Archives for February 2020

5 Myths of Self-Compassion

We invite you register for a new online course: Self-Compassion for Educators

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable trait. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities—kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an active impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Generations removed from Puritan times, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.

Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old elementary school teacher with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and dedicated educator, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model. But Rachel is in therapy because her levels of stress are so high—she’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes—to her horror—snaps at her own kids and even those in her class. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Like many people, she’d never considered trying to be compassionate to herself. And if she did, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, of giving herself some kindness and understanding, would strike her as somehow childish and irresponsible.

And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it is, much less how to practice it. Often self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. Although mindfulness—with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our experience without being swept away by aversive reactivity—is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.

Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom—recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals who are just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the “everything will go swimmingly until the day I die” plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference.  

Fortunately, this approach aligns with an impressive and growing body of research demonstrating that relating to our selves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help us avoid the inevitable consequences of harsh self-judgment—depression, anxiety, and stress—it also engenders a happier and more hopeful approach to life. More pointedly, research proves false many of the common myths about self-compassion that keep us trapped in the prison of relentless self-criticism.

Myth 1: Self-compassion is a form of self-pity

One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. This isn’t because self-compassion allows you to tune out the bad stuff—in fact, it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness, which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. Instead of feeling poor me, there’s the simple recognition that life is difficult for everyone, including me. We can accept our struggle as normal and feel connected to others in our pain, at the same time that we commit to emotionally supporting ourselves. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.  

Myth 2: Self-compassion means weakness

John had always considered himself a pillar of strength—an ideal husband, an excellent high school math teacher and provider. So he was devastated when his wife left him for another man. Secretly racked with guilt for not doing more to meet his wife’s emotional needs before she sought comfort in someone else’s arms, he didn’t want to admit how hurt he still felt and how hard it was for him to move on with his life. When John’s colleague suggested that he try being compassionate to himself about his divorce, his reaction was swift: “Don’t give me that hearts and flowers stuff. I had to be hard as nails to get through the divorce with some semblance of self-respect, and I’m not about to let my guard down now.”

What John didn’t know is that instead of being a weakness, researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us.

Studies show that when we go through major life crises, whether its a divorce or cancer or military combat, self-compassion appears to make all the difference in our ability to survive and even thrive. John assumed that being a tough guy during his divorce—stuffing down his feelings of shame and not admitting how much pain he was in—is what got him through. But John wasn’t “through,” he was stuck.  And his shame was starting to creep into his work life, causing him to be harsh and reactive in a way that was starting to alienate his students and colleagues.  Self-compassion was the missing piece that would’ve probably helped him to move on. It’s not just what you face in life, but how you relate to yourself when the going gets tough—as an inner ally or enemy—that determines your ability to successfully cope. 

Myth 3: Self-compassion will make me complacent

Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine our motivation to push ourselves to do better. The idea is that if we don’t criticize ourselves for failing to live up to our standards, we’ll automatically succumb to slothful defeatism. But let’s think for a moment about how educators successfully motivate their students. When a student receives a failing grade on a test even after studying, the teacher could look disgusted and hiss, “Stupid loser. You’ll never amount to anything. I’m ashamed of you.” (Makes you cringe doesn’t it? Yet that’s exactly the type of thing we tell ourselves when we fail to meet our own high expectations.) Educators don’t do this because they know a torrent of shame will just make students lose faith in themselves and eventually stop trying altogether.

Good educators are more likely to adopt an encouraging approach by saying something like: “I know you’re disappointed. It happens to everyone, but failure is how we learn. Let’s talk about how you studied for the test and see if we can make some adjustments.  What can I do to help and support you? I believe in you.” Notice that there’s honest recognition of the failure, sympathy for the student’s disappointment, and encouragement to go beyond or around this momentary bump in the road. This type of caring response helps people maintain their self-confidence and feel emotionally supported. Ironically, we don’t use this approach with ourselves when we fail or make mistakes. We somehow believe that self-flagellation is necessary to achieve our goals, and that anxiety, depression, and stress are a result of not trying hard enough.

There is now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment. It helps us adopt learning rather than performance goals, reduces fear of failure and performance anxiety, and encourages a growth mindset. It also increases personal responsibility by giving us the safety needed to admit our mistakes. In order to achieve our best, we need to use the same principles that we know work with others. Support, encouragement, kindness, constructive criticism – and yes sometimes firm boundaries and tough love – are much more effective than belittling personal attacks.

Myth 4: Self-compassion is narcissistic

In American culture, high self-esteem requires standing out in a crowd—being special and above average. How do you feel when someone calls you an average teacher, average parent, or says your intelligence is average? Ouch! The problem, of course, is that, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone not withstanding, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. While there may be some areas in which we excel, there’s always someone more attractive, successful, and intelligent than we are, meaning we feel like failures whenever we compare our selves to those “better” than ourselves.

The desire to see ourselves as better than average, however, to get and keep that elusive feeling of high self-esteem, can lead to some downright nasty behavior. Research shows that one of the reasons early adolescents bully others is to increase their self-esteem. If I can be seen as the cool tough kid in contrast to the wimpy nerd I just picked on, I get a self-esteem boost. Self-esteem also plays a role in prejudice. If I believe that my ethnic, gender, national, political group is better than yours, I get a self-esteem boost. 

Indeed, the emphasis placed on self-esteem in American society has led to a worrying trend: the narcissism of modern-day college students is at record highs even though mental health is at an all time low. Researchers attribute this in part to well-meaning but misguided parents who tell kids how special and great they are in an attempt to raise their self-esteem. But self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self-worth, while self-compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all. Instead, self-compassion is way of relating to the ever-changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance—especially when we fail or feel inadequate. In other words, self-esteem requires feeling better than others, whereas self-compassion simply requires acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection. That’s a box that can always be checked.

Myth 5: Self-compassion is selfish

Many people are suspicious of self-compassion because they conflate it with selfishness. Rachel, for instance, spends her days caring for her students, her evenings prepping for class and caring for her family, and her weekends volunteering for the two charities she supports. Raised in a family that emphasized the importance of service to others, she assumes that spending time and energy being kind and caring toward herself would automatically mean neglecting everybody else for her own selfish ends. Indeed, many people are like Rachel in this sense—good, generous, altruistic souls, who are perfectly awful to themselves, all the while thinking this is necessary to their general goodness.

