DON’T PUSH THE RIVER

 

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The other day I had two disappointments, both hurt for a while, and yet I did not drop into a funk of ‘unnecessary suffering’ after either of them like I usually do. I am in the process of learning how, and practicing, to be more emotionally resilient, to go with the flow, to not push the river. I am beginning to recognize more clearly within myself how often I shrink from experiences especially if they involve uncomfortable emotions like anger, fear, betrayal or disappointment.

I am learning to give my painful feelings names and to visualize them. This helps give me a bit of distance from them making it easier to cope with the feelings. For example, I was all set to go to my favourite Gulf Island. My best friend has a place there and we have been visiting it for about 20 years, mostly in the warmer months. I hadn’t been there since last September and I was really missing it so I was anxious to get there. We had already tried two weeks ago and when we got there, there was a power outage and there was no hot water, no phone, no internet and it was pouring rain. We returned to the city the same day leaving me very sad (I cried) and disappointed. So this week was another try. However .. the ferry broke down and sailings were cancelled for a few days. Which meant I didn’t get to go. Big disappointment again!

Okay. I was hurting a lot at this point. So I acknowledged I was in pain and I wanted to do something about it. That is what compassion is all about – acknowledging the pain and trying to alleviate any suffering. So I pictured what this pain looked like and I saw a wooden stake (don’t ask my why) piercing my solar plexus. I felt the acute pain of disappointment. I then recognized that I felt angry. At who? At the universe actually. At all the powers that be that have conspired against me to keep me from getting to the island. I shook my fist at the heavens and then laughed. I just suddenly saw myself and it was funny. That helped a lot.

Later that same day I experienced another disappointment. I won’t go into the details but I did visualize the wooden stake again, felt the acute pain of the disappointment, then just sat with it for a bit. Eventually it began to shift and I was able to think clearly about what to do next.

At the end of the day, I felt amazed and impressed with the whole process. I felt like I had been on a surfboard riding out the waves of my emotions. I hit some hard waves that day but I did not crash. I stayed ‘on board’. That is emotional resilience. When we can ‘bend’ with whatever is happening, with whatever we are feeling, and allow it to happen. Naming the pain and even visualizing it helps give some space from it.

I think that emotional resilience is the thing that can give us the most sense of control in our lives. Rather than trying to force things and ‘push the river’, we settle into acceptance and ‘going with the flow’. It’s easier in the long run and it’s powerful. It’s like mastering that surfboard and riding those huge waves of life.

 

 

 

 

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Self-Kindness: Self-Talk

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In yesterday’s post I talked about the Self-Critic as possibly one of the first parts of ourselves that we need to deal with when we are thinking about being kind to ourselves. That Self-Critic can be quite a powerful ‘enemy’ to kindness, and as I suggested yesterday, we can change the Self-Critic’s role to one that is positive and helpful.

Today I want to share with you some examples I used in my workshops (Self-Care, Self-Compassion) to show how our inner Self-Critic might talk to us and how a more compassionate inner voice might speak to us. See if you recognize the Self-Critic in yourself and see if you might use the more compassionate voice to counteract that harshness and condemnation of who you are.

Here are some examples.

THE VERY HARSH AND JUDGMENTAL SELF-CRITIC MIGHT SAY:

  • You are such a loser. You do things but you always screw up. What is wrong with you? I am so disappointed in you, (i.e., you are never good enough)
  • You know I have only your ‘best interests’ at heart. I expect you to do well in the world, make your family proud. (‘Best interests’ here means being socially acceptable; being what we think others want us to be. It feels safer to try to please the people who are important to us rather than please ourselves but we sacrifice a lot when we do this)
  • Hey, I will support you .. whenever you make the right choices. I will certainly let you know when you make the wrong ones. You can certainly trust me to keep you in line. In fact, that’s what you need me for. Without me you would amount to nothing, a waste of space. (The Self-Critic loves to label things good or bad, right or wrong, loves to paint things in only two colours – black or white. Again, it feels safer to see things this way but actually it’s very limiting. It does not consider the whole picture.)
  • If you’re in pain, then it’s because you deserve it. This is punishment for doing things all wrong. You should be ashamed of yourself. (The Self-Critic keeps thinking, over and over, that it just beats us up enough then we might change and finally do things the ‘right’ way. It tries to shame us into behaving differently)

