The Power Of Self Compassion
Over the past couple months, I have been conducting a study on self-compassion and its effect on inner-criticism, shame and anxiety. Through both research and personal experiences, I can say that self-compassion has a significant effect on mood, empathy, motivation and confidence. Practicing self-compassion has been shown to reduce inner criticism, self-loathing, shame, anxiety and depression while increasing, empathy, self-efficacy, motivation, resilience and self-esteem without breeding narcissism, self-centeredness and selfishness. When I practice self-compassion I neither deny or amplify the suffering I am experiencing—I can be aware of my inner-critic, without allowing these voices and uncomfortable feelings hijack me.
Personally I have a loud inner critic and as a wellness educator and yoga teacher I get asked about how to work with inner criticism and difficult emotions all the time. One of the most empowering things I have learned is that these difficult emotions are part of the human experience; they are not personal. Avoiding, rejecting, judging, repressing or numbing them actually enhances them, which eventually leads to destructive/unethical behavior. Learning (or unlearning) how to experience emotions in a less apprehensive or guarded way allows these feelings to become messengers instead of hijackers. Understanding the importance of “emotional intelligence” and emotional regulation on behavior, self-esteem and wellness I have become interested in how we can experience our difficult emotions without feeling overwhelmed or ashamed. Personally I have found that mindfulness practices can sometimes make me feel worse, more critical and anxious and through research discovered that there are some limitations to these practices especially for those who have experienced trauma, or high amounts of inner criticism and shame. How can we accept the “imperfections” and “messy” as a part of the human experience without criticism, judgement or denial? This curiosity has led me to the self-compassion practices and how they can fortify our self-care and mindfulness practices allowing us to breakthrough and become more resilient versus breaking down, criticizing, judging and blaming.
I have also been extremely interested in what motivates behavior, especially “self-improvement” and or “goal setting”. What I have discovered is that much of our so called “self-improvement” is just self-hate in disguise. Who we are being is also what we are becoming, and if we enter these self-care practices or set goals with beliefs of “not good enough”, “broken”, “bad”, “ugly”, “I will be worthy of love when”, “I will feel better about myself if”.….. then we are feeding shame and inner criticism. Fear begets fear, lack fuels more lack and like a rat in the wheel we spend our life chasing external forms of gratification, yet true satisfaction and fulfilment seems elusive. How can we make our self-care practices about self-love versus self-hate—honoring, nurturing and respecting versus fixing, forcing and improving? Once again this question led me in the direction of cultivating an internal focus of self-compassion that facilitates soothing, contentment and inner peace—I can feel whole, complete, content and satisfied without needing to “do” or achieve anything. When I set an intention or “goals” from this place, they are more “aligned” with my heart than it is about chasing external validation.
My intention for writing this month’s blog and sharing some of my personal experience and research is to empower you with some education on the neuro-biology and psychology of inner-criticism and shame in addition to sharing some personal tools that I (and research) have found to be effective in relating to these experiences and rewiring the panel of assholes (inner critic).
Grab a tea…….this is going to be a long one (perhaps it will land itself in a book soon (ish) or a week long retreat called BEology: The science of inner peace and the art of living like you give a F%&k …….wink wink)
”I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever.Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.” Brené Brown
Compassion, Courage and Resilience
I would love to say I am completely transformed as a result of my self-study on self-compassion practices, or that self-compassion has completely changed the way I feel and relate to myself daily, however the inner-critic and resulting uncomfortable emotions are part of our human operating system; we are designed with a negativity bias designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. (See my blog on stress for more info) In addition life is difficult, unpredictable and challenging #shithappens #lifeismessy. To think that all of this suffering will just dissolve is an unrealistic expectation and expectations are disappointments waiting to happen (creating even more shame around suffering). What I can say however is that I am more able to both recognize my inner panel of assholes (inner critics) have tea with them (listen to them but not jump into bed with them) and relate to the resulting uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and sensation that arise in a more kind, open and depersonalized way. When I do manage to do this, they become messengers from within versus terrorists who hijack my behaviour. I have realized that sometimes my anger, jealousy, and frustration have something to tell me about needs that are being ignored. Often my anxiety reminds me that I am uncomfortable because I am pursuing something I am passionate about and this comes with some additional stress and sympathetic response (people literally jump out of airplanes for the same feelings). Sometimes my inner critic reminds me and even motivates me towards what is really important in my life—my deep desires and core values. In this case the only reason these critics are so intense is because I really care and therefore the stakes are high. I have personally become aware that anger and resentment are sadnesses bodyguards. It is way easier for me to be pissed off than sad. Jealousy is also an intense emotion I experience often. When I can meet my jealousy with calmness bubble wrapped in compassion it feels less shameful, uncomfortable and nauseating. When I can get underneath the intensity I see the innocence of a small child feeling invalid, insecure or invisible. Instead of overcompensating, competing, and feeding the deep roots of lack, I offer kindness, warmth and understanding; the same way I would console a small child.
