ON MINDFULNESS – and minding your p’s and q’s.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on March 31, 2014

imagesMindfulness is a term that gets used a lot these days, despite the fact that it has been around for centuries. Eastern thought, primarily Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and meditative disciplines have always had the concept of mindfulness at their core. The idea of mindfulness has entered western ideas through the world of spirituality and meditation, as well as through disciplines like yoga. In psychology, the meaning of mindfulness has been equated with being conscious and thoughtful about one’s experience and actions, having nothing to do with spirituality. In the realm of the behavioral sciences, mindfulness has always had to do with mind, and the process of our subjective experience. Interestingly, when we take both Eastern and Western notions of the idea of mindfulnesss, they provide a bridge between our internal world and the external realities of the world, and as such,  a way to connect emotions, thoughts and actions.

Put simply, mindfulness is about living thoughtfully. But what goes into being thoughtful? In psychoanalysis we are fond of using the term consciousness, by which we mean our experience of being aware. And what about awareness? Where does that fit in the sphere of mindfulness?  So many words to describe one experience.   Awareness is part of being mindful, in the same way that being conscious is. Both words describe a process of bringing one’s attention inward, of looking at our feelings and thoughts and how they affect our behavior and actions. Awareness allows us to have a subjective sense of something that leads to knowing what it is. Being conscious and aware lead us to being mindful, to being able to think and consider options and choices, to being able to alter our behavior and thoughts- and here is the cherry- to being able to change our very neural structure. Yes really.

Eastern disciplines arrived at mindfulness through various philosophical teachings and meditative practices which continue to be valued because their practice changes the self at its core. In western thought we have moved closer to these practices and ideas not only through various forms of spirituality, but through the fields of psychology and neurobiology.  The relatively new science of interpersonal neurobiology has validated many psychoanalytic ideas, and tells us that nature and nurture are inevitably intertwined rather than independent from or merely interactive with each other. Intertwined. Woven into the very fabric of each other. Inseparable. We are what we experience because what we experience stimulates and shapes the development of our brain and nervous system. Our mind is both embodied and embedded in relationship. Our personal neurobiology is relationally determined. This not only means that our early interactions with primary caretakers are responsible for the shaping and development of our neuronal systems  and the way we respond to intimate relationships later in life, it also means that relationships (therapeutic or otherwise) are the primary crucible for development and potential change.

Think of it- we are born into a relational system made up of the mother/infant dyad and the interactions that take place between them. It is up to the primary caretaker to introduce the infant to the world and mediate their internal experience of it. It is the primary caretaker that “regulates” early experiences for the infant, and that regulation is based both on the caretakers own internal experience  and her interactions with the infant. It is this interpersonal attunement between mother and child that shapes the ability to self regulate, and in adulthood, it is the capacity to self regulate that leads to mindful living.

Remember the adage “mind your p’s and q’s”? It reminds one that we must pay attention. It reminds us that what we do, down to its most refined detail, has meaning, impact and consequences- not only for us, but very likely for others as well.  Mindfulness is about minding our p’s and q’s: It is about being able to look at what we do, think about what motivates our actions and consider how our behavior and actions impact others. It is a concept that incorporates both the “I” and the “us”, the individual and the community. Psychology and psychoanalysis have tended to use the terms mindfulness and consciousness to define the experience of self-observation, introspectiveness and self-awareness. But  mindfulness also includes an awareness of others as recipients of our actions and shapers of our experience.  Mindfulness is inherently a relational term because it speaks to the nature of inter-subjectivity.


{ 1 comment }


by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on February 10, 2014

imagesRecently I posted a blog on the power of laughter and humor. I was writing about the  kind that makes your belly tremble and your chest heave. The kind that moves the neurobiology of your insides and translates into mood shifts on your outside. The REAL kind. Today’s post is about its opposite, what I call the killer smile, but not because of its potential beauty, or because of its ability to connect to joy, but because of its ability to hide all manner of emotional workings.  The killer smile pertains to a masked quality, something meant to hide and distract from the real. Think of the smile of the Joker in Batman, forever turned upward in a pantomime of joy and fun, while behind the mask nothing could be further from the truth.

Killer smiles are a problem, and not just to the people that wear them. While they are meant to protect the owner, they mess with  reality- for the self and for others. In their attempt to protect, killer smiles deceive. They contain a mixed signal (I am smiling but I am  upset) that makes the other’s intuition falter, essentially saying: What you feel and think about me is not what you see, are you sure that what you feel and think is right? Look again…and the smile gets wider. In its aim to protect the self, the killer smile disarms implicit knowing in others, and often in oneself. The repeated experience of masking emotional distress with its opposite- a joyful smile- unhinges internal experience from its relational context and isolates it into its own compartment, far away from the possibility of coming alive with another. Killer smiles wear the mask of dissociation.

