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Tag Archives: self-compassion

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

Where the Heart and Mind Meet

Heart and mind

Last week I had someone contact me out of the blue because she needed to interview a mental health counselor. She heard about me through her aunt, who directed her to my blog. I like being interviewed, and I like being helpful, so I said yes. One of her questions was what my theoretical orientation/approach is. I haven’t answered this question in a while, and the longer I practice, the harder it is to answer.

These days I would say that I teach people how to accept and tolerate pain. Which is not a popular response for some clients. Usually their goal is something like, help me get rid of my pain. And believe me, if I had the power to do that, I would. It’s just that pain doesn’t often work that way.

We believe that we can make our pain go away because we think we have more control over our feelings than we actually have. This is a misconception of what it means to have free will. Not everything that happens in our minds is a matter of choice.

For example, I struggle with being obsessive. This seems like it should be under my control, since I should be able to stop my obsessive thoughts. In fact, for a while, one popular cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique was called thought-stopping. For some reason, it took decades for researchers to figure out that this doesn’t actually work.

I still try it, though. I tell myself to stop obsessing all day long. In fact, I do all of the CBT strategies that are supposed to help. I challenge my irrational thoughts. I avoid the word “should.” I use positive language. Practice gratitude. But still. The obsessing continues. To those people for whom being rational is sufficient to stop your pain, all I can say is, lucky you.

Most people don’t like medication because needing it seems to signify a lack of control, which signifies personal weakness. I have to admit, I had the same bias. If you read my blog, then you know it took me many years to start and stay on my meds. Even now, I try not to use them until the obsessing becomes unbearable. But then my psychiatrist phrased taking my meds as a way to have control over my anxiety. A novel idea. I like control. So now I take them sooner than I used to.

These days I tell clients to ask themselves, how much pain are you willing to tolerate in order to say that you don’t need meds? Rather than feeling like a failure because they need meds, they can think of taking them as a choice to alleviate their suffering.

The other thing I do is teach clients how to practice self-compassion. All of those rational strategies work better if you express compassion for your pain first. If you say things to yourself like, obsessing is painful. I’m sorry you have to be in pain. It’s not your fault that you can’t make it stop. Why don’t you try ______ and see if that helps? And I go through my arsenal of strategies until something helps. Or until the obsessing subsides.

Having compassion for my suffering frees up some of the energy that I spend on beating myself up for not being rational. Which, paradoxically, allows me to have more control. More free will. Perhaps compassion is the place where the heart and mind meet.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s still hard to practice self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me. My automatic response is still to tell myself to stop being obsessive. But there’s no question that it works. My blog is proof of that. Because it’s been a long time since someone has told me that I’m being too hard on myself after reading one of my posts.

Still Depressed

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People have been so kind to reach out to me after I published my last post, expressing their hope that I’m feeling better. I wish I could say I do feel better. That it was just a one day thing and I’m no longer feeling depressed. I feel like I’m disappointing everyone.

It’s not like I’m depressed every minute of every day. I made it through work and survived being on call. I played tennis. I went to dinner with friends. I seemed like a normal person when I was around other people.

I continue to be frustrated that all of my efforts to prevent depression have not worked. Maybe if I hadn’t stayed up to watch Federer and Nadal play on Saturday night it would have made a difference. Except I didn’t wake up until 1:30 in the afternoon, so I wasn’t that tired at 2 a.m. And it’s not every day that you get to see Federer and Nadal play, even if it was only a set.

Last night I had a realization that helped me to not beat myself up over all of the things I could have done differently. And that is, it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that I am prone to depression. Not my fault that I am particularly vulnerable at this time of the year. That I am not able to handle the client overload as well as my colleagues. That my family stresses me out. That I’m not perfect in doing all of the things that are supposed to help with depression. This was the most helpful lesson in Tara Brach’s book Radical Self-Acceptance and Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind. I’m glad that I remembered it for some reason.

The other realization I had last night was something I learned in the self-compassion retreat that I attended last May. And that is, trying harder doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering. It is not for a lack of effort on my part that I feel the way I do. As much as I like to think that if I just work hard enough I can make everything better, life is filled with pain and suffering, no matter how hard you work. And while this did not make my pain go away, it helped me to accept it more and to beat up on myself less.

I have appealed to God for some salve for my wounds. Something to make the pain more tolerable. But I feel guilty for asking, given all of the things that are going on in the world. All of the people killed in Paris, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, and other places. All the people who have terminal illnesses. All of the people who are hurting worse than me. Sometimes thinking about these people helps to put my suffering into perspective, but that is not the case at the moment. Right now I can barely tolerate my own suffering. So for now I’ll just have to focus on me.

But I am learning through my practice of self-compassion that it’s OK to focus on me. My pain counts, too. I can wish for my own well-being for as long as I need to.

Perhaps if God has any angels left over after he sends them out to all of those other people, he can send an extra one to me. Just for a little while, until I feel better. An angel in training, even, like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And if you believe in God and angels, please feel free to pray that God will send one my way.

Moving Beyond Post-Apocalyptic Strategies for Motivation

Brene Brown

When I’m teaching clients how to practice self-compassion, I tell them that they cannot rely on using fear and shame to motivate themselves. And I should know, because I do it all the time.