ON THE OTHER HAND — THE KIND AND COMPASSIONATE INNER VOICE SAYS THINGS LIKE:

  • My only wish is to see you at peace with yourself, at peace with who you are in the world. I feel saddened when you are in pain, especially when you are in conflict with yourself, and only want to help
  • I want to help you be yourself and be proud of who you are. Whatever you choose to do is fine with me.
  • I will always be here to support you, whatever your choices are. Above, I will try to help you whenever you are in pain. I won’t put you down for it. I won’t make you feel worse than you already feel. I won’t blame you when things go ‘wrong’, when you make a mistake or fail to succeed at something. I will always accept you exactly as you are.
  • I trust you to make your own way in life. You do not need anyone else as a moral compass. I am confident that you are doing what is fitting for you. I know that given the right support that you will do what is best for everyone, including yourself.

I like to imagine someone who talks to me in that compassionate voice. For example, my wonderful psychiatrist of 17 years. She embodied compassion and I used to imagine her saying those kind things to me. Until I was able to do it myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Kindness & The Self-Critic

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The first component of the Self-Compassion Model (see menu above) is Self-Kindness vs Self-Judgment. And I think self-judgment for many of us manifests itself in the form of a voice inside our head which we could call the Self-Critic. That voice that says “You are such a loser, failure, jerk…”. The voice that tells us what we should be doing. The voice that makes us feel as if we are all wrong. Everything we do is wrong or weak or stupid. Even if it’s not actually a voice in your head you still may have all these feelings of inadequacy, and worthlessness, a constant feeling of failure.

I have personally dealt with a number of these self-critical voices inside of me and thanks to some great professional support and wisdom I learned to listen to those voices. Not banish them. Just like a whiny kid. They irritate the hell out of you until you actually stop and listen to them, find out what’s bothering them so much. It’s why they are being irritating – so you’ll pay attention to them. And that’s the key. To stop and listen to that self-critical voice.

I have learned that self-criticism is ultimately all about fear. The fear of not being accepted, of being rejected, of being an outcast. Not living up to expectations I think others have of me. I have also learned that I could turn that criticism around and make good use of it. By asking those critical parts of myself – what is it that is worrying you, what are you afraid of right now, what is threatening to you – I engage in a very important conversation with myself.

Getting to know my self-critic means getting to know myself and my worst fears. These ‘critics’ are really like frightened children who really don’t know what to do. They are simply panicking and say whatever they can to try to control my behaviour. They come from a closed-mind perspective and I don’t think they are psychologically mature. However, when I have spoken to them gently and asked them about their fears they really calmed down – because they were being heard.

We can listen to our self-critic, even with compassion if possible, and find out what is really bothering that part of us. I have put some of my self-critics to work – okay, from now on you watch for when that happens again and remind me to stop and think. Giving that part important work to do engages it in a much more positive way. After all it is a part of me and I want to learn to openly accept all parts of me.

I have been doing that for quite a few years now and it works amazingly well. I do not have a critical voice in my head anymore. I still have a part of me that sometimes feel wrong, embarrassed or ashamed of something I have done but my self-compassionate voice always steps up and says – it’s alright. You did what you thought was best at the time. It’s okay and you’re okay. My ‘unnecessary suffering’ lasts only seconds and my wise mind steps right up and says – Let’s look at this situation and see what we can learn from it. From there we can make changes if they are needed.

 

 

 

THE SC GROUP Session 2

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The Self-Care and Self-Compassion Discussion & Support Group met at MDABC for the second time on Tuesday the 20th. What was especially gratifying was to see 6 people return from the first session as well as 3 new people. Hey, maybe we’re doing something right.

We focused on the Self-Compassion Model, in particular the first two components – Self-kindness rather than Self-Judgment, and Common Humanity vs isolation, shame and overidentifying with our thoughts and feelings. It’s about having the perspective that what we are experiencing is very similar to most human beings. It is part of the human condition, part of living as a human being.

My co-facilitator read from the The SC Group Self-Compassion Handout (top menu of this blog) up to the end of #2. Common Humanity. He also read from Christopher Germer’s book “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion”.

What stood out in this session was the amount of pain that came up for people in trying to feel compassion for themselves. Members said that it was so much easier to feel compassion for others but not for themselves. Which leads me to a question – is it really possible to feel true compassion for another if we do not know how to hold it for ourselves? Is maybe what we feel for others sympathy or pity, maybe even empathy but not compassion?