I am slowly embodying this idea that we are perfectly imperfect, our imperfections are what make us unique and beautiful and all of those other things we say about self-love. I have always known that this is true and feel deep compassion and kindness for others and yet feeling it internally is challenging at times. Actually, embodying or feeling self-love is a completely different experience than just talking about it.
Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.—Rumi
Excavating the Heart
Excavating the heart can be intense. It requires that we compassionately explore our inner compass: sensations, emotions, thoughts and beliefs, which is an absolute necessity on the path towards healing and “living on purpose”. We need to trust that we can handle the intensity of our feelings and allow them to guide us courageously forward. It is the action of trying to avoid or cling to these various experiences that leave us caught in a perpetual cycle of suffering. When we lean into and look at the suffering through a compassionate lens we can begin to transform it, but again in order to transform it you have to see it first. “In order to heal you need to feel”. Some days when I am feeling anxious or moments of intense criticism I literally have to place my hands on my chest, plant my feet on the floor while focusing on breathing warmth and calmness into the space around my heart to reduce the the stress response. I ground myself in my body through cultivating feelings of soothing and connectedness and often after a few deep breaths (and gluteal engagement) I say to my self “you got this” or “I am capable” or whatever I identify as the cause of my suffering.
Courage means to show, act and live from your heart. The word “cour” literally means heart. Bravery, which is the action of courage, acknowledges that there is fear and discomfort, it does not pretend that everything is fine or “its all good” When someone is said to be brave, it is because they are frightened and act boldly in spite of this fear—they are willing to be vulnerable, to feel and open up to it all. Positive adaptation to adversity is resilience and the more resilience we develop the more comfortable we become with discomfort. The metaphor for the lotus is that this beautiful flower grows out of the depths of the swamp. No mud. No Lotus.
BEology: The Science of Inner Peace and the Art of Engaged Living
I have realized that the more I practice self-compassion, the more I can embrace life. In intense moments of discomfort, I can be more motivated by love and less motivated by my fear (jealousy, insecurity, lack, inadequacy and unworthiness) Instead of reacting, deflecting, pushing away and numbing, I can align more with my heart and it’s values, trust my guts (intuition) and live like I give a f$&k. When I do get hijacked by my internal assholes I can practice compassion towards that as well. I can be more honest, and more forgiving instead of beating myself up or self-sabotaging. In the past few months I have cried more, apologized more and had to give myself more self-compassion interventions than seems “normal”. However, I have also felt deep moments of connection, forgiveness, joy, gratitude, empathy and love as a result.
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
― John Lennon
What is self-compassion
Mindfulness through the lens of self-compassion involves being aware of personal experiences of suffering or difficulty in a way that neither rejects or amplifies these thoughts and emotions. According to compassion expert and author, Dr Kristen Neff,
“Self-compassion entails three main components: (a) self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical, (b) common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them”
In 1872 Darwin suggested that emotions are “a product of evolution that result in behaviors that will increase our chances of survival”. Since then the landscape has changed on what emotions are and why we have them. Instead of taking you through pages of theory, we might simply say that emotions are both cognitive (in our minds) and physiological (in our bodies) and as a result create feelings and physiological responses that motivate our behaviour (that is a very simple statement about a very complex experience). In the case of emotional intelligence (EI) the more we can identify what we are feeling in the moment, the more proactive we can be with our responses, allowing us to both honour our needs while acting in a way that is appropriate to the current situation. The more we personally refine this art, the more we can empathize with others emotions as well and learn to communicate in a way that honours their feelings and needs in addition to our own. This is the basic theory behind “non-violent communication”.