But is compassion really a zero-sum game? Think about the times you’ve been lost in the throes of shame and self-criticism. Are you self-focused or other-focused in the moment? Do you have more or fewer resources to give to others? Most people find that when they’re absorbed in self-judgment, they actually have little bandwidth left over to think about anything other than their inadequate, worthless selves. In fact, beating yourself up can be a paradoxical form of self-centeredness. When we can be kind and nurturing to ourselves, however, many of our emotional needs are met, leaving us in a better position to focus on others.

Research shows that self-compassionate educators tend to provide more emotional support to their students in terms of creating a positive classroom climate, demonstrating sensitivity, and showing regard for student perspectives.  In the realm of romantic relationships. self-compassionate people are described by their partners as being more caring, accepting, and autonomy-supporting than their self-critical counterparts.  Self-compassionate individuals are also generally more forgiving and able to take others perspectives. 

The research literature is unclear about whether self-compassion is actually necessary to be compassionate to others, given that many people do a pretty good job of caring for others while short-changing themselves. However, there’s a growing body of research indicating that self-compassion helps people sustain the act of caring for others. For instance, educators who are self-compassionate are less likely to experience stress and burnout. They’re also more satisfied with their careers and feel more energized, happy, and grateful for being able to make a difference in the world.

When we give ourselves compassion, we create a protective buffer allowing us to understand and feel for those who are suffering, without being drained by it. The people we care for can then feel our compassion through their own process of empathic resonance. In other words, the compassion we cultivate for ourselves directly transmits itself to others.  When teachers empathically feel the pain of students struggling with anxiety, depression, family trauma, violence, eating disorders, and so on, combined with the other incredible pressures of the profession, how do they remain empathetic and connected without burning out?  By validating and acknowledging how difficult their task is and giving themselves kindness and support in the midst of experiencing it all. Not only does this help oneself, the warm and peaceful state of mind cultivated internally will be felt by students.

I know this first hand through my experience of raising an autistic child. Rowan is now 18 and a loving young man who poses few parenting challenges. But it wasn’t always so. I often faced situations that I thought were beyond my ability to cope and sometimes had to rely on the power of self-compassion to get me through. Once, when Rowan was 5, I took him to England to see his grandparents. In the middle of the transatlantic flight, Rowan threw an almighty tantrum. I have no idea what set him off, but I suddenly found myself with a flailing, screaming child and a plane full of people looking at us with dagger eyes. What to do? I tried taking him to the bathroom in hopes that the closed door would muffle his screams. But after I’d shuffled down the aisle, trying to keep Rowan from accidentally hitting passengers along the way, I found the toilet was occupied.

Huddled with Rowan in the tiny space outside the toilet, I felt helpless and hopeless. But then I remembered self-compassion. This is so hard for you, darling, I said to myself. I’m sorry this is happening. I’m here for you. While making sure that Rowan was safe, 90 percent of my attention was on soothing and comforting myself. My mind became flooded with compassion, to the point that it dominated my experience—far more than my screaming child. Furthermore, as I’d already discovered, when I was in a more peaceful and loving frame of mind, Rowan also calmed down. As I soothed myself, he was soothed as well.  

When we care tenderly for ourselves in response to suffering, our heart opens. Compassion engages our capacity for love, wisdom, courage, and generosity. It’s a mental and emotional state that’s boundless and directionless, grounded in the great spiritual traditions of the world but available to every person simply by virtue of being human. Educators already know how to be supportive and kind to their students, they just need to give themselves permission to be the same way with themselves. In a surprising twist, the nurturing power of self-compassion is now being illuminated by the matter-of-fact, tough-minded methods of empirical science, and a growing body of research is demonstrating conclusively that self-compassion is not only central to mental health, but can be enriched through learning and practice, just like so many other good habits. Being kind to ourselves isn’t—as is too often believed—a selfish luxury, but the exercise of a gift that makes us happier.

Chapter 9: Engaging in Inquiry

The following is an excerpt from Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. Translations of the Professional Guide are forthcoming throughout 2020 and 2021. See scheduled release dates here. May this Professional Guide serve you and inform your teaching!

Note that CMSC makes a modest affiliate commission if you purchase the book through a link on this page.

— An Excerpt —

The Three R’s: Radical Acceptance,
Resonance, and Resource-Building

Teachers can focus on three components of inquiry, which we refer to in MSC as the “three R’s,” as a guide for how to engage in inquiry. Radical acceptance is the overall attitude of the inquiry process; resonance is the primary mode of engagement; and resource-building is the desired outcome of inquiry. 

Radical Acceptance 

Radical acceptance means “fully entering into and embracing whatever is in the present moment” (Robins, Schmidt, & Linehan, 2004, p. 40). In MSC, radical acceptance refers not only to embracing our experience, but also to embracing ourselves. This does not mean that we are perfect and have no need to change. It refers to knowing and accepting ourselves, right now, as a foundation for meaningful change. 

In inquiry, radical acceptance is the attitude of not judging and not fixing. It is letting our students (and ourselves as teachers!) off the hook, at least for the few minutes of inquiry, of needing anything to be other than it is. A teacher is simply curious about how a student experienced a practice or exercise and how the student responded. Then, if the teacher detects that the student is struggling (which usually means the student is resisting the experience or fighting with oneself), the teacher and student can collaboratively explore what is going on, still without needing anything to change during the inquiry process. Since all beings instinctively resist distress, both personal and empathic distress, radical acceptance is rather an ideal than a constant reality during inquiry. 

Radical acceptance also refers to respecting students—honoring their needs, cultural circumstances, vulnerabilities, and wholeness. Since teachers know very little about students’ lives, they need to proceed with care. Speaking up in class can make a participant feel vulnerable and exposed, especially if old wounds have surfaced during the preceding exercise or practice. Therefore, when a teacher senses that a student is feeling vulnerable but the student would nonetheless like to continue with the inquiry process, the teacher may ask, “May I ask you a question?” or “Would you be willing to go a little further into this?” Even those questions should be asked without expectation because some students are unable to say “no.” When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of safety and back off. 

