Self-compassion has not and still does not come easily to me. Typically my knee jerk reaction to challenging situations or difficulty in relationships has been to blame myself at some level. I question what I could have done or said differently to have avoided the difficulty. My conditioned reaction is to try to find a strategy to fix the situation.
I am most grateful for the practice of mindfulness which has helped me to become more aware of how this intellectual problem solving habit is actually a movement away from my experience in the moment and by extension creates a disconnection from myself as a vulnerable human being. Staying with my experience in these challenging moments is difficult because most often I am experiencing painful emotions such as, disappointment, hurt, fear, self-doubt or shame. I am also personalizing these feelings as this is who I am, e.g. “something is wrong with me”. Thoughts arise in the moment such as, “You wouldn’t speak to me that way” or “This wouldn’t be happening…if I was smart enough, more competent, worthy of respect, good enough”.
The challenge has been to learn to recognize this pattern of thinking and feeling as human and natural rather than the truth about who I am. That actually, what I am experiencing in those moments connects me profoundly with other humans and our shared human condition. I am not alone or an aberration. Within this perspective and understanding, compassion is possible, not only for myself but also for other human beings who experience similar thoughts and feelings.
The trick is to be able to generate interest and curiosity about this very human reactivity. When I can recognize the doubt and self judgement as a familiar ‘story’ with kindness and curiosity it is possible to hold the reactivity in a larger, softer space. In this space we can care for ourselves ‘when the going gets tough’ in the midst of the hurt, failure & disappointments in our lives. It’s a little like the message we are given in preparation for flying on an airplane. If we are traveling with someone who will need our assistance and the oxygen masks are deployed, it is important to put our oxygen mask on first before attending to the person needing assistance.
So you may wonder how we can deliver self-compassion to ourselves first so that we can be there for others in ways that are grounded in authentic, compassionate response. The following is a self-compassion practice that I have found useful for myself and for others. This practice helps to create a more tender and curious attention in which to hold experience with more spaciousness and compassion.
When you become aware of struggling with a painful state of mind or body and stuck in struggle, here are a few questions to help focus your attention on the experience as it expresses in the body and emotions. Depending on whether the experience is stronger emotionally or physically in the body, you can start with either of the following questions:
For example, if you notice it most strongly in the body as a physical experience:
- Where do I feel this experience most strongly in my body?
(after you locate where in the body, ask the next question)
- What does it feel like at the level of physical sensation, as specifically as you can notice,
i.e. tight, sharp or dull ache, constricted, heavy?
If you notice the difficult experience most strongly as an emotion:
- What is the emotional tone, i.e. anxiety, restlessness, agitation, sadness, anger, irritation?
When you have identified what the emotional tone is AND where in the body the physical sensations are most strong, begin saying the following phrases. Include the emotion and physical sensations you are experiencing in the moment. Do this slowly with as much care and kindness you can allow in the moment.
I see you ________________ (emotion)
I feel you _______________.(physical sensations)
It’s OK sweetie. (or use some term of endearment that feels comfortable for you)
I’m here with you for as many breaths as you need.
“I see you anger.”
(on the inbreath and pause on the outbreath)
“I feel you tightness & burning.”
(on the next inbreath and pause on the outbreath)
“It’s OK sweetie.”
(with the breathing as above)
“I’m here with you for as many breaths as you need.”
(with the breathing as above)
As you continue with the phrases, continue to notice what is happening to the experience of difficulty or struggle. Often the area of sensation and quality of sensation may change or shift as well as the emotional tone. Feel free to change the phrases to include this changing quality of your experience.
Having the intention to look for opportunities to practice with these self-compassion phrases in the midst of our lives supports us in cultivating more compassion for ourselves and others.
We will be exploring self-compassion and other mindfulness practices in our upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course starting in March. More information.