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.”

My favorite way to explain self-compassion

medium_280999386My favorite way to explain giving yourself compassion is the analogy of how you would treat a small child. Let’s say your child is learning to walk. After a few wobbly steps, do you criticize him or her and say, “Look at you. You’re so clumsy. What’s wrong with you that you can’t walk yet.”? Of course not. You offer encouragement. You’re excited! You might even clap your hands in delight.

Now let’s say your child wants to eat candy for dinner. You set limits and say, “no” because only eating candy will likely make your child feel sick and it simply isn’t healthy. People mistakenly think that self-compassion always means saying “yes” to yourself. Sometimes it means saying “no”–but doing so with kindness. It’s important to remember that self-compassion involves nurturing and limit-setting.

Here’s another post I wrote about self-compassion and limit setting.

Here’s an interview I did with Dr. Alice Boyes over at her blog, In Practice, at Psychology Today on The Self-Compassion Project.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammra/280999386/  via Photopin, CC

Self-Compassion Techniques I Love

Locked HeartsI love these techniques because they’re quick and easy, and they make a difference in my day.

1. One technique I use daily is a gentle touch on my skin (maybe touch my forearm with my other hand) while I say something reassuring to myself. The touch actually releases oxytocin and sets off a calming response in the body. I discretely do this at work when I’m stressed (at home I may give myself a big hug!)

2. I often combine the self-compassionate touch with a phrase or self-compassion mantra, such as: “This is a moment of suffering; suffering is a part of life; may I be kind to myself and give myself what I need.” I have tried meditating and do it sometimes. I’m not very consistent, but I’m going to keep trying.

3. I do a lot of informal mindfulness practice. I never used to take breaks—it was always work, work, work. Now I go outside and simply appreciate the beauty around me. This helps me connect with a greater good, and I end up feeling softer and gentler with myself. I have really gotten into bird watching!

4. I write myself little “love notes” to keep in my purse. It’s usually just a few quick sentences I want to remember during the day to stay focused on self-compassion.

This was part of an interview I did with Dr. Alice Boyes. You can read the whole interview here.

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You can also follow me on Twitter.

Photo: Public domain photo by Peter Griffin.

Month One Update on My Word-of-the-Year

Lily and Larry, basking in the sunlight

Lily and Larry, basking in the sunlight

It’s late January, the temperature is in the low 70s, and the windows are wide open with the curtains blowing. I just noticed Lily and Larry basking in the sun. It made me think of my word-of-the-year, “open”.

So far, me and “open” just aren’t clicking.

I wrote in my first Word-of-the-year post how I was going to be more open at work and try to get to know more of my coworkers. Not a day after I wrote that, we got an e-mail saying that to “conserve agency resources” we were to minimize chatting about things unrelated to work. Now I’m pretty sure this e-mail was not directed at me; however, it raised my anxiety. I can’t believe I’m 50 years old, and I still have this irrational fear of getting into trouble. When I told Greg about it that evening, he challenged me to talk so much that I do get into trouble! So far, that hasn’t happened.

I also wrote that I wanted to be more open to taking risks. I haven’t done too well with this either. Last week, I was asked to give a presentation.  I’ve had a long-standing fear of public speaking, which I have worked hard to overcome. I typically perform quite well in the actual situation, but make myself seriously miserable ahead of time. The last presentation I gave was 2 years ago and I swore I would never do it again. So when this invitation came up, I had an initial sick-to-my stomach reaction. I was proud of myself for being assertive and saying I needed to think about it (I usually just smile and say yes). I was even honest with the person asking me and told her about my anxiety. That was a different response for me. I’m sure I agonized way too much about it: Should I join Toastmasters again? Should I consult with someone who coaches people on their speaking skills?  Was I setting a bad example for people who read my books on shyness and social anxiety if I don’t keep doing things out of my comfort zone?  It was on a topic I knew well, but I realized I would still make myself a neurotic mess over it–-not to mention making my poor husband miserable, as well. Greg asked what it would take for me to want to do the presentation, and I couldn’t think of anything. I ended up saying no. This decision was fairly predictably  followed by days of cycling between feeling awful about myself and struggling to find compassion for myself. And a lot of tears.

Then I got mad. For several days, I wanted to change my word from “open” to “average”. I decided there is too much pressure on people these days to be above average. I get tired of reading that you should dream big (see my Tiny Dreams post). I get tired of reading that anything is possible if you simply put your mind to it. Sometimes I don’t want to have a good attitude. Sometimes I don’t want to think positively. And I’ve had so many fears in my life, I get tired of facing them all. I wonder if I’m up to it anymore.

Today I’m of the mindset that I’ll keep the word “open” as my word-of-the year, but I’m going to give myself some slack. I’m telling myself, “I’m being open to not feeling open.” Doesn’t that count?

Like the warm weather, this too shall pass.