In general, open-ended questions are experienced by students as safer and more respectful than specific questions or statements. Open-ended questions give room for students to choose what they are willing to share. For example, a teacher might ask, “How do you feel right now?” rather than “Are you upset right now?” Another example of an open-ended question is ending an inquiry with “Is there anything you need right now— anything that would be helpful?” rather than suggesting what a participant should do next. 

Radical acceptance also refers to how teachers relate to their own learning process. Teachers should be patient with themselves as they develop competence with engaging in inquiry. Just as striving to learn self-compassion can be an obstacle on the path to self-compassion for students, striving to get inquiry “right” can interfere with the flow between two people. It is better to be a natural, friendly person and make lots of mistakes rather than self-consciously trying to conduct a perfect inquiry. In other words, the intention for teachers is to learn what their students experienced during a practice, not to act as if they are doing inquiry. 

Resonance 

The primary task of MSC teachers during inquiry is to resonate emotion-ally with their students. Resonance is 90% of inquiry. When resonance is happening, not much else needs to occur during inquiry. While resonating, teachers listen not only with their ears, but also with their bodies. Resonance is embodied listening. Resonance occurs when students can say, “I know that you know how I feel.” They feel felt (Siegel, 2010, p. 136). Another measure of resonance is that a teacher is in a state of loving, connected presence. In other words, a student senses the warmth of the teacher, perceives a sense of intimacy, and feels under-stood. 

The intimacy of emotional resonance evokes a sense of deep connection. One student reported, “When my teacher and I were speaking, it felt not only like she was talking to me, but also like I was talking to me. No difference.” In this way, inquiry can activate and strengthen the com-passionate voice within each student. Moreover, since other participants are also likely to resonate with the student engaged in inquiry, the dyadic inquiry process can activate self-compassion in everyone in the room. 

Resource‐Building 

The final key component of inquiry is resource-building. Resources are not cultivated through resonance alone, but also through validating how a student has used the resources of mindfulness and self-compassion in the preceding practice or by evoking mindfulness and self-compassion during the inquiry itself. 

For example, when a student gets derailed during an exercise because of strong emotions, the teacher can return to the point in the exercise where the student got lost, bring mindfulness or self-compassion to the scene, and then escort the student through one or more remaining phases of the exercise. Here’s an inquiry with a participant, Joan, after the Meeting Unmet Needs exercise in Session 7. 

Joan: I don’t know about that exercise. I just checked out. 

Teacher: Can you remember when you checked out? 

Joan: Not really. Wait . . . it was when you asked us to let go of the person who hurt us and go deeper into what we were feeling. I didn’t want to do that. I want an apology from the person. 

Teacher: I can understand that. Don’t we all, when we feel hurt by someone? It’s so natural. 

Joan: Yeah. 

Teacher: I’m curious. When we got to the part of the exercise that asked what unmet need was driving your feelings of hurt, were you able to identify anything? 

Joan: No, I was just stuck feeling sad and hurt. 

Teacher: Do you mind considering the question now? For example, did you want to be treated more respectfully, or be seen, or be valued? 

Joan: Yes, I really loved this person and needed to be loved back. I just wanted to be loved back (eyes becoming moist). 

Teacher: Of course you did. You needed to be loved back. (Pause) It hurts so much when we don’t feel loved back. (Pause) I wonder, what would you say to a good friend who felt this longing, just like you? 

Joan: Oh, I’d say, “You are so lovable. You are so beautiful.” I’m afraid he just couldn’t see that. 

Teacher: Yes, you would say, “You are so lovable. You are sooooo beautiful.” Is it okay if we do a little experiment together? 

Joan: Sure. 

Teacher: Let’s just say those words together. Maybe even as a whole group, silently. If others are willing, let’s close our eyes and just say those words silently to ourselves: “You are so lovable. You are so beautiful.” (Long pause

Joan: (Smiling) I get it. 

Teacher: What do you get? 

Joan: It will take some time, but I get it. I can give it to myself. I actually feel much better right now. 

In this short exchange, the teacher referred Joan back to the moment in the Meeting Unmet Needs exercise when she “checked out.” That grounded the conversation in direct experience. Then the teacher escorted Joan through the next set of instructions in the exercise, which were about discovering unmet needs behind hurt feelings. When Joan was able to complete that activity, she was guided into the final part of the exercise—giving ourselves compassion in response to unmet needs, and meeting our needs directly. Joan was able to finish the exercise this time, with the help of the teacher and the rest of the group. The inquiry process also reminded the whole group about different elements in the exercise that they had just completed, especially how to meet our unmet needs from old relationships by using the resource of self-compassion. 

Rx when Parenting a Child with a Chronic Condition

 

How many parents suffer quietly with the plight of their child’s condition, or keep to themselves for the sake of privacy, or simply are heads down with caregiving that others don’t even know to reach out? I also imagine parents in communities who don’t have the privilege of a well-resourced school system or medical access or aren’t able to rally funds for research or costs of care. The bottom line is that more needs to be done for families to foster the kind of resilience that may be needed for a long haul. Two colleagues (Lorraine Hobbs and Kimberly Arthur) and I recently published a journal article about the need to support parents with children with chronic conditions: The Role of Compassion and Mindfulness in Building Parental Resilience When Caring for Children With Chronic Conditions: A Conceptual Model. (Please read and share it. E-Book here.)

…both mindfulness and compassion have significant potential to support this process of working through adversity and finding ways to develop inner resources to cultivate acceptance, find meaning in the context of complex parenting challenges, and respond to the child and oneself with kindness in the face of persistent stressors associated with children’s chronic conditions.

Cousineau, Hobbs & Arthur, 2019

A Silent Suffering

Parenting a child with an illness or disability is very common yet remains a silent plight for many

Close to 20% of parents have a child with a chronic condition or disability, which is defined as any condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months. Personally, I think this is an underestimate due to under reporting and stigma. But let’s just say that 1 in 5 parents/families has a child with some sort of chronic affliction. (There are 83M families in the US and 15M single mothers.) Assume for the sake of my argument that you are in a room full of parents. The next time you are in a meeting at work or a school PTA meeting, or at a place of worship, or on a commuter train imagine that for every 4 seats the 5th seat has a parent facing a difficult illness challenge with a child—no matter the age of a child. Imagine yourself in his or her shoes. 

