Archives for December 2018

How About Making an “Old Year’s Resolution” to Be More Self-Compassionate in the New Year?

Perhaps you have seen the clever t-shirt depicting a pirate on his ship exclaiming “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” We tend to laugh at that sentiment because at some point in our lives we have probably found ourselves on the receiving end of that sort of “logic.” And we also laugh because we know it is a ridiculous notion that pummeling someone with negativity will bring about more positivity.

It’s like continuing to put your car in reverse in order to move forward.

But consider for a moment where your New Year’s resolutions come from and see if there are some seeds of this approach in how you treat yourself. Do you look into the mirror and think, “Listen Big Guy, I know you want to lose a few pounds because it’s important to you to stay healthy for your wife and kids. Can you commit to working on this in the New Year?” Or is the tone a bit more like “What’s wrong with you? How could you let yourself go like this? This is so typical of you. You’re such a lazy bum. You need to get off your butt and exercise. This year’s New Year’s resolution will be lose that ugly gut!”

For many of us these days, the latter judgmental tone is much more familiar than the former, more kind and encouraging tone.

And we actually know from the research on self-compassion, done by Dr. Kristin Neff and others, that we are significantly more effective at motivating ourselves to change if that motivation involves a self-compassionate, rather than punitive and critical, approach.

In the Mindful Self-Compassion program created by Drs. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, there is a key exercise called Discovering Our Core Values (drawn from Steven Hayes’ Acceptance and Commitment) where we guide people to consider what is most deeply important in their lives, and where they are not living in accord with those values. Perhaps you value ease and equanimity in your personal life, and you find that meditation supports you in that, but lately you haven’t been meditating as much as you would like.

This is a place where you are out of alignment with your core values.

How helpful have you found it to berate yourself for not meditating enough? That’s what I thought! What if you could connect more deeply with what really moves you and be guided by that in difficult or stressful times so that you make better choices that are more in alignment with what is profoundly important to you?

Research suggests that one way to do this would be to let go of the self-critical voice that is desperately trying to take care of you and keep you from harm, but doing it in dysfunctional and counter-productive ways like that pirate above!

When you ponder something you would like to change about yourself or your behavior (things that you can actually change) as part of a New Year’s resolution, consider how you normally talk to yourself about that behavior and how successful that approach has been so far (given that it is still on your list of things you want to change!). And then consider the possibility of speaking to yourself in a more loving and supportive way, the way you would want to be motivated by a mentor or coach or supportive friend. Could the more self-compassionate approach actually touch the part of you that wants very much for this change to happen? What would it be like to motivate yourself out of love and positive regard for yourself rather than criticism, judgment and shaming?

All evidence points to this self-compassion approach being far more effective and sustainable than the self-critical approach. And it actually feels better too!

If you find yourself struggling with being kind to yourself, or want to be able to meet your own struggle and suffering with tolerance, warmth and acceptance, you might want consider taking the Mindful Self-Compassion program, either in an 8-week version if one is near you, a 10-week online version, or in a 5-day intensive format. Check the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion website for more information on programs near you.

Gifts of Service They Won’t Forget

In the Mindful Self-Compassion program, we learn that love reveals anything unlike itself. During the holidays, this can be especially apparent for those whose dominant experience of the season includes anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, or a heightened sense of “not enough.”

One way to work with these difficult feelings is to offer acts of embodied service to those on our gift list. As we turn our attention toward others’ needs, space can naturally emerge between us and our own difficulties. We aren’t quite as swept up in them. And from this place, we create opportunities for connection and joy, within ourselves and with others. We are reminded of our part in the interconnected web of life.

Pope Francis invites us to “live the revolution of tenderness” through compassion and service. What would that look like in your life during the holiday season?

Give this short exercise a try:

  • Come to stillness. Greet yourself with a warm “hello” and settle in.
  • Call to mind a person for whom you’d like to provide a gift of service. Imagine their face as clearly as you can. Enjoy their company for a moment. Noticing, perhaps, a warmth of attention that arises.
  • From that place of connected presence, silently ask:

How can I make your life a little more ease-ful right now?

