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.”

Kicking Open the Door

medium_1805045379I’m going to start keeping track of when the word “open” (my word-of-the-year) shows up in my life. Today I was flipping through Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and the book just opened to this section:

At Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen described hearing Dylan’s music for the very first time. Springsteen was 15, he said, riding in the car with his mother, idly listening to the radio, when “Like a Rolling Stone” came on. It was as though, Springsteen recalled, “somebody took his boot and kicked open the door to your mind.” His mother’s verdict: “That man can’t sing.” Mrs. Springsteen’s response reminds us that we don’t all react the same way to the same experience–and her son’s reminds us that life holds moments when our perspective dramatically shifts, when our assumptions are deeply challenged, when we see new possibilities or sense for the first time that whatever has been holding us back from freedom or creativity or new ventures might actually be overcome.

There are moments when we sense that tomorrow doesn’t have to look like today–that the feeling of defeat that’s been flattening us for what seems like forever can lift, that our anxiety needn’t define us, that the delight we been postponing and the love we long for could be nearer at hand than we’d thought.”

Sharon’s 28-day Meditation Challenge is going on right now. Click here for lots of inspiration and resources.

photo credit: seagers via photo pin CC

Long Days, Short Summer

Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long but the years are short.” That’s how I feel about this summer. Some of the days dragged for me, especially dealing with more pain than usual (see my post Tiny Dreams). But now I don’t know where the time went. Everyone is back in school and fall is near.

Despite the pain, there are definitely fun times I will remember about this summer. I feel a little silly sharing them–they’re not exciting things like going on vacation or anything like that. But they mean something to me.

* Watching the HBO series, Flight of the Concords, as a family for the third time. It’s hard to describe the show’s appeal; you’d probably either love it or hate it. The series revolves around a pair of folk singers from New Zealand as they try to achieve success as a band in New York City. It’s off-beat and quirky. I love it that we all three laugh out loud through every episode. (Well, I’ll be honest. Greg did fall asleep once.)

* Turning a large walk-in closet in the basement into a makeshift recording studio for our son. We pinned old comforters all over the walls and had blankets lining the ceiling. A folding chair and old table for his laptop, plus his guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, ukulele and some other new instruments ordered off the Internet (a melodica?) made for a cozy space. It was pretty insulated, but occasionally I’d hear some random clapping wafting through the vents. I’m so happy our home could be a place where he could create his own wonderful (also off-beat, quirky, and make-you-smile) kind of music.

*Spending lots of time sitting on the covered patio just watching the birds and hearing the neighborhood kids playing. I really embraced just being, and didn’t worry that I didn’t “accomplish” much of anything this summer (see my post Busy Be Gone).

I’d be tickled pink if you’d like my self-compassion Facebook page–you can click here. You can also follow me on Twitter by clicking here. I’m turning into a social media junkie 🙂

Here is Gretchen Rubin’s heart-warming one-minute video, The Years are Short.

The Grass Grows Where You Water It

I saw this saying, “The grass grows where you water it,” and it speaks to how I’m feeling today.

It’s May 1st, and I usually would have already had my monthly goals mapped out in my mind (and on paper). But not this month. I’ve been busy living, so that’s a good thing! I’m loving my writing class, and I’ve chosen to spend my extra time soaking up all that goodness. I also went on a blogging binge last week and posted something Monday through Friday. Whew!

But (I know, there shouldn’t always be a but)…I’m having trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time. In February, I did great when I followed Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day meditation challenge. In March, I focused more on my physical health, managing my chronic pain, and have made some significant diet changes (you know, I reluctantly joined the free-range chicken/organic produce/supplement-popping club). In April, I immersed myself in the Alchemy writing class. In the meantime, I’ve let the meditation slide, although I’m managing to keep the dietary changes intact. I’ve found that when I focus my attention, I’m quite capable of making changes in my life. Yet I have trouble maintaining the changes, especially while trying to introduce new things, as well.

photo by Omega Man, Flickr CC

Does anyone know how to keep everything going?  I think I need one of those really long soaker hoses, so I can keep everything watered at once.

