I haven’t written a blog in several months. Earlier this summer, I suffered the loss of my mother and for several months both before and following her death I had difficulty sorting my feelings out. I’ve been using self-compassionate practices at every step along the way and I believe that these helped to sustain me.
A few weeks ago I went to a silent meditation retreat. I was a little nervous prior to going knowing that I would be alone with my feelings of grief with very little distraction. I worried that I would be flooded and overwhelmed with my emotions. It actually turned out to be a lovely gentle experience and helped me to clarify some of the deeper thoughts and fears that underlie some of the emotion.
After one particular meditation, I uncovered that I was very sad that I had lost my biggest cheer leader; the one who offered words of encouragement, kindness and sympathy whenever I was suffering. Although my mother was 92 and we hadn’t lived together for decades, in a very real sense she was still the one I turned to in times of trouble, she loved me unconditionally and would offer words of comfort whenever I suffered a setback.
In Mindful Self-Compassion practice, whenever we recognize that we are suffering we ask ourselves “What do I need?” I realized that what I needed most in that moment was reassurance. I started meditating using the mantra “I love you and I will take care of you”. Using this phrase has caused a shift in my day to day life. For the last several months I had been eating badly, not exercising and felt very sluggish, something I attributed to the effects of my grief. Once I started the mantra it was like my higher self sprung into action; I suddenly had more energy and motivation to eat better and start moving. I started taking better care of myself. It’s okay, no matter what happens I will be there for myself. I just needed to hear myself say it.
With kindness, Patricia
When I was a little girl I remember being devastated when an adult said that they were disappointed with me and I would feel so much shame about my behaviour or whatever mistake I had made. It was always so nice when my mom, a teacher or my older sister would give me a hug and a pep talk… “It’s not the end of the world Trish; this shall pass, you’ll do better next time, I know you didn’t mean for it to turn out this way”. In these nurturing moments of kindness I received that much needed validation that I was not a bad person no matter how spectacularly I had failed. It allowed me to pick myself up, dust myself off and get on with my life.
Fast forward a few decades. I make a decision at work that results in an outcome that is less than ideal. Then a couple weeks later I make a second decision that several people questioned as being ineffective. I like to present myself as someone whose sound judgement can be counted on so when these incidents occurred I found myself feeling insecure and I assumed others had lost confidence in me. I started down the path of self-destructive and distorted thinking. I became defensive about my decisions and blamed outside circumstances for the way things turned out. I complained inwardly about how it was easy for others to critique my decisions when they didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility. This led to my catastrophizing thoughts; that nothing was going right for me and 2017 was turning out to be a bust. There were a few restless nights where I tossed and turned in agitation. I was doing my regular self-compassion practice and it helped to keep me open to the feedback and take responsibility, but I still seemed to be struggling with letting it go.
My friend Cathy reminded me of something that Kristin Neff had said during our training - when you are dealing with a “sticky” negative emotion, it likely has a measure of shame attached. Shame can be a difficult emotion to work through, but self-compassion can help us here.
Once I labelled this emotion “shame”, I was able to do a particular practice that helps with dealing with difficult emotions. This self-compassion practice, called Soften, Soothe and Allow guided me to work with the emotion while being mindful of how shame is experienced in my body. The first step is to soften the area where I experience shame in the body and soothe myself while allowing the emotion to be just as it is. Trying to push shame away was not working, but being kind to myself while in the midst of experiencing shame helped to cool the heat of the emotion - just like those trusted adults from my childhood used to do when they offered their kind words.
I meet a lot of people who have never experienced that external validation and reassurance from others. This is the wonderful gift of self-compassion practice - we can learn to comfort and soothe our own pain. We don’t have to rely on other people. Like a medicinal balm, self-compassion speeds up healing so then you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get on with your life.
With Kindness, Patricia
I don’t know about you, but I can make a bad situation a whole lot worse by being reactive to a negative circumstance or someone else’s bad mood. In my training with Christopher Germer (one of the co-founders of Mindful Self-Compassion), he recommended making a habit out of wishing compassion for those grumpy people we encounter. A silent compassionate wish for another person can take the edge off your reactivity as you change your stance from irritation to acknowledging the other person’s suffering. Often this is achieved by first recognizing one’s own suffering in the situation; then turning a compassionate lens to another. I will give you an example.
