Kindness Is the Means and End

Sounds TrueThese are my notes from Session 3 of The Self-Acceptance Project at Sounds True.
In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Geneen Roth, a writer and teacher whose work focuses on using addiction as a path to the inner universe. Geneen is the bestselling author of Feeding the Hungry Heart, and with Sounds True has created the audio learning course When Food Is Food and Love Is Love.

Tami asked Geneen to talk about working with the self-critical voice in our head.  Here are the main points she made.

Step One: It’s really important to normalize it. You’re not alone. Everyone has that inner voice. Some people’s inner voice is just a lot more vicious than others.

Step Two: Disengage or dis-identify with the critical voice. Say, “Oh, there it is again.”

Action: Write out a list of 10 criticisms that you’ve said to yourself in the past half hour. Then say these out loud in the tone of voice that you hear them in your mind. And say it starting with “You.” Such as “You are so stupid.” Or “You are so fat.”  People are shocked when they hear it said that way. This helps you to step back and disengage.

The first step is awareness, because only with awareness can you take action.

1.  The action can be asking your self, “Is this true?” (Is it true what the voice is saying?)

2.  The action can be agreeing with the voice with some type of humor. Example: “You think I ate a lot for lunch. Just wait until you see what I’m going to eat for dinner.” (It’s a way of disengaging.)

3.  This next idea works for some people but not others: You tell the voice to shut the hell up!

Tami pointed out that some of the other presenters have suggested that the inner critic has some function (such as self-protection) and asked Geneen to comment. Geneen said the problem is the moral judgment that so often goes along with the inner voice. When you say, “Hmm. You gained 5 pounds. I wonder what that is about” is a whole a lot different than, “You’re such a failure. You gained 5 pounds.”

The moral judgment that is often tied up in the inner voice blocks you from having any type of clarity or curiosity; it just makes you feel diminished, small and like you want to hide.

People are somehow hypnotized with this belief that if we somehow shame ourselves enough we will end up to be happy, loving, self-accepting people. I ask them, “How does that work for you?”

Geneen RothGeneen has done a lot of work with compulsive eating and body image, and Tami asked her to talk some about that. Her basic points:

If you shame and deprive yourself into losing weight you will end up as a shamed and deprived person who may have  thin hips for about 10 minutes. But the shame and deprivation will lead you to overeat and you’ll gain it back.

Does shame and punishment and fear and guilt work at any level for any kind of long-lasting change? (No.)

The bottom line: Kindness is the name of the game.

Compassion for the Self-Critic

Sounds TrueThese are notes I took from last night’s session of  The Self-Acceptance Project presented by Sounds True. It’s not a word-for-word transcription, but it will give you the basics and a feel for Kristin’s warm tone. It’s still online and free, so check it out.

Session 1: Compassion for the Self-Critic

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of Human Resources and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. Kristin is the author of the book Self-Compassion and the creator of the Sounds True audio learning course Self-Compassion Step by Step. She and her family were also the subjects of the 2009 documentary and book The Horse Boy.

Why is self-compassion getting so much more attention these days?

1. Societal shifts – the false promise of the self-esteem movement.

2. A general shift – a recognition that the heart has to be an equal player along with the mind.

What is the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion?

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of oneself. Unfortunately, the way we have gotten our self-esteem has been by comparing ourselves to others, and it’s not seen as good enough to be average. So everyone has to be above average, and there’s obviously a flaw in that logic.  An unintended consequence of the self-esteem movement in the schools has been creating a generation of narcissistic and entitled children.

In contrast, self-compassion is not about evaluating yourself positively. It’s about how you relate to yourself.

Why are we so self-critical?

Self-criticism taps into the threat/defense response. This system is hard-wired and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well. When you view yourself as the problem (I can’t believe I gained those 5 pounds back, I should’ve gotten an A on that test) the reptilian brain kicks in and attacks yourself, thus the self-critical self-talk.

Self-compassion moves you from the reptilian brain to the mammalian caregiving system of tending/befriending. Mammal’s young are designed to attach closely with the mother to stay safe. Mammals respond to warm, soft touch and a soothing voice. So a great self-compassion technique is a physical gesture of affection, such as putting your hand on your heart and saying words to yourself in a supportive, soothing tone. Research is showing that the tone of voice in how we talk to ourselves is very important.

We have to let go of self-criticism as the problem, though. We have to have compassion for the self critic. Self-criticism comes from a desire to keep ourselves safe. So we first have to have compassion for the critical voice. The self-critical voice needs to be heard, and then paradoxically it can quiet down. Then you can bring in self-compassion techniques. You can say to  yourself,  “I want to keep you safe too, but I want to do it in a more effective way.”

You talk about self-compassion having three components. Can you talk more about that?

Yes, the first component is self-kindness, which we just discussed–talking to ourselves in a kind, gentle way and offering ourselves the support we need.

Another aspect of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. In essence, acknowledging that everyone is flawed: this is part of the human experience. It helps to remember that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. Isolation also has an evolutionary explanation. If you get disconnected from the group, you get eaten by the lion…so it’s very scary! That’s why we need to remind ourselves that suffering, being flawed and imperfect, is a part of life.

The third component is mindfulness: being able to recognize in the moment when you’re suffering. It’s amazing how much negative self-talk goes on just under your awareness. We teach formal meditation, but research is showing that the informal self-compassion techniques we’re teaching are just as effective. Self-compassion isn’t that hard. We have these skills that we use for our friends or our children. We just have to remember to do it for ourselves.

Why do we have such trouble with being compassionate with ourselves?

There are really two very closely related reasons. One, when we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control. Self-judgment says that if only I would have tried harder, things would’ve worked out. It’s scary to admit how little control we sometimes have. Two, we really believe that we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves. This is the number one reason people give for not wanting to be self-compassionate. They are afraid they’ll be lazy or not do what they need to do. However, when we are in a self-critical place, this is the worst possible mindset in which to do our best.

In conclusion, Kristin led viewers in a “Self-Compassion Break.” 

Think of something you’re struggling with. Assume a self-compassion posture, such as the hand on the heart. Say to yourself in a kind tone of voice, “This is a moment of suffering,” or “This is really hard right now.” – “Suffering is a part of life; I’m not alone in this. Other people feel the same way.”—“May I be kind to myself in this moment and may I give myself the kindness I need.”