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5 Intention-setting Ideas to Expand Our Capacity for Self-Compassion

Although the holidays bring visions of family coming together, these images may not always bring the joy presumed by the presentations.  Many of us struggle to create an accepting and caring environment when we ourselves did not receive such acceptance and caring as we grew up.  Add the stress of trying to plan “the perfect” meal and buy “the perfect” gifts for everyone and we are setting ourselves up for frustration, failure, and ultimately suffering.

How can we stop this vicious cycle?  We can learn to give ourselves that acceptance and caring during the holidays and all year long!  Cultivating self-compassion has been shown to be the answer for such suffering.  And, although the concept of compassion might be foreign, it is possible to develop it no matter how old we are.

Below, please find five intention-setting ideas to start you on the journey of self-compassion:

  1. Picture yourself as a child.  In fact, if it is available to you, find a picture of yourself when you were little and place it near your computer or somewhere else where you will see it every day.  If you don’t have any pictures, close your eyes and try to remember a time when you were young, maybe at school.  Visualize what it might look like to provide care and demonstrate acceptance to that version of yourself.  What did you long to hear from the adults around you at that time?  Maybe you could offer some words such as “You are perfect just the way you are.” or “I love you no matter what” or “You are so smart” or “You are so good”.  Make time each day to offer this care to yourself, perhaps when you look at your picture or when you see yourself in the mirror.
  2. Forgive yourself.  The next time you catch yourself beating yourself up for making a mistake, stop for a moment, take a breath, and imagine what it would be like to forgive yourself for being human.  Perhaps place a hand on your heart and say something like “I’m sure I’m not the first and/or only person to make this mistake”.  You might consider trying this practice with what you might consider a “small” mistake, where no one got hurt and notice the effect it might have on your body and mind.  Keep practicing it on those small mistakes for a month and see if the practice gets easier.
  3. Stop making assumptions!  When we lack information, it is a natural tendency to fill in the information based upon our past knowledge and experience.  Unfortunately, when we do this we limit ourselves, paving the road toward judgment.  If we can catch ourselves making an assumption or judgment about ourselves, we open ourselves up to the unlimited possibilities inherent in choice!  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the only constant in life is change and we too can learn to choose to release our attachment to assumptions and judgment.  Instead, we might spend some time identifying what matters to us – our values in life – and allow them to lead us forward and guide us in our decisions.
  4. Listen to self-compassion meditations.  Our thought patterns can be deep and sometimes we need a little help in rewiring our brains.  Consider creating space for yourself (both time and room) to close your eyes and listen to a guided meditation to support the blossoming of the seed of compassion that already exists in your heart.  In fact, maybe take a compassion break right now and click this link to a free Loving Kindness meditation offered by UCLA.  If not now, set a reminder to listen to it tonight as you climb into bed!
  5. Try your hand at writing.  Dr. Kristen Neff has several writing exercises on her website self-compassion.org that utilize writing as a tool to support our efforts to invite more compassion towards ourselves.  Sometimes just writing down the critical, judgmental thoughts about ourselves that occupy our minds helps us get some perspective.  Then we can invite curiosity to the table to review what we have written down, creating space to challenge those judgments.  We can even write a response to our thoughts as if they were expressed to us by a friend and notice how we might respond differently.  Might you consider trying one of these exercises this week?!

Is self-compassion the answer to happiness?

If we are lucky, our parents actively taught us the concept of compassion towards others.  If we were very lucky, our parents actively taught us self-compassion.  Unfortunately, it is only recently that such concepts have come forward in the research as tools to support our body, mind and spiritual health, so most of us may not feel lucky.  Fortunately, compassion – and self-compassion – can be cultivated and integrated into our experiences, both with others and with ourselves, no matter how old we are currently.

So what is self-compassion?  Many of us might think it includes self-pity, which will tend to keep us from cultivating the belief that we deserve comfort and care when we are experiencing pain and suffering.  Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as having three elements: 1) self—kindness versus self-judgment; 2) common humanity versus isolation; 3) mindfulness versus over-identification.  The three elements build upon the need to accept that we are human and, as such, are perfectly imperfect.  This means we will all fail at something in our lives, we will all subjected to loss at some point and we will all trip up and make mistakes on our journeys – these are all facts of life.  When we think we can bypass these inevitable experiences or ignore the pain that such experiences cause us, we open ourselves up to a deeper level of suffering.  It is when we encounter such challenges in our lives that we need to offer ourselves the same kindness and care as we would offer to someone we love, instead of offering judgment or criticism.  That’s self-compassion.

