Recently I had the opportunity to read Aundi Kolber’s newest book, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy. The book quickly became a regular part of my self-care routine. Aundi is a licensed professional counselor and public speaker, and her work reflects the gentleness that so many of us need in a time in America when we are all a little (or a lot) frazzled by the social, political, and religious climate around us. We need books that help keep us tethered to the work of self-care so that we can do healthier work in the world. Try Softer is a book that can get us there.
I interviewed Aundi about her book, and I hope our conversation offers a new understanding of caring for yourself and pouring yourself into the world around you.
Kaitlin Curtice: I’ve found your book to be so timely for 2020, when so many people are not only struggling to care for themselves personally, but we as a nation are struggling to care for ourselves collectively. This quote on page 5 really speaks to that: “…we’ve been so socialized, parented and wired to over function that we don’t recognize when our bodies are stressed, traumatized, and exhausted until the consequences are dire.”
How do you think we can all try softer in 2020 as we experience a lot of turmoil politically, religiously, and socially?
Aundi Kolber: This is such an important question — and I think it’s helpful to say there are certainly no simplistic answer to the complexity of pain and trauma in our nation. However, as a mental health therapist and survivor of trauma, I’ve learned that oftentimes, healing begins when we acknowledge something hurts. The next step is to individually and collectively begin to pay compassionate attention to our mind, body, and spirits. In doing this, we are finally on track to move through pain rather than stay stuck in it (this also taps into our bodies’ natural ability to heal). Learning to hold space with compassion is the nuts and bolts of what it means to try softer; that we learn to listen to the information our body gives us and allow that to inform how we treat ourselves and exist in the world.
The beautiful thing about beginning to try softer is that it can’t help but spill over into who we are as a larger group of people. Healing births healing. When individuals choose to recognize the way their own trauma and wounds affect their nervous systems and how we show up in the world — this is when situations that are highly triggering and painful have at least the opportunity to be respected rather than simply re-traumatizing. For example, when someone online recognizes they are triggered and they have the capacity to step away and engage practices that help them emotionally regulate, they will then be more likely to learn from new perspectives, even if it’s challenging.
I’ve come to believe this reciprocity between our own pain and honoring the pain of others is a central part of what Jesus meant we he called us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) And this isn’t just theoretical — quite literally from a neurobiological perspective, we know that as we are able to attend to our own body and emotions, our ability to resonate with others is available to us. I think now more than ever, we need folks to have an embodied experience of empathy for people around us who are suffering, who are angry, who are oppressed, and who’ve been silenced.
It's important to say, this doesn’t mean that we should accept harmful behavior or not set boundaries in the course of interacting with folks — but rather, that we give ourselves permission to be open to our own humanity and how we affect each other.
Curtice: I so appreciate the way you share your own story of trauma and healing with us in the book. What do you think the importance of sharing our stories with one another is in our personal and collective healing?
Kolber: Thank you for saying this. Sharing our stories is always an act of bravery and I believe it’s an essential part of how we grow and heal both individually and collectively. Storytelling gives us a sense that we are not the only ones who’ve traveled this road. Time and time again we see from research that feeling connected to others profoundly impacts us for the better. But the other side to this coin is that we must honor our own stories enough to share them when, how, and if we are ready and choose to. Sharing our stories is brave, yes; but honoring our own limits is too. I think there is a balance of bringing wisdom to our sharing and making sure we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t harm more than help.
Curtice: There are so many economic barriers for people who want to get help by going to therapy and just can’t. What are a few ways we can try softer when it is difficult to get the help we might need? Can we find that strength inside ourselves?
Kolber: One of the many reasons I decided to write Try Softer is because there are many folks who are hurting but either don’t have access to counseling or don’t even realize there is a different way in the world. While nothing can replace therapy, my hope is this book will empower the reader to better understand their own experiences so they can be more proactive in caring for themselves and in turn strengthen their emotional regulation, grow their self-compassion, and more deeply connect with others.
The template and tools from Try Softer can help folks become more resourced whether they are able to be in therapy or not. My favorite place to start when someone is first learning how to engage this is work is called grounding. Grounding is a form of mindfulness that helps us become hyper-present to the immediate moment using our five senses (what can you see, hear, smell, taste, feel?). Practicing grounding can provide a buffer from something that may feel distressing while still tapping into our bodies' natural ability to process pain. Once we can learn foundational skills like grounding, we can build on them at our own pace.
Curtice: What was the most challenging aspect of writing a book on self-care, self-love and healing?
Kolber: I have found there are so many mixed messages in culture about self-care, self-love, and healing that it’s been a little daunting to want to throw my hat in the ring regarding my expertise and experience. Especially because it’s one thing to do healing work in private, but it’s an entirely different thing to offer our pain, trauma, and redemption to the world. However, writing Try Softer has caused me to honor my own story in a new way. This type of vulnerability has required me to go deeper into my own journey and to find new ways to practice what I preach. While it’s been exceptionally challenging, I couldn’t be more grateful to have the privilege to do this work.
Curtice: I really loved this quote from your book on page 12: “The work of trying softer begins when we release our desire for the quick fix and tend to the wounds underneath the surface. Otherwise, we’re going to stay stuck.”
I think this is a really important word for all of us. So many of us feel like if we can’t fix a problem quickly, we should just forget about it and move on to something else, but you’re saying we need to sit with our wounds and tend to them so we can for each other. How can we maintain difficult conversations on healing when we are really in the middle of a long process of tending to our own wounds? Is it possible to do the work we need to do in the world while we are traumatized?
Kolber: This is a great question — and I don’t think there’s a tidy answer for it. The best analogy I can give for what I believe could happen as we engage this try softer perspective is that we learn to “dance” with our own stories and the stories of others. To do this, we absolutely have to hold the tension of knowing that we as individuals matter, and so does everyone around us. We always have to come back to both/and in our healing journey to create space for its complexity.
I think the second element to this is that we must empower folks to listen to their bodies, minds, and spirits, because this is what gives us the template to respect the experiences of others too. I believe God designed us with the capacity for the hard, deep work that tough conversations requires — but we will need to bring intention and compassion with us.
Curtice: Lastly, can you recommend a few books to read that are similar to yours, books that can move us toward hope in a time when things feel pretty hopeless?
Kolber: A few books come to mind. Here is a good list for anyone who wants to get started on this journey:
- Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
- To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue
- Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
- All Along You Were Blooming by Morgan Harper Nichols
- The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson
- The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke
- Mindsight by Daniel Siegel
- Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
- Four Gifts by April Yamasaki
- Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey
- Altars in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
- Devotions by Mary Oliver
In a world in which we are having such difficult conversations around so many topics, we need people who propel us toward those conversations in different ways. Aundi Kolber reminds us that we lean into those spaces well when we try softer with ourselves. It begins with us. It begins with naming and understanding our own traumas, fears, anxieties and worries, so that we can care for one another in the same ways.
It seems we’ve all got some reading and some healing to do.