After a long flight home from Greece, my husband and I gathered our luggage and made our way to our car. When my husband tried the ignition, it became evident that the battery was dead. He had inadvertently left the interior light on in the car. The next realization was that my cell phone was dead after spending two weeks locked in the glove compartment. My first thought “How could he have been so careless?” was followed by a string of “poor me” thoughts: “I’m so tired, we are going to be here all night waiting for CAA, now I won’t be able to function tomorrow, this is going to be expensive…” etc. etc. At the same time my husband was getting really angry with himself – making self-critical statements and slamming the car door. I thought to myself – if you say anything to him right now you will make things a whole lot worse. I closed my eyes and with a hand over my heart said “this is a moment of suffering, let me be kind to myself in this moment, and may my husband be safe and be at peace”. I took some deep breaths and then got out of the car and spoke to my husband as gently as I could. “It was an honest human mistake and this is why we have CAA”. I then went back into the airport, found an outlet, plugged the phone in and called CAA. I know for certain that had I voiced my first thoughts it would have resulted in a great deal more suffering, poor problem solving and likely a terrible two hour drive home. Mindfully attending to my suffering allowed me to be calmer, which then allowed me to tune into my husband’s suffering.
It’s not just the big suffering we need to tune into either; often it’s the little things like waiting in long line ups or traffic jams that can trigger a bad mood that can wreck our day. Instead of engaging in grumbling and negative thinking remind yourself “this is a moment of suffering … may the people in these cars be safe and be at peace”. This one small silent wish can change your response from annoyance to having more patience. It is surprising how this can help you get through your day with fewer moments of moodiness and improve your relationships.
Give it a try and let me know if you notice any difference…
I’m starting to get known as a bit of a self-compassion expert. I teach Mindful Self Compassion, I recommend the books and videos by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer; and when I spot someone being really hard on themselves, I have a tough time holding back the suggestion to try self- kindness. Does this mean that I am always kind to myself – heck no! I believe that I am on a journey to become kinder to myself and like all journeys, sometimes I’m moving forward and other times I’m sliding backwards. A few times this summer I have recognized that I have been taking some backwards steps. I’ve been struggling to lose some unwanted extra pounds and I find it very difficult to be kind about this. I have noticed the shock register on the faces of my friends when I said some self-critical comments about my weight. “That’s not very self-compassionate” they remind me. This is an old pattern for me – anger towards myself for lack of discipline. Truth is I find it very hard to be kind when I am feeling frustrated with myself. Then I remembered – the only pre–requisite for self-compassion is that there is suffering and you notice it. So instead of trying to stop the harsh self-talk, I can be compassionate because I recognize that it is so hard to feel frustrated and to fall short of my own expectations. This represents a very subtle shift. In my example, it shifts the effort from trying to forcibly change my habitual thoughts - to one where I accept my feelings of disappointment and wrap them in warm embrace of compassion. Give it a try – and see if you can find a different way to apply the salve of compassion! With Kindness, Patricia
I love the brand of Kombucha tea I buy because it’s not only healthy it also offers words of wisdom with every cup! Today the little tag on my tea bag read Compassion Has No Limits. Hmm – is that really true? We often place limits on our expressions of compassion. We feel compassion for someone who has robbed a store to feed his family, for example, but not for the person addicted to drugs who is stealing to feed his addiction.
When it comes to our own misfortunes, we put all kinds of restrictions on being self-compassionate. Perhaps I can feel compassionate towards myself when my friend said something unkind, but not for the time I dated that man that I knew was wrong for me and it ended badly. Or I can feel compassion when I was an innocent victim, but not when I did something against my better judgement; in that case I deserved everything I got!
