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.

Curiosity is the Key

medium_7380729644These are notes I took from Monday 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. It’s still online and free, so check it out.

In this episode, Tami speaks with Dr. Harville Hendrix, the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy. Dr. Hendrix is the author of the classic book Getting the Love You Want.

I have never read any of Dr. Hendrix’s books, so I’m not as familiar with the concepts he discusses. It was very interesting to listen to him. In some ways, he sounded very behavioral, talking about gathering data and letting the data change your beliefs about yourself. In other ways, he sounded psychodynamic, talking about excavating the self and looking back into your childhood to see where self-limiting beliefs may have originated.

My notes are in order of what he said, but they don’t seem as organized as those I took while listening to Kristen Neff, Ph.D. (click her for those, Compassion and the Self-Critic.) I may come back to this and try to develop this better, but for now I just wanted to get them out there (and not be perfectionistic!).

*********

The important thing is to think about is what function the negativity serves, and to process that information. Everything we think and do serves a function in our psychic economy. He believes there is some sort of causality in whatever we do. He gave an example of a graduate student who was working on a dissertation. The dissertation was actually finished and the person had received positive feedback from people on his dissertation committee. It is ready to turn in (and has been for months) but the person waits and keeps saying it’s not good enough. The self put down, the statement of  it’s not good enough, prevents the person from experiencing any relational transaction with the professor in which his fears might come true. He is fearing the possibility of negative judgment. Now where does the self put down come from? Usually people can trace it to something early in their lives. Ask yourself other questions such as “What is it related to?” or “What is it protecting your from?”

The second thing is to move out of the limbic system of the brain—the part of the brain where we are always looking for bad stuff to happen. There is a neurochemical response in which cortisol is released and  permeates the sensory system. This makes you feel like you’re in a dangerous state. We have to move out of that system and accumulate data and assimilate the data that is not  congruent with your beliefs. He said that positive affirmations never helped him. The data helped him.

Positive affirmations never helped me. The data helped me.

He also said there is a connection between the quality of our relationships and how we treat ourselves. He said reality is relationship. Reality is connection. If we don’t have a sense of safety in our relationships it’s very difficult to have internal safety.

He also talked about the power of ambivalence. He said when we are in the state of ambivalence our brain doesn’t know what to do. When it’s not engaged in a directed activity, it gets anxious. So ambivalence feeds on itself. When we move from the state of ambivalence to commitment, our brain knows that it has to go to work. If you want to grow you have to become intentional. You have to get on the train and then the brain engages. You collect data and then sort the data. The ambivalence protects the person from some fearful imagined outcome.

He talked about letting love in and rejecting compliments:

1. If I let in the compliment that I did well in, it will establish expectations that I will always do well, and that will be too taxing.

2. People are always insincere.

3.  If I let love in, it will cause me to have to release the architecture of my self-concept.

Again, you have to understand where the defense comes from, and then collect data over and over again in small amounts until you can’t deny the evidence anymore. At some point this will release the defense.

When we change our self-configuration, we have to be open to being a “bigger” person. This opening up can create anxiety.

In neuroscience terms, the brain likes to know what is coming next. If we let love in, we have to be willing to live in mystery. When we are aware of our connection with the rich tapestry of life, we live in joy. When we are not living in joy, something has triggered our anxiety and makes us experience ourselves as separate.

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.”

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

Join the Club

Like many other people, I decided to enter an office lottery pool last week when the jackpot was at its record high. The person who spearheaded the group reported in an e-mail today that twenty people had entered, and we won a collective $19. In a flurry of e-mails, someone wrote, “Let’s make a ‘club’ and we’ll do this every week. Who’s in?” Once the word club was mentioned, I cringed. Ugh. I hate joining things.

