The research is in! Those who score higher in self-compassion have less anxiety and depression and bounce back easier from setbacks. The self-esteem movement of the 90’s has shown some cracks. Namely, we have taught people that in order to feel good about themselves, they need to be better than someone else. This has resulted in a culture of narcissism and fragile egos.
Self-compassion isn’t just for the faint of heart, it requires courage and strength to turn toward your suffering and yet remain committed to doing what’s best for you. Practicing self-compassion has three critical components identified by Dr. Kristin Neff. The first is mindfulness to your suffering, the second is kindness around the suffering versus judging yourself harshly, and the third element involves remembering that imperfection, failure, and suffering are part of the human experience, you are not alone.
All the elements are critical, but a final thought on the importance of the last piece. When we misstep or fail, there is a tendency to feel alone, different, or less than in some way. Remembering the ubiquity of the human experience of suffering is a lovely antidote to feeling alone.
My day started off great! I woke up on time (without my alarm), my mood was light, I had my favorite espresso, kids were off to their respective places, the first few client sessions were meaningful, and then one negative hiccup….. Sure enough, before I knew it, my glowing, upbeat mood had soured and the rest of the day had a shade of gloom cast over it. What happened?
As humans, we are hard wired for survival and with that comes a built in negativity bias. If 12 good things happen to us in a day and 1 negative thing happens, we are more likely to reflect, stew, and perseverate over the negative one. It is an evolutionary adaptation designed to keep us alive. Our brains don’t have to try to remember to learn from negative experiences, they are firmly rooted in our minds, Unfortunately, this bias extends to even the smallest of negative insults, so if someone is rude to you, this too will become fodder to replay and dwell over.
The good news is we can combat this bias by being intentional about taking in the good things, especially the small ones. If a positive experience isn’t overwhelmingly joyous, it is likely to be a blip on our radar. Thus, we don’t learn from it, nor does it have the chance to influence our mood and attitude.
Rick Hanson, PhD talks more in depth about this subject if you would like to learn more, but, in the meantime, spend at least 15 seconds on each positive thing, so that you can experience the positive high from this natural brain boost.
The almost casualty of my perfectionism today was delighting in my 2-year olds newfound coloring skills and the fact that I had finally found a “play” activity that I enjoyed as much as my child. The latter of which has been no small feat and believe me I have tried them all.
We began the activity each with our own coloring book, but soon after, she moved towards me and kept attempting to color on the page opposite of the one I was carefully coloring. My first few gestures to shoo her back to her own book were largely out of my immediate awareness, but after the third time I caught myself literally pushing her away, mindfulness thankfully kicked in for me. “What am I doing” I wondered”, the perfectionist in me was quick to pipe up. “She’s going to color outside the lines!” This was quickly followed by perfectionisms’ [sic] good friend, anxietist, who worried what the picture would look like at the end.
Fortunately, for me and for her, I was aware of this silly process going on inside of me. So, I made the values based decision to be with and enjoy my daughter, reveling in the process, instead of being attached to an outcome of how something should be. I would have thought I’d have learned by now after the 2017 pumpkin craft debacle. Guess which one is mine?
Me singing: “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb…”
Internal thought process: “Geez, how many verses does this song have?” “I’m supposed to be working right now! You’re supposed to be sleeping!”
I feel myself getting frustrated and irritable. I had big plans for nap time today, but my daughter is sick and falling asleep with a stuffy nose and cough is challenging. After my third trip back to her room, I had the bright idea that I would bring my phone and sit on the floor, out of her view, and sing her favorite song. I reasoned that I could get a few things accomplished while I sang.
However, neuroscientist, Earl Miller, a professor at MIT, says for the most part, we can’t focus on more than one thing at the same time. What we are really doing is switching our attention with amazing speed. This gives the impression that we are paying attention to things simultaneously, when, in reality, we are rapidly switching our attention back and forth. The part of the brain responsible for this amazing ability is our executive system (more on this in a future blog post).
Turns out, its true, we really don’t multitask as well as we think. After a couple of verses had words like “coffee” and “attention” dropped in, I gave up. What was I doing anyway, my baby needed me and my mind was somewhere else.
Such a powerful reminder to be present and to let go of our idea of how something is supposed to go, which, by the way, is a surefire way to increase suffering.
People often use the terms “emotions” and “feelings” interchangeably, but it can be helpful to understand the difference between them, as this aids in learning how to regulate ourselves when experiencing an emotional tsunami. Antonio D’Amasio, a professor of neuroscience and author of several books on the subject, explains it as:
Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)
In other words, an emotion is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives us information about the world, and our feelings are our conscious awareness of the emotion itself. Our feelings then are mental portrayals of what is going on in our bodies when we have an emotion. Feelings are the byproduct of our brains perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion. Feelings are the next thing that happens after having an emotion, involve cognitive input, usually subconscious, and cannot be measured precisely.
So, it is important for us to remember that individual emotions are temporary, but the feelings they evoke may persist and grow. This happens because the feelings triggered by emotions are not isolated to that particular emotional stimulus, as they are influenced by thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you.
Keep in mind, that it works the other way around as well. Feelings can be triggered by emotions and colored by thoughts, but simply thinking about something threatening can also trigger an emotional fear response. Unfortunately, this can set in motion a cycle of painful and confusing emotions which produce negative feelings, which cause more negative emotions.