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Posts tagged ‘self-compassion’

AUGUST TIPS: Self-Care For Strong People

If you’re used to being the ‘strong one’ in life – the person who’s there for others, who gives help rather than needing it – it can be easy to convince yourself that you don’t need looking after too.

This can be due to a role we adopt to deal with life circumstances, or a way of avoiding feeling vulnerable. But to stay strong, we do need self-care.

Indeed, for those of us who see ourselves as strong, it can be challenging to allow ourselves to be vulnerable – and also very valuable to acknowledge these buried feelings.

This month I’m exploring a few ways to discover your own needs, and begin to meet them.

1. Awareness

Stress isn’t in the external circumstances of life, it’s a physiological response to those events that happens in the body. If we’re not tuned into the physical ‘early warning signs’ of the stress response, it can escalate so that we only pay attention when it gets serious (such as burnout or physical illness).

Body awareness practice helps us become more sensitive, so that we can spot the signs and do something to support ourselves. There are specific meditations to develop body awareness, but I also find it equally impactful to check in with my body throughout the day.

Learning to pause and notice what sensations are present in the body can help to let go of – or ‘discharge’ – some of the energy of tension before it builds up too much. This takes practice and patience, but the good news is it’s most effective when developed gradually.

2. Permission

Do you allow yourself to have needs? I’ll be honest, my skills in this area were extremely limited before I came to self-kindness practice. Giving ourselves permission – to have needs, to not feel ok, or even to feel ok – can be a significant step towards self-kindness.

Perhaps you can notice if anything conflicts with acknowledging your own needs, such as a caretaking role or a hectic busy life. A certain belief might be a stumbling block, eg that you’re not deserving, or that needs are about weakness.

What if you gave yourself permission to have your own needs? It’s worth exploring, especially if you always tend to put others first.

3. Attunement

Once you’ve opened up to the possibility that you have your own needs too, it can be an entirely different step to to discover what those needs actually are, and how to meet them. Regular self-kindness meditation encourages this quality of self-attunement to grow over time.

Whether you meditate or not, this is a powerful question to begin asking yourself: What do I need?

Sometimes the answer might be quite practical, like a sleep, a sit-down or some food. Or it may be less tangible: we might need a quality such as safety, acceptance or kindness. We might realise we need to let in the support and help offered to us by others. If we know what’s needed, we have a better chance of finding a way to providing it.

Self-kindness is sometimes described as a practice of offering ourselves care, but it’s also a case of learning to receive that care. I’ve included a poem below that really spoke to me of this dual aspect of self-compassion when I was first learning.

Further resources

My next mindfulness session in Heaton Moor (South Manchester / Stockport area) will explore some of this material in more depth – see the workshops page for info.

I also run 1-to-1 coaching sessions (by Skype) that include options to work on this type of self-kindness practice.

Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness includes some exercises that help develop self-attunement.

Short meditations to help you pause and check in can be found at the meditations page – along with longer ones focusing on body awareness.

For me, this poem by Meister Eckhart about a donkey has always evoked the power of self-attunement, and the need to let go of being unecessarily ‘strong’:

All day long a little burro labors,
sometimes with heavy loads on her back
and sometimes just with worries about things that bother only burros.
And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk comes to her stable and brings a pear,
but more than that, he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears,
and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh.
Because love does that.
Love frees.

JULY TIPS: Self-Kindness And The Power Of Less

When you hear the term ‘self-kindness’, perhaps it conjures up an image of taking yourself off for a spa break or a holiday. Self-care is definitely an important part of the practice*, but there are also other ways to support yourself with kindness, which may be more accessible when you can’t get away from it all.

Like many things, self-kindness can lose its appeal if it feels like an extra duty you need to add into an already-busy life. I like to approach it as a practice of doing less, not more: less self-criticism, less pressure on myself, less trying to pretend I feel ok if actually things feel hard.

Here are three things I can do without when I’m having a difficult day, and what I’ve learned to do instead. They are all examples of ‘self-kindness in action’ – the kind of support that can come to your rescue right when you need it.

*I’ll be looking at self-care in next month’s tips.

Less Criticism

Putting ourselves down for being imperfect is a habit that many of us fall into. It can feel deceptively productive to find what’s ‘wrong’ with us, so we can fix it. But in my experience, it usually only keeps me trapped in a cycle of toxic shame.

It can be more helpful to cultivate a habit of self-appreciation. This won’t necessarily replace self-criticism to begin with, but it provides a gentler counter-balance that moves you in the direction of self-kindness.

When I’m caught in the trap of self-criticism, I look for some way that I can also appreciate myself. Perhaps I screwed up one task, but felt good about something else I did. Maybe I think I offended someone, but my intention was a genuine attempt to help them.

Sometimes, it boils down to appreciating myself for just coping, or bringing some awareness to my challenges. It’s enough.

Less Pressure

I spent many years pushing myself to be an impossibly perfect version of myself.

I still feel that pull sometimes, and it can show up as a long list of stuff I want to get done, so that I can feel good about myself. That list hanging over me can feel pretty overwhelming.

This is when I remind myself that I don’t need an excuse to take my foot off the pedal, and that being human is enough reason in itself.

A self-kindness pause helps me to see that I don’t have to be a superwoman to feel good about myself. The way I apply this pause is usually to ask myself ‘how can I go easy on myself today?’

This might mean physically doing less, eg letting something wait a day, rather than pushing myself to get on top of everything. Or it might mean choosing to shoot for ‘good enough’ instead of perfect.

Less Rejection

When we’re being hard on ourselves, we may be invalidating our own experience. Think about it. If a small child told us they were scared, or sad, or angry, and we ignored them, told them they were being silly, or that they didn’t feel any of those things – we’d be invalidating what they are actually feeling. How often do we do this to ourselves?

It was one of the first things I noticed when I began doing self-kindness meditation. Sometimes I’d realise that I’d spent the whole day trying to pretend I was ‘ok’, when in fact I felt vulnerable, afraid, or sad.

I learned to practice Supportive Self-Talk. This is a way to validate my own experience by first listening to what I’m feeling (in meditation, or in life). Once I’ve heard what needs to be felt, instead of rejecting or abandoning the hurting part of me, I can let myself have my own experience as it really is – whether it feels nice, or a bit painful. This can be quite a relief compared to trying to pretend I feel something different.

When I see myself through the eyes of my ‘Supportive Self’ in this way, I can respond by saying to myself what I really need to hear, instead of being dismissive or invalidating.

With a bit of practice, Supportive Self-Talk can be available whenever you need, again without ‘making time’ for it.

Further Resources

Self-Kindness Meditations can be found on my meditations page – done regularly over a period of time, they help to re-programme old habits and cultivate supportive self-talk.

Enoughness As True Happiness – this blog touches on ways to find self-appreciation in everyday life.

Committing To Self-Kindness – this blog is about easing into self-kindness practice, slowly and gradually, because it often doesn’t come naturally at first.

If you would like to work with me, I run mindfulness workshops and classes in Heaton Moor (South Manchester).  I also offer 1-to-1 Skype sessions that cover some of the self-kindness approaches mentioned above – see the Coaching Programme page for info.

If you would like to be notified when I add new monthly tips – you can ‘follow’ this blog and you’ll receive an email whenever I post tips and blogs (use the button at the bottom right of the website footer). I also post updates to Twitter

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.

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.