Self Compassion – An Idea worth Spreading

In this 19 minute Ted Talk, Kristin Neff identifies how self esteem can fail and why self compassion is a better option for positive mental health and well-being.

First let’s dispel the myth, self compassion is neither self pity nor self indulgence. When dealing with life’s difficulties its simply the best solution when compared with the toxic alternatives of self judgment and self criticism.

Self Esteem

Self esteem is our personal judgment of whether we are a good person or a bad person and is often considered the global indicator of positive mental health, yet it has some dangerous pitfalls.

Self esteem fails us because we set the bar too high. In modern society average simply isn’t good enough and we strive to meet the impossibly high standards of a critical media that perpetuates the fantasy of perfection. These standards might be to do with body image, achievement, or simply staying on a rickety wagon. When we fail, as we inevitably must, our self esteem comes crashing down and the recriminations begin.

A society in which we need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves is a society which is ripe to narcissism and bullying.

The Human Condition

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go
William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

The human condition is imperfect and prone to failure. We recognise this and accept failure and imperfections in others, yet we seem unable to accept it in ourselves.

When we become painfully aware of the divergence of our expectations from our reality we get to choose between self compassion or self judgment and criticism. All too often self judgment and criticism are the unconscious default mode which trigger our natural stress response.

Stress

Our stress response floods our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisone to prepare us for fight and flight. While this was vital for the survival of our ancestors it is overkill for our modern day disappointments.

Most of us have quite a vicious inner critic and continual lashings from its tongue are more paralyzing than motivating. If our inner critic is continually triggering the stress response we are slowly poisoning our bodies.

Self Compassion

Kristin Neff advocates self compassion as a healthier alternative response to the disappointments of the Human Condition and identifies three core components.

Self compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly. Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.

Self Kindness v Self Judgment

We believe we need our inner critic to motivate ourselves. We do not believe we are deserving of kindness and we associate self compassion as indulgent, self pitying and a sign of weakness. We verbally abuse ourselves and as a consequence keep firing our natural stress response.

The alternative is to accept we are human, that we are not perfect, and that we will fail, usually quite often. Why not celebrate our successes, acknowledge that to strive is to fail, and understand that self compassion is far healthier and far more motivating than harsh self criticism.

If we can accept this we can cultivate a desire to alleviate our own suffering instead of intensifying it.

Kristin highlights the natural instinct in animals to soothe and comfort their young. In contrast to stress, this releases oxytoxins and opiates into our blood stream which make us feel safe and which is good for our well-being.

The simple act of placing our hand on our heart at a stressful moment can induce comfort and relieve stress.

Common Humanity v Isolation

When things go wrong we experience a sense of failure, a sense that this shouldn’t have happened, we suffer and feel we are somehow different. This manifests as a sense of exclusion and isolation which for social animals like ourselves is threatening and provokes anxiety.

Paradoxically, it’s our imperfections and our constant ability to fail that connects us as humans.

Kristin relates that the biggest insight gained from participants on her workshops is this realization of common humanity, that what unites us is failure, imperfection and suffering.

Failure is the human experience, this is how things are supposed to be. Life is imperfect.

Mindfulness v Over Identification

When things go wrong we have automatic coping mechanisms to suppress the painful experiences associated with failure. We often escape into activities and behaviour that distract us and block out the pain.

Our constant niggling self criticism blends the problem into our perception of our abilities and soon we begin to identify ourselves as the problem.

In contrast, Mindfulness introduces a ‘sacred’ pause which allows us to react with self compassion and kindness instead of self judgment and criticism.

Instead of avoiding, suppressing, or seeking a quick fix we allow ourselves to ‘be’ with our suffering. By acknowledging and experiencing our pain we get to hear its message, we may gain insights into its cause and find healthier ways of accepting,  dealing and living with it.

By creating a mindful gap we can break the link between us and the problem and see it for what it is, just stuff that is happening to us.

The trick is to catch ourselves in the act of self mugging.

Next time try a little self kindness and care instead. You might just create the conditions for natural healing and recovery to begin.

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Self Compassion – An Idea worth Spreading

The Bowl of Mindfulness

Sunset

Photo Credit: Erin Berg via Compfight cc

At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

Lao Tzu

If mindfulness has a purpose, it is to find calm. It is the way back to our center, to the place of inner peace that lies within us all.

This is not an easy path. Most of the time mindfulness will only make us aware of how far we have wandered from our center. We will see the shadows of suffering cast by the distractions, bad habits and addictions that have grown within us.

But until we recognize and accept our life as it is, we cannot begin the journey back to our center, to our place of inner calm.

Mindfulness is like a bowl, it is both what the bowl is and what the bowl does.

The bowl is nonjudgmental awareness, an ability to watch our thoughts, words and actions without judging them, to become an impartial observer of ourselves.