 

This I Know

Are you kind to others but too often harsh with yourself? Do you have an inner critic that refuses to be quiet? If so, you’re not alone.

When I began this project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I certainly didn’t have a thought out plan. I simply knew I needed to find a way to be more compassionate to myself.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far (in Q and A format from an interview I did at the one-year mark of this project.)

Why The Self-Compassion Project?

I loved Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and I thought the idea of focusing on one thing for an entire year made a lot of sense. I chose self-compassion because I was anything but self-compassionate! I was way too hard on myself. I was perfectionistic. I equated my worth with what I accomplished. And I was battling chronic pain after neck and back surgeries that didn’t work. Trying to motivate myself with the force of a whip just wasn’t working any more.

noname-4What surprised me most?

The thing that surprised me the most is how quickly I was able to become more compassionate toward myself. I looked back over my notes, and in just a month’s time, my scores on a self-compassion test (http://www.self-compassion.org/test-your-self-compassion-level.html) had improved considerably.

Tuning in to my inner self-talk and focusing on changing what I was saying to myself really helped. I heard Dr. Kristen Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion, speak at a workshop and she said her research showed that informal self-compassion practices were turning out to be just as helpful as the formal practices, such as meditation. I think that can give people hope—even if your self-criticism is deeply ingrained over time, you can still change, and it doesn’t have to take years.

What effects has increasing self-compassion had on your behavior, relationships etc.?

I have always tended to be a big worrier, and I’ve found that I’m worrying a lot less. I’m not sure how that ties in with self-compassion, but it’s definitely something I’ve noticed. I also feel like I’m more in touch with how I’m not alone—that even when I’m going through a rough patch and it feels like I’m the only one who has ever experienced this—well, that thought goes away more quickly and transforms into a tenderness for myself and for others who may be going through a similar situation.

What’s your favorite way to explain what giving yourself self-compassion is/isn’t?  

My favorite way to explain giving yourself compassion is the analogy of how you would treat a small child. Let’s say your child is learning to walk. After a few wobbly steps, do you criticize him or her and say, “Look at you. You’re so clumsy. What’s wrong with you that you can’t walk yet.”? Of course not. You offer encouragement. You’re excited! You might even clap your hands in delight.

Now let’s say your child wants to eat candy for dinner. You set limits and say, “no” because only eating candy will likely make your child feel sick and it simply isn’t healthy. People mistakenly think that self-compassion always means saying “yes” to yourself. Sometimes it means saying “no”–but doing so with kindness. It’s important to remember that self-compassion involves nurturing and limit-setting.

noname-1What are three self-compassion techniques you plan to keep using?

1. One technique I use daily is a gentle touch on my skin (maybe touch my forearm with my other hand) while I say something reassuring to myself. The touch actually releases oxytocin and sets off a calming response in the body. I discretely do this at work when I’m stressed (at home I may give myself a big hug!)

2. I often combine the self-compassionate touch with a phrase or self-compassion mantra, such as: “This is a moment of suffering; suffering is a part of life; may I be kind to myself and give myself what I need.” I have tried meditating and do it sometimes. I’m not very consistent, but I’m going to keep trying.

3. I do a lot of informal mindfulness practice. I never used to take breaks—it was always work, work, work. Now I go outside and simply appreciate the beauty around me. This helps me connect with a greater good, and I end up feeling softer and gentler with myself. I have really gotten into bird watching!

Oh, and one other technique I use is to write myself little “love notes” to keep in my purse. It’s usually just a few quick sentences I want to remember during the day to stay focused on self-compassion.

For someone who wants to try self-compassion, is there something easy you can suggest starting with?

I’m a big self-help book junkie, so if you can, I’d read Kristin Neff’s book on self-compassion. She also has a lot of information on her website (www.self-compassion.org) you can read and listen to for free. I’d also suggest starting by keeping a log of the things you say to yourself. Then ask yourself, “Is this how you would talk to a friend?” Remember that even subtle changes can make a big difference.

Photos by Greg Markway.

 

Imperfection

photo taken by Greg after a recent ice storm

photo taken by Greg after a recent ice storm

I found this on a Google list serve about self-compassion. It is too perfect (irony caught) not to share.

IMPERFECTION

I am falling in love
with my imperfections
The way I never get the sink really clean,
forget to check my oil,
lose my car in parking lots,
miss appointments I have written down,
am just a little late.

I am learning to love
the small bumps on my face
the big bump of my nose,
my hairless scalp,
chipped nail polish,
toes that overlap.

Learning to love
the open-ended  mystery
of not knowing why

I am learning to fail
to make lists,
use my time wisely,
read the books I should.

Instead I practice inconsistency,
irrationality, forgetfulness.

Probably I should
hang my clothes neatly in the closet
all the shirts together, then the pants,
send Christmas cards, or better yet
a letter telling of
my perfect family.

But I’d rather waste time
listening to the rain,
or lying underneath my cat
learning to purr.