One memory that comes to mind is when my daughter Sophie was three years old and at preschool. She took a cracker out of a snack jar. Apparently another child with sticky peanut butter fingers had also done so. Her face blew up like a balloon immediately. The EMTs were called. She chugged some liquid Benadryl. She recovered.

The school eventually became “peanut/nut free” to the chagrin of other parents. It was a common battle cry across American schools: “Why should my child give up his PB&J?” “That’s the only thing he eats and he has the right to have peanut butter.”  “Why should my kid starve?” Parents of the afflicted child would counter, “This could be a life or death situation. Surely you can see that?” “You’d rather see a child risk her life than to find something else for your kid to eat?” “Try carrots instead.”

Later the solution in the elementary school was to separate the food allergy kids from the others at lunch time, leaving Sophie at a table all by herself. She became a pariah, a social outcast. The social stigma was an unintended consequence, of course. And it was unacceptable.

Then guess what happened? God bless the children to find solutions that parents or administrators can’t see. Her friends began to sit with her. Over time they became little vigilantes monitoring who had what in their lunch boxes. The girls made sure their parents knew about Sophie’s food allergies for birthday parties and sports events. They educated themselves. They watched the Epi-pen injection video and practiced puncturing an orange with a plastic model pen. Although we were all in a state of anticipatory anxiety, organically we cultivated a “community watch.”  Eventually, we all relaxed. When a local 15-year old girl died from anaphylaxis after a severe allergic reaction just days before her 16th birthday, despite the family’s careful precautions, the threat became all too real once again. (See Project Abbie at Harvard.)

Compassionate Action

My daughter’s situation may not compare to the plight of others. A food allergy is an episodic condition that is largely reliant on prevention and avoidance, yet can have a fatal outcome. Yet that’s not my point. Millions of parents are managing some sort of childhood condition every single day. Of course, the medical conditions and potential outcomes vary among children: Children may be hospitalized for depression or suicidal ideation, or suffer a physical illness or condition; or a child may be contending with developmental delays, mobility issues, aggressive outbursts, or chronic pain. There are IEPs and accommodations, specialists, and regular medical monitoring, and concerns about independent living in adulthood. It can be all consuming at times.

What is common is the persistent fear and distress felt by a mom, dad or caregiver. Whenever a child needs specialized care or attention, there is a slow wear-and-tear in the fabric of parenting. An unraveling may occur in parallel with a kind of constant mending, in attempts to emotionally or pragmatically hold it together. There is also the mental “code switching” between taking care of a child’s current needs and the anticipation or planning for the future “what ifs.”  It’s hard to be present when the mind is in a ricochet of tending tasks. Let’s not forget that many parents inevitably put their personal needs and goals on hold and may also be economically impacted. Even the most optimistic or well-resourced parents will find themselves in moments of despair or panic. That’s the only natural response. 

What I love about compassion-focused approaches to parenting is the recognition that biologically we are wired to protect and ward off threat. That basic understanding can begin to shift how we communicate and respond. I can’t blame the pro-PB&J parents. They want their children to have what they need to survive. They aren’t thinking about the other tribe of parents who also want their children to survive by avoiding PB&J at all costs. Our perspective narrows when we are threatened. The single focus is on survival.

The emotions that drive defensive behavior include anger, anxiety, fear, or disgust. When we notice which emotion regulation systems are activated (threat, thrive, care/connect), we can begin to respond to life’s experiences in more beneficial and grounded ways. We can respond in a more balanced way.  This is where mindfulness and compassion comes in. 

Cousineau, Hobbs, and Arthur. The Role of Compassion and Mindfulness in Building Parental Resilience When Caring for Children With Chronic Conditions: A Conceptual Model

The approach we proposed in the article emphasizes relational compassion and self-compassion. All too often the sole or primary focus is on child medical outcomes rather than parental resilience. This is understandable but to use another cliché—the one about the oxygen mask on a flight—we have to help the caregivers put on the oxygen mask first. The point in our article is we believe that cultivation of safety, connection, and caring is essential in any communication, intervention, or resource created to support parents when caring for a child with a chronic condition. This helps to get parents out of the constant threat/survival mode and offer relief from the exhaustion that can come from empathy fatigue, persistent uncertainty, constant caregiving, or social isolation. This means growing both inner strengths and outer strengths.

We consider the mindfulness and compassion skills as a way to “bounce forward” rather than “bounce back”—because life will never revert to a previous way of parenting. Resilience is inherently about caring, connection and community. It also requires a kind of deep knowing that we all belong to one another. In this way we are responsible for the welfare of the collective “we.”  Parenting is hard under optimal circumstances. No family is immune from threat, loss, or disappointment. It can take some emotional courage to turn toward what is difficult and reach out to a family in helpful ways—especially when vulnerable children face challenges. The default is to respect privacy, or not impose, or keep a safe distance, or drop off casseroles. I get it. But we also have to stretch ourselves and connect with parents. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Take the risk: Ask them.

How may I be of help? Is there something specific I can do? What is important for us to know? Is it Ok if I check in every once in a while? We are here for you.

The Promise of Self-Compassion for Attorneys

Co-authored by: Christy Cassisa and Kristin Neff

This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 Issue of the American Bar Association’s GPSolo magazine, highlighting solo practitioners. However, clearly self-compassion can make a huge difference for all attorneys.

 

Justin Ortiz (a fictional solo-attorney) felt heavy and immobilized. He was sitting at his desk early Monday morning, beginning to review his to-do list for the day. With equal parts shame, panic, and dread, he re-read the notice from the court that he’d lost his motion for summary judgment in the Smith case. His stomach sank into his shoes, a feeling of despondence settled into his bones. He couldn’t believe he’d lost. He thought to himself, “I am such an incompetent lawyer- I never should have gone to law school!”

Returning to his list, he realized that there was no human way he could check through it and reluctantly began to prioritize. Which tasks were least likely to get him disciplined or disbarred if they went undone? Maybe he could beg opposing counsel to agree to a continuance in the Meyer hearing so he could work on the Luca brief today. After only two weeks researching and writing, the gnawing feeling in his stomach left him fearful that he’d missed something. I actually might be getting sick, he thought as he washed down two cold tablets with a cup of lukewarm coffee, followed by a jelly-filled donut.

