Self-compassion September: the shared human condition

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“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you—with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.” (Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself)

I told some friends recently that as a teenager, I often felt lonely.  They were floored.  “WHY???” They couldn’t picture it, which tells me how far I have come in getting out there and meeting people and having fun.  Reading Kristin Neff’s book, I realized that loneliness comes from feeling disconnected from others.  Because I really yearned to be one of the group back then, I felt so afraid of rejection that I rarely even showed my real self.  I must have felt too afraid to try.

Remember that as Neff defines self-compassion, there are 3 core components: mindfulness, self-kindness, and “a recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.”

Of course it makes sense that if you are continually judging and criticizing yourself, at the same time being kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.  This is the exact opposite of cultivating a feeling of interconnection.

When my daughter makes a bad choice and behaves inappropriately, I don’t tell her she is dumb or has no will power.  I would never want her to think that because she did one thing, she is bound for a lifetime of shortcomings and failure.  No, we focus on learning from mistakes, as do I and her daddy and other people she knows.  We are all works in progress.  It’s actually a relief to be nothing special in this particular instance, but rather one of the many human beings who often make mistakes and learn from them.

“The truth is, everyone is worthy of compassion. The very fact that we are conscious human beings experiencing life on the planet means that we are intrinsically valuable and deserving of care.”

Compassion, by definition, involves another person.  It literally means “to suffer with.” The emotion stems from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.  Self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong choices and feelings of regret are inevitable, not matter how above it we feel.

It is important that we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by all.  It is not just me who fears rejection at times or regrets saying or doing something at other times.  That is possibly one reason there are so many public speaking seminars around!

img_2909-002If we recognize that belongingness is one of the core needs of the self and that loneliness comes from feeling disconnected from others, why on earth do we keep creating subsets of people, putting them in groups and separating “us” from “them?” Any disconnection like that is bound to lead to hate and prejudice.

Rather than pointing fingers, we need to be drawing circles with our arms.

I admit that when I first learned of a particular artist’s success, I was insanely jealous and resentful.  I thought of her as separate from me in all regards, even though we are very much alike.  I was comparing myself to her and feeling incredibly bad about myself.  Then I finally realized that those feelings weren’t doing me any good and certainly weren’t going to change anything.  I decided to align myself in friendship with her (at least in my head), and celebrate her success.  I acknowledge her struggles and understand her ups and downs because they are similar to my own.  How can that not be a good thing? When I finally met her in a class, she was beyond inclusive and caring and she would never wish anyone to feel shame or jealously on her account.

“Our humanity can never be taken away from us, no matter how far we fall. The very fact that we are imperfect affirms that we are card-carrying members of the human race and are therefore always, automatically, connected to the whole.” (Neff)

We are doing the best we can.

Why do we take our “failures” so hard? Of course we know ourselves best of all.  We are with ourself all day long, never able to lose touch with our thoughts or emotions or behaviors.  However, looking with a compassionate lens, we can try to recognize that we are not self-contained units.  We change based on circumstances: history, education, family, genetics, environment.  Once we can realize that we are the product of all sorts of factors, we can admit that we don’t need to take ourselves as seriously as we do.

“When we acknowledge the intricate web of causes and conditions in which we are all imbedded, we can be less judgmental of ourselves and others. A deep understanding of interbeing allows us to have compassion for the fact that we’re doing the best we can given the hand life has dealt us.” (Neff)

I really like that… Going back to my very first self-compassion post, I can accept that the person on the street corner asking for money really is a product of a particular set of circumstances and that perhaps she really is doing her best right now.

This concept is bound to help me let go of my unrealistic expectations as well.  I can use the experience of suffering to soften.  I can allow that I am part of a larger humanity.  I can accept myself right here, right now, as a work in progress.

Missed any Self-compassion September posts? Read them here.

