Would you like a tool to help overcome the destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation that happens at this time of year? Do you feel bad about yourself when you don’t seem to be able to accomplish what others can do? Our culture and some of our holiday traditions encourage us to feel inadequate and to judge ourselves and others and compare ourselves always trying to be better or have more than others. Kristen Neff, Ph.D, in her book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, shares her life story and how learning self-compassion has transformed her way of being with herself in life. Of all the self-help tools available to us, I believe self-compassion is the most important for women to learn and the hardest. I’ve used many concepts from Kristen’s book here in this post.
First, here’s an example of self-compassion and how to use it. Julie, age 59, suddenly found herself alone when her new husband of 2 years died suddenly of a rare blood disease. She was a highly competitive entrepreneur and had reached a lot of success but she was still not happy and felt insecure and alone. Now she was even more uncomfortable with the circumstances of her life and found herself fearful, anxious and unable to make decisions. Seeking support, Julie joined a woman’s group where she learned how to meditate and listen to the thoughts she was having. As she sat with her feelings she was able to notice and attend to her own suffering —feeling and releasing her feelings. As she did this she felt more balanced and able to make better decisions. According to Neff, Mindfulness is one of the three aspects of self-compassion and it gives us perspective from which we can see the truth of our lives more clearly.
In the group, Julie was asked to write a letter to herself from the perspective of a loving imaginary friend who cares for your health and happiness. She noticed as she did this assignment, she could feel her own loving heart a little and how scared she was to let herself feel anything. She had blocked her heart from herself and others. With the encouragement of the women in her group, she let in a little more kindness and love to herself and she started to feel comfort and calmness. The second aspect of self-compassion is lovingkindness or self-kindness which is stopping all self-judgment and actively comforting ourselves. This takes acknowledging our own pain and suffering that is normal and part of the human condition, not that something is wrong with us and we are worthy of self-criticism.
This was the hardest aspect of developing self-compassion for Julie, letting go of her need to fix herself anytime anything went wrong. She had a strong desire to be the best she could be, but sometimes she just didn’t stop trying to make things better, and her obsession with this perfectionism kept her pushing herself too much. She learned that our brains are hard-wired to seek out what is dangerous and wrong in our environment. The parts of the brain involved in this process of self-evaluation or self-criticism are problem-solving and error processing but they also leave us fearful. When you switch over to feeling compassion for yourself you activate the insula in left temporal lobe that allows you to feel calm an secure. So the third aspect of self-compassion (according to Neff) is acknowledging our interconnectedness as human beings and accepting our humanness rather than always trying to change ourselves to be better because we cannot accept how it feels to be with our feelings and our suffering. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get our world leaders to open up to this?
Julie began to meditate on her own daily and through this commitment, her self-compassion grew and her ability to trust herself more. She began to look more deeply at some of her beliefs and unresolved patterns of the past through individual IFS sessions with me. As she released her pain with her friends, in the group, and in her journal for her individual process with me, she gradually stopped judging herself and felt happier. She realized she needed to be in a group or have support to keep working on this pattern in her thoughts because it had been so much a part of her life so long.