I am particularly delighted to welcome Carole to the blog. She is writing about such an important topic—compassion on the internet. In these polarised times it is so important to take her Netiquette guidelines to heart. Thanks for the post, Carole!
Compassion is a strength that has supported me throughout my life. I have also witnessed the development of compassion help many people in my role as a private practice psychologist.
I think we’d all agree that communicating via the internet has been one of the fastest growing evolutions of the last 20 years. These days there are endless opportunities to communicate online and it can seem like a fast-paced world, difficult to keep up with. No doubt there has to be an effect on our mental health. Our relationship with these communications and how we relate to each other has been something of a personal and professional fascination to me over the years.
Today I will be sharing an online experience that took me to some dark human depths and caused me to wonder ‘where is the compassion?’ in these places. It was hard learning. This has driven me to create some online etiquette (Netiquette) guidelines that I am sharing with you today. I’ll walk you through my story.
Stepping into the Lion’s den
Working solely in private practice has its rewards and difficulties. One of the potential pitfalls can be becoming isolated from other professionals. So, when the opportunity to connect with others became available through social media, I considered it. To be honest I mostly ‘lurked’, watching others post and felt very reticent to get involved. I didn’t think too deeply about why that might be at the time. I found myself drawn in to respond to areas I had experience and knowledge in, feeling a responsibility to share.
One fine day I noticed someone asking a question on one of these social media networks that I had some information on and experience in. I summoned up the courage to post a link on the subject in question in a desire to be helpful – I remember thinking it was a neutral thing to do as I wasn’t directly offering an opinion. Now, it is important to say here there are difficulties with having such a small space to respond in as things may look out of context, AND you do not know what has gone on before in that forum…..these are things I learnt the hard way.
The unforeseen threat
Although I had responded to one person’s information request what happened was an entirely different person responding with an angry tirade of words. They were directed to me personally, questioning my knowledge and professionalism…I had a sense of ‘who do you think you are?’. It felt very threatening and I can share with you I felt absolutely crushed. I did not know who this person was and what sort of influence they might have. Crucially, I did not know who was looking in and struggled to find a way to deal with the situation, in the moment. Nobody posted anything straight away after this – although each of us got (secret) likes. In effect I had experienced a group shaming process, and in my vulnerable state had to decide how or if to respond.
I absolutely agonized over what to do. Ultimately, I decided there was no way I could respond directly or indirectly without entering into the angry, difficult behaviour. Abstaining was hugely difficult in itself as a fragile part of me felt like I was allowing myself to be bullied. In effect I was both trapped by the situation and blocked from responding – a dangerous and compassionless feeling place. This has caused me to wonder whether the speed of our ability to communicate is bypassing the decision-making part of our brain? We could be responding straight from our threat systems. Ironically, I suspect my seemingly (from my end) innocuous posting provoked the other persons threat system.
The power of self-compassion
Now, at this point I’d like to say thank goodness I had been practicing self-compassion for many years. Fortuitously I was already on one of Maureen’s (online) self-compassion courseswhich was hugely helpful in helping gather myself, and help view things from a safer feeling mindset. From this view I applied some compassionate self-correction as opposed to shame-based self-attacking (Professor Paul Gilbert OBE) for my part in entering naively into the online domain ill-prepared.
I wondered how I might respond if this were to every happen again. This was quite a conundrum. I spent some time considering what had happened to compassion in this situation and how important to our well-being kindly, well thought out communications were likely to be. Goodness knows we can think of many examples of difficult, unhelpful and harmful online interactions that go on every day.
Salvaging something from the experience
I decided to move forward by finding a way to contribute positively to these tricky communication spaces. Previously, I had encountered Netiquette (online etiquette) guidelines but they did not cover what I wanted to convey. I really hoped it would be useful to offer an understanding of what might be going on for us as human beings in online places, and why this might be important for our well-being.
Using my experience, I wrote from the heart and a set of compassionately written guidelines emerged. My thinking was that if anyone found themselves in the same impotent situation instead of entering into the communication, they could send a link to these Netiquette Guidelines. And whilst I am not naive enough to think this might also feel inflammatory the other end it would offer an opportunity to respond compassionately and not feel blocked.