There is so much judgment and criticism in the world, which comes from a place of fear and creates darkness, separateness, and negativity.  When we can invite understanding of the shared human condition into our awareness, remembering we are not alone in our pain, then we can open our hearts from a place of love and invite in light, connection, and positivity.  When we experience the pain of failure or loss, we must allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain and not ignore it, yet be mindful at the same time that the powerful emotions that arise with the pain do not define us and, if honored, will move through us.  If we try to ignore the pain, either by stuffing it down or distracting ourselves from it, our body and mind will begin to express the effects through illness. We must embrace that pain, along with such powerful emotions as disappointment, rejection, judgment, fear, anger and sadness, are part of the common human phenomenon.  We are all going to experience these situations and emotions – no one can escape them for long!

I grew up in a family where one of my parents wore their emotions on their sleeve for everyone to see, while the other one learned to compartmentalize their emotions for no one to see.  So when I experienced powerful emotions, I hadn’t learned how to work with them in a way to bring a balanced state of being, until I learned about self-compassion as an adult with the help of kind and patient psychotherapist.  Prior to that point, I bought into the saying that “We are our own worst critic”, judging myself harshly, feeling very alone in my pain, and doing my best to deny or distract myself from my emotions.  It was until I embraced my humanness and those powerful emotions that humans experience and must express that I was able to create space in my heart for compassion.  From that point, I had to learn how to offer myself kindness and care when disappointment, rejection, or grief greeted me.  With practice and patience, I have come to experience offering compassion to myself in painful times as one of the most powerful tools in my self-care tool kit for health, peace, and well-being.

Now the research is validating that self-compassion is a powerful practice for inner peace and health!  If you are interesting in reading more, click on this link below:

My New Year’s Intention – The Time’s Up for Shame!

As I have written about in the past, I am not a big fan of making resolutions for the New Year.  I find that such resolutions often bring with them failure, self-judgment and self-criticism, and ultimately shame when I might step away from such rigid demands on myself.  Sounds more like a recipe for depression than self-improvement if you ask me!  Which made me wonder if that is why many of us don’t bother with setting resolutions and, if we are brave enough to attempt them, why so many of us don’t succeed in such undertakings.  Could it be more about being hard on ourselves versus the unrealistic goals that we tend to set for ourselves at this time of year?  Or is it the shame that holds us back?  Or might it be a combination of both?

So, when I sat in reflection of my self-improvement efforts in 2017 in order to create a vision for myself in 2018 that is more intentional, motivating, and empowering, I found myself drawn so strongly to the #MeToo Movement that is now evolving into the “Time’s Up” campaign!  What felt so powerfully moving to me was the act of shining a light on the shame, that is transferred to someone who experiences one of the most natural, normal, adaptive, human responses to a body-mind breaking situation, so that shame can be given back to the rightful owner, the transgressor.  When we find ourselves in a situation that appears threatening, whether to our physical bodies or to our physical circumstances like our livelihoods, our bodies/brains know what to do to survive without much thought.  The first automatic survival response is to flee and when the mind realizes that might not be possible, it considers fighting for its life.  When the mind suspects it might not survive the fight, it freezes, even sometimes fainting, as a defense mechanism to try and trick the predator into thinking they are dead and leave (them alone).  And, of course, when we freeze – or faint – our voices go silent.

It is only when the “after” (survival) thoughts arrive that we begin the real battle, because we unknowingly took on the trangressor’s shame as our own.  The thoughts get really loud while our voices remain silent, for fear that we won’t be heard and supported and, instead blamed and rejected.  Anxiety and depression present themselves and become the unwelcome visitors in our daily lives and homes.  When we can experience the acceptance and support of others, we can then begin the journey of healing, bringing more acceptance and compassion towards ourselves.  When we can see the shame as not ours and give it back to the one who transferred it to us, we can begin to accept that we are human and we did what we had to do to survive at that time.  And now we can move forward and thrive, by embracing – maybe even expressing gratitude towards – our vulnerability as one of the strongest parts of ourselves, the part that helped us survive to live another day and become a part of a movement and campaign that has the energy to transform the world.

So, my intention is 2018 is be a compassionate support for those brave souls that are able to honor their vulnerable parts by speaking up, identifying and talking about shameful words and behaviors.  I intend to stay connected to the well of compassion for myself as the perfectly flawed human that I am, leading by example, showing others that self-compassion is the first, last, and every step in between on the path of healing.  Connecting to our ability to experience self-compassion while, at the same time, holding shame in the light is the true recipe for individual self-improvement and inner peace as well as contributing to the elevation of the collective consciousness of the world.

If you are interested in reading the recent research showing that self-compassion is more effective than the more established strategies of acceptance and reappraisal in decreasing depression, click on the link below:

Perfectionism – is self-compassion the antidote?

