When you hold space and allow someone to process their thoughts and feelings without getting involved, you are giving them a safe place to have an experience without worrying about you because you are taking care of yourself. This is a huge gift.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Brooke Nicole Smith.
Brooke Nicole Smith, PhD is a former cognitive psychology researcher on a mission to help high-achieving women stop emotional eating, stop punishing themselves, and stop fighting their bodies so they are free to focus on the impact they long to create in the world… and actually enjoy their success. When she isn’t helping women reconnect with their bodies, you can find her at home in Rochester, NY — seated on the kitchen floor, solving a Rubiks cube while her husband makes curry tempeh tacos.
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?
Istruggled with bulimia, emotional eating, and yo-yo dieting for two decades. Through this whole time I was a classic overachiever: got a PhD, managed a multi-million dollar portfolio of technology development projects at the US Department of Defense, transitioned to industry and racked up more high-value impressive-on-paper successes in operations, program management, and sales. I loved the intellectual stimulation and took pride in being a star… but none of my achievements mattered because I hated my body.
For most of my adult life I passed as “healthy” — green smoothies, an elaborate exercise regime, and secret emotional eating when no one was watching. But my body felt like a foreign object I was toting around all day. Yoga was the only time it ever felt like mine. On a whim, I signed up for yoga teacher training.
In 2017, I relapsed and before I knew it I was binging and purging again. I knew I needed help so I searched out a therapist. Five “getting to know you” interviews later, I determined that therapy was not for me.
I threw myself into yoga and mindfulness — teaching several classes per week at local gyms. I took an intuitive eating course online. I followed the anti-diet and body positivity influencers on Instagram. I listened to life coaching podcasts. I fell in love with trail running again. I created my own winding path to recovery.
By the time I started my business, it felt like an obvious choice: direct all my knowledge and experience toward helping high-achieving women break free from the self-destructive obsession of trying to change their bodies so they can intentionally create a life they love.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I used to romanticize the idea of being a healer… while feeling trapped by my natural aptitude for math. Like I had some cosmic obligation to conquer a technical, male-dominated industry, and if I failed or walked away it would be a betrayal to all of womankind.
Then 6 months into my yoga-teaching side-hustle, this happened:
I raced across the city to get to my evening yoga class, changed into my leggings, and then took a deep breath and walked into the yoga room. I can’t really call it a studio — it overlooked the basketball court and you could hear the thump-thump-thump of balls hitting the wall at just-irregular-enough-to-be-maddening intervals.
I sat down in front of the class on a yoga block and asked my humans how they were all doing today. How are you feeling? Anything in particular that needs attention?
One said her neck was sore, it had been bothering her for days.
I guided the group through their yoga practice.
After class, as everyone rolled up their mats and stacked their props by the door, I asked her how she was feeling.
She gave me a hug, then took a step back and showed me the full range of motion in her neck.
This is the part I’ll never forget. She took my hand, looked directly into my eyes, and said “Brooke, you are a healer”.
In that moment, I became a healer.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I could go on for hours about trust and integrity and relationships… but I don’t have any concrete advice that you wouldn’t find in a management or organizational leadership journal.
I adore Steven Kerr’s classic “On the folly of hoping for A, while rewarding B” because gave me a context within which to understand so many organizational and management issues.
Kerr discusses examples of organizations not getting the results they seek because they are rewarding the opposite behavior: hoping for performance but rewarding attendance, hoping for long-term growth but rewarding quarterly numbers, hoping for honesty but rewarding good news.
The deeper problem this creates is that it undermines the organization’s integrity. When a leader’s rewards don’t match their hopes, their actions don’t match their words. Any time an organization is hoping for A while rewarding B, it’s because a decision maker is not walking their talk.
So, if I were to give one piece of advice for leaders, it’s “walk your talk”. Snacks and casual Fridays don’t go far when people have lost trust in the leader.
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?
The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
This book came into my life exactly when I needed it. I heard Sonya Renee Taylor on a podcast interview a few months before the book came out, and at the time I was trying to make sense of the idea of trusting my body. What would happen if I stopped trying to control my body and instead loved it?
This book is beautifully written — I’ve read it twice, which is unusual for me.
The first time I read The Body is Not an Apology, I realized that my desire to change my body was totally normal, and also totally optional. I’d been exposed to messages my whole life telling me my body was too big, too short, too sexy, too muscular — but these messages aren’t me, and they aren’t true.
The magical thing about this book is that I felt compelled to release these toxic beliefs because allowing them to persist wasn’t just harmful to me, it was was hurting other people who’d been exposed to the same messaging and was carrying around their own version of these beliefs.