These guidelines focus on the realities of being human beings in the online space, which has some significant differences to communicating in other places. There are some very interesting phenomenon that influence these communications such as the Online Disinhibition and Black Hole effects that you can follow if you are intrigued. I bring into view the public shaming opportunities public platforms can bring, as well as the opportunity to use our powers for good. I also encourage PUSHING THE PAUSE BUTTON as we are encouraged to sacrifice sense for speed.
Importantly …I encourage us to remember there is often a human at the other end but crucially remember we are all human! Being courteous and mindful is likely to reap big rewards for our well-being.
FORGIVE OTHERS AND BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF
– Remember you are a human too and with the best will in the world we all make mistakes. Mistakes online can feel much bigger, but if we are forgiving and compassionate with others and ourselves, perhaps that will become contagious.
REMEMBER WE ARE ALL HUMAN.
We are not all the same
You may be thinking ‘I wouldn’t be affected like that’, and this is a very interesting point. We are just in the beginnings of understanding what impact communicating via the internet might be having on us in terms of; changes in our brain, conditioning, attention etc. This evolution has potentially been the fastest in history and pushing the pause button to reflect perhaps the wisest thing we can do at this juncture. I have come to wonder how differently we react to online communications in different contexts and one interesting notion is how relevant our attachment styles might be. If you haven’t encountered attachment theory before it is really relevant in how we communicate with other people (and ourselves) and is often explored in compassion-based therapies.
Attachment and its importance in relating to others
From our early experiences we often talk about four styles; Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised (basic explanation). It’s not our fault we find ourselves subject to these styles and it can be helpful to understand how they might impact on our lives.
What is fascinating to me is how these might be acting on us in online communications that have different rules and less non-verbal communications to steer us. I have certainly noticed in my practice how some clients are drawn to continually check for approval in these 24/7 online spaces. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that we can compare ourselves to others at an alarming rate. Other factors are suggested as important such as; having a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance and separation distress.
It is profoundly interesting to wonder how these ideas might be being influenced in the often boundaryless feeling online space of the world wide web.
Reflecting on the learning
My own very strong reaction to this experience has been hugely interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea my attachment style has a place to play. An area of concern for me is the idea that compassion might be getting eroded in some online communications. Also, the capacity for group shaming and high levels of self-critical thinking, greater than in other spaces. Perhaps we could view these communications as high challenge in terms of being without the same safety giving non-verbal cues. This in turn might mean we require high self-support to manage them. In my experience self-compassion which encourages courage, distress tolerance, and a sense of safety might well provide balance to this modern-day stress. I sincerely hope my story and subsequent reflections have resonated with you. Please feel free to share the guidelines and I send compassionate best wishes for us all going forward.
I would like to leave you today with the words of Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the internet) in his open letter 2019, 30 years after he gifted us the Internet. His message, I believe, is of hope in we can steer the internet as we move forward – as opposed to being steered by it. I’m hoping in a more compassionate direction.
“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.” (Direct quote)
Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
Holmes, J. (2014). 2nd Edition. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy). Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames.
Carole is a counselling psychologist in private practice near Bristol, UK. She provides therapy, supervision, consultation and training both face-to-face and via online means. Carole often combines her research interest area of online relational aspects and compassion orientated approaches to explore some of our every day struggles. Her passion is in sharing understandable insights she hopes will be helpful to us as human beings.
Here is the second of Chris’ two guest posts on Compassion Focused Therapy. This one gives helpful guidance on how to do some of the key practices.
In the first part of this post on compassionate mind training and Compassion Focused Therapy the core concepts were considered. In this second post some of the practices I have found helpful are covered.
The practice of Soothing rhythm breathing
This is considering breathing with a purpose – a compassionate motivation- to both soothe and act as a grounding tool, either at times of distress or in preparation for other exercises.
As part of our overall nervous system, we have a component called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) looking after many of our automatic bodily functions – heart rate, respiration, digestion – so it regulates our internal environment. It has two main branches – sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is linked to our threat system, it prepares the flight-fight response. For example, increased heart rate, reduced digestion. It is indicative of psychological arousal.
PNS is linked more to soothing and replenishment, so resting and digesting. It is indicative of psychological relaxation.
