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.

Kindness Is the Means and End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning Our Story

These are some notes I jotted down while listening to an interview with Brene´ Brown, which was a part of the Alchemy writing class I took a few months ago. This post has been in my “drafts” waiting to be developed/polished, but I think I’ll just post it as is. #nomoreperfectionism

  • We are hard-wired for story…it is all the way down to a neurological, biological, cellular level.We desire connection to others by telling our stories, but we’re afraid, as well.
  • When you care about telling your true story, you leave yourself vulnerable. But the minute you stop caring about what other people think is the minute you lose your capacity for connection.
  • When Brene´ sits down to write or prepare for a talk, it is still hard for her. The anxiety and fear are still there, but she does it anyway. She says people think she has everything figured out, but she doesn’t.  She still struggles with being vulnerable. She still struggles with perfectionism.
  • She was given the message: don’t share too much about yourself; it’s not professional.
  • When she gives talks about her research, the thing people want to hear are the stories. They don’t care about the statistics or the graphs.
  • Her goal when writing is to tell the truth and walk away feeling proud of what she wrote. She cannot control the outcome. Whether it’s a blog post or a book, she can’t control the comments, the views, the sales, the reactions. You press publish, you put it out there, and you go from there.

Brene´ has a new book coming out, Daring Greatly, and you can preorder it from her website and get special “party favors” along with it. Who doesn’t love party favors?

When It’s OK (even advisable) To Quit

Recently, a friend of mine took a full-time job, and then had to resign soon thereafter due to a number of factors. I know she struggled with the decision. I understood her angst. I have taken on too much of late, and I’m having to rethink some of my goals. It feels like such a failure I can’t do everything I set out to do. But how many of us set unrealistic expectations for ourselves? My husband says I do (and he’s usually right).

When I googled quitting, there were literally pages of inspirational quotes about why quitting is bad. (You know, quitters never win, and all that stuff.) But I did find a Chinese Proverb that took a different view: “Of all the strategems, to know when to quit is the best.”  Yea!

But how do you know when is when? When is it okay to quit and when should you tough it out?  These are some very loose guidelines I came up with for myself:

It’s okay to quit…

…when you’ve gathered new information that makes the original plan unworkable;

…when the timing is wrong;

…when you thought you could do more than you can;

…when you’re changing directions;

…when to keep going will deplete you of energy you need for something else (or allows you to regroup your energy);

…when you made a mistake;

…when quitting is the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself at the moment (my personal favorite).

This is the shortest blog post I’ve ever written. I really thought about developing each and every point above, and giving more examples. But sometimes you have to know when to quit…

(Note: This is an old post from a different blog, but someone I care about is going through a rough time with a decision, and I think this may speak to her.)

Let It Be Easy

photo by Greg Markway

As I’ve been tuning in to my self-talk over these past few weeks, I keep hearing the word, “pressure.”  I think I need to do things on a certain timetable and with a certain level of quality. And then that pressured feeling turns into procrastination. In talking with the insightful Beth Beulow of The Introvert Entrepreneur, she suggested something along the lines of, maybe if I loosened the screws a little bit that feeling of pressure would morph into inspiration. I’m not sure if those were her exact words, but I definitely heard “Loosen the Screws!” (What? Me a little uptight?)

There’s a certain paradox in this self-compassion “project.” How do I not turn it into one more thing to stress over?

The other night I couldn’t sleep, and instead of getting all worked up like I usually do, a phrase kept running through my mind: “Let it be easy.” As I said in my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, so I don’t know if I’d just read this (I can’t find it anywhere now), or heard it in one of the guided meditations I’ve been listening to, or just maybe, my “unconscious” knew what I needed to hear. “Let it be easy” is not something I’m used to doing. I typically make things more complicated than they probably need to be.

But in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m going to try to hold this project gently and lightly, like you’d hold a butterfly in your hand. What does that mean?

First of all, I’m going to ease up on any expectation of outcome. For example, I’m constantly saying things to myself such as, “Will this post be helpful?” or “Will this resonate with people?” Originally, I’d thought that one of my guiding principles of this blog was going to be, “If I help even one person, the blog is not in vain.” Yeah, I’m a helper through and through. And that’s a good thing for a psychologist. But there are pitfalls, too. In The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says that “attachment” is a danger for helpers. I think he means attachment in the sense of wanting things to go a certain way. He gently reminds us helpers that everyone is responsible for their own happiness. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if this blog speaks to someone, great. But if I only help myself through this process of blogging, that’s more than enough.  (After all, he also says “Self-compassion is the foundation of compassion for others.”)

Second, although I had the intention of this being a one-year project, similar to The Happiness Project and The Shyness Project (it’s popular to have a project these days), I’ve noticed I’m already feeling pressure about time. “Oh no! It’s almost February and what have I accomplished? I’m still just laying the groundwork.” Deadlines are definitely good in that they help with accountability, cut down on procrastination (sometimes), and can enhance productivity. But in my case, I think the most compassionate thing to do is the realize that this has been my Issue for almost 50 years. There is no reason to think that in one year, poof, I will be completely self-compassionate and this will be something I can cross off my to-do list. To quote Germer again, “The path to happiness and well-being never ends. Just when we’ve arrived, a new challenge presents itself and we begin again.” So I’m going to quit worrying about time and simply see where this flows.

Speaking of time, it’s a week until my 50th birthday. I’m excited about an easier year ahead!