The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions – Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

Why is it so hard to extend the same kindness to ourselves that many of us gladly offer to others?

Maybe it’s because in our conventional way of thinking in the West we tend to view compassion as a gift, and bestowing it on ourselves seems selfish or inappropriate. But the ancient wisdom of the East tells us that loving-kindness is something everyone needs and deserves, and that includes the compassion we can give to ourselves. Without it, we blame ourselves for our problems, for our inability to solve them all, for feeling pain when painful events occur-all of which usually end in our feeling even more pain.

The idea of self-compassion may seem so alien that we would not know where to begin even if we decided it might be a good capacity to develop. Modern neuroscience and psychology are just beginning to explore what meditative traditions have accepted for ages: that compassion and loving-kindness are skills-not gifts that we’re either born with or not, and each one of us, without exception, can develop and strengthen these skills and bring them into our everyday lives.

This is where The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion steps to the fore. In this book Dr. Christopher Germer lays out the architecture of this skill development: the vision of freedom compassion can offer, the essential role of self-compassion, the path to realizing it rather than just thinking about it, and the practical tools, such as mindfulness, we need to effect that transformation.

Buddhist psychological analysis regards qualities like loving-kindness as the direct antidote to fear. Whether hampered by the inhibiting fear of feeling we are not enough and could never be enough, or the raging fear that courses through us when we see no options whatsoever, or the pervasive fear we sometimes feel when we must take a next step and cannot sense how or where, in the midst of fear we suffer.

Loving-kindness and compassion, in contrast to fear, reaffirm the healing power of connection, the expansiveness of a sense of possibility, the efficacy of kindness as a catalyst for learning. Whether extended to ourselves or others, the intertwined forces of loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference, in our own lives and those of others. The true development of self-compassion is the basis for fearlessness, generosity, inclusion, and a sustained loving-kindness and compassion for others.

Whether you have already begun to seek relief from suffering through meditative traditions like mindfulness or you are simply open to anything that might free you from chronic emotional pain and mental rumination, this book will serve as an inspiring road-map.

In the following pages you will find a scientific review, an educational manual, and a practical step-by-step guide to developing greater loving-kindness and self-compassion every day.

SHARON SALZBERG

Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts.

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Introduction

Life is tough. Despite our best intentions, things go wrong, sometimes very wrong. Ninety percent of us get married, full of hope and optimism, yet 40% of marriages and in divorce. We struggle to meet the demands of daily life, only to find ourselves needing care for stress-related problems like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, or a weakened immune system.

How do we typically react when things fall apart? More often than not, we feel ashamed and become self-critical: “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I cope?” “Why me?” Perhaps we go on a mission to fix ourselves, adding insult to injury. Sometimes we go after others. Rather than giving ourselves a break, we seem to find the path of greatest resistance.

Yet no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions-shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, arrive like clockwork at our door. They come when things don’t go according to our expectations, when we’re separated from loved ones, and as a part of ordinary sickness, old age, and death. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad.

But we can learn to deal with misery and distress in a new, healthier way. Instead of greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we can bear witness to our own pain and respond with kindness and understanding. That’s self-compassion, taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.

If you’re used to beating yourself up during periods of sadness or loneliness, if you hide from the world when you make a mistake, or if you obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake to begin with, self-compassion may seem like a radical idea. But why should you deny yourself the same tenderness and warmth you extend to others who are suffering?

When we fight emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them. The happiness we long for in relationships seems to elude us. Satisfaction at work lies just beyond our reach. We drag ourselves through the day, arguing with our physical aches and pains. Usually we’re not aware just how many of these trials have their root in how we relate to the inevitable discomfort of life.

Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.

Imagine that your partner just criticized you for yelling at your daughter. This hurts your feelings and leads to an argument. Perhaps you felt misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, or unlovable? Maybe you didn’t use the right words to describe how you felt, but more likely your partner was being too angry or defensive to hear what you had to say. Now imagine that you took a deep breath and said the following to yourself before the argument: “More than anything, I want to be a good parent. It’s so painful to me when l yell at my child. I love my daughter more than anything in the world, but sometimes I just lose it. I’m only human, I guess. May I learn to forgive myself for my mistakes, and may we find a way to live together in peace.” Can you feel the difference?

A moment of self-compassion like this can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life. Freeing yourself from the trap of destructive thoughts and emotions through self-compassion can boost your self-esteem from the inside out, reduce depression and anxiety, and even help you stick to your diet. And the benefits aren’t just personal. Self-compassion is the foundation of compassion for others.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we won’t be able to empathize with others if we can’t tolerate the same feelings, despair, fear, failure, shame-occurring within ourselves? And how can we pay the slightest attention to others when we’re absorbed in our own internal struggles? When our problems become workable again, we can extend kindness to others, which can only help improve relationships and enhance our overall contentment and satisfaction with life.

Self-compassion is really the most natural thing in the world. Think about it for a minute. If you cut your finger, you’ll want to clean it, bandage it, and help it heal. That’s innate self-compassion. But where does self-compassion go when our emotional well-being is at stake?

