Self-Compassion and Setbacks

madewithover-12I originally wrote this for Psychology Today, but I think the information may also be useful to my awesome readers here.  Haven’t we all had the experience of trying to change something–maybe exercise more, quit smoking, or eat healthy? We do great for awhile and then boom, we “mess up.” How do we keep a setback from turning into a major relapse, and along with it, feeling awful about ourselves? Here are some gentle suggestions (on Psychology Today, they’d be called “tips.”  Oh, and they’d also be numbered.)

Expect setbacks. Change takes time, and often frequent tries. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokers require 5 to 7 attempts before they finally quit. Did these people fail the 5 to 7 times prior to the final cessation of smoking? Or were these attempts part of their eventual success? Consider thinking of all of these tries as part of the process. It’s all good.

Check your stress level.  An increase in physical or mental stress may be the culprit. For example, if you’ve been sick with the flu, your resistance may be lowered leaving you more susceptible to setbacks. Other kinds of stress, such as work or family problems can leave you feeling drained and less able to cope.

Follow your self-care policies. I’ve learned the importance of making my self-care activities a priority by writing them down, almost like a policy. Everyone’s “policy” will vary, but mine includes things such as getting enough sleep,  time outside in nature, etc. Too often, when we get busy, the things we need the most are the things we let slide. This makes us very vulnerable to a setback. (Here’s a list of over 80 self-care ideas.)

Keep practicing. If your recovery or behavior change plan  involves specific activities—journaling, meditating, walking —make sure you don’t stop doing these things, even if you’re doing well. Sometimes it’s the good times, not the stressful times that take you off guard. Author Judi Hollis makes an apt analogy: “The tight rope walker, so well practiced he almost performs while sleeping, is the one facing slips or near misses. The newly trained aerialist or acrobat exhibits stringent caution. It is the seasoned performer, lulled into false confidence, who takes the fall.”

Identify your personal warning signs. You might notice an increase in physical symptoms, such as a frequent upset stomach, headaches or heart palpitations. Maybe you notice a lot more negative self-talk. Perhaps you find yourself drinking more, worrying, or being irritable. Everyone’s early warning signs will be different, but it’s important to notice any possible patterns.

Recognize it early. This follows closely with identifying your personal warning signs. The sooner you can catch yourself in a setback, the sooner you can get yourself back on track.

Recommit. Remind yourself of your goals and what you deeply care about. Recommit yourself to doing activities aligned with your values. Don’t give up!

Realize you’re human. Psychologist and author Kristin Neff identifies a sense of shared humanity as one of the three main components of self-compassion. We’re all imperfect; it’s part of being human. Remind yourself that setbacks happen to everyone.  It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not alone.

Live in the gray. Life is a paradox. I like to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can at any given moment, AND I can do better. It’s not a beating-myself-up kind of “I can do better” but a gentle nudge.

Seek out support. If you’re feeling badly about yourself for “screwing up,” your first instinct may be to hide in a hole. But this is exactly the time when you need to reach out to your support system. And if you don’t have one, you just need to look on the Internet and do a little searching, and you’re sure to find someone going through a similar situation.

Remember, life is not linear. Don’t think you have to progress in a perfectly linear fashion. Most people cycle in and out of change. As writer and creativity coach Jenna McGuiggan notes, life is often “one step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.”

Give yourself credit. Remind yourself of the steps you’ve taken, regardless of how small they might seem to you. I’ve always liked this Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

Don’t let it snowball. Relapse prevention experts use the term abstinence violation effect (AVE) to describe a particularly dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. The classic example is the person on a diet that eats something not on the plan, and then thinks, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep on eating.” Be on the lookout for this. Try self-soothing statements such as: “It’s okay. One slip up doesn’t mean I have to throw in the towel.” This is not a time to berate yourself. Instead of piling on the criticism, calmly tell yourself that something needs to be adjusted. Maybe you’re being too rigid with yourself… Maybe you need to back off a bit…

You can always begin again.This is the most powerful message I’ve learned from studying meditation. I am a complete novice, yet I’ve already gained so much. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, talks about this idea of “beginning again”. When meditating, our mind begins to wander. This is normal and to be expected. What matters is what we do when it happens. This is, as she says, “the magic moment”. Do we beat ourself up? Do we tell ourself we’re a failure? Do we give up and say it’s too hard? Or, do we learn that we can bring our attention back, with gentleness and kindness, again and again? To me, this is a metaphor for life. We don’t have to wait until Monday to start eating healthy again. We can make the choice to honor our intentions with the very next bite of food we put in our mouth.