If it was just for me, I might not have done it. I might have clung to all those ideas about the existence of a perfect body and the possibility that I might someday attain one. But Sonya Renee Taylor situates self-love as more than a self-indulgence — it’s a social responsibility. And, in the context of supporting a movement, I was able to see those beliefs for the oppressive falsehoods that they are.
Beyond my own personal healing, this book opened my eyes to how body ideals, judgement, and shaming are part of a system of oppression. It was the catalyst that moved me from thinking only about my own healing, to thinking about empowering women to let go of external expectations about our bodies because once we let go of that we can accomplish so much.
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?
The human brain has two distinct “circuits” or ways of operating — narrative experience and direct experience. Humans spend most of our time in the narrative experience planning, daydreaming, remembering, and thinking with words (i.e. thinking about something). The direct experience is purely sensory. The state of being mindful is essentially the direct experience. Focus can be on a sensation like the breath, or a singular task like walking or washing dishes.
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?
The physical, mental, and emotional benefits are all interrelated. Physically, practicing mindfulness activates the direct experience circuitry in the brain. When we practice using the direct experience circuit, it becomes a state that we can consciously select when we want to. When you feel your mind racing, you have trouble focusing, or you’re starting to panic, you can call upon whatever method you use to practice mindfulness. For example, in that moment you could start a body scan meditation, bring your attention to your breath, or begin a grounding exercise by noticing five things you can see. The more you practice getting into a direct experience, the more readily it’s available to you when you need it.
Mentally, mindfulness trains the awareness of the thoughts — noticing thoughts without becoming the thoughts or running off with them. When you can notice thoughts without immediately jumping into them, you have more space to make conscious choices instead of automatically reacting. By becoming mindful, you learn to naturally take a pause before speaking with a subcontractor who just told you they won’t make a due date or buying a pair of shoes because they’re on sale.
Mindfulness also improves focus, because you become less tempted to run off with every thought and distraction. Improved focus flows through to improved productivity or efficiency.
Emotionally, one of the biggest benefits of becoming mindful is learning that uncomfortable emotions are survivable. Mindfulness enables you to allow the emotion by feeling it in a direct experience. In other words, tuning into the physical sensations associated with the emotion and just noticing them. No judgement, rationalization, or story around it. Just experiencing them. This is one of those things that if you try it for the first time when you’re having a meltdown, it’s going to be hard. But the more you practice, the more available it is when you need it. My personal experience, and that of my clients, is that emotions are way less scary once you learn to feel them instead of avoiding, suppressing, or acting out.
Every day, humans make decisions unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable emotions: saying “yes” to something you don’t want to do to avoid feeling guilty, eating something you don’t really want to avoid feeling overwhelmed, silencing your voice to avoid criticism and the feeling of rejection. When you know you can feel uncomfortable feelings, and you cultivate awareness of the thoughts that are leading you to these decisions — all the decisions can be reevaluated. You can say “no” to what doesn’t excite you, do the scary thing instead of digging into the back corners of the fridge, and speak up freely with confidence that you can handle the feedback. This is truly life-changing.
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.
1. Get into your body. Start with a solitary physical activity that you enjoy and do it with no distractions. Running, walking, hiking, yoga, strength training, stretching, whatever you want. It really doesn’t matter, it doesn’t even need to have a name. The key here is no distractions, ideally not even music. Notice your feet, notice your breath, notice your spine, your ribs, your shoulders, your hands… you get the idea. Whenever your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your body. Continue for as long as you want — aim for at least a few minutes.
2. Guided meditation. I recommend either a body scan or a breath meditation, choose one with simple cues. A guided meditation with rich visualization will help you relax, but it won’t train mindfulness in the same way because the language of the visualization will interest the narrative circuitry of your brain. A body scan or breath meditation will help to be present in the direct experience of your body or breath. This is where you train mindfulness. You can start with just 3 minutes to overcome any “I don’t have time” or “I can’t sit still” objections. I recommend working up to 10 minutes, and you can always go longer.
3. Unguided meditation. This will be the same thing as a guided meditation, but without a guide. Sit in a neutral position — you might want to sit in a chair or on a cushion such that your hips are higher than your knees. Find the position of minimal effort and minimal sensation, such as sitting up straight with your hands resting on your legs. Close your eyes. Notice your sit bones. Notice your back. Notice your hands. Bring your awareness to your breath. Other thoughts drift in and that’s normal, just gently bring your awareness back to your breath. The goal isn’t a complete absence of thought. You’re just practicing not running away with the thoughts. You can sit here for “as long as you feel like it” or set a timer. As with the guided meditation, start with as little as 3 minutes, working up to 10 minutes or more.