Another expert in the field of compassion, Dr Paul Gilbert suggests that human beings have a three-part emotional regulation system. This model explains that people can be in states of:
- ‘threat’ (focused on dangers and survival. Motivated through fight or flight; Cortisol and Adrenalin),
- ‘drive’ (achievement, competition and pleasure seeking; Dopamine driven),
- ‘soothing’ (satisfied, connected and peaceful. A sense of “inter-being” or “oneness”; Oxytocin).
Each of the states is then associated with distinct feelings/emotions, motivations, and chemical/biological responses. Gilbert and others suggest that imbalances are common in this system as a result of our lifestyles and life experiences which cause over use of one at the expense of the other. For example, those who experienced trauma or neglect in childhood may have reduced functioning and access to the soothing system leading to hyper-vigilance in the threat system. In our culture that is obsessed with better, bigger, richer, faster, and our constant drive towards self-improvement and goal crushing, we have become” human do-ings” versus human beings. This obsession with “doing” leads to over development of the drive system, again at the expense of the soothing system leaving us constantly “hustling” but never satisfied.
In the literature, it has been suggested that self-compassion provides emotional resilience through the temporary deactivation or weakening of the threat and drive systems while activating and fortifying the soothing system. The self-compassion practices allow us to cultivate an inner warmth, contentment and satisfaction that does not depend on us accomplishing or doing anything. I like to refer to this as “being”. This fortification of our soothing affect system, weakens the cycle of over identification, isolation and hyper-vigilance, while increasing feelings of interconnectedness or “inter-being”, allowing us to relate to our suffering in a less personalized and intense way.
There are many theories about what our inner critic is, why we have it and where it comes from. Again, for simplicity lets define it as the inner voice that criticizes, judges and tries to control our behavior. Some psychologists have said that it develops from early experiences with criticism that are internalized and others suggest it is part of our social survival operating system. As human beings in addition to being wired to survive, avoid pain and seek pleasure we are also wired for connection. Our social survival is wired to the same fight or flight response as if a hungry bear walks into the room. Similar to our needs for safety, food, and water, as humans we have a need to be accepted, connected and liked. It is theorized that the inner critic is part of our social operating system that is designed to make sure we fit in and everybody likes us. Regardless of the theory the inner critic wants something from you and its designed to motivate you towards a certain behaviour. In fMRI studies, they actually were able to “light up” the default mode network (DMN) by having the test subjects focus on self-judgment and worrying about what others think. Self-criticism or as I call them the panel of assholes, is not personal its part of our biology. Its not you, it’s your brain. We identify more strongly with the self-critic when we feel lack, fear and shame, which is why self-compassion practices can be so effective in working with inner criticism. The inner critic is confusing and devastating because it feels so real but really it’s the part of our brain designed for social survival trying to keep us from being too bold and courageous. Often the critic is actually pointing you in the direction of your heart because when you are really passionate about something, the stakes are high and your inner critic will most likely be as well.
Re-wiring the panel of assholes and cultivating self-compassion
Now that we know what self-compassion is and have some information on inner-criticism and motivation let move on to the “how to list” which provides a list of practices for cultivating self-compassion and re-wiring your panel of assholes.
A tool that I have found very helpful during intense moments of suffering, shame and inner-criticism is a self compassion intervention. I have found it effective to close my eyes, place my hands on my chest, or one hand on my heart and low belly encouraging deep breaths into these areas. In last months blog on stress I discussed how deep breathing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (linked to soothing affect system) via the vagus nerve. As I feel the sensation of breath and touch in my body, I drop out of my head, where the inner-critic and stress are created and into the moment; widening the aperture and depersonalizing the experience a little. From here I place my one hand on my heart and one hand on my low belly deepening the breath into these spaces. I allow any feelings of suffering to arise meeting them with kindness. I use the acronym S.O.U.L for this process.