Our organs receive input from both, so activity (heart rate) is controlled by the relative levels of PNS and SNS activity.
What the science suggests is that certain behaviours or actions can help engage the PNS. These include body posture, facial expression and breathing, in terms of depth and pace. Given that in our modern lives our threat system can be highly active and so SNS is running on a high state of reactivity, it’s important to consider how we can engage PNS.
Perhaps you can see how this ties in with the idea of using the soothing system to help with threat and drive balance, and one way to facilitate that is through a practice called soothing rhythm breathing.
The practice involves a few elements –
sitting in a relaxed and comfortable manner, focused on breathing but not in an alert state
having a relaxed facial expression, with a gentle smile
focus on breathing – deep breathing, really using all the lung capacity and using a count of 5 on the in and out breath. Recent research has also suggested a pattern of count of 4 on the in and 6 on the out.
The motivation to perform a practice is two fold – one it can help on a daily basis that you take some time out to pause, to nurture your body with moments of rest and secondly its developing a practice that can be called upon at distressing times.
Aside from perhaps creating a routine time to perform the exercise each day, it can also be helpful to pause at times during the day, to take a minute or two and engage in some deeper, regular breathing as part of a commitment to looking after your emotional wellbeing.
And at times of distress or ahead of doing something challenging this practice can be very helpful to help engage the soothing system and support bringing to the fore the compassionate self.
Here are two example guided practices – one from Prof Paul Gilbert and one from Dr James Kirby
The practice of Compassionate imagery
One brilliant skill is that our brain can visualise many things and by doing so can cause us psychological and physiological reactions. This ability to visualise as lead to so many of the great innovations and developments of humans, It allows us to plan, remember and imagine. It can also allow us to ruminate and wonder “what if” which may lead to creating catastrophic events in our minds that never happen.
Compassionate imagery employs this great skill we have with a motivation to provide support and one very helpful practice is the compassionate place.
The compassionate place is an exercise to bring to mind a place which nourishes and replenishes you. This can be a place you know well, somewhere you have visited or perhaps seen on television or social media – or it could be a made up place. Mine is a made up place, although with elements of places I know, of a wooded area. As part of imagining it I use all my senses – to visualise what it looks like, to sense the movement of air, to feel the tree bark, to hear the nearby brook, to smell the wood.
The important thing is that this doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not something to get right. It’s something to help you and the place will be personal and meaningful to you, so don’t be influenced by what you might think you “should” be imagining.
The practice of Compassionate letter writing
As well as the formal compassionate letter writing exercise , I use the techniques and approach when writing in a daily journal as well. Personally writing about emotions, depression and everyday challenges can really help to bring some clarity and engage the compassionate self,, fostering the compassionate wisdom and encouragement I may need .
The key intention behind the writing exercise is to acknowledge our suffering or distress and to help with managing that. That links into the definition of compassion from episode one.
To start it can help to foster the intention and motivation towards the writing by sitting and doing the soothing rhythm breathing exercise. It can also help to pause if something causes you a lot of distress while writing, to revisit that breathing exercise and also the soothing place exercise.
With the motivation and intention in mind, consider what the letter will be about. Its a letter to yourself , no-one else will read it, so have the motivation to be open and honest within it, as challenging as that may be. You write it as a letter, so addressed to yourself. In the first part acknowledge what the issue is, in a way that you might talk to a friend who is struggling. Supportive and understanding.
Then consider what you are feeling and validate it. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time or challenge you are facing. Validate all the feelings you have around this. This may include considering how your threat an or drive systems have played a role. It can be helpful to acknowledge that some of your reactions are part of that evolved way of thinking, so often the reactions are natural.
Really consider what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for.
Now start to consider what thoughts and actions you could take , being guided from a place of compassion, towards yourself and to any others involved. As part of that reflect on any challenges or barriers that may come up, what could you do if they happen and is there any support you need.
Finally close off with a compassionate commitment to the changes you envisage, to help sustain the actions. So this is an encouraging, coaching commitment towards yourself – no judging or criticising.
The last part is to read, which you can do immediately or leave for a while. Bring your compassionate self to the reading – don’t judge how well you have written, any misspellings or errors. They don’t matter – recognise that you have written with honesty and openness to help address something which is causing you distress.