Growing up in a dysfunctional, toxic family environment left deep, ingrained patterns of thinking and acting to avoid the uncomfortable, powerful emotions that boiled just beneath the surface, until my ability to stuff them down and sit on them didn’t work.  It was at those times that the emotions would come out – and come out strong – to the point of overwhelming me and any one near me!  What I came to learn is that I worked very hard – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to be perfect, to do everything right so I would avoid disappointment and feel that elusive sense of acceptance from others.  Now I understand that a common human condition is imperfection and from that deep understanding, I am able to tap into a reservoir of self-compassion to remind myself that we reach perfection when our spirit leaves the human body.

So, as long as I am alive, I have come to accept the fact that I will make mistakes, even some that may hurt others although it is not my intention to do so.  Coming from this place of acceptance that I am not perfect, I am able to not only express forgiveness and kindness to myself, I am more easily able to reach out to others with that same sense of compassion for their humanness.

Don’t get me wrong, getting to this point was not a short trip or an easy one, but it has been well worth the journey.  I was my own worst critic, as many of us are, and would judge myself harshly for a long time.  No matter how much I accomplished, it never felt like it was enough or good enough.  The first step in being kinder to myself was to reflect on why I was so judgmental in the first place.  Well, as you can probably guess, I learned it from my family.  And it wasn’t only from my family, it was a bigger, broader experience of society’s judgment and subtle messages that to be accepted, we must be perfect.  Once I was aware of my inner critic and why and where she grew from, I could then own my suffering that this inner critic created.

In recognizing the suffering, I began to get curious about the emotions that came up, such as fear of being criticized, losing the acceptance of others, guilt, and the sense of being less than and unworthy of the acceptance I so needed.  As I sat with these uncomfortable feelings and explored what messages came from these powerful emotions, I started to ask how they might be trying to serve me in some way.  I learned that feeling guilty was a guide that led me back to my authentic self whenever I might find myself straying away in my thoughts and actions.  Sitting with criticism informed me that it is important to be open to the feedback of others because sometimes we are blind (and deaf) to our behaviors and words, specifically how those behaviors and words might impact another.  I also discovered that when I would be criticized by others, I was simply acting as a mirror to reflect back the other person’s felt sense of inadequacy, so it really wasn’t about me.

When sitting with the fear of losing the acceptance of others, I realized it was because I really feared accepting myself.  Somewhere down the line I was told I was different, because I was so emotional, which was projected on to me as I was “irrational” and thus not acceptable.  When I began to challenge this message and not only accept but embrace my emotional self, I also began to accept the idea that being perfect does not mean you will be accepted by everyone.  I looked at how I comforted others when they experienced making a mistake and tried offering that same comfort and compassion to myself.  With practice, I began to internalize that we innately all try to do our best with the gifts and limitations we have and when I viewed the human experience from this more balanced – logical and emotional – perspective, I felt a deep sense of peace within.

So the journey took time for me to stare my fears in the face, accept my humanity completely, and practice self-compassion when I find myself feeling the pain of suffering.  Now when my fears come up, I no longer try to ignore it and instead invite it in so I can engage in a dialogue with it.  At first, I might feel overwhelmed and I now recognize in these moments that the emotion is coming to me so strong because I may have been ignoring before it when it tried to get my attention more subtly in the past.  When this happens, I might have to sit a little longer and take a couple of extra deep breaths before the conversation can begin in earnest.  As I engage with my powerful emotions, a common theme emerges, that reminds me that I am not alone and that most people would have a similar response, even if they are not ready to admit it.  When I am able to accept I am human and express my gratitude for my emotions as the intelligent guides they are, self-compassion floods in to soothe my momentary suffering and helps to release the grip of judgment and perfectionism.

More and more research is being done to explore the effects of deepening our ability to have self-compassion as it is showing a strong association with mental well-being.  It is being shown to reduce self-criticism, judgment, self-blame and isolation, therefore, increasing acceptance and connection.  Should you be interested in reading more about the results of recent research on the benefits of supporting the development of self-compassion, click on the link below:

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Self-Care Through This Holiday Season

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ― Buddha

With one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent memory still resonating throughout the world and the ‘season of giving’ fast approaching, I don’t believe I am alone in my felt experience of unease and restlessness.

Therefore, I spent some time in reflection around the questions of “What are the ways I take care of myself” and “What do I do to create a sacred, safe container for myself” in order to calm the uneasy and restless parts of myself.  I recognize that if I don’t honor my own inner states of unrest, then I am unable to maintain my connection to that still point within where my authentic self exists, where my essence of love and light dwell, and, thus, will not be able to continue to walk a heart-led life, being the light not only for myself but for those that are struggling to find their way out of the darkness.

