My recent self-compassionate experience
It was in Barcelona a few weeks ago, that I got a direct lesson on the importance of mindfulness in supporting being self-compassionate.I was there to give a workshop on transforming stress and it was on the second day, after lunch, that I got a choking fit. I had hurried back from lunch and was slightly hyper because I was trying to lift the everyone-wants-a-siesta energy. I took a sip of water and it just went completely wrong. It is easy for me to choke and I am only too aware that if it goes really badly, then it’s possible that I will vomit. Not something any workshop facilitator is looking to do!
At first I tried to fight it and just carry on. Then it occurred to me to excuse myself to the bathroom but then people would have come after me and the workshop could unravel. There were a few moments where I just pretended that I wasn’t there but of course that didn’t work either. So, I gave up and just spluttered on until I could find a place to settle my breathing and take a cough sweet. Things slowly settled.
The three elements of self-compassion
Looking at the group I saw a sea of worried, slightly anxious faces. Something needed to be done. As it happens I had been starting to explain the three elements of self-compassion—self-kindness, as an antidote to self-criticism stemming from the fight response; common humanity, as an antidote to self-isolation stemming from the flight response, and mindfulness, as an antidote to self-absorption stemming from the freeze response. I realized that I had already run through the whole fight-flight-freeze stress response in myself, so I decided to try and use what had happened to explain the antidotes and how they work.
Self-kindness came in as allowing myself to acknowledge something unpleasant was happening but not beating myself up about it. It wasn’t my fault. Seeing the concern on the faces of the group reminded me that they knew exactly what I was going through and wanted me to be OK. There was common humanity. However, the basis of the whole thing was that because I could apply mindfulness I was able to keep the whole thing in proportion and not over-react to my predicament. There was no panic—it could all be managed.
Let’s look more closely at how mindfulness supports self-compassion.
5 reasons we need mindfulness for practicing self-compassion
To enable us to notice our moments of suffering
From an evolutionary point of view, we are programmed to turn away from anything that threatens us, and to keep focused on staying alive. This is so we can pass on our genes. On an everyday level, this means we put our energy into carrying on with whatever we think needs to be done—which does not give much time for self-care.
Our stress response is built to fight, run away or freeze and wait till the threat passes. So, our tendency is to rage against our suffering, or distract ourselves from it, or hide away and lick our wounds. It is hard for us to simply notice pain. This means that we are not always very skilful in knowing how to care for ourselves, especially regarding emotional, pain.
Furthermore, when we are suffering, our tendency is to focus on the failure rather than the pain. If you make a mistake at work, don’t you quickly find yourself feeling stupid, rather than taking a moment to acknowledge how wretched you feel for the mistake in the first place? When you have an argument, aren’t you more likely to spend the moments after it re-running the scenario and trying to see what you could have done differently? How often do you give yourself a moment just to feel the pain of the disagreement?
Mindfulness means being in the present moment and experiencing it fully, as it is. If the present moment is one of suffering, then we taste it fully. By not turning away, we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge what is going on for us and to see what it is we need to do about it.
To encourage being non-judgemental
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as being a moment-to–moment, non-judgemental awareness. Let’s look at that idea of being non-judgemental. For much of time we are looking at what goes on around us and dividing it up into stuff we like, and want more of; stuff we don’t like, and wish would go away, and stuff we don’t really care about. When we practice mindfulness, and become present to our experience, there’s an opportunity to be curious and to just notice what is going on. We don’t need to overload our experience with judgments, that tend to narrow things down.
In terms of self-compassion it can mean that we do not go straight into the monologue of our critical voice, telling us how we are not getting it right and falling behind. We can pay attention, rather than berate ourselves. This gives us a chance to get a more balanced view of what is going on and how we want to deal with it.
To take the simmer out of our reactions
Our stress response is basically the same as that for any other mammals but we differ in one important way. When an animal has escaped from a threat it faces—say the zebra has escaped from the lion—it quickly settles and returns to quietly grazing. We don’t do this. Our minds keep the threat alive long after it has passed. Think of the last time you had an argument with your boss—didn’t you spend hours afterwards thinking about how it went and what you could have done differently? Perhaps you discussed it with friends?
Our tendency to ruminate and worry and to go over and over things that have upset us, keep us in a constant state of low-grade stress—a kind of simmering stress. In this state it is harder to practice self-kindness, or to remember common humanity. If we are being present to what is happening to us now, not what has already happened, not what might happen shortly, then there is nothing to ruminate about.
Like the zebra—who is focused on grazing on the grass in front of it—we can engage with our present activity wholeheartedly. We don’t need to follow our wandering mind.
To have a choice in how we react
When we see how fast our moods and feelings change it’s maybe hard to believe that there is a tiny gap between something happening—an action, and our reaction to it. When we are feeling quite mellow and relaxed we can sometimes sense this gap but when we are worried, or stressed it seems to disappear. For me, self-compassion means using all our resources to work with ourselves in a healthy and constructive way. When we over-react to a situation and have to deal with all that entails, we are setting ourselves up for self-criticism and feeling bad.
With mindfulness, we are engaging with the present moment with our full attention and without judgment. Going from moment to moment with curiosity enables us to have a more balanced view of things as they occur. This makes it possible to put space around events and gives us the chance to notice the gap. Then we can have some choice in how we react, rather than simply being dragged along by our emotions and moods.
Often when we calm down after something has upset us, and look back at what has taken place, we can see that our reactions have encouraged us to exaggerate. Think of how mad you can get at another driver who seems to be cutting across you! Or how frustrated you feel when your internet connection falls away! When we are mindful, we are more able to see things as they are, without exaggeration. We are not trying to prove anything. We are just being with what comes along. So, even if you do over-react to a situation, with mindfulness you can more quickly bring your attention back and settle.
To avoid over-identification
Remember, from a self-compassion viewpoint that mindfulness is the antidote to freezing up, which leads to self-absorption. When we are not able to step back as we were discussing in point 4, then our sense of self becomes completely wrapped up in our reaction to what we are dealing with. It can be so easy to be caught up in our own personal soap opera.
Remember a time when you were faced with a big disappointment—someone else got the job you applied for, your relationship broke up or perhaps the holiday you really longed for turned out to be too expensive. A disappointment is a moment of suffering and we need to notice it and take care of ourselves as we work through it. When we over-identify with our reaction, then we deny ourselves the chance to work through it in a way that will enable us to heal. Our reaction becomes the main story, rather than our return to wellbeing.
Mindfulness of the present moment balances out our attention and prevents us from falling into a repeating loop of reaction and disappointment. Then we can apply self-kindness and see our problems in relation to those of other people. Mindfulness fuels self-compassion.
If you found this post helpful you might like to check out my online course, How to be a Good Friend to Yourself
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