A free guide to this practice is available from the Compassionate Mind Foundation.
I hope that these posts have provided an overview of the core concepts and some of the exercises from compassionate mind training. Deepening compassion, especially around self-compassion, made a real difference to me…perhaps these posts will inspire you explore compassionate mind training for yourself. Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation
Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being.
During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help. That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing.
Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw
It took me a long time to realize that my kindness can suffer from a lack of attention. Although it matters a lot to me to be kind, I am only too aware that it is not always easy.
Do you know the Cherokee folk story about the grandfather talking to his grandson? The Grandfather describes the two wolves that he feels are always battling within him. There is the kindly, caring wolf who looks for peace and harmony and then there is the fierce, angry wolf who likes to fight and make trouble. The grandson asks which wolf will win the battle and his grandfather replies, ‘The one that I feed’.
I always feel that the old grandfather is actually telling the story of how our old brain can undermine our newer brain, the prefrontal cortex at any provocation. Our old brain, or reptilian brain has been passed down to us from our early beginnings when our attention was primarily focused on hunting, procreating and staying alive. It was much later, when we started to gather together in communities in order to protect our families and raise healthy children, that we began to learn the value of cooperation and connection.
So, from one point of view, the wise grandfather is reminding me that kindness might be part of our evolutionary make up, but our self-interest is instinctive. In other words, if we don’t pay attention then our old brain can hijack all our well-meaning intentions.
These are some of the ways it can happen for me.
When does my kindness suffer?
When my opinions take over
We are going through tough times in world events—disastrous wars, austerity, Brexit, climate change, Trump, an increase in support for populism—and our 24/7 media coverage brings it all very close. Like many people, I care a lot about these issues and have strong opinions about how they need to be addressed. The thing is, it’s all too easy to talk about the people that I disagree with in very harsh terms. Sometimes I do not even realize that I am doing it!
When an issue is one we value dearly, then it is hard to tolerate opinions which seem to cut right across those values. We can use the fact that we feel ‘passionate’ about our causes to cover up how we behave in supporting them.
I have come to realize it is not so much use to campaign for things that matter to me in a style that does not fit my values. I don’t make loads of New Year Resolutions, but I am determined to find a way to speak up with strength but not harshness.
When I am too stressed, worried and pre-occupied
When we are stressed, or worried our horizons tend to narrow and we focus more on what is going on for us than with other people. Even being in a rush can lead us to overlook the needs of others. Stress can act in the same way as a threat and trigger our old brain responses. Our thinking brain tends to shut down and we focus our attention on just getting by—rather than noticing other peoples’ needs.
The irony is that we benefit ourselves from practising kindness—it’s not just about the other person.Research shows that kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. When we can open our hearts and minds to pay attention to the needs of others, we feel a sense of relief to connect with the world beyond our own individual worries.
When someone I care about is having a bad time
A few months ago, a close friend of mine got into a frustrating and demoralising hassle about a new work project he was initiating. It was a project he cared a great deal about and he was not given much chance to fight for it before it was cancelled in quite a callous way. When he told me the story, I found myself immediately leaping to his defence and blaming the other people for their lack of vision. I was able to support him with his frustration and disappointment, but it was only later that I realized that I had not been very fair to the other people involved.
That’s another tricky thing about kindness. Most of us are pretty good at giving kindness to those we love and are important to us. It gets much more difficult when we are asked to offer kindness beyond the circle of those we care about—and then even to people we disagree with and perhaps do not even like! I try to remember that there are plenty of people who don’t like me, but I still would like them to treat me fairly.
When I am able to separate a person from their actions, it gets much easier to wish them well and want to show them kindness. However, I can only do this when I am paying attention and not simply reacting.
Although we all want to live happy lives and for things to go well, we know that difficulties come along as part of the ups and downs of life. This happens to everyone. When I am going through a challenging time and need my friends to be there for me, it’s not always possible for them. Perhaps they are struggling themselves. When I am paying attention then I can remember this. When I am not then I get hurt.
How can I pay attention?