What the bowl does is to hold our thoughts, words, and actions in this state of nonjudgmental awareness and allows them to marinate.

Meditation is the intentional practice of mindfulness where we sit without distraction for a set period of time. However, this formal practice of meditation can be both a barrier and a limitation in developing a mindfulness practice.

After all we are human and the routine of a busy working day leaves few of us with either the time or the inclination for formal meditation practice.

Instead we can aim for a few nutritional mindfulness snacks throughout the day. Not only will this help us to develop mindfulness, but it gives us a few precious moments to pause, refocus and allow the dust of the day to settle.

In a busy and demanding working day I have found three simple mindfulness practices.

Commas, full stops, and carriage returns. If every day is a page, then it has no definition without commas to add a pause, full stops to take a break, and carriage returns to end one activity and begin another.

We actively need to punctuate our day if we are to prevent it from becoming one long mad blur. I visit calm.com a couple of times a day while I’m at work This takes me for a few wonderful minutes to a distant beach to watch the sun setting, or to dawn in a misty forest to listen to the dawn chorus.

A Walk. There is no better way to draw a line under one part of the day and prepare ourselves for the next than a walk.

Something happens when we step outside the door, context returns and we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it’s the sound of the world getting on with its own business without a care for us. Whatever it is, it usually brings perspective and well-being back into our lives.

A deep breathe. In yoga and meditation, the breath lies at the center of mindfulness. We have access to it at any time and in any situation. In the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, “When we breathe in a miracle happens, we stop the thinking. This is the miracle of mindfulness”.

These three simple practices all have one thing in common, they create a pause in the day, a gap in which we can fill our bowl of mindfulness with precious moments.

It doesn’t matter how we develop mindfulness. What matters is that we find our own way back to our center, to reclaim the inner calm that nourishes our very soul.

What path do you take?

The Bowl of Mindfulness

Why mindfulness?

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What we think, we become

The Buddha

Mindfulness is defined as nonjudgmental awareness, but what does this mean?

It’s the ability to be aware without the instinctive need to attach our opinion or feeling to the experience. Its developing the skill to become an impartial observer of our thoughts, senses, and experiences.

Here are six reasons why mindfulness is important.

1. To change. The Holy Grail of all personal development blogs, books, and courses is the ability to change ourselves. So many of us seek to become happier, healthier and wealthier, yet even the smallest change is elusive and remains just beyond our grasp. In contrast, change is not an objective of mindfulness, indeed a core principle of mindfulness is to stop our incessant striving. We are always running after one thing or running away from another. Paradoxically, when we stop striving and find stillness, metamorphosis begins.

2. To learn to live with ourselves. Do you live with an underlying dissatisfaction of your life, a sense that if only a few things could change then it would be much happier and more fulfilling? This sense of dissatisfaction is real, it has a bitter taste, it sits heavily on our stomach. It can weigh us down even when there is no apparent cause. In developing mindfulness we learn acceptance, gratitude and compassion. These three gifts dissolve dissatisfaction and can bring joy.

3. To heal our wounds. As we go through life we pick up physical and emotional knocks and bruises. The truth is that few of us make it far through life without experiencing pain and hurt. These experiences stay with us, we keep them in our scrapbook of slights and injustices. Emotional pain can often be felt as acutely years after the event as it was felt at the time. Mindfulness is a tool for dealing with suffering. It’s a poultice that we can apply to a physical or emotional wound. It allows us to experience it as it is, and by bringing our attention to pain we softens its intensity and create the conditions for healing to occur.

4. To deal with distractions, habits & addictions. The smartphone in our pocket is a means of instant communication and information, but it can also be a source of constant distraction. When we repeat distractions we form habits, and habits that are out of control become addictions. The fight for our online attention is now a trillion dollar business. It’s no wonder that every form of psychological trick is used to hook and hold our attention. What is more scary is that we are unaware of the traps that are set for us. Mindfulness can bring us to a place of stillness, a respite from the constant distraction of our modern, technical world.

5. To discover who we are. In many ways who we are is hidden from us. We can look out but rarely do we look back in at ourselves. We can describe in detail our friend’s personalities and their endearing and annoying quirks, but can we describe our own? It is remarkable that the person we know least about is often ourselves. By becoming an impartial observer of our thoughts, words, actions and feelings we begin to get glimpses of our true self. Not who we think we are, but who we truly are.

6. To live another life. There is another life out there waiting for us. It’s much simpler and involves a lot less doing. It requires us to find moments of stillness throughout the day. It means learning to just be and this is much more difficult than we can possibly imagine. For thousands of years the way to this alternative life is to simply wake up. Mindfulness helps to open our eyes to a richer, peaceful and more fulfilling life.

Why mindfulness?