4. Practice mindfulness in daily activities. Focusing on the direct experience of the activity in the present moment. For example, many of my clients struggle with overeating — but before she intentionally practices mindful eating (a specific area of stress and anxiety), she’ll practice mindfulness in more neutral situations by focusing on the sensory experience of the task: brushing her teeth, loading the dishwasher, walking around. Any time you are focused on just one thing, you’re practicing mindfulness.
5. A la carte awareness practice. You spend most of your day in a narrative experience, brain making up stories in an attempt to create meaning, to make sense of things. This is totally normal. It only takes a moment to practice noticing these stories, and you can do it whenever you find your meaning-making brain is particularly active. Pause. Breathe. Notice the thoughts without jumping into them, judging them, or otherwise freaking out. It’s likely that you cause yourself a fair amount of angst by making up stories about our stories about our stories (e.g. friend’s text message didn’t have any emojis, she’s probably angry at me, I must have done something wrong, I’m a terrible friend and a terrible person). If you practice noticing the story without running away with it, you can see it for what it is — just a story.
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?
1. Grounding exercises. If the person is experiencing acute anxiety or panic (and is NOT in any physical danger), coach them through a grounding exercise. My favorite is 5–4–3–2–1. Notice and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Grounding exercises like this work by activating the direct experience circuitry in the brain, which interrupts the future-focused narrative that feeds anxiety.
2. Hold space. Invite someone to share their thoughts and feelings, without offering your opinion or giving advice. This skill is under-appreciated, because as the person holding space, there is great temptation to jump into someone else’s experience and comfort them or commiserate with them. The unintended consequence is that the person you are trying to comfort may end up feeling like they have to manage your feelings. When you hold space, and allow someone to process their thoughts and feelings without getting involved, you are giving them a safe place to have an experience without worrying about you because you are taking care of yourself. This is a huge gift.
3. Validate and empathize. Empathize with any or all of the person’s share. Tell them how and why you related to it. Assure them that everything they are feeling is valid. They are not crazy. They are having a totally understandable reaction to an extreme and uncommon situation.
4. Be with them. If you can’t be in close physical proximity, get on a video chat just so they know you are there. Suggest an activity you can do “together”. For example, reading the same book and talking about it daily or weekly.
5. Educate. If, and only if, the person wants suggestions, direct them to resources on mindfulness, breathing exercises, and grounding exercises for anxiety.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I love the free Insight Timer app. It includes thousands of guided meditations as well as a timer for unguided meditation. The guided meditations are searchable so you can find exactly what you need, such as meditation for sleep or anxiety, or a simple breath meditation. Personally, I use the timer feature every day for my morning meditation, and I often listen to a guided meditation or yoga nidra in the evening.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Shit Happens: But you don’t have to step in it!” (Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy)
This is a modern expression of the Buddhist parable of two arrows. Getting shot by an arrow is an unpleasant circumstance beyond your control. However, once wounded, you get to decide if you want to inflict more suffering by wishing it didn’t happen, lamenting your circumstances, getting angry, placing blame, beating yourself up, and so on. This reaction that piles on additional suffering is the second arrow. And it’s totally optional. You can choose to not shoot the second arrow into yourself.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I think about some variation of this every day.
A few years ago, there was a fraudulent charge on one of my credit cards. It was an obvious one — someone buying a household appliance in another country — and it was flagged by the credit card company. Despite flagging the charge as fraudulent, the credit card company still expected me to pay for it because the transaction had been verified with the security code on the back of my credit card. I decided that fighting with the credit card company would cost me more time and energy than just paying the charge, closing the account, and permanently ending the relationship. The only thing I had control of in that situation was my own decision for how to respond: fight with the credit card company or pay the bill and walk away. There’s no “right” answer — the power is in the awareness that it is a choice.
A more routine example: I walked away from the stove while beans were cooking and they got burned to the bottom of the pot (sometimes the shit is totally my own fault). I can get angry at myself for not being more mindful and stomp around in a mood for the rest of the day (stepping in it). Or, I can soak the pot, make myself some delicious microwave oatmeal with blueberries, and get on with my day (not stepping in it).
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. 🙂
I would inspire all women to stop worrying about getting the perfect body, stop punishing their bodies with overeating, undereating, overexercise, not enough movement, inadequate sleep… all of it. And to instead discover the power that is already inside them when they stop fighting against their bodies. To focus this power on creating the impact they want to see. Because when I think about the secondary and tertiary benefits of millions of women making themselves visible, confidently doing their inspired work in the world instead of hiding in insecurity, guilt, and shame… the collective good of their impact is beyond my wildest imaginations.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!