What do you need help with that I have the capacity to offer?

What have I heard you ask for, whether in words or action?

  • Notice any answers that arise. Give them time and patience to show themselves. Let your ideas be silly. Boring. Outrageous. Practical. Jot them down as you go. Gather them like jewels. All have value because they have arisen from loving, connected presence.
  • If a particularly enticing idea arises, do a reality check: Is this gift of your time/attention something that might create connection, ease, joy, delight? Does it arise from your really seeing this person?
  • Do this until just the right gift of service reveals itself. And if it doesn’t, let go of the exercise for now, knowing that ideas can be shy and often need to simmer in the background of your daily life to come to full fruition. Keep playing with it. Trust yourself and your good heart to land on just the right gift.

Ideas for gifts of service or loving attention: 

  • Cook a meal for someone who is over-busy with caring for others and deliver it to their home.
  • Organization: Clean a closet. Haul away recycling. Take old clothes to the thrift store.
  • Administration: Does someone you love need help filing their taxes? Organizing hospital bills? Researching a business venture? Offer a few hours of support.
  • Teach a skill: knitting, crocheting, bookbinding, basic carpentry.
  • Offer an hour of your time to fix someone’s computer.
  • Invite someone over for a meal who may not have frequent outings.
  • Have a book-reading date with a beloved, taking turns reading to one another and enjoying a selection of delicious tea or snacks.
  • For a young child you live with, how about a hot chocolate and story night?
  • Organize and host a game night.
  • For seniors or those with physical disabilities, offer a couple of hours of your time to change lightbulbs, clean out neglected gutters, put fresh batteries in fire detectors, or make other small home repairs.
  • If you know someone who would appreciate company as they pursue a stalled goal, (train for an athletic event, finish writing a book, lose weight, etc.), organize a system of shared support and positive accountability.
  • Simply offer time. Build something together. Compose music together. Perhaps bring over adult coloring books and markers and color together! For children, take them on a museum outing, to the beach, to a sports event, or ice skating.
  • For busy parents who need a night on their own, offer an evening of babysitting.
  • Gift an IOU for pet- or house-sitting for pet-owners on your list who like to travel.
  • For someone you live with, offer to do one of their least-favorite chores for a week (for instance, laundry or emptying the trash).

Self-Compassion for the Holidays

By Drs Chris Germer and Kristin Neff

Co-founders, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
December 13, 2018

Life isn’t easy, and for many people, that’s especially true during the holidays.  You could be all alone in your apartment and holding your breath until January finally arrives. Or you might be with family, hoping in vain to be truly seen, respected, and appreciated for who you are. And when New Year’s Day comes around, there’s a whole new set of expectations—and resolutions—with only ourselves to blame when we fail to meet our goals. Yes, the holidays are not always pretty. Fortunately, there’s an antidote to these kinds of holiday stress that can actually make us more emotionally resilient, give us more positive feelings, and leave us feeling overall better about ourselves and others.  That’s self-compassion.

How do you respond when someone you love—perhaps a child or a pet—is struggling or in pain?  Probably your heart opens, you sense what the other being is going through, and you have a strong wish to help in some way. Self-compassion is just like that with a small shift in the direction of attention.

When we feel a shot of discomfort in our own lives—anxiety about the coming event, anger at a thoughtless family member, grief over a loved one who passed away—we can still give ourselves compassion precisely in our moment of need.

This exercise from the MSC program—“soften, soothe, allow”—is a way of treating yourself well at the physical, mental, and emotional levels. After you’ve practiced for a few weeks, you’ll be able to do the whole process in a few seconds. See if you can create a wide, tender, more loving space to feel exactly what you’re feeling, and room for yourself to be just who you are, warts and all. Self-compassion is an exercise in being fully human, and taking a moment to see ourselves, to validate ourselves, and to comfort and soothe ourselves when we need it the most.