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Self-compassion September: meet suffering with kindness

“We don’t have to wait until we are perfect, until life goes exactly as we want it to.  We don’t need others to respond with care and compassion in order to feel worthy of love.  We don’t need to look outside ourselves for the acceptance and security we crave.” (Neff)

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Many of us have a habit of beating ourselves up when we fail or make some mistake. “Our automatic reaction when we see something about ourselves we don’t like is to put ourselves down. Or when faced with adversity, our first reaction might be to immediately go into problem-solving mode without first stopping to tend to our emotional needs. But if we can be mindful, even for just a moment, of the pain associated with failure or the stress and hardship entailed by difficult circumstances, we can take a step back and respond to our pain with kindness… Not only am I suffering, I am aware that I am suffering, and therefore I can try to do something about it.”

We can’t stop our judgmental thoughts, but we don’t have to encourage or believe in them either.  In addition to mindfulness, a large component of self-compassion is kindness.  Self-kindness means that we are gentle with ourselves and actively comfort ourselves like we would a friend.  It’s not a simple task to be aware of suffering and stay open in its presence.

We humans are “programmed” around the need to survive, not necessarily to be free from suffering.  Some aspects of who we are will contradict our effort toward self-compassion.  As we go through the many tasks in a day, we need to be aware not only of what we are doing, but how we are doing it.

I am a recovering perfectionist.  Perfectionists are the opposite of kind in how we talk to ourselves.  We have very high expectations even though we know we are human beings who make mistakes.  We think we always need to be working to improve in some way.  Perfectionists suffer from feeling inadequate, never able to reach our own expectation.

I am hypercritical of myself and always striving to save time, be more efficient, and speed through multiple tasks.  If I can notice when I’m doing this and speak kindly to myself with self-compassion, many of the feelings and behaviors that go along with perfectionism go away.  For instance, yesterday I had a packed day of meetings to plan our school’s book fair, followed immediately by picking up my daughter from school and helping her with homework, ending with a board meeting in the evening.  All day long I was focused, busy, and in charge.  Then last night I noticed that I was exhausted.  My first thought was that I shouldn’t be tired because there is much more to get accomplished.  My second thought was that my own taskmaster mind is wrong.  There is plenty of time and other people to help.  Rest is a good thing.  I allowed myself to close the laptop, snuggle into the covers, and savor the calmness and sleep.

Self-kindness is more than stopping self-judgement.  It involves actively comforting ourselves.  In a heartbeat, I would have told a friend she was being too hard on herself and to take a break, rest, be kind to herself, etc.  Self-kindness is recognizing our pain/suffering and understanding ourselves rather than condemning ourselves.  It’s giving ourself a hug instead of a bonk on the head.

Whose side are you on?

I’m conducting a personal experiment.  I am trying to notice how I talk to myself in my thoughts.  If I say something like “You’re terrible…. you lost your patience AGAIN!” I immediately stop and try to say the opposite: “You’re human, you will make mistakes.  Take a deep breath, apologize, and move on.  Do you need a cup of tea?” So far it’s been surprising how cared for and protected I feel.

I am also noticing more when things are really good.  Because of our innate tendency to focus more on negative than positive events, it does take mindful awareness to flip this around.  In moments of contentment, I actively hold the feeling and thoughts in mind and enjoy them.  If it’s a cuddle with my daughter, I feel my gratitude for her and her sweet little self.  I really notice and appreciate it because time moves on and she won’t want cuddles forever.

Let’s imagine that you said something to someone that you wish you hadn’t.  Maybe you forgot their name or called them by the wrong name.  Maybe you used words that were meant to be a compliment but it didn’t quite come out that way.  Maybe you shared something with someone that betrayed someone else’s confidence in you.  Imagine anything that happened like this that you regret and that caused you to feel foolish.

What do we do in these situations? If you are like most people, you talk to yourself as if you were the worst person who ever lived.  What if you tried to be your own best friend, giving yourself a hug and noticing your struggle? You need to behave toward yourself as if you’re on your side.  Meet your daily experiences with kindness.