I don't want to belong to any club that accepts people like me as a member. -Groucho Marx

I think it goes back to my college days when I joined a sorority, hoping to find a place where I didn’t feel like my usual misfit self. I was happy to be accepted, but soon learned it wasn’t for me. I had to wear my sorority shirt on a certain day each week. I had to go to parties at the frat houses every Wednesday or I’d be fined. I decided to quit, but this was no easy process.  I had to appear before the Board and make my case for leaving the sisterhood. I couldn’t even quit on my own.

Today, after work, I went to the local health food store. On the first Monday of the month, they offer 20% off of all supplements. The place was swamped with people, all looking for the perfect “natural” pill to take away their ailments. Or should I say “our” ailments?

I’ve written in other posts about my adventures in alternative medicine–trying to find some new ways to deal with my chronic pain. I guess I should be happy that the doctor I’m seeing is taking a holistic approach, but I feel like I’ve been thrown into this new world that seems quite foreign. I’ve never eaten that badly, but I’m a One-a-Day vitamin kind of girl, and I like my processed, easy-to-prepare foods. In addition to the various vitamins and supplements I’ve been prescribed, I’ve also been advised to follow a gluten-free, “Paleo Diet.” I’ve been experimenting with this way of eating since late January, but mostly with half-hearted attempts.  I do what I usually do: buy a few books, read them, and don’t fully do what they say. I decided that yesterday, being the first of the month and always a good time to start a new goal, I’d follow the eating plan in earnest. Well, I’ve made it almost two days. I’m hungry. I’m crabby. And I miss my carbs. But now, somehow, I’m part of some free-range chicken/organic produce/supplement-popping club.

Can I quit? Sure. Will I quit? I don’t know.

As I write this, I realize I belong to a very large club whether I want to or not. I’m part of the human club.

In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff notes, “When we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by all. This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. Whereas self-pity says, ‘poor me,’ self-compassion remembers that everyone suffers, and it offers comfort because everyone is human.”

Even though my pain may be different than your pain, we have much in common.  As humans, we have imperfect bodies. Bodies that have aches and pains. Bodies that get old. Bodies that are impermanent (that’s Zen-speak for die).

Now there’s a cheery thought…

Self-Compassion Rock Stars

My son took this at a concert. I love how she looks so free.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on self-compassion the past few weeks, and I thought I’d share the major resources I’m using for my project. I already owned all of these books, but I have a habit of buying books with the hope they’ll somehow seep into my system without actually digging in and doing the exercises. So for the most part, these books have just looked pretty on a shelf until now. (And if you read my last post, you know how I like things to be pretty.)

This time around, I’ve got the books scattered on end tables by the couch and on the kitchen table, with paper and pen nearby to take notes and actually do the exercises. I’ve also got my iPod loaded with guided meditations, and have been listening to these. I hope to, in time, phase out the iPod and be able to do the meditations on my own. For now, though, I need the structure of someone’s voice leading me.

These are in no particular order. I hope you have a chance to check some of them out, and let me know what you think.

Christopher Germer, Ph.D., is a leader in the field of self-compassion. He’s a psychologist, writer, and researcher. His site is full of handouts, articles, and free meditation downloads. You can find his website here. I’m also reading and doing the exercises his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. It’s very user friendly.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. is another pioneer in the field. Her website is here and her book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, is an excellent resource. She weaves her personal story throughout the book, which I really appreciate. She has a son with autism and credits her self-compassion skills with getting her through a lot of rough times.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, is quite simply, amazing! She talks about being vulnerable, and she walks the talk. You have to visit her website (which is about the prettiest website I’ve ever seen!) and watch her TED talk.

Sharon Salzberg, author of the classic Lovingkindness, is a true meditation guru and spiritual teacher.  Her newest book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation offers a 28-day program and comes with a CD of guided meditations. Her site is here.

Tara Brach, Ph.D. is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. I love this book, and I also have some of her guided meditations. Her voice is very soothing. Her site is also loaded with podcasts (called “Tara Talks”), meditation downloads, articles and many other resources. Her new book is True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.

Be sure and like my Facebook page (if you’re so inclined). It’s on the side bar, or you can click here.