His heart sank when he realized that he would also have to miss yet another of his son, Joey’s, little league games, despite his pinkie swear to the contrary, because he’d also signed up for that happy hour networking event. “I am the worst parent ever,” he thought.

He groaned inwardly, then realized that it had actually been audible when his Yorkie, Mitzy, picked up her head to look balefully at him. As she regarded him with reproach for another missed walk, he informed her, “Well, Mitzy, your human is a worthless idiot, and you’re responsible for fixing the printer today.”

Solo attorneys are unique in the legal profession. Rainmaker, researcher, IT specialist, janitor, business owner, litigator.  And maybe also parent, partner, volunteer, or one of any number of additional roles acquired in life. The pressure of trying to be and do it all can lead to exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.  The very nature of solo lawyering can be isolating. There is no firm full of associates to back you up, no partner to take over if you have a sick day.

One exhausted solo practitioner explains this experience as it appears to her in a recurring dream: it’s like riding an incredibly tall, very unstable bicycle while juggling a hundred balls. If you slow down, or even worse, if you stop, the bike will fall over, you’ll drop all the balls, and you will break into a million jagged pieces. And there is no rest in sight.

Self-compassion may hold the key to keeping that bicycle upright and keeping those balls moving. It will also help when some balls are inevitably dropped, when failure happens, and when feelings of isolation set in. And it may even help with the decision to put down some balls, or say “no” to taking them on in the first place.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is like having your own personal motivational coach with you 24/7. A kind, comforting, and yet demanding coach, who holds you accountable and protects your long-term goals, while also acknowledging the pain of failure and suffering. Below we’ll elaborate on what self-compassion is and how it can be of great benefit to you in your life, personally and professionally.

The three core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.  So, what does this actually look like in real life?

Self-kindness means we soothe and comfort ourselves when in pain. It is internally offering ourselves the same support and kindness that we would offer to a dear friend who was suffering. Offering a kind ear and a hug instead of a criticism and a smack. It also means taking care of ourselves for our long-term benefit, putting ourselves on the priority list.

Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. None of us is unique in suffering. To be human is to accept that pain, challenge, failure, and misfortune happen to everyone. Every lawyer feels fear and doubt sometimes and encounters major obstacles. It goes with the territory of practicing law—and being human.

Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open and accepting manner. We have to notice that we’re suffering in order to be able to do anything about it. We learn to clearly see and accept the things that we can’t change so that we can respond wisely to our challenges instead of reacting on autopilot without thinking. Recognize the self-judgment when it happens and acknowledge that the situation stinks. But we don’t have to get lost in the feelings or the story.

Compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering – that of others or ourselves. Self-compassion activates the mammalian “care system,” helping us to feel safe by being cared for and connected.  This sense of safety helps gives us the emotional support we need to deal with the stress of life.  Research finds that we can activate these care systems with simple actions like supportive touch (e.g., putting your hand on your own shoulder), and with a warm and gentle tone of voice.

But self-compassion can be ferocious as well as tender. These two poles are represented by the dialectic of yin and yang. Yin compassion is like a mother tenderly comforting her crying child. In this case, kindness, common humanity and mindfulness manifest as loving, connected presence. Yang compassion is like a mother bear ferociously protecting her cubs from harm. In this case the three components show up as fierce, empowered truth. Self-kindness means we fiercely protect ourselves. We stand up and say “NO! I need to do what is best for me and protect myself if necessary.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone in this struggle. For the solo practitioner, it means connecting with your community and feeling supported. And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth of our situations so that we can choose wise, intentional, and sometimes fierce action.

When we accept our own pain with a fiercely loving and connected presence, we can transform and heal.

“Pain is just weakness leaving the body”

To many lawyers, however, the idea of self-compassion is anathema to being a tough, successful lawyer. Schooled in the Socratic Method, lawyers are trained to expect that shame and ridicule are the natural and justified byproducts of an incorrect response. The practice of law requires intense attention to detail and a mistake may result in millions of dollars in fines or multiple years in prison, so perfection seems a professional necessity, and shame a small price to pay in comparison.

The concept of actually being kind to ourselves when we make a mistake may also feel downright alien to many lawyers who tend to be pessimistic, skeptical, and perfectionistic. Predicting and planning for the worst may often protect clients from negative outcomes, so these traits are often reinforced by positive results. But pessimists and skeptics tend to carry this negative thinking with them everywhere- into the home, relationships, volunteer activities, recreational pursuits, and other arenas where it may not be valued or appreciated. This can lead to difficult and unfulfilling relationships and feelings of unhappiness.

High-achieving and hard-driving types abound in the legal profession, but perfectionism, defined as the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one’s goals, doesn’t allow for shortcomings. Unfortunately, the energy required to maintain the façade of perfection takes its toll and can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Even lawyers deserve kindness and care

Many lawyers may think that self-compassion is too touchy feely and that if they indulge in such feelings, they will lose their edge.  While skepticism is understandable, research findings debunk some of the common misconception about the construct.