Although I don’t have my May goals to share with you, I want to tell you this. I’m being much more self-compassionate.  I sensed it and felt it, but I wanted proof. I retook the self-compassion test and compared it to the results when I began this project (you can find the test here). My scores show I’ve made significant strides in each of the areas measured. I’m really grateful and excited about that!

I’m not even too worried about not having any formal goals this month. I’ll probably start meditating again, because as Sharon Salzberg says, you can always begin again. I don’t even feel guilty (HUGE change) for not meditating. That’s just the way it’s happened. I’ll keep working on my health and exploring ways to manage my pain. I’ll definitely keep writing. And a huge thank you to everyone who keeps reading The Self-Compassion Project. Happy May Day!

photo by Greg Markway

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately

Although Toni Bernhard’s book is called How to be Sick, I found it a lovely and poignant read on how to live, regardless of one’s health status.

Toni was a law professor at the University of California–Davis when she became ill on a trip to Paris in 2001. At the time, she was diagnosed with an acute viral infection–“the Parisian flu” they called it. Unfortunately, she never got better. Amazingly, she wrote How to be Sick from her bed using a laptop. The book won the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology and was named one of the best books of 2010 by Spirituality and Practice.

Toni has not recovered her health, but her spirit remains strong. She writes regularly for Psychology Today and generously donates her time and wisdom. I was so excited when she graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

When do you accept your pain or health condition as is, and when do you keep trying new approaches?

In my opinion, we have to do both. Acceptance is not the same as indifference or resignation, which carry aversion with them. Acceptance to me is an opening of the heart to the difficulties we face and being able to say, “This is how things are right now” even if “how things are” is difficult. I try to accept how I am AND continue to pursue new treatments. But I’ve learned a lot in the past eleven years about having to pick and choose skillfully among those treatments.

First, of course is the cost. I’ve spent so much money on failed treatments that it’s been a strain on our budget. At the point when the strain outweighs any benefit I can foresee, I stop (I did this recently with the third Chinese herbalist, even though he’s one of the most respected herbalists in the world).

Second, I’ve had to learn to not just jump at every treatment option, but think about it carefully and see if it’s at all reasonable. I used to try everything. Now, I’m very careful.

So, you have to find a middle way — but to me, acceptance of how you are now AND continuing to pursue treatments are not in conflict with each other.

I have also gone through periods where I’m just too exhausted to keep an eye out for treatments. I just retreat, as if I’m in hibernation, and that seems to be good for me sometimes too.

How do you have self-compassion when you’re feeling sick and tired?

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

I really think it helps to speak to yourself with words of self-compassion — to find just the right words for the moment: “It so hard to be sick yet another day.” I said to my husband yesterday, “I’m sick of being sick.” But, instead of “feeding” that thought with stories I spin: “I’ll never get well.” “I’ve been cheated of eleven years of my life,” I’ve learned to just let myself feel “sick of being sick” and speak to myself kindly about it. It’s natural for that emotion to arise so I try not to make it stronger by feeling it with worse-case-scenario stories. Instead, I’m just gentle with myself until the emotion passes — as it will.

How do you deal with uncertainty and unpredictability that goes along with chronic illness?

I use what I call “weather practice,” which I describe in my book. It was inspired by the movie, The Weather Man, which takes us inside the meteorologist’s craft where we see that the weather is unpredictable and ever changing. I use this as a metaphor for life. It helps me hold painful physical symptoms and blue moods more lightly. I can’t predict when they’ll arise but I know for sure that they’re just blowing through, like the wind. It makes it easier to wait them out. It applies to what happened yesterday when I suddenly got that “sick of being sick” feeling. I wasn’t expecting it to descend on me but it did. So I let it be there, knowing that it was an arising and passing mood. Sometimes, I do something particularly nice for myself — put on a movie — until the mood passes.