Why is our attention so fickle? We have seen how our reptilian brain can over-ride our more sophisticated reasoning brain but there is more. In 2010 two Harvard psychologists,Gilbert and Killingsworth developed an iPhone app which tracked the happiness of volunteers throughout the day. The results were astonishing: for almost 50% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing, and it does not make us happy. Our ability to ruminate, to think of events of already passed and to anticipate things that have not yet happened clouds our attention and takes us away from our immediate experience. We are simply not fully present to vast stretches of our activity.
Meditation enables us to bring our minds home, to pay attention in the present moment, without judgment. It helps us to connect with our own inner capacity for kindness and builds resilience to the challenges of life. Neuroscientists are discovering that as soon as we begin to practice meditation it is has positive effects on our brain. It is my meditation practice that gives me the foundation for kindness.
Making a habit of giving the benefit of the doubt
With meditation as the ground, I try as much as possible to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not always possible to manage it straight away, but gradually it becomes easier to come back to it later on. Perhaps there is an initial burst of frustration, or impatience but then I see what I am doing and remember kindness. It is as an act of self-compassion to forgive myself for not getting there faster.
Remembering to put myself in the other person’s shoes
Another useful technique is to remember to put myself in the other person’s shoes—to try and see things from their point of view, from their own experience. It is hard to begin with but gradually it becomes possible to find the thread of another person’s insecurity, worry, sorrow or conditioning that could be informing their behaviour. If I can, I try to see myself as I might appear to them—what would they see when they look at me?
Most of all, it helps to remember that however much we want to act with kindness and consideration, we are subject to the overwhelming power of our basic instinct to preserve ourselves. Although our kindness is hard-wired we need to pay attention to it in order to bring it into action—it needs intention and focus. Our self-interest is instinctive. Meditation is a sustainable way to calm down our hyper-active minds and pay attention to what is going on with ourselves, with people around us and with our environment.
If you liked this post and feel inspired to go more deeply into kindness, you could try this online course
Most of us are back at work by this point in January and already the holidays are starting to feel like they’ve been over for a while. In our street, every day the pile of Christmas trees assigned to the garbage grows bigger. It’s hard to imagine that a few days ago they were taking pride of place loaded down with all kinds of treats and surrounded by presents.
Perhaps while you were enjoying your holiday downtime, you were thinking about the new year about to start. Maybe you’ve made a whole list of new year resolutions. It seemed a good idea at the time—make a fresh start to the year and get yourself in shape. The thing is, we can get a bit carried away. We make a huge list of all the things we are going to stop doing and all the things we think we should start doing and when we come to look at it—well, it’s a bit overwhelming and frankly, depressing!
When we are not self-compassionate
Now we have set up the perfect conditions for feeling guilty and dissatisfied with ourselves. The next step is to start beating ourselves up for not getting going on the self-improvement plans we made—which will make us feel worse. It’s easy to look back over the year just finishing and remember all the things we didn’t do, or hopes we had that were not fulfilled.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get the best out of ourselves, nor with using the beginning of a new year as a time for reflection on how we are living our lives. The thing is we tend to go about it in such a self-critical way.
We look at everything we think is not working so well and then make a long to-do list of all the ways we want to change. Somehow, we are surprised when it is overwhelming and we cannot keep it up. We feel as if we have failed in some way and are disappointed in ourselves.
Some suggestions for making self-compassionate resolutions
Not surprisingly, we are much more likely to get the best from ourselves if we approach any changes we want to make with an attitude of self-compassion and kindness. We can try and be a friend to ourselves, rather than behaving like our worst nightmare of a disapproving schoolteacher.
Start off with looking to your strengths
Think about the parts of your life that are on track and the things you do well. Ask yourself how you could build on that.
For example: you might be good at your job but have an irritating relationship with a work colleague. Your resolution could be to try to make a difference in how you both relate to one another. Start small by making them a cup of coffee whenever you can. The chances are you’ll be surprised how quickly they warm up to you. It often does not take so much to make a difference.
Choose the changes you want to make carefully
When looking for where you want to change, choose something manageable. You can see from the picture above that ‘improving self’ is a big project, as is ‘save money’. Both are too big and too general.
Even ‘more family time’ is asking a lot. Instead try to be specific—decide to call your mother twice a week; or decide to turn off all your individual screens (phone, tablet etc.) by 9pm in the evening in order to have quality time with your partner.
