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
Meditation is quite easy to learn and it’s not hard to practice. What can be hard is to make it part of your life. Do you find that there is a lot of stuff that gets in the wayof your meditation?
We are not used to meditating
There is a lot of talk about how mindfulness and meditation are so popular these days. It’s true that things have certainly changed from when I was a child. Nowadays everyone knows what meditation is, or thinks they do. We hear of various famous people who are said to practice meditation. It’s easy to find books, articles, apps and lots of courses on meditation.
This is all great, but it does not change the fact that we are not used to it.
For those of us living in the west, it’s really only in the last fifty or so years that meditation has been available to us. It’s a new addition for most people. It is only beginning to be accepted in certain areas of society—it’s certainly not something that everyone does. You don’t walk down the street and see billboards urging you to meditate. TV shows are not full of people meditating.
When I was a child there was even less talk of meditation. I would have loved to have had lessons in school. My life could have been quite different. Now meditation is beginning to be taught in schools. This is a wonderful development. Our education system is so focused on getting across all the right information. It’s a shame that learning how to work with our minds is just down to us.
Those of us who are meditators support each other through our communities but we are not mainstream. We are still working out how to make meditation part of our lives.
It is not always comfortable to sit with your mind
One result of not being used to meditation is that we can feel some resistance to it. Although we have heard of all the benefitsand we want to try it ourselves, it is not always comfortable. Sitting quietly with your mind is not always easy to do. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia led a piece of research into how people react when they are asked to sit quietly without anything to occupy them. People reported feeling uncomfortable. Shockingly, in some cases people went for the option of giving themselves electric shocksjust to have something to do.
Part of our unfamiliarity with meditation means that we are not always sure if we want the benefits that it brings. We want inner peace but secretly worry that it might be boring. When we don’t feel like meditating it can even feel like we don’t really want to let go of our old habits. We like what we are familiar with—even if it causes us problems. Often in workshops I have had long interactions with people who are convinced that their stress is just ‘how things are’ and that there is nothing they can do to change things.
When you have been meditating for a while, your confidence grows in the feeling of stability that it brings. You stop looking for answers and begin to accept the quietening down of the mind as a way of it returning to its natural state.
There never seems to be enough time
On a more practical level, thinking that there is not enough time certainly gets in the way of your meditation. Most people live busy lives juggling work, family and trying to have some fun. We might want to meditate but we don’t know how to fit it in. Trying to do it in the morning means we have to get up too early. When we come home in the evening, we are too tired. Forget trying to do it during the day because things are happening much too fast.
At the risk of being repetitive, a lot of this comes down to not being used to meditation. If you look carefully, there are actually lots of timesfor short meditations during the day. It helps if we can just be quite natural about it. Taking a moment to watch your breath while standing in a queue is like a tiny meditation session. There can be many times like that—stopping at traffic lights, waiting for the bus, when you go to the loo.
You can also use all the ordinary, routine activities that you do every day as mindfulness exercises. Try cleaning your teeth mindfully or taking a shower. When you cook dinner, notice each of your actions and stay present with them. Try not to let your mind wander to what you have to do next.
All these small moments help us to get used to meditation. They make room for meditation in our life and help to make it a habit.
There is so much stuff going on in our minds
Traditional Buddhist teachings on meditation the mind is likened to a wild elephantthat needs to be tamed. Although we might not like to think of our minds being like a wild elephant, we do know that for much of the time we don’t seem to have so much control over where our minds go, or how they behave. In fact, if we are honest, we know that there really is nothing that our mind cannot think about, or how far out it can get.
All this noise in the mind can get in the way of your meditation. It’s not that we don’t want to meditate but our minds are so busy that it can over rule our intention to meditate. That’s why it is important to do regular short sessions. It helps our mind get more used to quietening down.
It’s easy to get discouraged
We hear so much good stuff about meditation that it can be disappointing when we do not see an immediate difference in our experience. Society is geared towards the quick and the instant result. We can see from how we surf the internet how impatient we can get when things don’t open fast enough.
Once we start meditation, we want to get it right. We want to be experts. It is easy to get frustrated at how much our mind wanders.
The thing is that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. Every time we meditate we are managing to create new neural pathwaysin our brain that will help us to make mediation a habit. Research is showing that changes can be found in the brain after practicing meditation for just eight weeks. We can learn to be patient with our wandering mind. Each time it strays from the method, we just notice and bring it back. That’s how meditation happens.
What to do when things get in the way of your meditation?
Having an enormous sense of humour about the whole thing really helps. Meditation is important but we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. We also don’t need to give ourselves a bad time about it all.
I remember so clearly the moment when it really dawned on me that it was my choice to meditate. Yes, my meditation teacher was encouraging me, but no-one was forcing me to do anything that I did not want to do. I had adopted an attitude towards meditation like taking a nasty medicine because it was supposed to be good for me. Suddenly it hit me that if I truly realised the benefits of meditation, then it would seem natural to want to try and make space for it. It was such a relief! I could drop all my attitude and just get down to trying to find a way to fit it in.
Now I see meditation much more like cleaning my teeth. It’s something that I do several times a day. It helps my dental hygiene and I understand that it’s necessary and important. Just like I don’t want to go out with my mouth smelling bad, I want to work with my mind. If I don’t want my mind to run away with me and go wild, I need to meditate. There’s nothing to struggle about any more.
TIME TO MEDITATE
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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
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.
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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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This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
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