meetings with my mom like most kids go to church, and I was pretty precocious so the language really stuck with me. At 10 years old I’d be discussing my character defects with her while she was tucking me in at night. I was always intense about self-examination. Flash forward 12 years and there I was battling an ass-kicking eating disorder that absolutely brought me to my knees. I’d known enough to avoid drugs given my genetic predisposition, but no one had warned me about my susceptibility to donuts, or the horror of diet culture.
When I finally sought treatment for bulimia I was once again immersed in that familiar language of recovery, complex trauma, and existential grief. It felt like a warm bath. Don’t get me wrong, my process wasn’t even close to graceful — I was a disaster in early recovery! But treatment showed me that there was a professional portal to the kinds of conversations I was hungry for.
A year or so later I was finishing my Masters in Choral Conducting (of all things) and had accepted a year-long teaching internship at Exeter, a boarding school in New Hampshire. Faculty were required to be on dorm duty a few nights a week when students could come to see us for help with homework and talk about whatever was going on for them. Somehow, all the students with eating disorders, anxiety, and relationship issues found me, and I realized I actually had something helpful to say about it! Within my first few weeks there I knew I was in the wrong profession. I knocked out my masters in Clinical Psych almost immediately after and spent a few years as a therapist, but pivoted to coaching because it has room for a more playful, directive, irreverent conversation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early on in my coaching career, I got some feedback in supervision from my mentor, Breck Costin, that totally transformed my coaching.
A concept I often use in my work is this idea of whether we have qualities and characteristics, or whether they have us. For example, someone may claim she’s loyal. But does she have loyalty? Or does loyalty have HER? If she HAS to be seen as loyal, she’ll stay in an unhealthy relationship for too long, or let her business partner take advantage of her even when others tell her to leave. She doesn’t have the freedom to be disloyal even when the circumstances call for it. For that person, we’d say she doesn’t have loyalty, loyalty has HER. We want her to have the freedom to be loyal AND disloyal when it’s appropriate.
Well, that day, Breck suggested that intelligence had ME. Meaning I needed to take a close look at my need for others to know I was smart. Maybe I was overcompensating for the California blonde stereotype, or some pathology my dad’s misogyny had kicked up, but hearing this sunk my battleship. I was a coach! I had an advanced degree! I was supposed to have answers! My coach asked gently “Mollie, do you want to be a smart coach, or do you want to be an effective coach?” I was totally nailed to the wall, and I hesitated with my answer. I would rather be effective.
Two days later the client who would teach me this lesson landed in my lap. She had a desperate need for reassurance, and would lob me these total softball questions that I had perfect answers for, and damned if they weren’t articulate and data-driven! I felt like a rockstar until it dawned on me that answers were not what she needed. Everyone in her life was giving her answers. What she needed was someone to sit with her in the not-knowing. She needed coaching on working with the anxiety of her ambivalence. Whatever knowledge-bombs I thought I was dropping on her were useless. What kind of coach did I want to be?
From then on I had to practice answering most of her questions with “I don’t know.” It totally spiked my own anxiety, worried she’d think me a fraud or worse, an idiot. But I knew if my need to be seen as intelligent was more important than her need for effective coaching, I really was a fraud. An effective coach isn’t worried about defending their identity, so they get full access to creativity, provocation playfulness and risk-taking in their coaching. It was a great reminder that part of growing as a coach meant doing my own internal work.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Across the board, whether it’s work culture, family culture, political culture, etc, my advice is to lead with your humanity. That means more than just acknowledging your mistakes and being able to take feedback, that’s about having room for the parts of ourselves that we try to dismiss — our anxiety, our laziness, our shame (just to name a few).
As a leader, if you’re not doing your own work to integrate and own your humanity, you’re setting up an environment in which your colleagues have to deny theirs as well. That looks like someone needing to come up with a good excuse for missing a deadline, rather than an honest “I just didn’t prioritize my time last night, I’ll tackle that today” or not requesting a necessary mental health day because they feel they “should” be able to suck it up and handle it. Just like a family system, culture is created from the top down, so as a leader, your own honesty, mental health, and compassionate self-care is naturally going to irrigate the culture of your company.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I read Alan Watt’s book Out of your Mind during a period where I was grappling with deepening my meditation practice, and the challenge of being less in my head and more in my heart (a concept that sounded so saccharine and cheesy to me that even saying it aloud still kinda makes my teeth hurt). I was generally on board with the idea that I was too identified with my own linear brain, but I was a little resistant. After all, my cynicism was a sign of intelligence, right? and if I wasn’t my consciousness, what was I?