- Stop:notice that you are being hijacked and arrive in your body in the moment.
- Observe:Notice without identifying with sensations, thoughts and emotions. Allow them to arise like bubbles from the bottom of a boiling pot, without the need to label, judge, or reject. Recognizing them as changing sensation in your field of awareness.
- Understand: This does not mean psychoanalize or over investigate, rather simply listening openly and acknowledge the messengers.
- Love: Meet everything openly and warmly with loving kindness. The goal is NOT to not think, be in a constant state a bliss or cleanse yourself of suffering. The goal is mindfulness or “intimacy”. To be with whatever you are experiencing in the moment, without the need to fix, or change anything. You may find it helpful to create an affirmation or set an intention here.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
A practice that has really helped me embody self-love, acceptance, and compassion is giving myself permission. Over the years I have found the act of giving myself permission is a lot easier than practicing forgiveness once all of the fear, shame, and guilt have hijacked my body and mind. Giving myself permission also means that I have to acknowledge all of my expectations and self-doubt right out of the gate. Anytime I am entering into a space where I feel vulnerable, whether I am learning something new, speaking in front of a room full of people, or about to have a difficult conversation, I take a moment to honor the associated feelings of nervousness, fear, discomfort, not enough-ness, and whatever else is arising in the moment. I then give myself permission to be human (recognizing my humanness) and to “not be perfect”, “be nervous”, “be awkward”, “struggle a little”, “suck at this,” and “be messy” etc. Once I give myself permission, I allow myself to step into the experience I am having as opposed to trying to be somewhere or be someone else, which leads to most of my anxiety and additional stress. I can create authentic connection as opposed to feeling like I am performing and therefore have no specific standards to meet or script to get perfect. When I do this, I can relax. Once we have given ourselves permission by acknowledging our fears we can then make a commitment to who and how we want to be in the situation that is more in alignment with our heart and core values. I can remind myself that the only reason I feel so nervous is that empowering others is one of my core values. When I remember this it becomes less about me and “if people like me” and more about being of service.
“When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
― Joseph Campbell
A practice that has been extremely helpful especially when dealing with my inner critic, is writing a self-compassion letter. This exercise is adapted from the Self-compassion work of author and compassion expert, Kristen Neff. You can find this exercise and other valuable information here: http://self-compassion.org
Whenever the panel is knocking me down and I feel stuck or paralyzed, I sit down with a pen and paper and write a letter to myself offering the same compassion, kindness and forgiveness, that I would to a close friend or family member who was suffering. When I write down these experiences replacing “I” with “you” I am depersonalizing the experience witch reduces the intensity. Before writing I take a moment to check in acknowledging and naming the emotions and discomfort I am feeling in the moment or about a particular incident. In this letter, I first identify and list the perceived inadequacy or judgments that I am experiencing followed by reminders of my humanness and my core values. I complete the letter with sentiments of kindness and reassurance—radiating love. Here is an example of a letter I wrote to myself when I was struggling with “Mom guilt”:
I know you feel like a bad Mom right now because you have been impatient and snappy with your kids. You also feel overwhelmed and like a failure when you cannot keep up with all of their activities, homemade meals and cleaning. It is normal to feel guilty or selfish about taking time for yourself to pursue your passions outside of the house. It is also completely acceptable to not get everything perfect, feel exhausted and need a break from time to time. You don’t have to be a super mom all the time. This does not make you a bad mom-it makes you a human mom. Many women are experiencing the same struggles; you are not alone. The reason you feel so guilty and selfish is that you value family connection and intimacy being really available, connected and nurturing to your children. If you did not care you would not feel so shitty right now. You are a good mom. Pursuing your passions and taking care of yourself is important because you can’t take care of others if you are not honoring your own needs of inspiration, growth and creativity. I want you to know your family loves you, respects your courage and thinks you are amazing…………even if it’s not all homemade and a little messy from time to time. You’ve got this.
