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Posts from the ‘Self-Kindness’ Category

Committing To Self-Kindness

I’m a big fan of slow living. The world we inhabit seems to speed up more all the time, and the more I try to keep up, the less well I feel.

So for some years I’ve been following a practice of catching myself ‘in the act’ of doing too much, too fast – and putting the brakes on. Slower living, for me, is where I can actually find peacefulness and freedom.

It occurs to me that we often approach wellbeing practices in the same way – as something to be ‘mastered’ as quickly as possible. I’ve written before about mindfulness and giving up the quick fix, and I’m continuing that exploration here. I think our desire for instant success (understandable as it is) can make it harder to access the powerful benefits of self-kindness meditation.

I’ve been there: initially, I thought that the goal of these practices was to (quickly) experience some lovely peaceful feelings, and that if I didn’t achieve that result, I’d be failing at it.

Like many of the approaches I’d tried to help me feel ‘better’, I wanted self-kindness to make difficult feelings like anxiety and shame go away. And fast. Of course I did, no one wants to prolong their suffering if something might help to ease it.

But it’s interesting that the things that have helped me the most – ie self-kindness and mindfulness – have taken longer to take effect than other things that have helped to a lesser degree (and believe me I’d tried many!). Fortunately, something made me hang in there with my self-kindness practice, even though initially it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere fast.

I think that thing may have been something one of my meditation teachers said. What she shared was that it had taken her about 18 months of daily self-kindness meditation to really start to feel an impact. And that her teacher had told her the same thing.

Because I was so inspired by this teacher, I decided to give it a go, to actually commit to a long period of exploration, rather than writing it off as yet another approach that didn’t work for me. Looking back, I think I decided that I was worth the effort. I made self-kindness my main practice for the time being, and I stopped looking for other solutions. I did kindness meditation as close to daily as I could manage, whether I felt like it was ‘working’ or not.

And sure enough, I did start to notice a profound shift in how I was able to cope with difficulty. Not immediately. But after 18 months sounds about right. By then, I had discovered a reliable way to manage uncomfortable emotions without getting quite so triggered into limiting behaviours. I no longer felt afraid of anxiety, or crippled by shame and self-judgement. It was deeply liberating. It began to feel spontaneous to relate to myself with loving compassion in difficult moments, instead of self-criticism, or escaping into futile problem-solving attempts. Around this time, I found myself in an extremely stressful situation, and was so thankful that my foundation of self-kindness had become strong enough to support me through it.

I should say that I’m not being prescriptive here. I’m not saying ‘do this practice for 18 months and you’re guaranteed this result’. I’m just saying that in a world of quick fixes, we might need to adjust our expectations if we want to experience real, deep change. One person might feel a change more quickly than me; another person might say it was more like years before they felt things shift. I’m saying we need to give ourselves time.

I always found it helpful to bear in mind that these practices were gradually changing the neural pathways in my body and brain that created struggle, in the form of anxiety, shame, or whatever other unwanted emotion I was wrestling with.

And more importantly, that these pathways had been laid down over decades – throughout my life as I’d collected experiences that had shaped my way of being in the world.

So if it took decades to build those original pathways, it would also take time to build new, different ones.

These days, I think of self-kindness as less of an ‘intervention’, and more of a practice of self parenting. It’s ongoing, not a short-term project with an end point.

It’s about being in relationship with myself, not doing something to myself.

It’s a way of being there for myself, not as the parent who ‘keeps me in line’, but the deeply attuned, responsive parent I can turn to for support, love and acceptance, whatever I’m feeling. This hasn’t exactly come naturally to me, so I’ve had to invest time and commitment to build this relationship with my ‘little self’, instead of ignoring, invalidating or criticising her.

In my experience, self-kindness practice isn’t so much about trying to switch on certain feelings, as getting to know myself better. Through these meditations, I’ve gradually opened up to more of what I’m actually feeling, and this greater attunement seems naturally to help me meet my own emotional needs. This responsiveness is not dissimilar to how a mother’s loving presence helps to regulate an infant’s nervous system.

Self-kindness can be transformative and deeply healing – but we can’t rush it. As we now know from the field of somatic (body-based) mindfulness, the nervous system needs to go slowly when processing difficult emotions, to avoid being flooded by sudden contact with overwhelming feelings.

It can feel challenging and deeply unfamiliar to connect with ourselves in the way I’ve been describing, and it’s not uncommon to experience resistance to this practice. It might conflict with coping strategies we’ve adopted, or an identity we’ve assumed. A hurdle for me was to be willing to acknowledge my vulnerability, and to accept the presence of feelings such as sadness or fear. It takes courage to allow ourselves to fully experience these feelings. In my case, I was scared that if I let go of my strategies for disconnecting from theses feelings, they would overwhelm me.

Given all this, it’s really important to find a style of practice that feels supportive. If things feel too intense when we’re doing a particular mediation, we don’t need to force ourselves to keep going. We can give ourself permission, at any point in meditation, to move awareness away from something that feels too overwhelming – this too is an act of kindness.