Watts was a Zen Buddhist philosopher with a wicked sense of humor, and over the course of the book, he used a heavily academic tone to enroll me in an extremely cerebral argument that made a maddeningly convincing case for humans being more than just our consciousness! And not only were we not just our consciousness, but we are also the whole organism of the universe in concert with itself. “WHAT?!” I kept thinking? “How am I falling for this hippie garbage!?” But I was hooked. Somehow he’d used my own damn brain against me, walked me willingly down the gangplank of my own arrogance only to find myself in my heart, hurtling into the waves of Oneness, Love and Interconnectivity. I was appalled and embarrassed and totally curious!
What I loved most about it is that as hard as I tried, I could never reproduce his argument — there’s no summarizing Watts. But it didn’t matter, it had done its job. Much to my brain’s chagrin, I’d felt what it was like to be in my heart.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness is just the experience of being observant. No, even simpler than that, it’s the experience of being awake. It’s not analytical, it’s not judgmental, it’s not even thoughtful. It’s simply being present to every event in the scope of our awareness, large or small.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Over time, cultivating mindfulness has a whole host of benefits! We get to have more agency over our emotional reactivity because we have developed the muscle of being aware of our subtle impulses. We have a much more nuanced appreciation of our emotional spectrum because we’re practiced witnesses to each part of it, not just the big emotional events like glee, anxiety or anger. We get to develop an entirely new relationship with our bodies through the process of observing our nervous system, and the physical sensations that get kicked up in reaction to thoughts and emotional states. This inevitably leads to being more conscious of what food we feed ourselves, and how we feel based on the fuel we choose (one of the reasons that mindfulness is such an excellent tool for those healing their relationship with food). The greatest benefit to becoming more mindful is that we develop more compassion for humanity — ours and other people’s.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
In order to begin to cultivating serenity and mindfulness, we first have to settle our nervous system. When we get hijacked by fear and anxiety our pre-frontal cortex shuts down, and the amygdala — our reactive, reptilian brain takes over. We lose connection with our executive functioning — our reason, our perspective, our humor. When we’re really amped, before we can engage in a mindfulness practice we have to have skills for addressing the hostage situation first! (With clients, I’ll often say “we want to make sure we have our anxiety, rather than our anxiety has us.”)
- Beginners should start with diaphragmatic breathing. This is the kind of slow, deep breath where you allow your belly and rib cage to expand. You shouldn’t feel chest move much at all, that’s clavicular breathing (that’s how we breathe when we’re playing tennis or running from danger, and it activates our amygdala — not what we want). Diaphragmatic breathing is the most basic form of meditation where the breath is the object of mindfulness. It’s deeply soothing to the nervous system, it invites us to settle back into our bodies and allows our pre-frontal cortex to come back online. Try adding a count for each inhale and each exhale. It will sound like this: “inhale one, exhale two, inhale three, exhale four, inhale five, exhale four, inhale three, exhale two, inhale one” and continue on. Practice that for several rounds. Yes, you’ll lose count of the breath at some point and may slip back into anxiety (anxiety is magnetic that way). That’s part of the process, so expect it to happen. Just start counting from one again.
- Another technique for settling the nervous system is sensory grounding. This a distress tolerance skill right out of the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy handbook, and it’s as straightforward as it sounds. When we notice ourselves beginning to spin out with anxiety we can pause, close our eyes and draw our attention to the sensory information available to us. Start with labeling every single sound that your ears are picking up. Traffic. Wind. Heartbeat. Neighbor’s air conditioner. There are likely more than you think. Listen carefully. When you’ve found all the sounds, switch to physical sensation, labeling all the information your skin is gathering for you. The chair against your back. The ground supporting your feet. The air on your skin. The weight and texture of you shirt on your shoulders. Check in with your body and notice how it’s reacting to this process.