“The common healing element in both mindfulness and self-compassion is a gradual shift toward friendship with emotional pain. Mindfulness says, “Feel the pain” and self-compassion says, “Cherish yourself in the midst of the pain”; two ways of embracing our lives more wholeheartedly. Mindfulness can lead to self-compassion, bringing in feelings of sympathy, forgiveness, tenderness, and love. In order to open our hearts, first we need to open our eyes.” (Germer)

Kristin Neff calls this a “Compassion Break.” She says we are not going to be perfect at it from the beginning.  We are planting the seeds and we must water them and let them grow.  It will become more reflexive the more we do it.

First, take a pause.  Be mindful of what you are feeling.  Be mindful of how you are talking to yourself.  Change your words.  Maybe remind yourself that this happens to many people all the time.  Remind yourself that this will pass.

There must be some self-care lacking in these situations in order to bring them about in the first place.  Allowing myself to feel compassion for myself would help me to take a breath, take a break, and regain composure.  The ability to allow ourselves to be whoever we are is what self-compassion is all about.

So what do we do now?

Sometimes acknowledging the hurt we are feeling brings a release.  When I talk to myself kindly and allow compassion to rise within, I can let go of what I think I should be doing or feeling, relax and breathe, and then let it go.

“Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, stresses the importance of using sympathetic rather than judgmental language when we talk to ourselves. He argues that to be at peace with ourselves, we should reframe our inner dialogues so that they express empathy for our basic human needs. Rosenberg’s suggested method for doing so involves asking four simple questions: 

  • What am I observing?
  • What am I feeling?
  • What am I needing right now?
  • Do I have a request of myself or someone else?

These four questions allow us to listen deeply to what we need most in the moment.” (Neff)

One idea is to “soften into physical discomfort.” Notice tense muscles and loosen them.  Notice held breath and take some deep ones.  Take a nap.  Eat healthy food.  “The compassionate response is to step back and allow your thoughts to come and go – to stop resisting.” (Germer)

The main point is that you validate and listen to what you really need in the moment, and you express empathy toward yourself rather than condemnation.

Every one of us have improvements we could make.  Let’s first accept our cluelessness and lack of perfection.  Let’s accept ourselves in every moment.  “By changing the way we relate to our own imperfection and pain, we can actually change our experience of living.” (Neff)

Share how this works or could work for you.

Missed any Self-compassion September posts? Read them here.

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Self-compassion September: we can’t heal what we don’t feel

img_2909-001How we relate to everyday discomfort can change everything.  The alternative to this fight is to begin a new way of relating to yourself.  It involves self-kindness, a feeling of common humanity, and awareness.  In the next three posts, we’ll be discussing the benefits of turning toward emotional pain by looking at each in turn.

Let’s start with mindfulness.  That’s a word that has been front and center for a few years now and I am guessing it scares more than a few people.  What does it even mean??? A gentle and loving attitude toward the body is a mindful one, allowing the body to release tension.  Mindfulness brings us to the present moment and gives us an awareness of what’s happening around and inside us.

Christopher Germer describes the stages of acceptance in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:

“The process of turning toward discomfort occurs in stages; there’s a progressive softening, or nonresistance, in the face of suffering. After an initial bout of aversion, we start the process with curiosity about the problem and, if all goes well, end with a full embrace of whatever is occurring in our lives. The process is usually slow and natural. It makes no sense to advance to the next stage until you’re entirely comfortable with where you are at the moment. The stages are: Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination; Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest; Tolerance—safely enduring; Allowing—letting feelings come and go; Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value.”

Because mindfulness is a core component of self-compassion, when we improve mindful awareness, we automatically increase our ability to be self-compassionate.  Mindfulness lets us recognize that our negative emotions are not real.  Then we can give them less weight; observing them but not necessarily believing them.

Kristin Neff writes,

“Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment and provides the type of balanced awareness that forms the foundation of self-compassion. Like a clear, still pool without ripples, mindfulness perfectly mirrors what’s occurring without distortion. Rather than becoming lost in our own personal soap opera, mindfulness allows us to view our situation with greater perspective and helps to ensure that we don’t suffer unnecessarily.”