Soften, Soothe, Allow

It’s simple to do. Just take a deep breath to disentangle from the usual cascade of upsetting thoughts and feelings, and try the following:

  • Close your eyes and put your hand over your heart. Feel the warmth of your hand and breathe smoothly for about a minute.
  • Next, let your attention drop into your body and notice where you feel tension.  Your belly? Chest? Throat? Shoulders? Jaw? Forehead?
  • Now soften the area of your body where you feel the most tension.  Choose just one area and let it soften as if you were applying a warm compress to the area. Heat softens our muscles without any additional effort. 
  • Next, soothe yourself by offering a little kindness to yourself simply because you’re going through a tough time. Say to yourself something like: “May I feel safe.  May my heart be at peace. May I know my own value.” Use whatever language makes sense and feels right at the time.
  • Then, allow yourself just to feel what you’re feeling in your body even if it’s unpleasant.  Give a wide, affectionate space to what you’re feeling in this very moment.  Let it be so, just for now. 
  • Now slowly open your eyes.

What it comes down to is the intention to be good too ourselves when things go wrong—when we fail, feel inadequate, or suffer.  But this intention is not stressful—it’s not extra work. Self-compassion is about subtracting, not adding.  We’re subtracting the stress that we usually place on ourselves, layer upon layer, as we resist or avoid emotional pain and discomfort. When we’re being self-compassionate, we stop tightening our muscles, fighting thoughts, avoiding bad feelings, isolating ourselves, and ruminating. As the poet, Mary Oliver, wrote, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The path to self-compassion is easy in the beginning, the middle, and the end.  If it isn’t, then you’re cultivating the fine art of stress, not self-compassion.

Can you give yourself a warm bath after a stressful holiday gathering?  Can you savor your food slowly rather than eating too much?  Can you feel and let go of the occasional pain in your heart over the dinner table and focus on what’s most important to you?  And if you fail, can you recognize that you’re only human and give yourself a break?

If you feel lonely during the holidays, see if you can stop and name the experience (“I’m terribly lonely”) and give yourself the kindness you might be hoping to receive if you were with someone who cared about you. Think what your best friend would say to you if she or he knew you were lonely. Or think what you might say to a loved one under similar circumstances. Let the holiday be an opportunity to practice self-compassion. Can you prepare a nice meal for yourself, get some needed exercise, write an email to an old friend, or plan a trip that you always wanted to take?  Or can you just curl up with your dog or cat and read a great book?

When you start practicing self-compassion, just be careful not to throw self-compassion at yourself to make emotional pain go away. That won’t work and will leave you feeling more discouraged.

Self-compassion is a natural, loving response to pain.  You won’t feel better if you use it to resist moment-to-moment experience, but you’ll definitely feel better as a byproduct of self-compassion.  All we have to do is touch our inner pain with a tender awareness, and then bring care and kindness to ourselves.

Many people feel it’s selfish to attend to themselves in times of need. If you feel that way, please ask yourself who told you that. If there are eight people around a holiday dinner table and an emotional arrow strikes you in the heart, why not rush to the aid of the person who’s in pain and whom you can help the most?  In that case, you could excuse yourself for a moment, take a deep breath, put your hand over your heart, and tenderly say to yourself, “Yes I know, this hurts.”  That could make a world of difference to you and to the other people in your life. 

Generally speaking, opening to the pain in our own hearts allows us to move beyond ourselves and be compassionate to others as well.

Self-compassion is about self-kindness, not striving for self-improvement. The mindset of New Year’s resolutions is typically the opposite of self-compassion.  Assuming that you’re defective, deficient, or unlovable unless you lose 20 pounds is a subtle form of violence to oneself. Tara Brach says self-compassion is “the ground of all emotional healing.”  From that basis, you’ll be in a better position to change your life.  For example, when we slip off our diets or become impatient with the kids, we can admit our failures, learn from them, and recommit to what’s really important in our lives, often in an even more skillful and effective way.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution this year, why not start at the beginning—commit yourself to be more self-compassionate, especially when you’re not.