- Mindful movement is another great portal into developing a mindfulness practice. You can use any kind of movement — yoga, slow walking, dance, stretching etc. This isn’t exercise though, if you’re thinking of this as an opportunity for burning calories then your anxiety is running the show, go back to the breathing or sensory grounding! The practice of mindful movement is about using gentle and intentional motion as the object of mindfulness, allowing your attention to settle on the subtle sensations of movement. If you’re walking, tune into the pressure of the ground against your feet, or the way your weight rolls from the heel of your foot to the toes with each step. Notice how your breathing shifts depending on your pace of movement. If you’re stretching, begin to play with the intensity of the stretch, and notice how such subtle movement generates so much sensation. The whole practice of yoga is designed for exactly this purpose, so a yoga class is a great place to start if you want more instruction (ideally one that isn’t just about sweating or a great playlist). The process of dropping into our bodies re-focuses the nervous system, quiets anxiety, and over time, allows us to cultivate a different relationship with our bodies. The advanced step to this practice is beginning to label the sensations that come up in your body as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
- A meditation practice is the meat and potatoes to developing mindfulness. The basic instruction is to sit in a comfortable position, observe your normal breath, and when you notice yourself thinking, come back to the breath. Simple, but not easy. I want to clear up a misconception though: meditation isn’t just about not thinking, or transcending, or doing such a good job that you ultimately levitate. It’s actually about changing our relationship to our thoughts and ultimately ourselves. There are lots of great meditation teachers out there so I’ll leave the subtleties of deepening the practice to them. But I want to speak to our resistance because at this point we can all riff on why meditation is good for us, yet most of us can’t bring ourselves to stick with it. The most common reason people give for not meditating that it didn’t work, it’s too hard — “I can’t stop my anxious thoughts.” Well, what if the point of the practice wasn’t about stopping thoughts at all? What if it was simply witnessing them, and choosing not to follow them down the rabbit hole? What if it included the likelihood that you often would follow them? What if not following them was less important than being kind to yourself when you noticed you did? The hoop we have to jump through is larger than we think. Yes, the gist of meditation is to disengage from our thoughts, but the real juice of the practice is having unreserved compassion for ourselves when we can’t, and practicing anyway — that’s the skill that grants us serenity in the long-run. Getting hooked by our thoughts isn’t a moral issue, it’s a neuroplasticity issue, but our best response is to beat ourselves up and call that “discipline” or quit and call that self-love. We think being hard on ourselves will help us learn our lesson. We think letting ourselves off the hook will bring relief. Well, if either strategy was effective we’d be suffering less by now. With this practice, compassion is discipline.
- For really depending on a mindfulness practice I like using Tara Brach’s RAIN technique, which stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. We can use this technique when we’re agitated, or when we are in mediation and begin to notice difficult emotional material arising. First, we Recognize the feeling, that’s simply identifying what’s there. “Oh, it seems like there’s loneliness here.” No judgment to it. Allowing the feeling means we’re not trying to change it, re-direct it, manipulate it or avoid it, instead we actually create more room for the feeling, which may be counter-intuitive to our usual approach of trying to escape difficult feelings. The narrative of Allow might sound like “Okay loneliness, welcome, put your feet up” or even simpler, “this belongs.” Investigate the feeling means to approach it with curiosity, interest and care like you would an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. Get curious about where we feel it in our bodies, what the sensation is like, whether it’s moving or stuck, and what color or temperature it is. This isn’t an intellectual process, in this case, we’re not trying to understand our loneliness, we’re simply looking to notice its qualities. Finally, we nurture. We try and sense what the emotion, or the wounded part of ourselves, needs most at the moment, and offer it a gesture of kindness. Does it need reassurance? Love? Forgiveness? You might try putting your hand over your heart, or wherever you sense the feeling in your body to focus the practice. If offering yourself love feels difficult call upon a loved one, spiritual figure or friend and imagine their love and wisdom present with you. When we feel the practice is complete, we get to notice the quality of our own presence in that wakeful, tender space of awareness. What I like most about RAIN is that it puts us in a relationship with our emotional states rather than trying to escape them, and it’s that relationship that paves the way to greater acceptance of ourselves, and deeper serenity.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Model what it looks like when you have your anxiety, rather than your anxiety having you.When it comes to mental health, freedom looks like embracing the noise in our heads without shame and working with it rather than against it. You can support those around you by being transparent about your own process with anxiety. It’s an act of courage to say “I’m sorry, I totally checked out of the conversation, I’m so in my head about the job I’m having trouble even focusing. Can you go back a sentence?” The single most effective way to normalize the experience of anxiety for others is by bravely owning our own struggle in real-time, without shame.
- When we share our anxiety with friends we’re not actually asking for solutions, we’re simply needing to be seen, heard, and not judged. If someone you love needs your support around their anxiety, be conscious and intentional about providing them just that — support. Not solutions, not a pep talk, not reasons to NOT feel anxious, just be a loving witness. Validate their fears (they’re probably not dissimilar from your own). “I hear you, honey, I know this is so damn hard” and things in that vein are perfect.