Take our earlier frustration at unexpected traffic… the more we resist the current situation, not only will we cause ourselves unnecessary anger and negative emotion and physical reactions, we are also clouding our ability to choose the best next steps.  You can just imagine quick jerks from one lane to another, yelling at other drivers, dangerously hopping a curb to escape something.  Had we applied some mindfulness to the situation instead, we could consider with a clear mind if there is anything we could do to improve the situation or simply recognize that we need to accept the current reality.  Once we do, we are free to listen to some music while we wait, or think about how lucky we are to have our family or friends, a job we find rewarding, etc.

Mindfulness is “awareness of present experience, with acceptance.” By accepting our feelings, thoughts, and sensations – fear, sadness, boredom, joy, love – we have a loving attitude toward any and all of it.  We don’t even need to be calm to be mindful; simply aware.  Recognize what’s happening around you – what do you hear, see, and feel inside? Are any muscles tense? Is any part of you warm or cold?

What’s the opposite of mindfulness? Mindlessness! Going into the kitchen to get something and then forgetting what it was you were after.  Eating without noticing your food.  Driving on autopilot.

So not only do we need to know what our mind is aware of at each moment, we need to help direct its attention.  The goal is to stop the continual stress and striving to make things the way we think they need to be.  When we can connect with each and every moment of our lives, no matter the external events, we can find peacefulness and acceptance.

Step one: recognize that you are suffering.  Face reality and see if you can accept it.  We often allow our minds to skip ahead of emotions like guilt, loneliness, etc as moments of suffering that we could use to offer ourselves compassion.  Like I mentioned in my first post on self-compassion, sometimes I look in the mirror and see negative things.  I have never once before paused to notice that I was thinking that or feeling bad and give myself some love for feeling something so awful.  But now I am.

Instead of focusing on the failure itself, focus on the pain caused by the failure.  Why focus on your flaws? Responding to ourselves with kindness and compassion takes us out of problem-solving mode and allows us to care for ourselves emotionally.  It’s ok to say “I’m having a hard time with this and I deserve some care.” If we never recognize this, these feelings will continue to grow until they come out as us being overwhelmed.  I have definitely been there!

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”  ~ Montaigne

Remember in the last post I said that pain is unavoidable but suffering is optional? The reason mindfulness works is that it provides freedom.  “It means we don’t have to believe every passing thought or emotion as as real.” (Neff) The less you resist, the less you suffer.

I was recently in a situation where I thought I must have been invisible.  Nobody around me was responding to me or speaking to me.  I jumped to some rather huge conclusions, I’ll tell you.  My thoughts were running away from me fast.  What if I’d noticed how my emotions physically felt in my body? My chest felt tight.  My throat was burning.  My cheeks were hot.  My heart was beating very fast. I felt some sort of shame and lots of self-doubt, along with anger.  Staying anchored physically may have allowed me to soothe myself, almost as if I were ill.

It turned out it was definitely just me and my mindset.  I wished I’d considered alternative viewpoints and taken better care of myself in the moments of distress.  I think I recognized that I was suffering, but I didn’t know what to do about it to feel better.  Mindfulness offers a new idea: we don’t have to believe every thought or emotion we experience.  We can non-judgmentally accept them, making it much easier for them to go away.

I once saw an interview that Oprah did with Eckhart Tolle where he said he is almost always in the present moment.  He said something like, the past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet, so why think about them? Oprah asked him how he plans for things, like doesn’t he need to think about tomorrow in order to remember to set his alarm clock for the next day? I remember that he said yes, but he doesn’t let his mind run off to tomorrow.  He notices the feel of the alarm clock, the light or numbers… more tactile aspects of the job.  When washing dishes, he is only washing dishes and appreciating the water and the physical sensations.  I still marvel at this ability today.

Chris Germer notes that mindfulness is for ALL of it, the good and the not-so-good moments.  When we attend to every moment that passes, we make note of all of it and fully experience it.