If you read my blog, then you know I often say things like, other people have spouses and children and are still able to go to the grocery store and make dinner. So what the hell is your problem? This has the effect of making me feel like crap, but it doesn’t do much to make me get off the couch, even if I am hungry.

With my clients, I’ll use examples like, why do you keep watching episodes of The Walking Dead? Get in there and work on that paper! Do you want to fail? Because that’s exactly what is going to happen!

The problem with fear-based motivation is that, even when it works, which is usually a few hours before the paper is due, you still won’t feel good about yourself. Because your inner critic will say, well, if you had started the paper earlier, you would have done a much better job. 

So my brother is still anxious and depressed. His primary motivational strategy to get himself to go to work is the zombie apocalypse. How do you think you’re going to save your family when the world is ending when you can’t even log in? It worked for a while, but you can only motivate yourself with fear for so long.

What people don’t realize when they create a crisis to motivate themselves is that we don’t always fight. Sometimes we take flight or freeze. And once we’ve shut down, no amount of fear can make us act. So we get stuck in this vicious cycle of shame in which we avoid everyone and everything.

Fortunately, a recent episode of The Walking Dead echoed these same sentiments, which added to my credibility. Since I don’t watch it, I’ll quote his epiphany:

Even Rick Grimes has had to take a break from berserk mode on the show. He became a man of peace for an entire season when he realized how misguided his young son had become; someone who was too quick to resort to violence & unwilling to give diplomacy a chance. It served a lesson relatable to life—if even our heroes during the zombie apocalypse cannot remain in crisis mode, then it certainly can’t be a winning formula for us during normal times. My problem is I’ve motivated myself through such extreme emotions—anger, resentment, fear—for so long, that I’m left with no clue as to how I can jump-start my resolve right now.

So what do we do if we’re not going to motivate ourselves with fear? We motivate ourselves with love. So obvious when we think about how we motivate the people we care about, but it rarely occurs to us to do so with ourselves.

Unless you’re some enlightened being like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. I’m sure they motivate themselves with love.

This morning was the first day that I did not want to get out of bed. It’s that time of year when it happens, shortly after daylight savings time ends. So I tried to practice what I preach and thought about how I could make it easier to get up and get ready. I played my favorite song. Turned up the heat. Talked to myself in a loving way. And today it worked.

Maybe it won’t always work. It’s a long time until spring, after all. But even when being loving doesn’t get me out of bed, it still uses up a lot less energy than berating myself.

Live Like You Were Dying…Without Obsessing About Death

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I went on my second vacation for the summer–the one where I get to spend time with my niece, Sadie. For the most part, it was a nice break from the demons of depression, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness. But there were some moments of existential angst. And at the weirdest times, too.

Like on the water ride Escape from Pompeii at Busch Gardens. If you haven’t been to Busch Gardens, I’m sure you’ve been on a similar ride with perhaps a different name in some other amusement park. It’s the one that is really short and primarily focuses on one drop where you get drenched at the bottom. There’s even a viewing area where people can get soaked without actually having to get on the ride.

While there were many educational moments on the trip, this was not meant to be one of them. There was no history of Pompeii description anywhere that you could read as you stood in line or anything. And yet, while we were in the section of the ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be going about your day, buying groceries or whatever, completely unaware of the fact that you and your entire city were about to be destroyed.

Hopefully they didn’t suffer for very long. I imagine death must have come pretty quickly. And while people who prepare for the apocalypse hope to be one of the few survivors, I think I’d rather not be. Because there would be more suffering involved in surviving the annihilation of civilization than there would be in immediate death.

At one point in the ride this fake statue almost falls on your head. I thought how terrible it must be to have all of these buildings and statues that you spent years creating get destroyed in however long it takes a volcano to erupt and wipe out civilization. If you survived and had a chance to reflect on it, I’m sure that would be devastating. So maybe it’s good that they didn’t.

This section of the ride only took about a minute, by the way. Literally. You wouldn’t think that would be enough time to reflect on death and destruction and surviving the apocalypse, but it was for me.

And then we went down the drop and got soaked.

And then we got on the ride again.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that we should live like every day is our last. That we savor every moment, pursue every goal, and spend time with the people we love as often as we can. But since I have an anxiety disorder, I also obsess about death and bodily harm. And things that aren’t necessarily dangerous but terrify me nonetheless. Like closed spaces. I almost had an anxiety attack on a flight simulator on this same trip for that reason.

Incidentally, while we were on another water ride, these two girls who couldn’t be more than 12 casually related this story of how they were stuck in the part of the Pompeii ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire for 30 minutes. And they couldn’t turn off the fire for 15 minutes. No big deal! Totally freaked me out.

Anyway, like I was saying, I have a hard time finding a balance between living like I were dying without actually obsessing about the dying part. For now, my primary strategy is to do what I learned in the self-compassion retreat. I tell myself not to think about that right now, because it causes me suffering. And I don’t want to do anything that causes myself unnecessary suffering.

And in that moment, it worked.

Until we went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and I found out that some fossils of two dinosaurs fighting were preserved because flash floods in the desert buried them on the spot.

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

Empathy vs. Compassion

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I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.