- Invite friends to practice basic mindfulness skills with you, especially at the moment if they’re spun out. It doesn’t have to be formal or ritualized, in fact, a more casual approach can make it more accessible and less daunting. “Hey, try this breathing exercise for 3 minutes with me. I’ll show you the counting pattern, it’s super simple.”
- Help each other practice breaking anxious patterns. Anxiety is our brain’s attempt to gain control over something which we fundamentally can’t control. It often manifests as rumination, which is a little addictive because it can FEEL as though it’s productive even though it’s just spinning our wheels. Usually, we don’t even realize we’re in it. Make an agreement with friends to gently point out when you notice each other ruminating on a particular topic. Mutual support and accountability like this helps develop an awareness of the habit and restores our ability to choose to disengage from it, not to mention it can really deepen a friendship.
- Keep a sense of humor — just because anxiety feels significant doesn’t mean it’s always sacred. Our allegiance to rumination, despite it never once having brought us relief, is kind of bananas, and sometimes a little levity is a right medicine. More importantly, compassionate humor towards ourselves is infectious and helps show others that they have permission to take their anxiety less seriously sometimes. With friends who are in on the joke, we can intervene playfully with things like “just do one more half-hour of worrying! The virus is almost cured, you’re so close!” It can transform the way you and your circle of friends relate to your anxiety.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
For those new to the world of mindfulness, I recommend any book or lecture by Pema Chodron — her style is extremely accessible, and she has an intimate, nuanced understanding of human suffering that I really needed early on in my practice.I mentioned Tara Brach earlier, she’s a wonderful meditation teacher and psychologist who speaks a lot on distress tolerance skills, she has a podcast and workbooks. I’m a big fan of the Ram Dass Podcast, it’s full of his lectures and interviews and he’s really helpful for the reminder that the most heroic thing isn’t transcendence, but finding equanimity within the human curriculum. In terms of resources that aren’t meditation-oriented, I think author Elizabeth Gilbert and comedian Pete Holmes both address this material in their work really thoughtfully, and are amazing role models for talking the talk and walking the walk.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I don’t know if it’s an actual quote, or a well-known adage, but a meditation teacher of mine once told me “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I remember feeling insulted. Hah! Oh, I was so misunderstood! Didn’t he know that my suffering was real and unavoidable?? It took me years of chewing on that to realize that that’s only offensive to someone for whom suffering is part of their identity. That’s really what that quote helped me unlock — the unconscious part of myself that was really sucking the marrow out of suffering, the part that was actually a little addicted to the drama of it. The first time it fell into place for me I was in a really rigorous yoga class. I was tired, cranky, and egoically determined to follow every instruction given, but was very much feeling like a victim of my circumstances. I’d had enough meditation practice to be able to catch my own cyclical patterns sometimes, and at one point, in what I had deemed an abusively long, painful utkatasana in which I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I had the grace to ask myself if there was any way I could suffer less in the pose. I was stunned to discover that yes, I could. Instantly I moved into curiosity of my own experience, and the suffering diminished. I scanned my body, only to find that the pose hadn’t relaxed at all — not even subtly — all my muscles were still engaged at the same intensity as when I’d been suffering, the stress and tension and burn was still there, but the suffering just…wasn’t. I spent the rest of the class congratulating myself on that accomplishment (I’m a very slow spiritual learner, as you might have noticed) and that opened the door for me to start to explore this idea in relation to emotional suffering on a deeper level.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Technology-free days. One day a week, hell, even just one night a week being screen-free changes the landscape of how we relate to each other, and frankly ourselves. Without the constant dopamine hits of texting and inundating news and reassurance that our carefully curated social media identities are successfully promoting likable versions of ourselves, we’re forced to be more creative. With a long, dull, screen-free night ahead of us, we’re going to have to get inventive. With all that time, we might as well cook a nice meal for ourselves. We might be forced to take a walk in the neighborhood, pick up the guitar we gave up on, or play with our kids. We’re going to have to find a hobby. We’re going to have to play Boggle! Screens have allowed us to just bypass boredom, but in doing so we lose the skill of relating to our own thoughts, of allowing ourselves to get creative and lose track of time, and of being present. That would probably be my movement.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My website is www.molliebirney.com, I’ll have a blog up there shortly, you can follow me on instagram at @mbclinicalcoaching, and I sporadically post articles to medium.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!