Set yourself some attainable goals
It takes time to change your habits, so take big picture into account. Set yourself a goal—like making meditation part of your life but then look at the steps needed to get there. Decide to meditate for five minute every day for two weeks. If that goes well, then try for 10 minutes every day for a month. When you miss a day, don’t stop to berate yourself—just carry on the next day.
Celebrate your successes
If you had a good friend who was trying to change some habits you would want to encourage them. Remember, with self-compassion you can be a good friend to yourself. Celebrate every success you achieve. Build in rewards for what you accomplish. When you manage your first week of meditating 5 minutes a day then you could celebrate by giving yourself a treat.
We are all in the same boat.
Whatever our situation and circumstances, people mostly want to be happy and live good lives. Think of all the people who are trying to make positive changes and struggling with them just like you are. None of us is alone in trying to find the way to get the best out of ourselves and live a meaningful life.
Allow yourself to get it wrong
No-one is perfect and it’s a waste of effort to even try. As human beings, we are sometimes going to make mistakes and sometimes we will be brilliant. When you break a resolution, or find yourself slipping back into old habits instead of beating yourself up, try forgiving yourself. Focus on the effort you’ve been making and don’t give up on what you are trying to do just because you had a bit of a blip. Remember to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was struggling with their resolution—how would you talk to them? Would you call them a loser? I doubt it. After all—if we cannot be a friend to ourselves, how can we be a good friend at all?
As the Beatles sang in their song, A Day in the Life,
I read the news today, oh boy….
As I read the news, the main headline was about the ‘final call’ to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’—in other words, everyone and everything frying in less than 30 years time. There was a piece about girls in school uniform being sexually harassed, and another about increasing homelessness even in prosperous cities in the USA. Another right-wing candidate has leapt to prominence, and the incidents of PTSD among veterans is seriously on the rise. Young people who have enough money for a 10% deposit on a house still cannot afford to buy one. Then the usual stories of bribery, corruption, and the misery of long-term refugees is like a familiar backdrop to the daily round of suffering, violence and natural disasters.
Quite a lot of my friends have stopped watching the news. They say it is way too distressing, and makes them feel powerless, frightened and miserable. Why put yourself through it—it’s enough to make you crazy?
So why do I risk the news driving me crazy and keep watching it so regularly?
Something that comes into my head over and over again as I struggle with watching the news is that any one of the people I am watching could be me—I could be flooded out of my home or attacked by a terrorist while moving about the city. I am one of the people directly affected by Brexit, new tax regulations and the housing shortage. It seems vitally important to realize that each of the news stories are made up by people just like me. We might live in different countries, have different interests and concerns but each of us needs basic shelter, enough to eat and a way to earn our living. We all have hopes and dreams and we all experience crushing disappointments, anxieties and fears. Somewhere, at some level we all want and need love.
Putting myself in their shoes
As I watch the news I try to put myself in the shoes of the people involved – to see things as they are experiencing them. This is not the same as letting myself get overwhelmed by what is going on. It’s more like walking a bit on someone else’s shoes until I get their feel and then putting my own back on. I know it will not help anyone if I just feel bad and miserable. The point for me is not to withdraw but to see it all within the scope of how inter-connected we all are – to keep my own heart open and responsive, to dare to be vulnerable.
It gets a lot harder if I try to put myself in the shoes of the perpetrators of terrorism, or conflict, or crime and sometimes it is just not possible. At the very least, I make an attempt to fathom what led them to act as they did—to ask myself what suffering they may have experienced that led to such drastic action.
Dealing with judgement
We seem to be living through a time of deep polarization between different opinions and ways of seeing the world. It is all too easy to judge those we disagree with as being less capable, less honest, almost less human. It hurts to see legislation, political appointments and decisions that go directly against what you yourself feel to be important. At such times it’s easy to feel cynical and dismiss it all as just another manifestation of how hopeless it all is and how we should not even try to make sense of any of it.
I was struck by a recent video I watched from Michelle Obama in which she encourages people to get out and vote—to take responsibility for how they want to live. She did not urge people to vote democrat—she simply encouraged people not to go passive in the current melée of politics but to engage and choose. Her insistence that it is fundamentally up to us resonated with me.