Compassion is defined as ‘to suffer with’. It means that we must first acknowledge that there is suffering happening, someone is in pain. We must enter into that experience of suffering. We must feel the pain yet not overidentify with it that it causes us distress. In other words we must witness it without judgment, seeing only what is.

So I’m thinking that we must feel our own pain, know our own sense of pain to know what pain feels like. There is a man who lives on the street. I see him every day and I think about his life. He is filthy, and his coat hangs off of him with such careless abandon. I do feel sympathy for his difficult life. I guess I sometimes feel pity, seeing my own life condition as far superior to his. And when I take a moment to imagine what it would be like to be him, I feel the physical discomfort, the exposed and vulnerable life on the street, the constant focus of getting food and where to go to the bathroom and where to sleep. I don’t think I could bear that life.

That is the first part of compassion. The second part is the ‘with’ part. It’s really asking what can I do to ease this suffering? And of course, in my mind it is suffering. But maybe for him it’s just life. However, I assume that giving him a little money now and then might ease his efforts to get food. And saying hello and smiling at him might help as well, letting him know that he is part of my community, no matter where he lives. We all have a need for acceptance and connection as well.

Again I come back to the question — if we do not feel compassion for our own selves, do we really feel compassion for others, or is it something else? What I have learned is that having compassion for myself truly opens me up to other people’s lives. Having compassion for myself means facing my own pain, feeling and acknowledging my own painful moments, being with myself in the hardest times. When I have practiced that somewhat I am then able to extend that compassion to others.

Compassion is about facing pain and suffering, the hardest experiences we humans have. I think it takes a lot of courage to do that. I often feel terrified of my own feelings, especially the painful ones like fear and anger. I feel as if I am face to face with myself and with life. They are not separate either but rather entwined.

Compassion is about being here and right now. In the moment. With myself or someone else.

 

 

 

What does the research show?

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This is from the book “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion” by Christopher K. Germer, PhD. (2009)

There is research being done on the effects of good self-compassion. For some of us, this is important. Some of us trust when we see that someone is actually studying the situation and hopefully asking the right questions about it. It’s not just someone’s wild idea about something.

So … lots of good news about self-compassion. Lots. One of the most important benefits of self-compassion is that it really helps with the hard parts of life. When we are in the midst of emotional pain about something, having compassion and tenderness for ourselves at that moment can help so much.

Self-compassion has also been proven to give us a healthier perspective on life. People who are self-compassionate are more likely to see when their efforts turn out badly and they are able to take responsibility for their part in it … and without beating themselves up over it either. They are able to understand that it is simply a part of the human condition. We all make mistakes, fail at some things and succeed with others.

Vs. self-esteem

Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is about how we think others evaluate us. Self-esteem in that sense is external to us and not in our control very much. However, we can get self-esteem from self-compassion. “Self-esteem derived from self-compassion comes from how we respond to evaluations. Receiving a bad evaluation is an occasion for sympathy and comfort, not rumination and self-criticism.” (Germer) I read in a magazine recently that we can still have self-compassion even when we have low self-esteem (i.e., we think that others don’t think highly of us). And it probably would help immensely.

Regulating emotions

“Self-compassion is a relatively stable way to regulate emotions” says Germer. He says we don’t need to use positive affirmations to build ourselves up but rather simply enter into our experience with softness and kindness. If we can, of course. This is not always easy. And if we can then this takes the struggle out of it.

Dr. Kristin Neff, leader in the field of self-compassion, developed a self-compassion scale.

http://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/

Dr. Neff found that self-compassion correlated more strongly on scores than on a mindfulness scale with measures of wisdom, personal initiative, happiness, optimism, good mood and coping.

“Self-compassion is also related to life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and social connectedness and inversely related to self-criticism, depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression and perfectionism.”

“…self-compassion predicts psychological well-being”

 

Is There A Self?

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Last week at our first SC group (see Sidebar topics) we were discussing how to talk to ourselves more kindly. Two people said they have difficulty with the concept of ‘self’, something I have personally worked on for decades as I perceive myself as having many selves.