Savoring is a variation on mindfulness. When we savor, there’s the intention to enter fully into the experience, rather than cling to it or drag it out. The goal of mindfulness is not to get “hooked” by positive or negative experiences—to let things be just as they are, fully and completely. In an advanced state of mind, we can savor grief and sorrow too. Research has shown that the savoring of pleasant experiences can become a habit that elevates our baseline level of daily happiness.

It just so happens that I’m reading a book, , by Ali Katz, and she has a lot to say about about incorporating mindfulness into small moments of your day.  “I have an alarm that goes off on my phone every day at 3:00 PM to remind me to stop whatever I am doing, take a deep breath, and spend a minute or two focusing on gratitude.   We practice gratitude as a family as well. We keep a family gratitude journal on our kitchen table and at dinner we go around the table saying something we are grateful for, with one person acting as the scribe.   As I mentioned before, I also encourage my kids to think of something they are grateful for in the morning, often on the way to school. I don’t make it a huge deal, it is just part of the everyday routine.   I invite you to start a gratitude practice comprised of whatever feels right to you. Start small with one minute in the morning or evening and build from there. 

“When you begin to pay attention to your body you will notice that it sends you signals you can use to assist in making nourishing decisions for yourself, like saying no to something that is going to send you over the edge. Our minds often get confused, but our bodies never do.”

There can be such richness in each and every moment.  Very rarely do I allow myself to simply BE.  I’m going to work on that.  Do you???

Missed any Self-compassion September posts? Read them here.

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Self-compassion September: what we resist persists

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Let’s say you get stuck in an unexpected traffic jam and you are on a rigid timeframe. Maybe you’re on your way to the airport and don’t want to miss your flight.  Are you mentally or literally screaming “NO! This can’t be happening right now!” Are you getting red in the face and louder as you inch along, resisting at every turn?

Some amount of pain is inevitable in life.  However, suffering from that pain is completely optional.  By suffering, I include regretting, worrying, obsessing, and blaming.

We’ll never be able to control external circumstances or our internal responses to them.  Rather than try to control everything, what if we embrace life as it is?   Instead of fighting something, self-compassion will allow us to accept both the good and the not-so-good.

It probably sounds odd, but what we need to be happy is to embrace some unhappiness. We need is a new approach to pain and pleasure.

Sometimes difficult emotions disappear by themselves.  Unless we change our relationship with them, anger or fear may always be just under the surface.  By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and compassion while negative emotions arise, we can avoid the usual discomfort that would arise.

Any kind of pain (physical, mental or emotional) creates a conflict between how things are and how we prefer they be.  We resist what’s happening right now because we planned for them to be different.  Christopher Germer writes in The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion that “we can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are…We spend our lives on a treadmill, continually arranging to have pleasure and avoid pain.  Our natural reactions are instinctive, but they are not successful strategies for emotional well-being.”  I learned all about this one when my daughter was little and would scream every single day between about 4 and 6pm.  Sometimes, Mr. B would call and say he was running late getting home.  Had I known he’d be home at 7:00, I would have planned to be strong and carry through the nightly trek through the house, bouncing the baby and singing.  Since I expected him home at 6:00, I was fuming mad by the time I saw him an hour later, despite the fact that neither he nor I could not change the situation.

Instead of meeting painful moments by pushing against them, what if we notice our distress and respond to ourself with kindness? When you fight these moments, you get stuck in them.  If you are continually focused on aches in your body, wishing it weren’t there, they probably aren’t going to go away.  We can go to war against ourselves, using critical messages and becoming absorbed in ourselves.

How we relate to everyday discomfort can change everything.  The alternative to this fight is to begin a new way of relating to yourself.  It involves self-kindness, a feeling of common humanity, and awareness.  In the next three posts, we’ll be discussing the benefits of turning toward emotional pain by looking at each in turn.