I used to fill every moment
with something I could
cross off later.

Perfect was
the laundry done and folded
all my papers graded
the whole truth and nothing but

Now the empty mind is what I seek
the formless shape
the strange  off center
sometimes fictional
me.

Elizabeth Carlson : Source: Teaching With Fire

New Thoughts for the New Year

There is so much good writing out there, and it seems like everyone was inspired to write at the end of the year. Here are some excerpts from some of the favorite posts I read.

Life Isn’t a Calendar, by Jenna McGuiggan, a writer, editor, and creativity coach. You can find her over at The Word Cellar.

The calendar days are tidy squares lined up in orderly rows, everything numbered to provide a false sense of linearity. It tricks us into thinking life is this way. Choose a word, set an intention, make a goal. Move forward, declare DSC_0044accomplishment. Make another list and tick it off step-by-step. But life is not a calendar or a list or a ladder you can climb rung-by-rung. Life is the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the sunlight and dappled shadow of forest paths, the contrast of white snow on evergreen boughs. Life is the overcast sky of winter that blurs the line between day and night, and the long June days when golden light seeps well into the night. Life is now. It’s the driveway that needs shoveling, the dishes that need washing. It’s the candles you light, the books you read, the tea you drink, the people you kiss. It’s the lists you make and the ones you forget. One step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.

In three days I’ll turn the page to another year, but I’ll know that this is just one way of keeping time. There are other ways to make sense of things, to pay attention to what matters.

The Art of Letting Go, by Lisa Lorden Myers, an author and fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue sufferer who works passionately to help others cope with chronic illness.

It’s funny how determination and will power can be so difficult to apply to the goal of doing less, instead of doing more.  We may know how to commit ourselves to goals and work to achieve them, but can we have similar determination to rest and to heal?  Can our will power be devoted to “letting go”?  Perhaps the New Year is a time to re-focus ourselves less on doing, and more onbeing.

Healing requires no resolutions—it requires only that we live each day the best way we know how, listening to our bodies, and nurturing our souls.

The Top Ten Resolutions Nobody Will Keep from Toni Bernard, author of How to Be Sick and Psychology Today blogger.

Every year I torture myself by making New Year’s Resolutions that I don’t keep. So, as a public service, in order to save you the trouble of letting yourself down yet again, I offer the Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions that Nobody Will Keep:

(she lists 10, so be sure and read the whole article, but my personal favorite is #9)

Number 9: I will maintain a positive attitude.

I learned from another Psychology Today writer that this is known in the therapeutic trade (of which I’m not a member) as “the tyranny of positive thinking.” Hurray! It’s okay not to always be positive. I think I’ll toss this resolution out straight away.

I had the privilege of interviewing Toni last year. You can read it here.

Rilke Always Says It Best, posted on Barbara Storey’s blog, Storeylines: One Person, Many Lives

And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious and great things.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

I hope the first week of 2013 treated you well!

Open

Photo by Tom Haymes via Flickr (cc)

Photo by Tom Haymes via Flickr (cc)

So many people have already posted their word for the year, and as usual, I’m a few steps behind. Oh well. My word for the upcoming year is Open. Greg actually suggested the word to me. He said, “What about the word open?” and I immediately said, “Nah…”  There I was shooting down an idea before I really thought about it. Not very open of me. And here’s another interesting tidbit. I finally decided that Open was going to be my word. Then today I clicked on Ali Edward’s Word of the Year blog, and she had just announced that her word for 2013 is Open. I felt a little deflated. She took my word! But that’s okay. I’m sure there’s enough space (openness) in the world for us both to have the same word.

I’m sure my word will take on lots of new meanings over the course of the year, but here are a few of the things I’m hoping I can do:

Open to possibilities. I tend to get locked down in my thinking…not being able to see there may be many paths, many ways of doing things, if I’m only open to seeing things in a new way. I also think I may be on the brink of some changes in my professional life, and I want to be open to seeing that there may be many ways I can share my talents.

Open  to taking risks. I’m quite risk aversive. I  have to push myself to try new things. My worry brain is always telling me to play it safe. I really don’t have anything in mind when I think about risks, but we’ll see what happens. I may surprise myself and do something crazy.

Open myself up to people. I used to be painfully shy–not so much anymore, but I’m still a through-and-through introvert. I don’t let too many people really get to know me. And if I do, it takes a long time. I can work at a place for years and barely make a dent in getting to know my coworkers. I want to make a conscious effort to change this and share more of myself with others. I need to make a few more friends, too. It’s kind of  hard to find friends when you’re fifty.

I’m excited about the word Open. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. It’s an adjective. It’s a Superword!

The very word itself implies adaptation and flexibility, two things I need more of in my life.

And in the spirit of flexibility, any variation on the word open is okay. I like the word openness, too. Here’s a great quote I found on Good Reads.

Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” ― Tony Schwartz