This practice cultivates self-compassion through intimacy— being able to welcome, embrace and hold all of your experiences, without trying to change, edit, resist or repress anything. Welcoming everything: jealousy, anger, pride and all of those things we are usually ashamed of. We spend so much time and energy trying to get away from these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, often leading us towards destructive unconscious habits, that further disconnect and alienate. Instead of trying to get rid of or escape we learn to breathe into and welcome it. As we open to suffering we allow the heart to expand becoming spacious as it holds space for all of our humanness. This is the path of acceptance. We are training ourselves to remain open to the whole human experience so that we may develop emotional intelligence and cultivate compassion. Once I have taken a moment to drop into my body and checked in with my internal landscape: Emotions, thoughts and sensations, I place my hands on my heart and deepen the breath into this space and repeat the following statements internally:
Repeat internally to yourself:
May I be safe and free from suffering
May I be at peace and ease
May I be happy and healthy
May I be filled with loving kindness.
These statements can also be directed outwards replacing I with you, as you visualize a person in your life whom is suffering. You may also visualize a group of people, country or place and replace I with “we” or “may all beings”
Here is the link to an audio of the loving-kindness compassion meditation.
Yoga Nidra is a guided relaxation/meditation technique that allows us to rest deeply as we witness the various sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise in our field of awareness. As we begin to experience these feelings in a new way we loosen some of the grip of our reactiveness and negativity bias allowing us to reconnect with our deeper heart’s desire, intentions and core values. Here is the think to a guided yoga Nidra.
Gratitude allows me to instantly shift from a place of fear, lack and shame and into a state of abundance and love. We can sometimes get so caught up in the rat race due to our biology that we spend much of our day complaining about what we do not have (remember our brain is hardwired with a negativity bias). When we learn to focus on things we have rather than the things we don’t have, we create a feeling of abundance, satisfaction and contentment, which strengthens the soothing affect system. Because our brain is highly plastic this also allows us to sensitize it towards positive experiences, and weaken the negativity bias. In this meditation, we are reprogramming the mind, by reinforcing the positive aspects of our lives.
Take an opportunity to sit quietly. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Gently invite the breath to deepen. Imagine the breath warming and soothing the body as you relax deeper. Bring to mind someone or something in your life that you are grateful for. See if you can really use your senses to bring this visual to life and notice how this affects your body and mind. Deepen the breath and allow the breath to fill your body with gratitude. You may even begin to feel tears forming. If you would like begin to explore everything from your day or longer that you are grateful for. You may automatically find over time that some difficulties, once resolved present as opportunities for gratitude or perhaps the resilience as a result of difficulties can be reflected on from the lens of gratitude. Guided meditation can be found here.
Take some time to reflect through journaling on everything you are grateful for. Try this practice daily for a full month and see what shifts for you.
So much of our self-improvement is actually self-hate in disguise. We often approach self-care from the perspective that we are broken or damaged and need to be fixed, and while there may be some aspects of our lifestyles that are not working for us, it is important that we are motivated by self-respect and love instead of shame. Try adding a morning ritual and an evening ritual to your day. These do not have to be big, rather the goal is to nourish yourself and fortify the soothing affect system by deliberately giving yourself that which you are seeking in a nourishing healthy way. It could be as simple as a mist of aromatherapy or a fresh juice in the AM, fresh cut flowers on your counter or night stand, or lighting a candle10 min before bed while you do some relaxing. For movement, instead of stressing about exercise, calories burned, steps taken etc find something you like doing like dancing, or walking in nature and practice moving your body out of celebration instead of punishment. Deliberately taking care of yourself stimulates the soothing/contentment affect system.
The deliberate use of props, slow gentle movements and soothing body positions facilitates deep relaxation and safety. When we feel deeply supported we can then safely explore our emotions, thoughts and sensations in an open and relaxed way. Here is a link to a restorative yoga sequence for you to implement once a week.
Thank you for taking the time to explore this conversation with me. I acknowledge how much courage it takes to practice self-compassion. Be kind and gentle with yourself always and know that you are a beautiful miracle worthy of love and belonging. I will leave you with this beautiful piece on self-forgiveness that was shared with me by music therapist Sparrow Grace.
May all beings everywhere be peaceful and free,