If you are anything like me, your first thought when something unexpected occurs is to resist and to blame, either myself or someone else depending on the situation.  That takes a lot of energy!  It would be much better to be aware of what specifically troubles us and allow them to be there.  We can’t skip this step! The next step is to bring in some compassion when we notice we’re feeling bad.  Finally, we can realize that these things happen to lots of people… we aren’t alone or different.  The combination of these 3 steps leads us to turn toward our pain, freeing ourselves to face suffering from a position of strength and wisdom.

Had I stopped to be mindful of my situation (screaming baby – arg!) and emotions (frustration, exhaustion), acknowledge that I am part of a global network of parents who go through this exact thing, maybe even right that minute with me, and then offer kindness to myself (bounce over to the kitchen and make some tea? turn on some music to save my voice?), I can’t even imagine what would have changed.  Probably everything.

Fighting anything only makes things worse.  Traffic on the way out of town when we anticipated a smooth ride, a last-minute assignment at work when you had evening plans, fear about making a presentation at a meeting… the faster we can accept the new reality, the better off we’ll be.  Kristin Neff suggests imagining your pain as a gaseous substance.  “If you allow it to just be there, freely, it will eventually dissipate on its own.  If you fight and resist the pain, however, walling it into a confined space, the pressure will grow and grow until there is an explosion.”  (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff)

Speaking of explosions… let’s look at that traffic jam I mentioned.  I’m sorry to tell you that you’re making yourself far more agitated than need be.  Your anger is not going to magically break up the traffic.

Neff points out:

“once something has occurred in reality, there is nothing you can do to change that reality in the present moment.  You can choose to accept this fact or not, but reality will remain the same either way.  The less you resist, the less you suffer.”

I think it’s natural to shut ourselves off from pain.  It’s certainly not innate that we turn toward the pain in order to be with it and to accept it.

Christopher Garner also writes, “We can step back and learn to be calm in the midst of pain; we can let pleasure naturally come and go.  That’s serenity.  We can even learn to embrace pain as well as pleasure, and every nuance in between, thereby living each moment to the fullest.  That’s joy.  Learning how to spend some time with pain is essential to achieving personal happiness.  In may sound paradoxical, but in order to be happy we must embrace unhappiness.”

He says that “wisdom is the quality of knowing the short-and long-term consequences of our actions and choosing the path of greatest long-term benefit.”

Neff agrees that yes, sometimes life sucks, but why make it even worse? “The key to self-compassion is not to deny suffering, but to recognize that it’s perfectly normal.  There isn’t anything wrong with the imperfection of life as long as we don’t expect it to be other than it is.”

What we resist persists.  If we can find ourselves within our struggle and offer compassion and care because of our suffering, rather than trying to feel better, we are already pulling ourself out of the hardest part.

Try to recognize when you’re straining and see if you can do the same exact thing in a different way.  Be aware of your feelings but don’t let them carry you away from rationality.  Scan for any tension in your body and loosen it.  Notice if you resist reality and try to manipulate and control your life.  Let that go.  When we can offer ourselves compassion, we notice what’s good as well as what’s wrong and we can point ourselves toward the good.

* * * * *

self compassion.26 AMI am making my way through an online Self-Compassion workshop co-facilitated by Drs. Kristin Neff (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself) and Brené Brown and decided to do a whole month of self-compassion posts.  If you missed the first few, you can find them here.  Thanks for reading and commenting!

Missed any Self-compassion September posts? Read them here.

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Self-compassion September: how to be imperfect

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We followed the Olympics religiously last month, watching strength, agility, and true greatness play out on our tv screen over and over again.  I admire such perfection and usually it inspires me.  But how can we not also compare ourselves to such successes and think that we are less than great?

Since I haven’t been following the meal plan I designed for a few months now (counting calories or staying away from sweets), I’ve been feeling quite negative toward myself.  In fact, I have this all-or-nothing mentality that basically means that I’ve failed.  I am throwing in the towel.  Might as well eat anything now and accept being overweight.  I look terrible.  Nothing fits me.  I can’t stick with anything.  You get the picture.