It’s worth exploring to discover different meditation recordings, or varying the practice depending on how robust we feel on any given day – I’ve written about that previously here We may also need to work with a therapist to support the development of self-kindness, especially if we’re experiencing strong emotions or intense resistance, and that’s no sign of failure or inadequacy.

Pacing ourselves is part of how going slowly helps to build self-kindness. We don’t need to look for a big catharsis that will ‘resolve’ everything all at once; instead, we can ease ourself into closer contact with a range of feelings, a bit at a time.

It’s also important to recognise that not all self-kindness meditations are the same. There are so many different ‘ways in’ to the practice, because we’re all different! The recordings on my site include a range of approaches – for instance, some people resonate with the ‘parts of self’ approach, whereas imagery or the breath may work for someone else. My own practice keeps evolving to meet my changing needs, so I don’t just stick with one way of doing it myself.

Kristin Neff’s website is a great resource that also includes written exercises, if meditation isn’t your thing.

Personally I’m so grateful for all the teachings and resources that helped me to learn this practice, and my sincere hope is for others to find their own way in to self-kindness, taking as much time as is needed.

If you’d like to read a bit more about what self-kindness looks like in practice, and the benefits, you might like some of my other blogs on the subject:

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

Human, Not Broken

Why Mindfulness Needs Kindness

For info on my workshops in Heaton Moor, South Manchester see the Workshops page.

Don’t Stop Growing

At what age do we stop learning and growing?

I used to think that by the time I reached adulthood, I should be some sort of finished product. That I should somehow know everything by then (whatever ‘everything’ means!) Or that I at least should feel like I know what I’m doing.

But the reality is, we’re all learning, all the time. And rather than this being something to be ashamed of, it’s something to celebrate. Indigenous cultures honour the transition into becoming an elder, a wise and valued member of the community. This sort of wisdom doesn’t grow in a few years or even a couple of decades, it takes a whole load of life experience – with all the losses, joys, frustrations and insights that can entail.

I read recently about the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes who is revered even though she brings destruction, because the hot lava also creates new ground when it cools. This reminds me so much of the new ground we constantly create in life as we continue to develop as human beings. As the fire of awareness begins to burn away old ways of being that are no longer helpful, new possibilities emerge. We gain new resources and strategies for meeting life as we cultivate new mental and emotional capacities.

This emotional growth isn’t a neat process; sometimes, it’s in our messiest moments that we learn the most. Transformation can feel intense, as if our painful feelings are fuel for a fire that burns away our old patterns to make way for a new way of being. Or we can have periods of feeling stuck or lost, through which we learn to trust that something different is germinating, even though it feels like nothing much is happening in that space of ‘incubation’.

I suppose this is one of the reasons I believe that self-kindness can be the most transformational practice of them all: because if we can learn to see ourselves through kind and loving eyes, we can appreciate the growth that is happening through our struggles.

So far, my own growth journey hasn’t involved becoming less vulnerable, less emotional or less imperfect. It’s been about becoming more human: more receptive, more responsive, more alive and more whole. It’s been about discovering a kind of confidence and ease that is nothing like the limited mould I once thought I could squeeze myself into.

And the more we grow personally, the more we have to contribute to the world around us. Whether that’s through work, or friendship, or parenting, or supporting the natural world, or some other way that we feed into community – we all have our own unique part to play.

So if you are on a growth journey, please don’t stop growing. This world needs it.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Marilyn McEntyre’s poem ‘What To Do In The Darkness’

My recordings of guided self-kindness practices.

Outgrowing Old Habits, Learning New Superpowers

It appears I have a new superpower – being able to get my needs met. How? By asking.

That sounds ridiculously simple, but for me it’s been a long and complex journey.

Like many people, I used to find it tricky (to say the least) even to express my needs, never mind to get them met!

Many years of meditation and awareness practice have helped me discover some interesting emotional patterns of mine that can lie hidden in everyday interactions.

Like that acknowledging the existence of my own needs can activate feelings of guilt and shame. Which in turn can switch on some anger and frustration. And then that can express itself via a certain defensiveness when I need to ask for help or compromise. As you can imagine, that isn’t often conducive to someone else wanting to help me!

Or rather, that used to be the way it often went.

Something very interesting is emerging. Having worked closely with those parts of myself in self-kindness meditation – the part that feels shame, the angry part and the scared, defensive part – I’ve been able to soothe these bits of me so that they don’t need to ‘act out’ so much. When these parts need emotional security, I’ve begun to learn how to meet that need myself, instead of project that onto other situations where emotional security can’t actually be found.

As my awareness has deepened through meditation practice, I’ve also taken advantage of therapeutic support to help me integrate what’s been discovered. Through this process my nervous system has calmed even further and begun to feel much safer.

It’s important to be aware, I think, that mindfulness isn’t all about the brain, that our whole body nervous system is involved when we begin to grow our awareness, and out-grow old habits.

As a result of this process, I’m learning that the world isn’t as hostile as the younger me had experienced. From a place of deeper trust, I can take a chance on expressing my needs openly and gently, and seeing what happens.