Managing my dislike
I confess to feeling angry, frustrated and overwhelmingly sad when certain politicians come on the screen—I just need to hear their voice, or see their name and my reaction rolls in. It surprises me how visceral it is. Generally my preference is for dialogue, kindness and compassion and yet when these particular political figures appear on the screen I just want to yell abuse.
This cannot be called a productive response at any level.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this reaction is my sense of helplessness—I want to hit back because of how frustrated I feel. Just lately, it has been becoming clearer that if I can manage my exactions with more equanimity, less dislike and less judgement I can feel that I am taking back some control of the situation. A meditation teacher of mine used to say, If you want to bring about nuclear disarmament, start off with the atom bomb in your own heart. The wisdom of this is finally beginning to filter through.
Just as Michelle Obama encourages participation as a way of taking responsibility, so working with my reactions—from aversion, through judgement to dislike—can help me to have more resources and energy to see the new items more clearly. This can only help in developing the understanding and compassion I am looking for.
Watching the news has become a way of bearing witness for me—bearing witness to the pain and suffering in the world, to the struggles that we all have to manifest our natural capacity for kindness and to my own path to developing my resources in order to be of benefit, rather than adding to the chaos and confusion.
Hello! If you enjoyed this blog and want to go deeper, you might enjoy this online course: How to Be a Good Friend to Yourself
A few weeks ago, I was visiting some friends of mine and there was a bit of a crisis. Their 27-year-old son, who has temporarily moved back in with them, had decided to run a half-marathon in another city the day after a family event that had been scheduled for more than a year. He was still planning to attend the event but would need to leave early. Everyone knew that this was going to cause a major upset.
Later on, I talked with him about it. He explained that he had reached a time in his life when he had to begin to prioritise his own needs. He felt that for most of his life he had focused on wanting to please other people and now it was time see how he himself wanted to live. It was important to him to get back into running and this half-marathon was the best way to do that.
In many ways I felt a great deal of sympathy for him. Deciding to take one’s self-care seriously is an important milestone in one’s life. It marks another stage in growing up. However, there were aspects of his dogged determination to follow his own instincts and to turn aside from the feelings of those close to him that felt slightly evangelical to me. He was on a bit of a crusade of self-care and to stop and think of the impact of his actions on others was like going back on his new goal. It got me thinking about how subtle self-care can be and how easy it is to over-simplify it. I decided to explore it some more.
What is self-care?
In 2005 the UK Department of Health published a broad definition of self-care:
Self-care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and wellbeing, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighbourhoods and local communities.
This definition points out that self-care is a means of working with stressors in daily life, rather than a method of avoiding problems with momentary distractions and indulgences. It seems to imply that extending care to one’s children, family, friends and neighbours fits into the overall definition of self-care. This makes sense from a wholistic point of view as it is hard to see how you could be truly caring for yourself, if you neglect all the people connected to you in your life.
What strikes me most about these Seven Pillars is that they focus on the physical aspects of self-care, with an enormous topic like mental wellbeing and self-awareness being crammed into just one pillar.
For self-care to be effective, we need to come at it in as broad a way as we can. Taking good care of our physical health is important but the way we manage stress, and work with the challenges of life are deeply intertwined with how our bodies cope. We can be exercising regularly and eating healthily but pushing ourselves too hard at work. We might give up smoking and cut down on our alcohol intake but be struggling with a relationship breakdown.
Elements of self-care
In her a recent article, health coach Tara Sareen divides self-care into two categories: recreational self-care and transformative self-care.
This is the kind of self-care that offers a break in what you are dealing with—a special night out, a weekend away, a good massage. It’s refreshing and gives us a boost. For the most part it is easy to set up, and it’s highly enjoyable.
This kind of self-care might not necessarily be fun—it might even be quite demanding. It could involve finding time to learn something new, like meditation. We may decide to embark on a session of counselling. The important thing is that it takes our needs seriously and is a way of investing in sustainable wellbeing and personal growth. The effort is greater, but the rewards are more lasting.
This involves everything that has to do with the tangible, sensory body and the natural and material environment. Important values in this dimension are safety, comfort, pleasure, and health.
The social dimension
Here the focus is on your relationship with other people and everything that concerns your position in society. Important values are status, recognition and success but also includes caring for others, friendship and belonging.