  1. Self-compassion is not self-pity. Thinking about bringing kindness to yourself when you make a mistake or feel badly may trigger thoughts of “Oh, woe-is-me” or “I’m so pitiful” or “It’s all about me.” However, with self-compassion, the understanding of common humanity allows us to realize that we all suffer and the mindful recognition of our own suffering helps us to see it clearly for what it is. Research shows that self-compassionate people are better able to take a clear-eyed perspective of the reality of our situation and are less likely to spend time ruminating.
  2. Self-compassion is not self-indulgent. Self-kindness and offering ourselves what we need in the face of suffering may be misinterpreted as a form of self-indulgence that sanctions wallowing in our misery soothing ourselves with a pint of triple chocolate chunk ice cream and a bottle of merlot. However, self-compassionate people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors like exercise, eating well, drinking less, and going to the doctor more regularly. Self-compassion helps us keep in mind that we want long-term health and success, not short-term pleasure.
  3. Self-compassion is not selfish. Sometimes we have to put our own needs first, and then meet others’, an approach to which many of us aren’t accustomed. Lawyers who take care of everything for everyone else, and who don’t take care of themselves, burn out faster, build up resentment, and compromise their ability to connect with clients (and often family and friends too). The analogy of “putting on your own oxygen mask first” when on an airplane is a clear example. There’s no helping anyone if you’re passed out!  Research shows that those who bring themselves into the circle of compassion and care through a sense of common humanity have the ability to be more supportive and compassionate towards others.
  4. Self-compassion is not weak. It takes strength to take care of yourself. Recall that concept of yang compassion- a fierce protectiveness and motivator. Studies show that self-compassionate people are more resilient in the face of difficulty and challenges. They are able to cope more effectively with tough situations like divorce, chronic pain, and trauma. For the solo attorney who may face many emotionally challenging situations, self-compassion offers an internal strength, a resource to handle and recover from setbacks.
  5. Self-compassion is not making excuses for yourself. Some of us look for someone else, anyone else, to blame for mistakes because we can’t stand the pain of admitting imperfection. Research shows self-compassionate people are actually more likely to take responsibility for their own actions, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes, and accepting the reality of a tough situation allows a more intentional and effective response.
  6. Self-compassion will not undermine motivation. This is a biggie for attorneys- especially solo attorneys who often have to rely on their own internal drive and determination to get things done, because there is no backup team ready to step in. Many of us grew up with the belief that mental self-flagellation was the only way to motivate ourselves. That inner critic has good intentions. It wants us to “do better,” “try harder,” “work smarter.”  Unfortunately, this internal criticism often proves counterproductive. When we make mistakes or fail, we learn that it’s not safe to try again and we become risk-averse. Research shows that self-compassionate people still have high standards, are less afraid of failure, and are more willing to try again if they do fail.

The self-compassionate solo.

So, what might this actually look like in the real life of a solo practitioner, when the proverbial rubber hits the road? Let’s take a look back at Justin Ortiz’s day.

Practicing mindfulness: Justin realized that he was feeling heavy and immobilized. Sitting at his desk early Monday morning, he paused for his daily 10-minute mindful check-in meditation practice to calm and focus his mind and body before diving into his email.

Practicing kindness: Once he opened his email, he began reading the notice from the court that he’d lost his motion for summary judgment in the Smith case. His stomach sank into his shoes, a feeling of despondence settled into his bones. He couldn’t believe he’d lost. He pressed his palm to his forehead, and felt the warmth of his hand. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and acknowledged the pain of the loss. Then he offered himself some kind words of support, “Wow this totally sucks. I feel so terrible for myself and for my client. I did a ton of research and I know I’m a good writer because I have lots of wins.

Practicing common humanity:  Then Justin was able to see the bigger picture.  “This happens to lots of lawyers, almost every case has a losing side. The facts just weren’t on our side this time. I will review it once more to make sure there wasn’t something we could have done better, but I’m pretty sure we did our best.”

Yin & yang self-compassion: He remembered that he’d not been feeling very well the last few weeks. He rubbed his temples gently as he thought to himself, “I have that doctor’s appointment today- I’ve already rescheduled twice and this is my only body. I’ll request a continuance in the Meyer case and I’ll submit the Luca brief today. I’ve worked on it for two weeks and I know it’s good stuff. I’ve got this.  After the doc, I’ll swing by the networking event for an hour, drop off some business cards and have a Perrier before heading over to catch the second half of Joey’s ballgame. Life’s too short.”

Justin stretched, took another deep and cleansing breath, and dove into his challenging day with a sense of resilience and of being supported by his own internal coach.

Same day. Yet completely different.

Noticing what you need and then asking for it: Self-compassion 101

Anna is a Professor of philosophy and contributor to Thrive Global 

I was at the hospital the other day, taking a family member in for a simple procedure involving scary general anesthesia. When we entered the small and windowless waiting room, we were greeted by four television sets, all blaring reports about the recent mass shootings. They were describing the violence and deaths in gruesome detail; there were graphic images on the screen, and it was loud, loud, loud.

I felt my whole body tense up, my heart beating faster and my breath getting shallow.  I looked around the room, and saw that nobody was watching any of the several different television screens.  And I gently asked the receptionist to change the station to something less violent. The patient sitting next to the reception desk looked up and nodded eagerly. The receptionist looked surprised, and at first told me that she didn’t know how to change the channel.  When I persisted, she figured it out. We switched to a soap opera and she even turned the volume down. The patient next to us thanked me. And my body started to relax.

We watched the soap opera for the next 30 minutes.  As soon as they brought my family member into the back, I left, seeking a more peaceful space to wait. I found it down the hall in the main lobby: Almost empty, not a single TV screen, plenty of natural light, and a very gentle Mozart piano sonata playing in the background. I felt my entire body relax.

I am proud of how I handled this situation because so often I don’t ask to have my needs accommodated. I come from a long line of stoical people. We do not complain, we do not trouble others, we simply suffer in silence. But this day, I managed to combine self-awareness with self compassion:  I noticed the problem – the violent program on four very loud televisions — and I acted to help myself feel better.

These are first steps.  Reflecting on the experience, I also notice the ways in which my self compassion is still limited. The next steps for me involve fierceness; they involve insisting that my own needs are as important as those of other people.  Here, I have ways to go. I gave myself permission to be compassionate to myself on this occasion but it was at least partly because I noticed that others didn’t like the television program either. And I was able to get what I needed without inconveniencing anybody because nobody in the room seemed interested in watching the news in the first place.  Fierce self-compassion would have involved speaking up even if somebody in the room had been watching the news. I don’t think I would have done that.

Like so many other women, my fierce self-compassion is still very much a work in progress.  But I’m getting better at the self-awareness part. And so, for today, I practice self compassion by congratulating myself on how far I have come – and I refuse to beat myself up over how far I have yet to go.

 

Anna Lännström is professor of philosophy at Stonehill College where she teaches Greek and Asian philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of religion as well as a learning community course which integrates yoga, mindfulness and Indian philosophy.  Her writing focuses on the mindfulness movement. Why are we all increasingly stressed, distracted and angry? Why do so many of us feel lonely? What role can mindfulness play in reducing our suffering? How can techniques like yoga and meditation from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions help us live better lives, and how do we address the ethical challenges involved in borrowing such techniques?