This kind of criticizing ourselves can become a habit.

self compassion.26 AMI am making my way through an online Self-Compassion workshop co-facilitated by Drs. Kristin Neff (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself) and Brené Brown because I want to be better at integrating self-compassion into my life.  “Self-compassion, learning to understand and calm our inner critic, is central to living a brave life as a partner, friend, parent, and leader.”  I am focusing the entire month on self-compassion.  If you missed the first two posts, you can read them here.

It seems sometimes, at least in our culture, that our best is never going to be good enough.  Our culture does not encourage self-compassion.  We have got to start relating to ourselves in a different way than what society encourages.  It is not selfish or inappropriate to offer ourselves the same compassion we would bestow upon others.  We can allow ourselves to feel compassion for how challenging it can be to be an imperfect human being in such a competitive world.

Kristin Neff shocked me with this revelation: “When we judge and attack ourselves, we are taking the role of both the criticizer and the criticized… able to indulge in feelings of righteous indignation toward our own inadequacies, which feels pretty good… When we angrily cut ourselves down for our failings, we have a chance to feel superior to those aspects of ourselves that we judge.  

Similarly, by setting unrealistically high standards for ourselves and getting so upset when we fail to meet them, we can subtly reinforce feelings of supremacy associated with having such high standards in the first place.”

Neff says the best way to counteract this self-criticism is “to understand it, have compassion for it, and then replace it with a kinder response.  By letting ourselves be moved by the suffering we have experienced at the hands of our own self-criticism, we strengthen our desire to heal.”

mirror loveIt can be easy to be compassionate toward others and quite difficult to give that same kindness to ourselves.  If I were treating myself as I’d treat another person, I would say to be gentle on yourself.  You’re quite busy and active with your house projects and you will get back to your plan when the time is right.  You look fine!

Neff says that 75% of us are more compassionate toward others than toward ourselves (especially women). The key is to notice what we are doing and acknowledge our own vulnerability.  With compassion we acknowledge our imperfection.   We are more likely to change if we can accept that we are an imperfect human being.

Self-kindness means treating ourselves with care and concern, even in the midst of our imperfection.

This type of self-judgment leads to all sorts of emotional problems, all of which I’ve dealt with: insecurity, anxiety, and depression.  Why do we beat ourselves up when we think we’re doing less than ideal? Why are we so hard on ourselves? We have got to stop the judgments! I am working on simply accepting myself no matter the situation.

When I say to myself that I shouldn’t have failed, I’m creating a sense of isolation. “Someone else would have been able to lose the weight by now. There must be something wrong with me.” If instead I would acknowledge that others are in the same boat, I feel tied to a common humanity.  “It happens to lots of people.  I’m completely normal.”

I have to interject here that I have trouble with this concept.  Usually I am part of that 75%  and am very critical of myself while being forgiving of others.  But I realize that I am sometimes hugely judgmental toward others.  Instead of compassion or acknowledging that someone is suffering, I tend to lean toward finding something that person did to cause their situation.  The homeless person who succumbed to drugs or alcohol, the overweight person who lacks discipline and is weak.  The people who could get help but don’t.

I think I know now why I have this thought pattern.  I am unconsciously refusing to acknowledge our common humanity, refusing to see that it could just as well be me in their shoes.  Why? Fear.  Fear that I could be homeless if just a couple things were to change.  Fear that I will be overweight if I don’t tighten my bootstraps and get focused.  Some things are out of my control.  Some things I think people have control of, like what food passes their lips, but there are emotional issues at play that I’m calling weaknesses that are probably internal pain that I’m not acknowledging either… also out of fear.

We are the product of a boatload of circumstances that have come together to shape who we are right now.  Our economic and social background, our friendships and teachers, our culture and family, our genetics… each help shape the person we are today.  Each of us make bad decisions sometimes, and often those could lead to suffering.  Whether because of personal weakness, circumstance, bad decisions, or some other sort of “failure,” everyone deserves kindness when they are suffering… even ourselves.  We are – each of us – flawed human beings.

Just as we offer compassion to someone else who is suffering, we must stop and recognize our own feelings of suffering and extend to ourselves that same kindness.