Regardless of our goals, slow and steady progress, even with a few setbacks sprinkled in, works just fine.

Embrace Change

I hadn’t done a craft project in months, thanks to my companion, chronic pain. But a project was SO calling me, it was worth the inevitable flare.

For Mother’s Day, Greg and Jesse gave me a mobile that you attach photos to. When I saw it, I immediately had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to do. (For some reason I didn’t want to simply attach photos to it.)  I ended up cutting an old Kelly Rae Roberts calendar into bird shapes. I had to do one bird, then stretch, take a break, and maybe an hour later do another bird. It was kind of frustrating because I don’t like having to break the flow. But I’m getting better at pacing myself – well most of the time. I don’t have to give up the things I love, but I do have to change the way I go about them. So this project took me several days, but I love how it turned out.

Another thing I hadn’t done lately is do a photo shoot with Greg. We took the mobile outside in our backyard and I gave him instructions that I wanted “lots of green twinkly things” in the background. The only issue is that we have new neighbors and they’re frequently outside. I feel kind of self-conscious doing all the weird photo things we do out there. The weekend they moved in I was throwing colored tissue paper in the air.

I also had him take a picture of me in my new glasses. I’m still trying to get used to the 51-year-old me. I think I look much better without glasses, but that’s not an option anymore. So here’s to embracing change, and trying to do it gracefully.

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Embrace Change

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Begin. Leap. Take Flight.

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and then she learned to hold joy in her heart

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feel your fears and act anyway

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Shine

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Gratitude

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Sunset Mind

I had grand plans to write about every episode of The Self-Acceptance Project offered by Sounds True. Well, that didn’t happen. But today I did have time to watch the episode* featuring psychologist Steven Hayes, Ph.D., one of the co-founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I took away a lot of good stuff I want to share with you.
7993149186_8c5d7a7fbe_z1. Sunset mind. Our brains have the capacity to critically analyze situations, which is great. We need that. But critical mind isn’t appropriate when it comes to things like self-compassion. Instead of critical mind, we need sunset mind. Imagine you’re watching a sunset. Do you say, “Oh, that pink just really isn’t the right shade,” or “I think that blue clashes with the purple.” I can be critical, but even I don’t judge sunsets. I admire and appreciate their beauty, their vastness, and all the intricacies of the merging shapes and colors.

New perspective/intention: Try sunset mind when it comes to thinking about myself.

2. Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what you think is important. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT-pronounced like the word “act”) is all about taking action in spite of anxiety or discomfort, and doing what you value. I’ve always been good at this when it comes to standing up for others. Here’s an example. I’m typically not one to complain or make trouble, but once when my son was going to see a favorite band, the venue was changed on short notice. The new place required you to be 21 to enter (and this was his high school graduation present–he wasn’t 21). I called the old venue, the new venue, and worked my way up until I had reached a high-up media person with the band. They weren’t able to get my son in, but they arranged for him to meet the band, hang out at a record store where they were doing a promotion, and they gave him free tickets to the Bonnaroo music festival and be a guest in their tent. I know this story might not seem like a lot, and granted, it’s not like I saved anyone’s life or anything, but I would have never been so assertive on my own behalf. I certainly have the skills to make things happen; why don’t I do this for myself?

New perspective/intention: Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what is best for myself.

4332176853_c30acde1f4_z3. Emotions are here to be felt. You wouldn’t think this would sound revolutionary to a psychologist, but more often than I care to admit, I spend a lot of energy trying to squelch my emotions. My inner dialogue might sound like this:
  • I’m too sensitive.
  • My feelings are too intense.
  • I don’t want to feel this way.
  • I wish these feelings would go away!

Dr. Hayes pointed out (what I already knew intellectually) that a lot of emotions are painful, but also very useful. They can be clues to what you truly care about. For example, guilt, although unpleasant to say the least, can lead you to correct behavior or make amends with someone. He gave an example of a parent who had been on drugs and let some horrible things happen to his child while he was high. The guilt was intense, but needed to be felt. It led to sadness and loss, and eventually connected the father with the will to “walk a higher path” and be a better father in the future. This was not a quick or easy process, but it started with allowing and experiencing painful emotions.