I also like to remind myself that uncertainty and unpredictability can work in my favor. We assume they’ll be a source of stress, but they could also mean that something unanticipated but wonderful is just around the corner. So, I like to remember that these two can be our friends.

How do you pace yourself (not doing too much on good days, then paying for it later)?

Now you’re asking about something I’m not very good at doing. I get off the hook a bit because my symptoms are pretty consistent from day to day — relentless you could call them. So for me, it’s not a question of overdoing it on a good day v. a bad day, but of overdoing it when something I enjoy is going on — like my son and his family coming up for the day from Berkeley. I try to pace myself but usually overdo it anyway. Then what do I do? Self-compassion again! There are some limits to which I can’t stretch myself, but visiting in the living room for longer than I should is one of them. And so I do it, and accept that paying the consequence was worth it.

How do you deal with anger?

I’ve been angry about my inability to be with my family more than I can. Sometimes, I do have to leave the living room and it’s hard to listen from the bedroom to all the laughter and good times I’m missing. But I’ve learned that getting angry doesn’t get me anywhere. It certainly doesn’t allow me to visit longer. All it does is increase our suffering.

Anger will arise. Don’t be upset with yourself for getting angry. It’s a natural response to your situation. The question is, how can you respond skillfully to it so as to minimize the suffering it causes. Here’s what I do. I note that it’s there, often by labeling it, “Feeling angry” or “This is what anger feels like.” I don’t get angry at myself for being angry — that’s just a judgment that makes the anger worse. In fact, I try to treat it like a guest I know well — an uninvited one perhaps, but still a guest. I find if I do this, it doesn’t fester and grow stronger. Then I look for what’s behind the anger. Almost always it’s some form of desire — I’m not getting what I want or I’m getting what I don’t want. It’s that “want/don’t want” I refer to in the book.

Just finding the desire that’s the source of the anger often loosens its grip on me, because I know, deep down, that we simply can’t fulfill all our desires and that if I continue to be angry about it, it will only make me more miserable and, in the end, won’t get me what I want. So, with this awareness that anger is present and that it’s because of a desire I can’t fulfill, I just let it be. Just sit with it. Just let it be until it gradually changes, weakens, and passes out of my mind. This is one of the ways in which the law of impermanence can be our friend!

Again, I’m so thankful to Toni for sharing her wisdom.  

To soak up more of Toni’s inspiration, click here.

Thinking about the Weather

photo by Greg

They say in Missouri that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will change. I’m pretty sure they say this in a lot of places. Right now, it’s pouring down rain. My dogs are mad that their bathroom is wet 🙂 I’m waiting for a webinar to begin of Dr. Kristen Neff teaching about self-compassion. She’s speaking from California live, and I’ll bet the weather is warm and sunny there.

In the meditation practice I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been working with thoughts. We all have a stream of automatic thoughts running through our minds. These thoughts are often undetectable, yet powerful nonetheless.  It’s like having background music playing while you work. Most of the time you don’t even notice it’s on — you simply go about what you’re doing. But have you ever felt that different music affects your mood or even your energy level? Perhaps also your ability to concentrate?

In my book Painfully Shy, I offered this tip on dealing with automatic thoughts: Call a spade a spade.  I wrote: “The first thing you must do to deal with automatic thoughts is identify and label them appropriately. Recognize your socially anxious thoughts for what they are — misleading and maladaptive. Thoughts running through your mind such as, “Everyone is staring at me” or “I’m such a loser,” are simply not true — they’re manifestations of social anxiety. It can be an enormous help to relabel these thoughts and realize you don’t have to pay attention to them.”