Life is difficult, but fortunately, we have the skills to manage most emotional challenges.  We have the capacity of mindfulness (affectionate, moment-to-moment awareness, or “open eyes”) and self-compassion (a kind and understanding response, or “open heart”).  However, these skills need to be strengthened as we go through our lives in order to handle the emotional challenges that come our way, especially those that sneak up on us over the holidays. One moment of mindful self-compassion may be all that’s necessary to change your experience of the holidays, and a string of such moments could possibly change your entire life.

The Use of Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery

Self-compassion can be a foreign concept to people who suffer with an eating disorder, especially during the early phases of recovery when one’s self-concept has already been hijacked by self-critical and judgmental thoughts, challenging emotions, and self-harming behaviors. Often, what is left instead is a great deal of self-loathing. As a clinician or a loved one, it can be very difficult to watch someone suffer in this way.

I have learned—after many years of specializing in working with this population, and through my own personal journey with recovery many years ago—that self-compassion allows individuals to come out from the darkness that created isolation and despair and eventually allows them to re-connect with self and others once again. With this skill, people who have suffered from an eating disorder can return to living life in joy and freedom—never to forget the limitless possibilities they possess when they see and hold themselves in compassion.

Early stages of recovery: Finding relief in embodiment

I’ve found in my work with those recovering from eating disorders that the self-loathing we commonly see is really just a thick layering covering the self-compassion that lies inside and awaits awakening. This awakening is not easy though, as often the self-loathing blocks any attempts at self-kindness. This blockage can be seen very clearly in the beginning stages of recovery when one is still struggling with self-harming behaviors that offer daily reminders of this self-loathing.

I have found that to awaken this deeply buried internal compassion, I need to work slowly around it. Self-compassion is more readily accepted when I introduce it first through an embodied experience, such as through the MSC practice, “Soles of the Feet,” or another grounding practice such as “Feet, Spine, and Seat,” a practice from my book that draws attention in a neutral way to the body and offers a grounding experience in the moment. Another practice I use is a simple guiding of the breath called “Equalizing the Breath,” where one simply breathes in for the count of three and exhales for the count of three. All of these practices help to center and ground an individual in the present moment, thereby guiding the mind away from self-critical thoughts.

In this way, these practices offer a sense of temporary relief in a body that knows nothing but suffering and is perceived as the enemy. These embodied practices introduce what being away from self-loathing and self-criticism can feel like for a few moments, along with what it feels like to—what I call—“befriend the body” for just a few minutes.

Another way to describe this is the allowance of inhabiting one’s body—once again, in a new, non-threatening way. I encourage my clients to deeply sense the experience they feel in their body, an experience which teaches them what it feels like to have a moment free from the eating disorder.

Often, they report back in terms of freedom or clarity, saying:

“It feels free.”

“I feel centered.”

“My head is clearer.”

“My eating disorder wasn’t here.”

I then use these moments to plant the seeds of self-compassion, saying, “Do you realize that you just experienced a moment of giving to yourself? You just experienced what it feels like to offer yourself and your body care once again.”

I also say: “You just experienced the development of self-compassion from the inside.”

I have learned through this very gentle, slow introduction to self-compassion that together, we can awaken the buried seeds.

Mid-recovery: Replacing self-harming behaviors with compassion

Working in this gentle manner reminds me to be self-compassionate as I slow down, breathe, and remind myself how hard it is to hold the suffering of another. I am also reminded that when someone lives in a world of harshness for so long, the thought of taking away the eating disorder can feel threatening. This is a challenge when working with this population and explains why there is such a high percentage of people who do not recover. After all, the eating disorder has served a purpose in their lives for so long. While it is so damaging to the self, it has often also become a harsh, critical friend, and so I compassionately hold this understanding in mind as I move through treatment.

Together, we learn how to cultivate self-compassion in ways that support all phases of recovery in order to slowly allow the release of self-harming behaviors. In the beginning stages of recovery, self-compassion is applied through the body as we awaken embodiment together and help to free the self-harming behaviors.

In the middle of recovery, self-compassion practices help individuals learn to contain the suffering, strengthen their resiliency, and to create a new relationship with their body.