 I think one of the problems we face is when we think of the self as a fixed state or personality. But none of us are like that. Every day we have new experiences and new interactions with others that can create new feelings about something or someone. And with those new thoughts and feelings comes different responses to the world, different than how we responded a month ago. Today we might be the victim of some crisis, tomorrow we have overcome it and become a hero, or a success. I think we all wear different hats and play different roles throughout our lives and these roles can have a real cohesiveness when we play them over and over so that we think “Boy, I sure am a good/smart/nice person” or “I’m such a jerk/loser/nitwit”. We think we are supposed to have only one role in the world – who am I really we ask? We look for one answer. I am this.

 When we do apply a label to ourselves I think we get into trouble because we think it’s supposed to apply all the time. I am a good person. I am a smart person. I am so wise, so kind, so intelligent, etc. So what happens when, even for one moment, we slip up and do something that does not conform to that label? Sometimes our world comes crashing down when this happens. We have not lived up to our label. The worst part is we believe those labels. If I think I am dumb then I must be dumb.

 DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK

 If I were to have a gravestone, it would have that written on it. That would be the final words I would like to express at the end of my life. There is so much in our wild monkey minds that we cannot trust and one of those things is the labels we fix onto ourselves and others. Maybe we could simply change them to ‘tendencies’ instead. So if I am kind quite often then I might say I have a tendency towards kindness. It doesn’t fix it then. It just says I like to be kind a lot. The same goes for more negative labels. Maybe I have a tendency towards irritableness but it doesn’t make me an irritable person. ‘Tendency’ seems so much more gentle and flexible.

 Another word about defining self. Even though I still perceive myself as having several different parts or personalities I do think of ‘them/us’ as uniquely Caer. I know there is no one else on earth who is quite like me. No one has had exactly the same life experiences as I have. No one has the exact likes and dislikes, desires and impulses that I have. No one thinks the same way I do. That is the ‘self’ that I address and that I think of as ‘Caer’ and no one else. And I don’t see it as a static thing. Everyday I feel a little different about things in tiny and subtle ways. And I watch as I regularly adjust and adapt to new experiences. It’s very organic.

 

 

Is self-compassion selfish?

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I often talk with people in my MDABC workshops or groups about the issue of selfishness when it comes to self-care. However, Christopher Germer, in his book “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion” talks about the issue in terms of self-compassion. So many times I have heard people say “Oh but other people have it a lot worse than me. What am I complaining about?” and I feel a moment of sadness. Why does our suffering matter so much less than anyone else’s?

Also, Germer says that when we talk about other people having it worse it may be a subtle form of denying and avoiding our own pain. I agree with this and I think that just the step of acknowledging we are in pain may be one of the most difficult. However, it’s a good perspective to have. Yes, many people have it worse than me. Which says to me, I can endure this but it’s not great. I know others suffer more and get through it so I guess I can too. As well we can acknowledge our own suffering. Any suffering needs compassion. Even boredom. When I’m bored it’s like torture. I feel terrible. And yet in the grand scheme of life, it’s a trivial thing. Still I give myself a lot of compassion when I’m bored and it does help me bear it until I work through it. I know that it means I need something. I just have to figure out what it is.

“..self-care is not a moral lapse” says Germer. Even if we simply take a few minutes to get something we need – rest, quiet, food, connection – it’s okay. it doesn’t mean we are being selfish. Germer says that he noticed Americans in particular seem embarrassed about feeling bad. I think that extends to our culture as well. Many of us think that we are being punished for something, that we deserve these bad things happening, that we have done something wrong. Or maybe we feel we are wrong, our whole being. This is so much the blaming-of-the-victim kind of mentality and it’s so harmful. It benefits no one.

I learned a lot about compassion from my therapist of 17 years and I learned that I was worthy of it, just like everyone else. However, when I watched Dr. Kristin Neff speak a couple of years ago on the Self-Acceptance Project (link on right side) I began to practice it diligently every day that I could. When I first fell apart back in 1990 I hated myself so much. I was so unhappy. Now I am very content with who I am and I never criticize myself anymore. The worst thing I do is call myself a Silly Goose when I make a mistake. If I could I would ruffle the top of my head too, or pinch my cheek.

“Self-compassion is the foundation for kindness toward others” (Germer)

If we want to be truly unselfish, then learning to be self-compassionate first and foremost, will help us immensely. Having compassion for ourselves opens up our heart to others. We lose the fear of pain.