Follow Anna on Medium

Embracing Diversity and Social Justice Work in Teaching MSC: Introduction to the Series

Co-authored by: Catherine Crisp, Meera Murthi, and Danielle Park

Allow us to introduce ourselves: we are Catherine, Meera, and Danielle, and are part of the MSC community. We are members of the CMSC Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) Task Force who expressed interest in contributing to a series of articles that would address DEIB issues in teaching MSC. This joint writing initiative that each of us committed to led to a series of introductory meetings, open and honest discussions, and intimate conversations about our own positionality and ongoing learning around DEIB issues. These conversations allowed us to begin learning about who the three of us are in the microcosm of our writer’s group and who we represent and how we are represented in the macrocosm. The unfolding content, process, and dynamics of our conversations helped us forge unexpected connections with each other and with ourselves and allowed us to bring honesty and clarity to DEIB issues as something that deeply reflects, influences, impacts, and implicates us and everyone around us. It has supported us to nurture a critical consciousness that we hope to dialogue and write from. 

Our dialogue led us to develop a vision for a series on DEIB issues that we hope to explore and share with you in the year ahead.

Our deepening intimacy through conversation provided us with fertile ground to unpack how the forces of oppression and privilege have impacted us in unique and shared ways. Specifically we hope to explore (a) our experiences with privilege and oppression, (b) an awareness of the ways we benefit from our privilege and have harmed others and/or been harmed by it, (c) awareness and reflection of oppression and the ways it impacts us and those around us, and (d) practices to assist us in our journey as we explore these challenging issues.

Our engagement with this material through conversations, writing, and reading each other’s works has often been charged, painful, and difficult. These experiences evoked a range of emotions and sometimes caused each of us to numb, freeze, and/or disconnect at different times and for different reasons.The MSC practices and our working group offered a powerful container as we continued to engage and supported us in turning towards emotions and realities that sometimes felt difficult to acknowledge and bear. Grounded in our relationships with each other, we noticed that this process continues to ripple outwards and impacts our teaching and lives more broadly. The process of engaging, writing, and sharing with the MSC teacher community has taken considerable “fierce self-compassion.” We look forward to sharing our process with you in our upcoming series and to reflecting on some initial practices we found helpful as we started this journey. 

To ground us in our shared MSC terminology, our discussions and experiences have tapped into the three components of self-compassion:

  • Mindfulness: our awareness of privileged and oppressed identities and experiences and how these intersect in diverse ways based on our unique identities;
  • Common humanity: our sense of connection to each other, to our unique communities and lineages, and to others on similar journeys;
  • Self-kindness: our use of MSC practices to respond to the many emotions and experiences that have arisen in the course of this journey. 
Plan for the Series
  • Introduce ourselves to you in the context of our experiences with privilege and oppression; 
  • Present definitions and a framework that guide our conversations with you, our fellow MSC teachers; 
  • Offer practical skills that MSC that teachers can use in their classes to become more inclusive and affirming of people with diverse identities; 
  • Share practices that can be applied to our work on DEIB issues.

These articles will be written in conjunction with other DEIB initiatives you will hear about from CMSC. In each of the above pieces, we hope to be reflexive and use a narrative method in order to speak from our direct and embodied experiences of privilege and oppression. We will write the articles in the context of our own experiences and our messy, ugly, beautiful, evolving, privileged, oppressed, and self-compassionate lives. As we have embarked on this journey, we have already had many feelings of anxiety, fear, and shame arise, thus reinforcing our belief that doing this work is neither easy nor clean. As you read our work, we invite you to notice how your own process and emotional journey evolves. 

We have experienced backdraft, resistance, anger, pain, shame, guilt, relief, just to name a few. If this occurs for you, please know that this is a shared experience and that it is part of the work (“We can’t heal it until we feel it”). We have each experienced a range of emotions as we engaged and immersed in this material in diverse ways. Our goal is to acknowledge this difficulty and provide tangible tools for navigating it in the service of increasing our cultural self-compassion and humility. In our role as teachers, our intention is to invite and create safe and inclusive spaces for all in our MSC classes.

Invitation to Read

Our MSC practices offer us tools and resources to respond to our struggles, and permission for us to close when we need to. We invite you to engage with our series of articles as an invitation for growth, practice, and to build community, just as we have with each other. We hope you will join us on this journey to deepen and broaden our sense of belonging, honoring the rich diversity of our global MSC teacher community while acknowledging the particularities that warrant tending to in our diverse identities and contexts.

We have found that applying the three components of self-compassion to our experience navigating these territories can be very helpful, including:

  • Mindfulness: being aware of our inner experience of suffering or difficulty related to our cultural identity without over-identifying with it; 
  • Common humanity: acknowledging that others who share our group and/or identity experience something similar to what we are experiencing;
  • Self-kindness: treating ourselves with love and compassion as we move through the painful emotions that arise. 

We are looking forward to writing this series of articles and to walking this journey with you. Thank you for your commitment to teaching MSC and to your openness to this work. 

Circles of Practice Expands Offerings to Specifically Include People of Color

The MSC Circles of Practice is a weekly online opportunity to foster a deepening and continuation of personal practice. Open to anyone who has completed the MSC course (in the 8-week format, a 5-day intensive or Live Online MSC), the Circles provide a free, donation-based supportive environment for practice. Each Circles session allows for attendees to take part and reflect on the direct experience of a self-compassion practice in an easily accessible space online, on a weekly basis, as time permits, and within a supportive community that includes an experienced MSC teacher to hold the space.

CMSC currently offers six Circles of Practice sessions each week that are open to any MSC graduate, but we are excited to announce the launch of an additional session specifically for People of Color communities.

Adding a Circle of Practice specifically for an affinity group may be an effective way to be more inclusive of People of Color, to assist us in outreach for like-minded persons who might otherwise be inhibited to explore and participate. According to Sydney Spears, PhD, an MSC Trained Teacher and a Community of Color teacher of the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, “For some diverse people, it is very critical for them to have a context of sharing and experiencing with others whom they tend to identity with in order to develop a greater sense of safety, support, trust, belonging and connection – especially when perceived new or traditional ‘mainstreamed-based’ experiences are at hand.” (Read the full article here.)

