As a psychotherapist, I have found that many people seem to have an easier time forgiving others or being compassionate to others rather than themselves. People can be their worst inner critics. In the pandemic, many people are facing suffering and setbacks. So the discussion of self-compassion in this pandemic is critical. The central question is how do we psychologically treat ourselves when faced with setbacks, suffering or failures? Do we mentally beat ourselves up? Does our inner critic shred the self into pieces? Or are we kind and compassionate and accepting of ourselves? This is a huge question as we spend the most time with ourselves. In this post, I will explore: 1. practice of self-compassion, and 2. differences between self-criticism versus self-compassion, possible biological and psychological underpinnings of both states and benefits of self-compassion. I also include a discussion of my favorite mindfulness exercise on breath for self-compassion. Please note that there are many different mindfulness exercises and you have to find what works for you. I hope this post encourages readers to start self-compassion campaigns in the pandemic.
What is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert researcher in self-compassion, discusses three elements of self compassion and strategies to practice self-compassion. I will discuss Dr. Neff’s three strategies and add some of my own thoughts.
1.Practicing kind, gentle and loving attention towards self, especially, when experiencing any suffering, setback or misstep. Notice how you are thinking about the suffering. Recognize self-critical thoughts and avoid entanglement with them when in the midst of suffering. One strategy to address negative self-talk with compassion is discussed by Dr. Dennis Tirch. He suggests a self-compassionate strategy may be to accept, acknowledge and thank the self-critical part of the mind for coming up with ideas trying to help. This prevents further condemnation of self-critical part. It is more accepting and compassionate of the negative self-critical part. Then, remind yourself that I choose to try a more self-compassionate perspective. What are kind or loving actions we can do when in the midst of suffering? Call a friend. Take a walk. Sit with a pet. Listen to soothing music or sounds. Read encouraging scriptures.
2. Realization that the common human experience includes suffering and suffering binds us into the human community. I have yet to meet any person who has not suffered in some form. One might argue that as a psychotherapist, my chances of meeting people in suffering, are very high because people do not come to therapy when life is going great. However, in my life, outside of therapy room, I find that people suffer in different ways. I find in the general public, expression of suffering, is a taboo subject. People talk about their suffering to close friends and family, whom they trust. However, the pandemic has hit the world hard and we are all experiencing a collective trauma. People seem to be more open discussing their struggles with the pandemic.
3.Practice of mindfulness practices where one adopts a mindset of curious and nonjudgmental observation and awareness of thoughts and feelings connected with difficult experiences. It is important to remember that “thoughts are just thoughts” and not overidentify with thoughts.
Our minds produce thoughts constantly. Minds are thought factories. Dr. Susan Baili Hass (2019) wrote an article in Psychology Today website about the concept of “not believing every thought you think”. She describes negative thoughts can be endless loops and it is important to get out of loops of negative thoughts, overthinking and rumination. She described strategies to get out of rumination cycles where one is focused on negative events or feeling states.
Mindfulness Exercise: Breath of Self-Compassion
Although, there are many different types of mindfulness exercises, my favorite self-compassionate mindfulness exercise is focusing awareness on my breath with nonjudgment, curiosity, loving, gentle , warm and kind attention. I feel the gentle rising and falling of the belly. Also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Essential basis of life. Part of mindfulness exercises is to accept that the mind wanders to observe thoughts and feelings as waves in the ocean peaking and dissipating. The goal is to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise and let them go. No entanglement with whatever arises in the mind.. Main thing is to gently guide my attention to the breath and rise and fall of the belly. The gentle guidance of attention and awareness back to the breath is the key. The awareness of breathing in and out with self-compassion is a radical act of self-care in the pandemic. I visualize a loving and kind energy from the Divine Source as I breath in and this healing energy spreads all over me, relaxing body and mind. The beautiful thing of self-compassion mindfulness practice for me is focusing fully on a sacred primal act: breathing. I forget how sacred breathing is in the whirlwind of my daily activities, where I am multi-tasking more often than not. Self-compassionate mindfulness practice is honoring the breath, body, mind, soul and the Divine Source which has sustained me thus far. Breathing is beautiful. It means I am on the planet today. It means the Divine Source has sustained me in ways that I cannot put into words. For this, I am supremely grateful.