We can be so cruel to ourselves! We withhold compassion when we need it the most; when we’ve failed miserably and when we’ve disappointed ourselves. We can learn to challenge these self-imposed limits to self-compassion! We don’t need to castigate ourselves; adding immeasurably to our suffering. We can comfort ourselves instead. We can remind ourselves that like every other human being we make mistakes, use poor judgement and sometimes make a mess of things. Picking up the pieces after a really hard fall is difficult and being compassionate with ourselves can help us become more resilient and heal more quickly.
I think my tea bag has it right. Compassion has no limits - if we only give ourselves permission to feel it.
With Kindness, Patricia
I have this image of myself from childhood that is hard to shake. I think it comes from those early report cards where the teachers commented that I didn’t try hard enough, that I day dreamed too much and that I gave up too easily. I accepted this as the true assessment of my character: I was lazy.
I found myself in a dead end career in my twenties and decided to apply myself for the first time to my studies. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could do well. I was much smarter than I thought! From that point forward I was hooked on striving. I went back to school over and over again – thinking that my life would be good once I achieved this degree or had that job. And it wasn’t just in my career; I was always striving to get to a particular fitness level - especially the magic number on the scales.
I was proud of my striving and received praise and encouragement for my self- discipline and ambition. But here is the thing - it was never enough.
Striving is about trying to make your life better than it is today. Ambition isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s not living your life in the present that’s the problem. It’s the belief that today isn’t ok and you must achieve this or that in the future to be happy. It’s running through your days only waiting to start your life in the future. I know a lot of people that are waiting for their retirement so that they can start to enjoy life. But life offers no guarantees – what if today is all you’ve got?
Striving is very hard to give up because after so many years of practice it has become my default way of thinking. There is that old underlying fear – if I’m not striving to achieve something am I just a lazy under achiever?
What can help to interrupt this habitual way of thinking? Mindfulness practice. This means stopping to savour what life is offering today. It means being present and not focused on some other time in the future when the conditions will be optimal. I forget to do this all the time. So when I do catch myself striving, I try to be self-compassionate and remember that this is just an old habit of my mind.
I think I will take a moment right now and lazily savour the sun streaming through the window and watch the chipmunk on my deck staring at me.
With kindness, Patricia
The first time I heard Kristin Neff talk about using self-compassion versus self-criticism for motivation, it seemed like the most radical idea I had ever heard. Kristin asked “How would you try to help a friend if she wanted to lose weight? Would you berate her for over eating, call her names; chastise her for being lazy and having no self-discipline? No”, she said, “you would likely be kind, encourage her not to give up when she fails, point out the areas where she has made progress; you’d be her cheerleader. Now contrast this with how you try to motivate yourself to make changes”.
Kristin’s words really challenged me. My motivational approach to exercise was based on guilt trips for failing to work out, followed by shaming myself for the inability to meet my standards! Gee, I wonder why this was ineffective?? It’s not surprising that establishing an exercise routine was such a chore when I had to endure all of this self-degradation. So how does one motivate oneself to exercise with self-compassion? The first thing I noticed when I really started to analyze it was all the negative critical messages associated exercising – feel the burn, no pain no gain –words that actually encourage suffering for the glory of physical fitness. Even “Just do it" appears to have an underlying negative judgement to it; (Just do it you lazy bum – is what I always imagine is the intended end of that sentence).
So I’m trying something new. I’m going to try to use self-compassion to motivate myself. Like all efforts to be more self-compassionate, it will likely take a lot of practice to change my habitual way of thinking. One small change is that I’m going to drop the illusive “self-discipline” out of my internal vocabulary. I think “discipline” evokes feelings of being bad and needing to be punished and controlled – definitely not motivating. Secondly, when I feel like I don’t want to exercise I’m going to ask myself – What would be the easiest most enjoyable type of physical activity that I could do today? I’ll try to use walking in nature and yoga (things I love) as my primary exercises; if I do other things like weights or tread mill that will just be a bonus!
Oh and the most important thing - when I fail to exercise or gain a little weight, I’m going to try to be kind to myself, encourage myself to not to give up, focus on the areas where I’ve made progress and be my own cheerleader.
With Kindness, Patricia