People with killer smiles have had to learn to smile early in their life, usually in the face of severe adversity and emotional trauma. For them, smiling has become a way of protecting themselves and holding themselves together. It is almost as if the smile proclaims: “You can’t hurt me, what you do does not affect me in the least.” And for some time, this may even become true. Yet in my office, people with killer smiles often discover that to maintain that smile involves disconnecting from their own experience and feelings, relying instead on their social and interpersonal skills to navigate the world, like an actor on a stage. It is no surprise that often, people with killer smiles have very good social skills and can negotiate quite well interpersonally, yet they are at a loss when it comes to dealing with their feelings. They are well liked by others and seen as easygoing, yet they often feel “not known” and very lonely. Because killer smiles work so well socially, they are (unfortunately) continuously reinforced. But a killer smile is meant to “kill” the emotional experience and feelings that are attached to the relational situations that made it necessary to smile in order to survive and hold oneself together. The killer smile continues to act as a shield to feelings of connection, dependent, vulnerability, shame, and fear. It also kills the possibility of real relationships, which are based on mutual experience and emotional connection. The killer smile protects but isolates.

Smiling in the face of emotional pain, as in what I am calling a killer smile, becomes a mask over time. A mask that is so closely worn that it becomes a second skin, like an application of make up that rearranges the features so that they no longer represent one’s internal workings but instead act to create an impenetrable persona. Such make up becomes necessary on a daily basis, as a layer of protection. In my work as a psychoanalyst, I have found that the tighter the smile the more fragile the inside. Whereas real smiles are connected to the emotions that bring them about, usually a positive connection to another, safety, playfulness, joy, happiness and love, killer smiles are about maintaining internal balance by avoiding any emotion that might trigger a feeling of connection and bring about dependency, vulnerability and fear. In fact, while protecting their owner, killer smiles are inappropriate to many of the situations that they are used in. A patient of mine has called the killer smile “a mechanical muscle reflex that looks like a smile but it is not”.


When one begins to deconstruct the killer smile and work with what is behind it, the scaffolding that has been holding up the self falls away and fear sets in. The possibility of real connection begins at that moment, as well as the possibility of being met and recognized where one is most vulnerable. The place where reparation is most needed. If one is fortunate enough to be in a relationship that holds the self while allowing enough space to explore what is actually happening – as in what good therapy is all about, or what a good relationship can be about –  then the mask can be left behind and new ways of experiencing emotional connection can begin to emerge.  It takes time to retrain those facial muscles to respond to what is actually going on in the here and now,  and to feelings that elicit different outcomes. It takes time to develop connection to another and trust them to help navigate emotions that have held painful and even traumatic  histories.

But that is what it takes.


{ 1 comment }

ON LAUGHTER : And the power of humor.

January 20, 2014

A good belly laugh can change the mood, tone and connection to an other in an instant. Teasing or joking with someone can invite them into a space to play with something in a different way. I have noticed that in my clinical practice, the ability to tease or joke with my patients about a […]

Read the full article →

On Beginning Anew

December 31, 2013

It is the end of another year and beyond the celebrations and hoopla of the holiday season, it is a time to take stock of our lives, and for many, a time to think of what needs changing. The New Year often brings resolutions, and those resolutions are based on a reckoning with ones desires […]

Read the full article →

THE COMPANY OF MEN – And why it is important.

November 11, 2013

Having written about women, and how important it is for us to have other women in our lives (http://drceccoli.com/2010/06/its-a-girl-thing/ ), it is with great pleasure that I once again step outside my world to dive into the other dark continent- the world of men, and how important men are to each other. Men need other men- […]

Read the full article →

ON MEN: Shaken and stirred.

October 29, 2013

Ah men. That other dark continent that somehow is supposed to be clearer, simpler, more known. To whom? I wonder. Other men? As a woman writing about men, I find myself besieged with stereotyped notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Culturally and societally embedded ideas within the folds of my […]

Read the full article →

ON MASCULINITY: And What It Means To Be A Man.

October 14, 2013

I have been keen to write about masculinity and men for some time now, and am aware that in doing so I am traversing the great divide of difference between us. As a woman, I cannot avoid these differences, nor would I want to, rather I intend to speak from a position of difference. In […]

Read the full article →

The Shadow of the Thing: Remembering the Unthinkable.

September 10, 2013

Today marks an anniversary which I do not like, yet feel compelled to post on, since it is the “thing” that changed everything I knew up until the day that it happened. It is the one event in my privileged lifetime that reminded me of how fragile our sense of wellbeing, how frail our very […]

Read the full article →

Horcruxes and the Return of Bad Objects.

August 19, 2013

It has been a while since I wrote about Harry Potter and the particular magic that J.K. Rowling’s stories hold for me, and well, it just would not be my blog if I did not post about her alchemy from time to time. So Potter heads unite, here we go. Today’s post is about Horcruxes […]

Read the full article →

BEING VIRTUAL: Social Media and the Relational Self.

June 4, 2013

Is our culture of texting, tweeting, friending, Facebooking, Instagramming, Linked-iness and LOL speak threatening interpersonal connection and communication? You know, the old fashioned kind? Is our techno-connectivity eroding interactive experiences involving face to face contact and conversations, and changing the quality of our relationships with others? Is social media creating a new kind of intimacy? […]

Read the full article →