I went on: “This technique of ‘relabeling’ your thoughts is used in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder in which people are plagued with obsessive thoughts (e.g., I will be contaminated by germs) and compulsions (e.g., I must wash my hands over and over). In his book Brain Lock, UCLA School of Medicine psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz describes OCD’s intrusive thoughts as the brain misfiring. He instructs people to tell themselves, ‘It’s not me — it’s my OCD.’

In my experience, the thoughts of social anxiety sufferers are equally intrusive and unpleasant. No one wakes up one morning and says, ‘I’d like to worry all day long about what other people think of me.’ And although it’s probably not as simple as the brain misfiring, relabeling anxious thoughts as being at least partly biological can be quite helpful. Telling yourself, ‘It’s not me — it’s my anxiety,’ relieves you of some of the guilt and shame you may feel about having the thoughts in the first place.”

In Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness, and in many of her meditation CDs, she also talks about thoughts not being facts, or acts. They’re just thoughts. She writes: “Thoughts moving through your mind are like clouds moving across the sky. They are not the sky, and the sky remains unchanged by them.”

And to end with a touch of humor on this rainy day, a quote from George Carlin:

“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.”

Take What You Need

I’ve been feeling both antsy and lethargic since Sharon Salzberg’s “official” meditation challenge was over in February. I almost hate to admit it, but I went a few days without meditating. I thought about it. But I didn’t do it.

I noticed a few things. First of all, I didn’t feel as good, just in general. I was more tired than usual, and I spent a lot of time lying on the couch. Now this could be for any number of reasons (a lot of people have been getting sick around here). It did cross my mind, though, that I was going through meditation withdrawal—or maybe even Sharon withdrawal 🙂 The second thing I noticed was a bit of a shocker: I wasn’t beating up on myself.  In the past I would’ve condemned myself for being a “fraud”—here I spent a month blogging about meditation and then I quit. Yet, I remembered Sharon’s words from Week One. The “magic” in meditation is learning that we can begin again. Maybe we made a poor choice about something; we can begin again. Maybe we said some unkind words to someone; we can apologize and begin again. Maybe we ate too many Oreos; we don’t have to wait for tomorrow (or Monday morning) to start eating healthier. We can begin again, right now.

Of course, I didn’t have these revelations with out a tiny bit of struggle.

Yesterday I was pacing around the living room, feeling wound up and agitated, and I told Greg, “I just don’t know what I need.” Fortunately, he sometimes knows what I need better than I know myself. He said, “Why don’t you go and meditate?” Hmm. That sounded okay. So I went into the room that I have dedicated to this practice. I have a picture on a little table that says, “Take what you need.” I lit a candle, gazed at the picture, and enjoyed some soothing music for a while. Then I listened to Sharon Salzburg’s breathing meditation, and followed with some more meditating on my own.

I love the saying, “Take What You Need.”* But what if you don’t know what you need? What then? What if I hadn’t had Greg to nudge me in the right direction? I felt so relaxed and peaceful after meditating. Why had it taken me days to figure out that’s what I needed?

Of course, I always like things to be wrapped up in a neat little package. I asked Greg to help me brainstorm “tips” for how to figure out what you need. It seems like all good blog posts need tips. (My niece would add “LOL” at this point.) Without pausing, Greg replied, “When you don’t know what you need, just let yourself be.” Well, that sounds poetic, but it wasn’t very satisfying to me. I still had the urge to “operationalize” it more. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Accept the fact that you don’t know what you need.
  • Give yourself compassion for not knowing what you need. Say things to yourself such as, “It’s hard when you don’t know what you need.”
  • Try some things on for size: Do you need to call a friend? Do you need to take a warm bath? Perhaps make a cup of tea? Do something you’ve been putting off?
  • Realize that you may need more than one thing. Just try one and see how it goes. You can always change. You can always begin again.

I wonder whether, over time, meditation will help me be more in tune with what I need at each moment. I’m betting the answer is yes. But I’ll let you know.

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!)

*See Kelly Rae Roberts blog for some of her awe-inspiring artwork and the idea behind this picture.