I thought I would share the outcome of my reflections with you below, so that you might try one of the techniques for yourself, when you may begin feeling like you have given all that you have to give to others and are in need of a recharge or reboot:

  1. Breathe.  When we sense the weight of the world on our shoulders, feel unappreciated for all that we do, and experience our needs not being met or our voices being silenced, our bodies and minds subconsciously respond.  And one of the most noticeable ways in which to observe this response is through the breath.  We may begin to hold our breath or breathe very shallowly, which revs up our sympathetic nervous system, creating even more agitation in the body and mind.  Therefore, simply stopping to take a few deep breaths in and out through the nose several times a day, consciously noticing the belly expanding on the inhale and softening on the exhale, will help keep the parasympathetic nervous system engaged, supporting the ‘relax and digest’ response in the mind and body. If you also want to try a breath practice that has a way of clearing out the mind, especially of those unwanted thoughts, you might try Brahmari breath, also known as “Bee’s breath”.  There are several ways to practice this, but I find the most simple one being where you bring your pointer fingers to the external part of the ear that when you press into it, closes off the entrance to the ear canal, thus shutting out the ability to hear external sounds.  You may also want to close your eyes.  Then inhale normally through the nose and, as you close your eyes and ears, also close your lips and, as you breath out, make the sound of bees, like you are humming and maybe play with pulling your tongue back towards the back of your throat.  Do this three times.  You really can’t do it wrong, so have fun! Afterwards, sit for a moment and sense the results.
  2. Listen to your body.  Our bodies have much innate wisdom to offer the mind, yet our culture informs us to THINK instead of FEEL, creating a wall between the body and mind. You may not be aware of it, but our bodies will naturally burp when our stomachs are full, informing the mind that we have eaten all that the body needs to remain vibrant and healthy.  Unfortunately, most of us ‘eat on the run’ these days, so we don’t create space for the wisdom of our bodies. Maybe set an intention the next time you find yourself sitting down for a meal with your family (think Thanksgiving) to become aware of when the body first burps.  At first it might not happen or we might forget to listen – don’t give up.  Try again next time. Listen.  We have been schooled that burping is rude, so it might take a couple of times. Eventually, when you tune in, you will thank your body for its natural ‘full gas tank’ sound going off!
  3. Practice aparigraha.  Aparigraha, Sanskrit for non-attachment, suggests that our suffering comes from the disappointment that we feel when we are attached to an expectation, or outcome, and something else happens instead.  For this practice, I would start with something small, to test it out for yourself.  The holiday season can bring with it a recipe for unmet expectations, with the sparkling lights and songs on the radio filling our hearts with anticipation as we make plans to gather with friends and family, while, at the same time, our schedules get overloaded and our budgets get stretched thin.  So, in order to reduce a bit of the stress during this time of year, maybe begin by simply thinking about level-setting your expectations of how others ‘should’ act during this time of year, and that may include you.  If we create space in our minds and hearts to allow others to do what they need to do without wanting them to do what we want them to do, it makes room for us to do more of what we need to do to make ourselves more peaceful.
  4. Express gratitude.  Research has shown that when we consciously focus our minds on the abundance in our lives, versus focusing on the lack, we experience more peace and joy in our lives.  This holiday season is one of the best times to start a regular gratitude practice.  I recommend writing down those things that you are grateful for in a journal, although it can be even more powerful if you have someone to share the practice with each day.  Either first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed, you can share one (or more!) experiences in your life or day that you felt grateful for in the moment.  It doesn’t have to be something big and, in fact, it is the small things that seem to bring the greatest warmth to the heart.  For example, every morning I am grateful for having hot water for my shower and every night I am grateful for having a warm bed to rest my head.  Try it and I promise you won’t be sorry you did!
  5. Try SELF-compassion.  As the Buddha quote above suggests, the experience of compassion must be expressed to both others and to ourselves if we truly want optimal health. Our culture informs us to have compassion for others, especially those that are less fortunate than ourselves. Unfortunately, it is this same culture that drives us hard to be successful, where multi-tasking is glorified, and competition is the name of the game. So when we falter, and drop a ball or two that we have been juggling, we tend to be very critical of ourselves, maybe even thinking to ourselves that we are a failure or punishing ourselves in some way.  This inner critic can be very harsh, creating limiting beliefs and holding us back from real joy in our lives.  Instead, if we can practice offering ourselves the same loving kindness we offer to a good friend when they are suffering in some way, our bodies, minds, and hearts soften, opening to the lesson of accepting imperfection as the shared human experience. Ahhhh, feel the relief when we let go of the expectation of perfection (do I hear an opportunity to practice aparigraha?)!