We need your support to build a community of Circles of Practice for People of Color. If you identify yourself as a Person of Color, have taught the MSC program at least 3-4 times, and want to be a part of the Circles of Practice for People of Color Communities as a facilitator, please email Noriko Harth at noriko.harth@gmail.com to express your interest in participating. Once the facilitators have been identified, we will announce the schedule for this brand new Circles of Practice group.

Please Note: We are always open to exploring the possibility of offering a Circle of Practice session for other special interest or identity groups if there is sufficient demand and enough facilitators to offer the group on a regular basis. Please email CMSC Executive Director Steve Hickman at steve@centerformsc.org if you have ideas and interest to pursue such a project.

Chapter 8: Facilitating Group Process

The following is an excerpt from Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. Translations of the Professional Guide are forthcoming throughout 2020 and 2021. See scheduled release dates here. May this Professional Guide serve you and inform your teaching!

Note that CMSC makes a modest affiliate commission if you purchase the book through a link on this page.

Excerpt

Working with Trauma 

A number of emotional challenges may emerge during contemplative training, ranging from mild distress to functional impairment (Compson, 2014; Lindahl, Fisher, Cooper, Rosen, & Britton, 2017; Magyari, 2016; Treleaven, 2018). At the mild end of the adverse effects continuum, practitioners can experience anxiety, difficulty sleeping, headaches, or social withdrawal. At the severe end, practitioners may develop irrational beliefs, hallucinations, suicidality, or anhedonia. Factors that influence the development of adverse effects are the practitioner (e.g., medical and psychological history, personality, motivation), the practice (e.g., amount, intensity, consistency, type, and stage of practice), relationships (e.g., early life, practice community, cultural context), and health behaviors (e.g., diet, exercise, medication, drugs). To reliably assess adverse effects, teachers should ask their participants directly if they are having uncomfortable experiences during their MSC training (Lindahl et al., 2017). MSC teachers are encouraged to take the meditation safety training developed by Willoughby Britton at Brown University (www.brown.edu/research/labs/britton/news/2018/02/ first-do-no-harm-meditation-safety-training). 

Old traumas are likely to emerge during self-compassion training. This is because trauma is more prevalent than many people realize. In the United States, 89.7% of the population reports having been exposed to a traumatic event (e.g., fire, physical battery, sexual assault, war zone combat, disaster) (Kilpatrick et al., 2013). Furthermore, self-compassion training tends to attract people who are looking for better ways to manage the sequelae of trauma (i.e., shame, self-criticism, hypervigilance, numbing, avoidance, or intrusive memories). This is why we suggest that a mental health professional be in the room at all times and that applicants be carefully screened. MSC was not designed as a clinical program, but since there is so much trauma in the general population, MSC has been continually modified over the years to make it as safe as possible. We sincerely hope that teachers are conscientious about applying the safety measures currently contained in the curriculum. 

“Safety first” is a general rule of MSC training and it applies particularly when working with trauma survivors. Like everyone else, trauma survivors like to challenge themselves, but they also need special instruction in how to titrate the intensity of their experience and return to safety. For example, in the Compassionate Body Scan (a meditation in the retreat session; see Chapter 15), teachers can invite trauma survivors to do the practice in a sitting position rather than lying down, or to move their bodies rather than remaining motionless. Most MSC practices are taught with closed eyes, but participants with trauma histories can be invited to keep their eyes open (either partially or fully). Some parts of the body are more likely than others to hold traumatic memories—for example, the pelvic area for women. When teachers are guiding the Compassionate Body Scan, they should provide participants with the option to skip over a difficult body part if it becomes too activating. Explicit options for grounding are also helpful, such as anchoring attention in the soles of the feet, or mindfully exhaling. 

Teachers should not assume that participants with a trauma history will be able to access safety strategies when they need them. Some teachers invite participants to write their safety options on a card that they can consult when they feel overwhelmed. When a teacher notices that a participant seems overwhelmed during an exercise, the teacher can add instructions designed to provide support. Here is an example: “If at any time you find yourself edging into the overwhelmed circle [of the three-circle safety model described in Chapter 6], please feel free to ignore my instructions and go back to the rhythm of the breath, or focus on a point where your body makes contact with the chair or cushion. Opening your eyes, or get-ting up to take a break from the exercise, are other options.” Often a sense of being in control is all that a trauma survivor needs to feel safe 

Teachers need to be especially sensitive and discerning when working with trauma survivors. For example, what may appear like willful determination not to participate in group activities could actually be an effort to stay in the room without becoming overwhelmed. A teacher can ask, “What do you need?”, but some trauma survivors will not be able to answer that question since they may be dissociated from their bodies. In that case, a more specific question such as “What do you need to feel safe?” or “What could be soothing to you right now?” might be more helpful. However, when trauma shuts down a survivor’s executive functioning, sometimes any question becomes unanswerable. Then teachers need to use their intuition, such as suggesting as short walk outside the room (perhaps with a co-teacher) or giving the student space to be comforted by the rhythm of her own breathing. 

Trauma can surface at unexpected times, even during periods of rest and ease. If a student experiences persistent flashbacks, a teacher should have a collaborative conversation with the student about ways of coping and, when necessary, consider the option of discontinuing the course and seeking outside help until the participant is more able to safely engage in the course. 

Students themselves are usually the best judges of whether the MSC program is safe for them. Some trauma survivors make significant progress during MSC, despite the intensity of their symptoms. For example, a woman who was numb to her body because of childhood sexual abuse discovered that she could feel her breath for the first time when she focused on how her breath rhythmically rocked her body. On many occasions, Soles of the Feet (the practice of feeling the soles of the feet while walking) has been effectively applied by trauma survivors to anchor their attention in the present moment and away from traumatic memories. Sometimes, the further away from the body that participants place their attention—outside the body (sights, sounds) or at the periphery of the body (touch points, like the soles of the feet)—the safer the participants are likely to feel. Most reliably, behavioral self-compassion (ordinary activities, such as listening to music or chatting with friends) is what keeps the MSC program safe for trauma survivors. (For more on teaching self-compassion to trauma survivors, see Part IV of this book; see also Brähler & Neff, in press; Germer & Neff, 2015).