This doesn’t mean I always get what I want. But it does mean that I more consistently ask for what I’d really like. The defensiveness has reduced, because my nervous system feels safer. I’m also less attached to any particular outcome: I’d like to get my needs met, but I know that if that’s not possible, it’s not a personal attack. So how I’m asking has changed a lot. And more often than not, I do get what I need. In fact, people will often go out of their way to help me, even when they could easily say no.

To quote one of my favourite Rolling Stones songs, ‘You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need’.

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

This is one of my most popular posts, and has featured on the Huffington Post and Everyday Mindfulness…

For an awfully long time, I believed that I could only be happy when I’d changed something about myself. For example, when I was more calm and confident, or when I stopped making mistakes and always got everything right. Only once I’d become that other person (I believed) could I stop feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then, several years back I went through a bereavement which changed all the relationships in my life, not least the one I have with myself. Here’s what I learned that helped me finally let go of self-attacking.

In my 20s, I’d tried endless self-help books in an effort to become someone else. I hated that I always felt anxious and lacking confidence. I was determined to rid myself of these defects so that I could finally be happy. In my early 30s I discovered mindfulness, which helped me enormously in recognising that my thoughts weren’t necessarily facts.

Mindfulness got me through the seven miscarriages I had before our son came along. But when he was a toddler, I suffered another loss, this one particularly traumatic. During the aftermath, things got very messy. I knew that friends were finding it hard to be around me. In truth, I found it hard to be around me. I felt like I couldn’t rely on anything, my anxiety shot up, and my reactions to others were unpredictable. I wanted friends to support me even though they didn’t have a clue how, and I was very sensitive to well-meant comments.

Sadly, this led to the breakdown of some friendships. In the past my response would have been to blame myself. My self-talk would have sounded something like this: “see, you’ve chased everyone away because you’re handling this really badly and you’ve become a horrible person.”

But I turned instead to compassion meditation. Not only did it (eventually) help me to heal some of those rifts, it prevented me from attacking myself.

I remember sitting in meditation one day offering myself the phrase ‘May I have ease of being’. Suddenly, the phrase became ‘May I have ease of being, just as I am‘. Not ‘May I have ease of being – when I’m perfect’, but right now, just as I am: messy and heartbroken and chaotic. This learning for me was huge. I didn’t have to wait till I was getting things right to feel OK about myself. I could love and accept myself right now, because being human is hard.

I no longer believe that we have to fix our perceived defects in order to be happy. We can be content just as we are, even when parts of our experience are difficult. And we can wish that others too have ease of being, just as they are.

When we can bring this gentle acceptance to ourselves and to others – no matter how human or unskilful our behaviour, we can let go of the added burden of (self-)criticism. This means we can use that energy elsewhere: for compassion, support and love. How would you use this extra energy?

Making Friends With My Anxiety

As a wellbeing coach and mindfulness teacher, I don’t just share from the theory of mindfulness, but from my own experience too.  Here’s my own story about how mindfulness and self-kindness transformed my relationship with anxiety – from outright war, to acceptance and befriending. This process unfolded for me some years ago, and I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal (in italics) that I was writing at the time.  I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action.  The freedom and relief I discovered during this period of my life were in fact what motivated me to train as a mindfulness teacher.

For many years I’d struggled with anxiety, and when I experienced recurrent miscarriages, it seemed to intensify those feelings.  When our son was 18 months old, we suffered particularly devastating loss, which seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels.  I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety.  I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time:  I would become paralysed, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk.  I also began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.

One day, I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment.  Faced with an everyday situation,  I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk  (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that may not sound logical). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just do these everyday tasks without a second thought?  What would a life that be like?’  This moment planted a seed of possibility.  Mindfulness had already helped me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never have thought I could withstand.  So I wondered if I could also turn to my mindfulness practice to help with the anxiety I was experiencing.

Being a coach, I knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly.  I decided to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses.  That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction.  I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, and I used a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life.  My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. “

Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing.  I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting.  And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear.

I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation.  “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty.  In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son.  The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.

I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety.  I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed  “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically.  Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. “  All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that!

Self-kindness also became crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in avoidant behaviours.  At the time I reflected that “When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more.  And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside.  It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to shut out or disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.”

This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”  

The impact of self-kindness is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them”.  I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’.  And I started to believe it.

Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks.  I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it.  At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.”  So tasks that had once seemed ‘too much’ had now become perceived as merely ‘unpleasant’.

Over time, my perspective became that  “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe.  It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.”

I discovered that with a foundation of self-kindness in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety.  I don’t tend to describe this journey as ‘overcoming’ anxiety, as I don’t see it like that anymore: I’ve released myself from that struggle with it.  Now, when feelings of anxiety arise, I can embrace them as a part of my overall emotional landscape, and recognise they are just one of the full range of emotions that we human beings naturally experience.  I no longer feel trapped by these feelings, nor do they prevent me from living fully.  To me, this is the true freedom we can find in the practices of self-kindness and mindfulness.

Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you are currently experiencing debilitating anxiety, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.