It’s a simple question, really. But one that often brings on a state of perplexed astonishment when someone asks us.
“What do you need?”
Unless we are a sobbing child who has come rushing to his mother after some sort of sibling transgression, or we are urgently and frantically searching for the restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, we have an unusually hard time answering that question.
In a moment of suffering, sorrow, despair or betrayal, can we actually answer the very deep and important question of “What do I need? Right now, in this moment.”
What we often needed as children when we were distressed, was to be comforted, reassured that we are still loved and cared for, and soothed by the gentle unconditional touch of a loving parent. We needed someone to kiss our “booboo” when we stumbled and fell. Or to be consoled by a loving embrace when we were excluded from a game of hide-and-seek.
But for many of us, our distress was met by something else, or as we grew older we had difficult or traumatic experiences that disconnected us from our deep need to be loved, accepted and appreciated. For whatever the reason, we have found ourselves removed from a sense of what we really need when we suffer, and often are not even aware much of the time when we DO suffer. We overlook our fears of being disconnected, unloved or, ironically, overlooked, often by tending to the needs of others instead.
We throw ourselves into caring for the needs of those around us and many of us are quite adept at such acts of service. We channel our inner desires to be cared for by caring for others, and when done with a true connection to one’s own heart, this can be a beautiful thing. And we often instinctively know just exactly what others need. Our mirror neurons fire wildly when we contact another person’s pain and difficulty and through that resonance with another, we are miraculously able to muster up just the right expression of comfort, the perfect words and the much-appreciated offer of kindness or consolation.
But what of the darker moments of our own despair, fear or desperation? What do we need in those moments for ourselves, because this one matters too? We often struggle to answer that question and as a result, further suffering arises as we resort to other less helpful and more destructive ways of meeting that deep inner need to be loved and connected.
We criticize ourselves for having this need, we tell ourselves that if we just tried harder, got things right more often (or better yet, if we were perfect), or removed ourselves from contact with others, THEN we would feel OK.
And so it is that a growing number of people find themselves in the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course developed by leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and noted author and expert on compassion and mindfulness in psychotherapy Christopher Germer, Ph.D.
MSC could be considered an “antidote” to the shame and self-criticism that many of us bear, and which cripples many of us with self-doubt, fear and self-loathing. By systematically cultivating the ability to be kind and loving to ourselves, especially in those moments of suffering that arise when we feel disconnected, lost, alienated or dismissed, MSC slowly helps restore in each of us our natural capacity to be kind, loving and compassionate to ourselves in the way that we do so effortlessly for others.
One of the first questions that MSC participants ponder in the course is the curious one of “How would you treat a friend when they are struggling, when they fail or feel inadequate?” Typically, the responses flow quickly and fluidly when we contemplate that question. And then, when the question turns to how we typically treat ourselves in those very same situations, the responses are often starkly in contrast. Especially when considering something as seemingly innocuous as the tone of voice of our inner dialogue. Many find that their inner critic is harsh, demanding, dismissive and belittling (and often echoes with the pain of the voice of people from the past who have treated them in this way). They notice how it feels to be spoken to in this way and it can often be a revelation for people who have never actually considered how it feels to be talked to in this way.
This revelation is often reflected in comments by participants like “I would NEVER talk to someone else like this!” In fact, this phenomenon is more widespread than one might think. In fact, Dove dramatized this fact in a YouTube video where they asked women to write down the things they say to themselves about their appearance. They then set up public conversations between two women in cafes and restaurants where one woman said those same things out loud to her companion. Strangers nearby were horrified and, in some cases, actually interrupted the two actors to comment on how terrible it was that one person would speak to another in such a way!
The MSC program sets about to help participants begin to “warm up the inner conversation” and begin to cultivate a loving, tender, accepting attitude toward oneself, that motivates us out of a desire to be happy and free from suffering, rather than one of perfectionism, fruitless striving, fear and shame.
Research on the program is promising and the huge existing body of research done by Kristin Neff and others already demonstrates a strong association between self-compassion and a huge variety of measures of well-being and good mental health, as well as the ability to make changes in unhealthy behavior, persist in the face of adversity, and to be perceived more positively in intimate relationships, just to name a few.
If you find it difficult to answer the fundamental question of Mindful Self-Compassion of “What do you need?” when you are feeling overwhelmed, afraid, sad or fearful, you might benefit from a greater ability to bring kindness to yourself and soothe yourself in these moments, as well as in your daily stressful life. Consider taking a Mindful Self-Compassion course to discover your compassionate inner voice and to find a way to meet yourself in the way in which you tend to meet others, reversing the Golden Rule and doing unto yourself what you would do (and say) to others!
Steve Hickman is the Executive Director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, an MSC teacher and co-creator of the MSC Teacher Training program. He is also the author of “Self-Compassion for Dummies”, a lighthearted guide to treating yourself with the same kindness you extend to the ones you love.