New perspective/intention: Lean into the painful feelings, and see what they’re trying to tell me. And note to self–do this slowly, gently, and back off when you’re overwhelmed.

You can still hear all of the episodes from The Self-Acceptance Project for free online. This was Episode 22: The Human Capacity to Take Perspectives. Tami Simon speaks with Steven C. Hayes, PhD, Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. Steven has authored 35 books and over 500 scientific articles. His career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering. His work has been recognized by several awards, and in 1992, the Institute for Scientific Information named him the 30th “highest impact” psychologist in the world.

Photo credits: Sunset by Yokopakumayoko via flickr; Hearts by Ladydragonfly via flickr

Hard, But Not Horrible

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A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast with Sharon Salzberg, best-selling author of Real Happiness, talking about “equanimity.” Now there’s a deep-sounding word that I’ve heard, but never really understood. Leave it to Sharon to explain a big concept in a practical way, with a touch of humor and wit thrown in for good measure.

The part of her talk that has stayed with me the most is this story she told. Imagine that there is a quite elderly person sitting in a park watching children play.  Now this is someone who has seen a thing or two—someone who has lived a full, seasoned life. This quite elderly person sees a child who is playing in the sand with a dump truck and a shovel. The shovel breaks and the child “freaks out”, cries, etc. Now how does this quite elderly person, with the wisdom of these years, react? Does he or she go up to the child and say, “What are you crying about. Wait until you have a real problem.” Of course not. That would be cruel. On the flip side, does this quite elderly person fall down on the ground sobbing right along with the child? Again, no. The quite elderly person has the perspective to know that it’s just a toy shovel. Shovels break. That is the nature of life. (By the way, Sharon really did keep saying “this quite elderly person.”)

She said that sometimes people mistakenly think that equanimity is detached and passive. But it’s not. If you are going to tell someone your problems, do you want someone to get as upset as you are? No. If that happened, you’d think to yourself, “Whoa, this problem really must be bad.” You want someone to have BOTH compassion and understanding AND the perspective that this situation is not forever. You want someone to give you a sense that there are options and possibilities…not that you’re stuck.

4257485778_f2f60e67da_zAnyone who has read this blog from the beginning, knows that I’m extremely sensitive. It’s a part of myself that I’ve often not liked and struggled to accept. One particular aspect of this sensitivity that I’ve HATED is that I cry easily. It can be very annoying to cry at inopportune moments, or to cry for so long and hard that your eyes are puffy and red for hours afterward.

In a way, I’ve been the kind of person who really might cry at a broken shovel. Thankfully, I’ve grown enough this past year that I’m not going to judge myself for it. It’s just something to notice and work on.

Since I’ve heard the story about the child and the broken shovel, I’ve been trying to take the perspective of the quite elderly person who has wisdom and perspective. I’ve adopted the phrase, “This is hard, but it’s not horrible.” To me, that phrase validates my experience, whatever it is. Yes, I’m sad.  Or yes, I’m in pain. But that doesn’t mean it will last forever. And it doesn’t mean I can’t handle it.

I am super excited because twice now I’ve been able to stop myself from a full-blown sob fest by remembering this story and saying these words to myself… “hard, but not horrible”. I know that stopping myself from crying is not the goal, per se (although having a little bit of control over my feelings would be nice). The goal is to see possibility. The goal is to sense spaciousness. The goal is to develop balance.

And of course, as I’ve said the words to myself, “It’s hard but not horrible,” I’ve said them in a gentle tone of voice; perhaps the tone of voice that a quite elderly person would use.

RealhappinessbookcoverpicYou can hear the full podcast here, which was recorded live at The Interdependence Project in NYC in 2012. You can tell it’s New York. You can hear sirens and horns honking in the background of the talk.

Sharon Salzberg’s website is here.

I highly recommend her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.

Photo Credit: Matt McGee, flickr, CC and Pink Sherbet Photography 

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

Self-Compassion In Practice

One of the best parts of blogging is meeting people from all over the world. Dr. Alice Boyes is a psychologist in New Zealand who also writes at Psychology Today. She just interviewed me for her blog called In Practice. It’s a good overview of my self-compassion project so far. You can read it here.

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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