Self-Compassion and Mindfulness

It’s that time of year again! The hustle and bustle have increased, our many activities have moved from outdoors to indoors, and all of this happens on top of the everyday stress we carry year-round. With all that is going on, it’s hard not to focus on the stress and frustrations that pop up with more frequency and intensity this time of year. But what if there was a way to be calmer, have more inner peace and more self-confidence?

One way I encourage some of my clients when they walk through the door with anger, stress, anxiety, and a negative self-image, is to teach them about self-compassion and mindfulness. We discover if you focus on the worry, anxiety, self-criticism, anger, then your brain will build neural structures and dynamics that support that pattern of thinking. Luckily, the opposite is also true–if you focus on seeing the good in yourself, letting go, and accepting yourself in any situation, your brain will develop neural pathways of strength, calm, inner peace and self-confidence. In short, changing your mind and thinking supports real changes in your brain — and vice versa.

This all sounds great in theory, but how does it work in reality? Practice, practice, practice. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness decreases activity of the amygdala and increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex (basically saying our internal alarm bell decreases, and our mood improves). This might sound like another thing to add to the never-ending “to do” list, but these practices are very simple and take a few moments. According to Hansen (2011), “It’s the law of little things: because of slowly accumulating changes in neural structure due to mental activity, lots of little things can wear down your well-being—and lots of little things can get you to a better place.” Just like with any new activity or task, the more we do it, the better we become at it and the more we put in, the more we get out. If you would like some helpful mindfulness exercises, check out these websites and apps:

Let’s walk through a scenario. One afternoon, a friend calls you up and proceeds to tell you about his day; his toilet has leaked all day while he was at work and he came home to find his floor soaked even though he had a towel down to prevent this. He attempts to fix the leak but ends up making the leak worse, so he decides to just shut the water off until he can figure out what to do. You offer kind and compassionate words, because you can empathize with how he is feeling. Life is busy and hard, and sometimes you don’t have the time or money to fix things the way you would want too. Your voice is filled with encouraging and helpful words because it’s very frustrating. You wrap up the conversation with your friend who thanks you for your support. You walk through the front door of your home to head to the bathroom only to notice your own toilet has been leaking and the hardwood floor is saturated with water. Instead of having the same compassion you had for your friend, you begin to berate yourself, “I’m so stupid. I knew I should have fixed this this morning. How am I ever going to be an adult if I can’t even fix a toilet? I’m sure other people don’t do this, my brother is able to fix anything, and his house is in great condition.” You continue with the negative self-tirade as you turn the water off and begin walking through the house making note of all your failures and concluding that you are a failure.

Kristen Neff (2011) states, “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself (as you would with your friend) when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

Self-compassion teaches us that we can accept our “humanness” and even honor who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, our trials and successes, all the parts that make up an individual. Here is the truth, every individual in our world, will suffer, will make mistakes, will have successes, will have feelings, because we are all human. Practicing self-compassion allows us to challenge and prevent our negative inner critic from high jacking our mind, thus allowing acceptance of our situation and the ability to act in a non-judgmental and an effective problem-solving way.
Kristen Neff (2011) describes the three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, mindfulness vs. over identification. Think about these three elements and assess which side you are on, maybe you find you are not clearly on either side, so where do you start? First, recognize how you treat others and how you treat yourself? Second, accept your humanness, and that you are not your mistakes or failures. Thirdly, how do you speak to yourself? Do you have a negative inner critic, that’s always pointing out your failures and your successes are not good enough? Begin challenging your inner critic by identifying your positive attributes and capacity for success. Kristen Neff’s website gives examples, real life practices, and other helpful information.

Rick Hansen (2011) has identified how having self-compassion sculpts our brains in the following ways: More blood flows to the busy regions, since they need more oxygen and glucose; the genes inside neurons get more or less active; neural connections that are not used on a regular basis, wither away—”use it or lose it”; and neurons that fire together, stay together.”

Studies from Leary et al. (2007); Neff (2009) show that when practicing self-compassion; cortisol, our stress hormone, is lowered and we increase our self-soothing, self-encouragement, and finally our capacity for moving through difficult circumstances.
According to Baumeister et al, Rozin and Royzman (2001), there is a widely held belief that our brain has a built-in negativity bias. This is shown by our brains reacting more to a negative stimulus than to an equally positive stimulus; learning faster from pain than from pleasure; painful experiences are usually more memorable than pleasurable ones; and in order to maintain the good relationships in our lives, there needs to be at least a 5:1 ration of positive to negative interactions, Gottman (1995). What does that look like in everyday life? For each negative interaction I have with each person I care about, I need to have at least 5 positive interactions with them.

Bobbie Emel (2012) discusses four common myths regarding self-compassion:

  1. I’m being self-indulgent if I am self-compassionate. Self-indulgent is also known as pleasure-seeking, hedonistic, and luxurious, according to the Oxford definition. This could be the description of our society today, and I want to make clear, this is not self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acceptance and sitting with the pain, it involves our health and well-being.
  2. I need to criticize myself or I won’t be motivated. As Kristin Neff (2011) says, “While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear of self-punishment, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from the desire to be healthy and to reduce our suffering.” This negative critic might have come about because at some point in our lives, we needed to be kept safe and this kept us from harm. Self-compassion is teaching ourselves we no longer need this critical voice because there is a much healthier and kinder motivation.
  3. I am being selfish if I show compassion to myself. The authentic source of our ability to love and show compassion to others comes from how well we love and show compassion to ourselves first. How does berating yourself help you to be kinder to others?
  4. This is for wimps! Some examples of this “put on your big girl panties and stop whining,” “man up,” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Unfortunately, our society has encouraged this mindset of rewarding those who tough it out. But the truth is the strongest people are the ones who can buck cultural norms and feel genuine compassion for themselves no matter their circumstances.

Need more information on self-compassion? Here are some great resources:

So, as we say goodbye to November and hello to December, perhaps we can also say goodbye to our negative inner critic and hello to self-compassion and mindfulness. One of my favorite quotes from the Dalai Lama feels appropriate here: “Love and [self-]compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”

Alison Curtis, MS, provides individual, couple, or family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Alison.