The psychological or personal dimension
In this dimension, psychological characteristics are involved, personality traits, intellectual ability and opinions you hold about yourself. Here self-knowledge, autonomy and freedom are of great importance. Investing in this dimension can lead to a rich inner life. It involves a self-acceptance, coming to terms with yourself and processing and accepting your past and present life.
The spiritual dimension
This includes self-transcending ideals, a broader system of meaning, spiritual values, the confidence that there is a meaningful direction that develops in life. There is more emphasis on oneself as part of the whole. It is experienced less as a fourth dimension than as a deepening and foundation for the other three.
Personally, I find reflecting on these four dimensions to be very helpful in assessing where my ability to care for myself is quite robust and where it is weaker. The idea is that we find some sort of balance between these four dimensions and I can see clearly where some of my own imbalances lie. These dimensions take self-care to a different level and enable us to take a more integrated look at how and where we need to practice it.
Why is it an issue?
When you scan the internet, and various self-help publications and website it does not take long to see that self-care is a hot topic. It seems that we are not very good at it and many intelligent, resourceful and seemingly efficient adults are failing to give themselves the care that they need in order to avoid burn-out, compassion fatigue, and high stress. Let’s take a brief look at some of the reasons why that is.
We drive ourselves too hard
Many of us are juggling demanding jobs, tight budgets, the needs of our family and our own expectations of ourselves. Each day is a list of things to get done and we struggle to keep up. Perhaps we do aspire to take better care of ourselves but then we have a work deadline and need to stay late to accomplish it. There’s been no time to eat properly during the day and we have drunk too much coffee. We get home late and feel guilty that we have had so little time with the kids. Before we go to bed we need to take time to make sure everything is in place for the next day. We fall into bed late and wound up and can’t fall asleep.
Most of us have an active and harsh inner critic
Do you have a voice in your head that gives a running commentary on how you are going about things? Does it remind you of a teacher, or parent, or a former boss? Many of have such voice that speaks to us in a way we would never speak to another person and get we subject ourselves to its tyranny on a daily basis. We think the voice is helping to keep us in line, but it is stifling our creativity and sense of adventure.
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
Moreover, we tend to seek perfection so that people will approve of us and want to be with us. We use it a means of ensuring that we are loved and loveable, when we have no chance of attaining it and even less of maintaining it.
Once we grow up and leave home, self-care becomes our own responsibility and not part of how we are parented. At the same time, it becomes subject to all the forces of our own worries and hang ups—sometimes making it very hard to care for ourselves as we need to. Yet we can see, that part of growing up and maturing—at whatever age—is to learn to be a good friend to ourselvesand to self-care as an essential part of the way we live. We owe to ourselves, to the people around us and the world at large.
A sure way to get self-care right – understand its scope
It can be hard work
It seems that in spite of all the hype, self-care is a basic human need for each one of us. Every time we get confused and go for the ‘treat’ response to our worries and stress, we are actually cheating ourselves of that self-care. Of course, it is fun to treat ourselves from time to time but when it becomes a coping strategy then we are in trouble. Sometimes caring for ourselves is hard work but that’s OK if it helps us transform and grow.
To care for ourselves we need to include other people
Likewise, if we think self-care is all about focusing on ourselves we are missing out on the vast dimension of our social world and inter-related acts of kindness. Self-focus as a means of caring for ourselves withdraws us from a powerful source of nurture, and healing which we can find in understanding the interconnected experience and understanding of human beings. Recognising that everyone struggles some of the time helps us to see our challenges in perspective.
We might need to try something new
It seems we need a certain courage, and a clear sense of balance to be able to coax ourselves into a pattern of productive self-care. It is good to see that so many of the experts recommend meditationas a basis for learning to befriend ourselves as we are and continue to strive for all facets of wellbeing. Meditation helps us to learn to be more present to our experience. We become less in thrall to mulling over things that have already happened or worrying about things that may never happen.
I hope that running his half-marathon brings my young friend the boost he needs but my biggest wish for him would be that he takes the time to reflect on all aspects of self-care. Perhaps his self-focus is a starting point and he’ll get into seeing the bigger picture as he goes along.
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