My clients learn that in order to let the disorder go, they have to stop shaming and condemning themselves for having had it in the first place. Rather, they come to compassionately understand and forgive it. They learn through self-compassion to accept and face the suffering it has caused, and then to hold themselves in a new self-protective way in order to let it go. Over time, as self-compassion grows, so does the strength to let the disorder go.

Final stages of recovery: a new way of being

Toward the end of recovery, when self-harming behaviors have ceased and they have learned how to hold themselves in a compassionate way each day, they come to understand that self-compassion helped them grow from self-loathing into self-love; from self-harming into self-protection; and from disconnection into connection within oneself and with others.

Perhaps the greatest gift self-compassion offers is that it can hold the recovery process strong enough for people to recover fully—even if they feel self-love still has to grow. Self-compassion becomes the “good enough” re-parenting throughout.

With the skill of self-compassion, people who have suffered from an eating disorder can return to living life in joy and freedom—never to forget the limitless possibilities they possess when they see and hold themselves in compassion.

Dr. Saffi Biasetti is a private somatic psychotherapist and embodiment teacher/trainer in Saratoga Springs, NY. She specializes in eating disorder recovery and is the author of Befriending Your Body: A Self-Compassionate Approach to Freeing Yourself From Disordered Eating. She holds a certificate in mindfulness, is a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher, Certified Yoga Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Visit her at her website, on Instagram, or Facebook.

Teaching an 8-week Course with The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook

This fall my co-teacher Chris Checkett and I decided to try replacing the handouts booklet with the brand new Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (“the workbook”) for our most recent 8-week course. The book had been out for only a few weeks when our course began, and we hadn’t familiarised ourselves with it in any depth, but we’d looked at it closely enough to think that we could make it work.

I confess that I felt some impostor-phenomenon trepidation: this time, I found myself thinking, the participants would see that when I’m leading, none of the deep insights or beautiful phrasings are mine…. Unmasked, finally! Like a good MSC teacher I simply buried those misgivings (🙂), and we took the plunge. We were very glad we did.

We integrated the workbook into the course via two emails we sent out after every session: a “home practice” email and a “recommended reading” email, both of which directed participants to various parts of the workbook. I’ll begin by describing some of the payoffs, both for us as teachers and for our participants, and then go into a bit more detail about how the emails worked.

Less pressure on teachers, more reinforcement for participants

One of the biggest advantages for me of using the workbook was that it took some of the pressure off when I was presenting topics. I found that I was less likely to get anxious about making sure I’d said everything I needed to say, because I knew that people would be able to read up on anything they were confused about, or especially interested in, after the session. Of course, we’ve always had the chapter guides for Chris’s and Kristin’s earlier books, and I’ve always used those in my teaching, but the workbook connects much more tightly and straightforwardly to the conceptual material as it’s covered in the sessions of the course. And I knew we’d be pointing our participants to the relevant parts of the workbook in our recommended-reading email each week, which made it easy for participants who were so inclined to reinforce what they’d learned in the sessions at home. (We also had an online discussion board for questions, as well as time after the sessions and the option of email.)

The effect was to make teaching the topics more enjoyable, and that, naturally, had a direct impact on the feel of the sessions. I know that the idea has always been that we shouldn’t worry about covering everything when presenting a topic, but that was always a “growth area” for me…. In this respect your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Streamlined administrative load

Writing the “recommended reading” emails was a fair amount of work, admittedly—more on those below—but having done it once, I now have a set of templates that will need only minor tweaking for future runs. And my home-practice emails will need much less tweaking from run to run than they did when I was using the handouts booklet.

I’ve always wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to follow up on the home-practice recommendations for the week, and so I’ve always put page numbers into the emails and online announcements. Those page numbers would then need to be updated every time a new edition of the handouts booklet came out, along with the titles of the practices in some cases. But on the assumption that new editions of the workbook will come out less often than once a year (🙂), using the workbook means that updating the weekly announcements and emails from course to course will take a lot less work.

(Incidentally, all this goes for our online course announcements, too. We use a beautifully simple web-based app called Basecamp as a central repository for announcements and course materials, but we also send out everything crucial by email, to keep things easy for those people who’d rather not engage with Basecamp.)

