Have you ever found yourself caught in a negative thought cycle?
Why did I say that? Wow, I’m such an idiot, I can never do anything right,
No wonder I’m single, I will always be alone.
And so it goes. Often, this sets off a spiral of reaching for comfort from unhelpful sources- alcohol, smoking, the internet, a bag of chips, a sleeve of Oreos, you name it. Or, you want to isolate, so you cancel plans with friends or call in sick to work… It affects how you think, what you feel, and how you behave.
It often starts with a simple interaction with someone… words are exchanged, facial expressions are interpreted, and the inner critic is off and running. Sometimes it is even triggered while looking through social media sites…you notice all those happy photos with smiling people having fun and you end up feeling left out, less than, and alone.
Self-compassion is different than self-esteem. Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of ourselves which often comes at the cost of judging our performance or quality as compared with others. However, self-compassion is how you relate to yourself.
Self-compassion is giving kindness to ourselves, similar to how a loving, caring adult would comfort a young child or how a best friend would listen lovingly to our difficult story without criticism and judgment. It provides a way to take a breath, soothe the nervous system, and not get caught in a cycle of criticism which leaves you feeling deflated. Self-compassion is not based on a positive evaluation of yourself. It includes everything…times of struggle, discomfort, and feelings of defeat. It is being compassionate even in the face of our perceived failings.
Kristin Neff has made self-compassion her mission. She has written the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself . Kristin Neff writes, “Self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness-that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”
Our brilliant evolutionarily adapted brain helps us stay safe, although sometimes it overreacts to cues in the environment that aren’t actually dangerous (a frown from a passing stranger, a comment made by a friend, a photo on Facebook). Rick Hanson writes about how our brain is biased to search for and remember negative events which is called the negativity bias. “The unfair and unfortunate result is that negative experiences get captured in emotional memory instead of positive ones, gradually darkening your outlook, mood, and sense of self.” So, noticing, remembering, and responding to negative things is more automatic than the positive memories and experiences we encounter on a daily basis. It’s not that the world is tilted toward the negative, it is that our brain is sensitive to picking up the negative. And, it applies to how we see ourselves…do you ever notice how easy it is to react to a feeling that you did something wrong and then spend the next hour beating yourself up about it?
It also helps to feel compassion toward the inner critic… Kristin Neff writes that the inner critic and our self-criticism was designed to keep us out of danger. It is another way the brain has adapted to pick up on negative cues in order to self-correct behavior to increase the chance of safety, or at least that is how it was designed. However, when our inner critic attacks us for simple mistakes or criticism of who we are and how we act as compared with others, it is not doing a helpful job. There is more value in being our own cheerleader and safe person by having kindness and compassion. Sometimes offering ourselves compassion is more difficult than offering compassion and love to others…
For me years ago, sitting in a meditation retreat in the national forest west of Taos, New Mexico, a beautiful setting with many beautiful people, I ran into a roadblock. This morning we were working to befriend ourselves through a self-compassion exercise. To begin, we were instructed to bring to mind someone we loved, hold them in our mind and heart, offer kind words and thoughts, notice our breath, thoughts, and sensations. Next, we were instructed to turn our attention to someone we had difficulty with, again offering kind words and thoughts. Then to do the same for ourselves… I was surprised at the difficulty in sending myself kind words and thoughts- the inner critic was loud and clear. Since that retreat, I have continued with this practice and I can say that it does get easier… thankfully. This is often the case for many people- it is more difficult to turn our love and care toward ourselves. It is worth taking time to practice self-compassion- you will notice the positive effects in many areas of your life. So, let’s try it now…
This is a short self-compassion exercise adapted from Tara Brach’s RAIN technique. The acronym RAIN is a tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps:
Recognize what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.
Recognizing means consciously acknowledging, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to a situation or what you are aware of in the moment. Simply noting what is present in your body (sensation, including tension, pain, pleasant sensations), mind (thought, inner critic/voice), and feelings (emotions of joy, sadness, anger, etc).
Allowing means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations we have recognized simply be there, without trying to fix or avoid anything. Let it be… Resting in equanimity without trying to change anything.
Investigate nonjudgmentally and with kindness. Being curious about what you notice.
Nurture with self-compassion. As we recognize we are suffering we can sense into what we need in this moment. Often there is a sad, wounded, frightened or hurting place inside you and you can offer words or a gesture to address this need. Sometimes a loving message is needed or a hand on the heart.
Wishing you much love and joy,
Resources to learn and practice more:
Kristin Neff www.self-compassion.org
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer
Christopher Germer www.MindfulSelfCompassion.org
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbookby Christopher Germer & Kristin Neff
Tara Brach Radical Acceptance