“Rather than condemning yourself for your mistakes and failures, you can use the experience of suffering to soften your heart.  You can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction… all by giving yourself the compassion you need in the moment… By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation.” (Neff)

Mindfulness is a large component of this recognition.  When we give quality attention to what’s happening or what you’re feeling in a specific moment, we are “experientially open to what’s actually happening as opposed to thinking about it.”  Our mind is designed for survival, not for happiness.  So it’s continually looking for problems.  My brain is already set up to judge myself for eating that cookie, and so there are emotions and suffering involved in that as well.  I could simply be aware that I’m thinking this without running away with the story line.  “I ate some M&M’s and now I’m stopping. It’s ok to have a little when you have a craving.  Now how else can you help yourself?” versus “I am so weak.  I’m not good enough.  I’m never going to look how I want to.” We have to allow compassion to emerge for ourselves as much as for others.

I would NEVER tell someone else those words! If I spoke to anyone with the harsh words I use on myself, I would have zero friends.  I suppose I’m not the best friend I could be to myself! If my best friend were suffering in any way, I would be full of compassion and sending treats to her in the mail.  Why don’t I do this for myself?

compassion wordsSo now when I look in the mirror and my eyes are immediately drawn to my tummy or my hips, I notice my feelings of guilt or inadequacy and recognize them as suffering that I need to respond to with compassion.  It’s not an excuse.  It’s an acknowledgement that the feelings that just popped up are painful and deserving of kindness.  I don’t need to jump into diet and exercise planning or focus more on my flaws.  Neither do I need to focus on how guilty I feel or how weak I have been.

We don’t need to wait until we are perfect or look outside ourselves for care and acceptance.

The main idea here is that you notice when you’re being hard on yourself, “validate and listen to what you really need in the moment and express empathy toward yourself rather than condemnation.”  Even if our failure is huge, which it usually is not, we can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it (even Olympians) and treat ourselves kindly instead.  Instead of trying to be so perfect, why not embrace ourselves as we are? How would that feel?

Missed any Self-compassion September posts? Read them here.

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Self-compassion September: some failure is good

selfcompassion sept_blogWhen we honor human experience by embracing imperfection, we see what unites us with other human beings.”  ~ Kristin Neff

“No matter what they show on the outside, everyone has a story that will break your heart.”  ~ Brene Brown

I wonder if self-compassion is an innate quality or something we learn.  I have been observing my daughter once a week with her softball coach.  She began 5 weeks ago knowing literally nothing about how to hold a bat, how to stand and swing for maximum power, how to catch a ball or even how to wear a glove.  The fact that she is learning so quickly amazes me.  After 5 sessions, I think she’s really good!

But ask her that…

big strong legsWhen she misses hitting the ball, I can tell in her face that she’s disappointed. Her coach will say that’s ok, they are only working on her back foot, or only focusing on her right arm this time, and she perks up.  She has so much positive reinforcement coming her way that she’s usually full of pep and smiles.  She’s certainly not getting any criticism at home.  Her coach tells her that mistakes help both of them learn.  “Why do you think you didn’t hit that one? Look at your elbow… Look where your back foot is.” It’s helpful to make mistakes!

We compare ourselves to perfection or what we think we should be.  Neff says we must remember that we are supposed to fail.  That’s where the learning is.  That’s what it means to be human.  If we can give ourselves the compassion that we need, we will feel more connected to others and more forgiving of ourselves and others as well.

So let’s think how we can put this into practice, especially in those moments when we can be mindful and give ourselves some doses of self-compassion and kindness.

Up next: when things fall apart, why do we often find the path of greatest resistance? We can learn to suffer in a healthier way.  We’ll talk about that on Thursday.

* * * * *

self compassion.26 AMI am making my way through an online Self-Compassion workshop co-facilitated by Drs. Kristin Neff (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself) and Brené Brown and decided to do a whole month of self-compassion posts.  If you missed the first one, you can read it here.

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