More comprehensive coverage of missed sessions

One final, relatively obvious advantage of using the workbook: people who miss a session can make up for a lot more of what they missed. When someone missed a session, I gently upgraded the status of the reading for that week from “recommended but optional” to “a very good idea, both so that you don’t miss out on the valuable ideas and practices we covered in the session, and so that you’re prepared for later sessions.” I also recommended that they do all the exercises in the reading that we’d done in the session, modulo the usual caveats about safety, overwhelm, and so on.

One worry related to this last advantage might be that having the workbook would encourage absenteeism, as people would think that they could always just make up for missing a session by working through the relevant parts of the workbook. For what it’s worth, though, our one run of the course with sixteen participants provided no evidence to support that worry—our absenteeism rates were no higher than with the handouts booklet.

The weekly emails

Email 1: summary of home practices

As I mentioned, in addition to reminding people of the home-practice recommendations for the week, we provided page numbers to help participants find the instructions for the practices in the workbook, along with links to guided versions of the meditations and the like. In almost all cases, the instructions given for the home practices in the workbook fit seamlessly into the 8-week course. Very occasionally, we’d need to point out some way in which the instructions in the workbook should be modified for home practice as part of the 8-week: doing “Silver Linings” for a current difficulty as an optional extra, for example, or adapting “Working with Difficult Emotions” and “Meeting Unmet Needs” to the flow of daily life, so that participants weren’t sitting down to evoke difficult feelings deliberately every day between sessions.

Email 2: recommended reading

After a reminder that the reading is recommended but optional, I’d list the chapters relevant to the session we’d just had, and give a one- or two-sentence summary of what each one covers, to make it easier for people to find things they might be looking for. Then I’d recommend an approach to the practices contained in the reading. (I’m using the word ‘practices’ as a catchall for exercises, meditations, and informal practices.) Some of the practices covered in the reading were home practices for the week, of course, and so they’d already been discussed in the home-practice email. Some weren’t home practices, but were practices we’d done in the session; I’d tell people they should feel free to revisit those if they’d like, but make it clear that they didn’t have to, and remind them to move gently (if at all) with the more activating practices. And then there were some new practices that weren’t amongst the home practice recommendations, and weren’t in the session (e.g., “Compassionate Mess” or “Fierce Compassion”). What I said about those would depend on the practice, but in general the approach was to invite people to try them if they’d like to, whilst making it clear that the recommended home practices for the week were the first port of call, and, as always, gently reminding people to go easy on themselves, allow themselves to be slow learners, and so on.

The “good students”: noticing participants’ impulse to strive

The only disadvantage of using the workbook—or at least, of using it in the way we did—was that participants who began the course striving to be “good students,” or who were determined to fix themselves by working hard at becoming more self-compassionate, were perhaps more likely to feel overwhelmed, or feel bad about falling behind. Despite our regular and emphatic reminders that the reading was entirely optional, there were of course those participants who’d decided that it wasn’t really okay for them not to do it, or not do all of it. It seemed to me that there was a bit more of that this time than in previous runs, when I’d simply list Chris’s and Kristin’s books as optional further resources and make the chapter guides available. That’s not surprising, given that we handed out copies of the workbook in the first session, and then sent out relatively detailed (optional!) reading recommendations every week. But it’s something I’ll keep an eye on next time around. And maybe I’ll call them “optional reading” emails instead.

Unfounded fears? Who, me?

As for those impostor worries, it seems I had nothing to fear. It wasn’t something I really thought about once the course was underway, and our participants were as appreciative as ever when the course ended. But perhaps that’s because I told them I was Chris Germer. 😊

▸ Resources:

Martin Thomson-Jones, an Englishman based in the U.S., is a philosophy professor at Oberlin College and has also taught philosophy at Princeton University and U.C. Berkeley. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University and a B.A. (Joint Hons.) in physics and philosophy from Oxford University. His research is primarily in the philosophy of science. Martin’s upcoming MSC courses include an MSC Intensive in Limuru, Kenya, in March, 2019 and another at Hollyhock, British Columbia, Canada, in June 2019.