Why Self-Compassion is a More Effective Strategy than Self-Criticism?
Dr. Emma Seppala writes about the difference between self-critical versus self-compassion and the scientific benefits of self-compassion in the Stanford Medicine (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) website .It turns out that practice of self-compassion in moments of suffering, setbacks and failures is better than self-criticism. Self-compassion is not weakness or laziness or fluff stuff. There are biological and psychological changes in our bodies and minds that are beneficial with self-compassion in moments of suffering and failure. It is more in alignment with growth mindset and resiliency.
Self- critical attitudes are likely to activate the stress response system, as we are making appraisals that we cannot handle what is is front of us. The stress response system is likely to be activated by self-criticism (e.g. self -condemnation by the inner critic) when the amygdala in the brain senses a threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine nervous system, resulting in physiological changes (increased heart and breathing rate) and negative feeling states (e.g. fear, anger). The responses to threat include fight, flight and freeze responses. Cognitive capacity for flexible problem solving is less likely when our threat systems are activated.
According to Dr. Seppala, embracing a self -critical attitude when faced with setbacks or missteps is not the best response because it may more likely lead to self-defeating attitudes and generate feelings of distress and despair. Experiencing overwhelming feelings of despair may contribute to feeling stuck in difficult situations. It makes it harder to take steps to move forward. Self-condemnation by the inner critic may involve a level of anger at self, showing up in harsh punitive comments , “I cannot do anything right”, “I am going to mess up everything”. Sometimes, we learn self-critical attitudes from people around us who may be critical. Another question is whether people who were self-critical around us gave their critical views based on their “noble” intentions which were to help us become better? People may be critical to us with the intention to help us, but, they do not realize that this is not an effective method. Or did they mean to use criticism to tear us down? We need to recognize how did we learn self-critical attitudes, recognize this critical perspective and “practice the sacred practice of pausing” as Tara Brach discusses ( see previous post on Possible Pathways of healing emotional wounds)
Dr. Seppala describes that self- compassionate perspective may be more likely to facilitate a calm state of mind when facing stressful setbacks due to triggering the parasympathetic nervous system , which generates the restful and calmness response. Dr. Neff discusses that there are bodily changes when we practice self-compassion. When practicing self-compassion, we tap into our care-giving system directed towards self and it is linked with higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. This is associated with increased feelings of trust and safety and self-soothing of negative feelings. Self-compassion facilitates calmness of mind to endure, be tenacious and practice psychological flexibility in trying alternative strategies to solve problem areas.
Unlike a self critical attitude, Dr. Seppala writes that a self- compassionate perspective is likely to lead to greater resilience, strength and self-empowerment, because it normalizes failures and suffering as part of human experience, views failures and setbacks as opportunities in learning for growth.
Campaigns of Self-Compassion in the Pandemic.
May we be more compassionate with ourselves this year. Start compassion and loving-kindness campaigns for the self. We need to intentionally set up practices of self-compassion in life, especially in the pandemic. Celebrate strengths and be gentle with areas of improvement. Our inner critics may make it harder for self-compassionate practices. Self-compassionate practices are like exercise routines. More we exercise, the stronger the muscles are. More we practice self-compassion, easier it becomes. Most important is to remember we are imperfect human beings and all of us, regardless of religious, gender, cultural, political or ethnic backgrounds are in this pandemic together. We also have to get out of the pandemic together. This means that one community cannot truly get out of pandemic without other communities. This shows the interdependence of people, communities and countries in humanity. This includes practice of compassion to others and self.