I’ve noticed something lately. It’s something I see in my clients. Honestly, it’s something I see in myself. Women just can’t do self-compassion very well. When it comes to being compassionate toward others, it’s a no brainer. But turning toward oneself and treating “me” as gently and kindly as I would to a friend or child in need? That doesn’t happen much.
This became quite plain to me when I found myself halfway around the world with one daughter, cut off from my crazy busy world, technology, and yes, half my family left behind. I could only relish in my new surroundings, in the company of dear friends, and look inward and reflect. I wrote about my unexpected journey into self-care in Malaysia, but since I’ve been back I’ve had to seriously focus on keeping myself from falling into rabbit hole of meaningless busyness.
I’ve also been more aware of how my clients, as well as my friends, are so caught up in running around and “taking care of things” but are often miserable. They are tired, worn out, complaining, lamenting that the summer is gone, how they can’t catch a break, and so on. They take my breath away when they talk. Literally. I find myself holding my breath. I know my reaction is an automatic primal threat response: I freeze.
Then I go into a deliberate act of deep breathing and a focus on my heart center. I imagine love and light emanating from me to them. I’ve come to understand that I’m simply registering their emotional state – usually that of fear or shame – and this requires an emotional reset. Of course, this reset is what they need to do, too: to breathe; relax; expect the best, not the worst; see the daily hassles as just hassles and let them go; and make room to let self-compassion in.
But that’s the tricky part: letting in kindness, a caring attitude toward one-self, and feeling an inner warmth. When I bring up the notion of self-compassion with clients, I often get a blank stare. For some of my female clients, they get very uncomfortable or are cut off from it when I bring it up.
It’s really hard to do self-compassion.
Self-compassion brings up a lot of vulnerability and fear. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the study of self-compassion says there are three elements to self-compassion:
sharing a common humanity, and
She offers a simple exercise of simply holding one’s hands over the heart and bringing to mind kindness and love – even imagining the warmth and felt sensation when holding an infant. And if that is too hard at first? You can simply have the intention to direct kindness to yourself.
And here’s the thing. Research repeatedly confirms that people who are self-compassionate are less likely to be depressed, anxious or ill. Instead, they tend to be optimistic, playful, and authentic about their strengths and weaknesses. They withhold self-judgment. They experience joy. As Brene Brown, PhD, might say, they live and love wholeheartedly. And for moms, how can we possibly be our best-mom selves and role models for our children – foibles and all – if we don’t start with ourselves?
Why is it so hard to feel kindness toward oneself?
Paul Gilbert, PhD, an expert on the neuroscience of compassion, has been studying why it is difficult for some people to practice self-compassion. This seems especially true for those who have suffered childhood trauma or have come to believe they are not worthy of love, care or attention. But it is also true to many of us women, trauma or not. (Who hasn’t suffered in some way over the course of life?) Women and girls are raised to care for others at the expense of their own needs; women are socialized to live up to unrealistic ideals of beauty, body and motherhood. Sadly, self-compassion gets equated with self-indulgence and selfishness. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that we also have basic needs for nurturance and kindness.
It’s Not Your Fault!
Dr. Gilbert explains how neurological patterns or programs get created that cause people to see the negative, and this can lead to feeling depressed or anxious or even paranoid. It’s a cruel trick of the brain based on our physiological threat system to protect ourselves from danger. It’s not our fault. But we can get stuck in these patterns. So we have to begin reprogramming that innate brain tendency. Yes, we literally need to focus on overriding the old patterns with new patterns of self-love, appreciation, and calm. Luckily, because of the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain to create fresh neurons all the time, you can rewire your brain for self-compassion!
You reset old, nudgey patterns by breathing and meditating everyday with a focus on self-kindness. Slowly but surely, you can begin to build up the “soothing” system in the brain – the one that releases feel-good endorphins and oxytocin – with simple exercises and heart felt affirmations or visualizations.
The best part? It’s fairly simple. Practicing every day is the hard part.
Society Is Stacked Against Moms
Dr Gilbert explains how one of the challenges to self-compassion is not only our rather primitive brains, but also how modern culture shapes our thinking about who we are. So on the one hand, humans harbor an “old brain/mind” that has evolved over millions of years to respond to danger and threat. We are biased to look for danger. Yet, we also have a “modern brain” that is capable of imagination and reflection, including kindness and nurturance that are also necessary for survival. But such nurturing resources tend to be reserved to those closest around us – not necessarily ourselves and not necessarily for the greater humanity. Modern threats are largely internal (our own thinking) and social (what society thinks). These threats include an inclination to compare ourselves to others, desire for material wealth and status, and cultural expectations for success. So we have a conflict with the old brain patterns and newer social brain patterns. It’s a mess!
In his book, The Compassionate Mind, Gilbert writes:
“Shame based self-criticism and self-attacking are among the most pervasive problems in Western societies and seriously undermines our contentment and well-being. They’re the opposite of self-compassion. Rather than feeling support, kindness and enthusiasm for ourselves when things go wrong, we feel anger, disappointment, frustration or even contempt for our self.”
How true this is when I meet with clients. They can list 100 things about what they did wrong, why they are inept parents, how they are to blame for their children’s problems, and how they can’t live up their own expectations, their spouses, or the PTAs. Imagine if you could say, “This is my brain making up all this crap. None of it is true!”
Catching A Break
So a basic lesson in self-compassion is to practice it every day. Muster the courage to focus on your heart. Take a few breaths. Say a few kind words to yourself. Be tender. Remind yourself that you are a beautiful soul and doing the best that you can. The only thing that needs to change? Loving yourself.
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