Coping strategies. Stress management skills. Mindfulness practices. Wellness tools. These are all terms we are familiar with in Western culture as we desperately seek ways to assist us in managing our hectic lives. I, too, continually explore a variety of methods of self-care tools to manage my own stress as I strive to find that proverbial “balance” between my work, self and family. Yet, I have come to realize, through my own self care practices and those of my clients, that when we try to cram self-care tools into our already busy lives, these tools may actually increase our stress rather than alleviating it. Meditation, yoga, exercise, and numerous other activities meant to relax us and create physical, mental and spiritual health end up being just another thing to check off our to-do list, and hence, can ADD stress to our lives. If we become frustrated with ourselves for not completing those “tasks” often enough or accomplishing our goal of peace and balance, we may end up feeling like we have failed or lack motivation and discipline. Does this mean we should forgo trying to squeeze self-care into our busy lives? Absolutely not. There is a reason all these coping tools and wellness strategies are out there. Research proves they benefit us. What is missing in the dialogue is HOW we apply those tools.
So what is the missing link? Self-Compassion.
Self-compassion is relating to ourselves as we are and not trying to change ourselves. It is practicing nonjudgement and kindness, even when we “fail” to meet our goals and our standards for ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher and educator on self-compassion, outlines three main components of self-compassion:
We treat ourselves with kindness, rather than harsh self-judgment.
Too often, we are far more critical of ourselves than we would ever be to another human being. The language we use to describe ourselves is down-right abusive. For example, if you struggle to find time or motivation to get to yoga class after a long day at work, rather than recognizing all the barriers to getting there, you may end up labeling yourself lazy, unmotivated or not good enough. It becomes something you “should do,” yet can never quite make it happen. If a teacher tells a student, they are a failure and incompetent for not passing an exam, would that student want to try harder or believe that s/he can do better? With enough insults, over time, that student would believe those words. So what abusive labels have you been telling yourself that you now believe to be true? What do you tell yourself when you would rather press snooze than get up to practice meditation at 5am before the kids wake up? If we treat ourselves with encouragement, gentleness, patience and kindness, perhaps we may still choose to press the snooze button, but instead, may choose to meditate for 5 minutes on our lunch hour that day.
We recognize our shared humanity.
As humans, we are imperfect. Yet, we forget our shared imperfections and focus on having to be “perfect” ourselves. I repeatedly hear clients share that they have compassion and understanding for other people’s flaws and imperfections, but do not allow for their own. This isolates us, and we believe we are alone in our imperfections and that no one else is suffering as we are. Our shared humanity of imperfection is what connects us. Most people struggle to find balance in their lives and are in the perennial search for more time to fit in self-care and wellness. A dear friend of mine who is a physician and teaches wellness on a daily basis shared with me the other day that she just realized that wellness is a daily negotiation between differing commitments that change constantly. Wellness is never something that we “achieve” and are “perfect” at it. It is a daily negotiation of competing interests that sometimes we accomplish and sometimes we do not.
Practicing mindfulness can influence self-compassion.
Mindfulness simply means being with what is in the present moment. Becoming aware of our inner critic is a key component of practicing self-compassion. Too often we are unaware of the derogatory labels we place upon ourselves or realize the pain our abusive thoughts cause us. Instead, we believe we need to criticism ourselves to motivate us. We believe we will be lazy or self-indulgent if we don’t. Research shows the opposite. Our constant self-criticisms actually undermine our motivation and self-esteem and negatively affect our overall mental and physical health. Think of a mentor, teacher or coach you may have had at some point in your life. Did they call you stupid or worthless to motivate you or did they encourage you by validating you to lift you up? When we criticize ourselves, we stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, which becomes activated when we are threatened and need to protect ourselves. When threatened, we attack the problem to alleviate the threat, yet, the problem is our ourselves. We begin to believe, if only I could be more disciplined, eat healthier or be more mindful. Then I would feel better. Thus, to solve the situation, we increase our self-derogatory criticisms believing that will finally motivate us. Yet, it does not and the cycle continues, leaving us stressed out, exhausted and feeling pretty bad about ourselves—the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish. Neff shares that using the mammalian caregiving system is the way to induce self-compassion. The mammalian care giving system uses soft voices, touch, warmth to care for its children and others, which reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, and increases oxytocin and opiates, which makes us feel safe and secure. Rather than attacking ourselves, using gentle encouragement and kindness will actually motivate us more. Research on self-compassion shows an increase in mental wellbeing and positive states, healthier life choices, and a sense of connection with others. Self-compassion teaches you that you are a human being worthy of love—not loved because you reached some goal.
So HOW do we practice self-compassion?
Instead of insults and exhausting to-do lists, you should be asking yourself, how do I CARE for myself? What will help me get into the gym, take a walk, cook a healthy dinner and also relax, breathe, and find that balance you seek. When working with clients, I focus on: 1.) increasing self-awareness through mindfulness practices in order to recognize that unconscious dialogue of labels we berate ourselves with, 2.) increase self-soothing and care rather than adding a host of additional tasks for your wellness to-do list. When we practice any act of self-care, I encourage you to take in that nurturance and sensation of love. For example, when taking a walk, notice the beauty around you, the warmth of the sun on your shoulders and the gentle breeze. Take in all the sensations to soothe your system. When taking a shower in the morning, notice the warmth of the water and the smell of the soap and allow that simple act of hygiene be nurturing for just a moment. Drinking your favorite tea in the evening to help you relax before bed is an act of self-care. Allow the aroma of the tea and the warmth of the liquid to soothe your being as you drink it. The everyday acts we do to care for ourselves which normally go by without awareness can become daily acts of self-love—if we pause for a moment to experience the nurturance of that act. Increasing our everyday acts of self-love can then carry over to our wellness to-do list like getting into the gym more often or reading that self-help book that has been sitting on your shelf for a while. Rather than berating yourself for putting it off, you can embody self-compassion and find ways to encourage yourself to take small steps toward your greater goals. As my friend mentioned, our wellness routine is constantly renegotiated each day, one small step at a time. The way to motivate ourselves is through loving kindness toward ourselves and others.
For additional information on self-compassion, please visit the webpage of Dr. Kristin Neff. Here is a link to her page filled with meditations and exercises in how to cultivate self-compassion: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/.
For an overview on the concepts discussed in this article, please watch this awesome video of Dr. Neff speaking at TedX:
Interested in exploring ways to increase your self-compassion? Contact me to discuss how I can help.