What’s effective for survival against a saber-tooth tiger doesn’t seem to work in emotional life.

We instinctively go to battle against unpleasant emotions as if they were external foes, and fighting them inside only makes matters worse. Resist anxiety and it can turn into full-blown panic. Suppress grief and chronic depression may develop. Struggling to fall asleep can keep you awake all night long.

When we’re caught up in our pain, we also go to war against ourselves. The body protects itself against danger through fight, flight, or freeze (staying frozen in place), but when we’re challenged emotionally, these reactions become an unholy trinity of selfcriticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption. A healing alternative is to cultivate a new relationship with ourselves described by research psychologist Kristin Neff as self-kindness, a sense of connection with the rest of humanity, and balanced awareness. That’s self-compassion.

In this book you’ll discover how to bring self-compassion to your emotional life when you need it most-when you’re dying of shame, when you grind your teeth in rage or fear, or when you’re too fragile to face yet another family gathering. Self-compassion is giving yourself the love you need by boosting your innate wish to be happy and free from suffering.

Dealing with emotional pain without making it worse is the essence of Buddhist psychology. The ideas in this book draw from that tradition, particularly those concepts and practices that have been validated by modern science. What you’ll read is essentially old wine in new bottles, ancient insights in modern psychological idiom. You don’t have to believe in anything to make the practices work for you, you can be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a scientist, or a skeptic. The best approach is to be open-minded, experimental, and flexible.

Clinical scientists discovered meditation in the 1970s, and it’s now one of the the most thoroughly researched of all psychotherapy methods . Over the past 15 years, research has focused primarily on mindfulness, or “ awareness of present experience, with acceptance.” Mindfulness is considered an underlying factor in effective psychotherapy and emotional healing in general. When therapy goes well, patients (or clients) develop an accepting attitude toward whatever they’re experiencing in the therapy room, fear, anger, sadness, joy, relief, boredom, love, and this benevolent attitude gets transferred to daily life. A special bonus of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at home in the form of meditation.

Mindfulness tends to focus on the experience of a person, usually a sensation, thought, or feeling. But what do we do when the experiencer is overcome with emotion, perhaps with shame or self-doubt? When that happens, we don’t just feel bad, we feel we are bad. We can become so rattled that it’s hard to pay attention to anything at all. What do we do when we’re alone in the middle of the night, twisting the sheets around us in bed, sleep medication isn’t working, and therapy is a week away? Mostly we need a good friend with a compassionate heart. If one isn’t immediately available, we can still give kindness to ourselves, self-compassion.

I encountered self-compassion from two directions, one professional and one personal. I’ve practiced psychotherapy for 30 years with patients ranging from the worried well to those overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, or trauma. I also worked in a public hospital with people suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the power of compassion, how it opens the heart like a flower, revealing and healing hidden sorrow.

After therapy, however, some patients feel like they’re walking into a void with the voice of the therapist trailing far behind. I wondered, “What can people do between sessions to feel less vulnerable and alone?” Sometimes I asked myself, “Is there any way to make the therapy experience rub off more quickly-to make it portable?” Selfcompassion seems to hold that promise for many people.

Personally, I was raised by a devout Christian mother and a father who spent 9 years in India during early adulthood, mostly interned by the British during World War II because he was a German citizen. There my father met a mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer, who later escaped the internment camp and traveled across the Himalayan mountains to Tibet to became the 14th Dalai Lama’s English tutor. As a child, my mother read me magical tales of India, so it seemed natural to go there myself after I graduated from college. From 1976 to 1977, I traveled the length and breadth of India, visiting saints, sages, and shamans, and I learned Buddhist meditation in a cave in Sri Lanka. Thus began a lifelong interest in meditation and over a dozen return trips to India.

I currently practice meditation in the insight meditation tradition found in the American centers established by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. Those rich and nuanced teachings inform this entire book, and any unwarranted deviation from them is my responsibility alone. I also owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to my colleagues at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, with whom I’ve been in monthly conversation for almost 25 years, and to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and compassion into modern health care. My other teachers are my patients, who have generously offered their life stories to give substance to the concepts and practices that follow. They made this a labor of love. Their names and other details have been changed to ensure confidentiality, and some clinical vignettes are composites of a few individuals.

This book is divided into three parts, and the chapters build on one another.

Part I, Discovering Self-Compassion, shows you how to develop mindfulness and describes precisely what we mean and don’t mean by self-compassion.

Part II, Practicing Loving Kindness, gives in-depth instruction in one particular self-compassion practice-loving-kindness meditation, to serve as a foundation for a compassionate way of life.

Part III, Customizing Self-Compassion, offers tips for adjusting the practice to your particular personality and circumstances and shows you how to achieve maximum benefit from the practice.

Finally, in the appendices, you’ll find additional self-compassion exercises and resources for further reading and more intensive practice.

This book will not be a lot of work. The hard work is actually behind you-fighting and resisting difficult feelings, blaming yourself for them and their causes. You’ll actually learn to work less. It’s an “un-selfhelp book.” Instead of beginning with the notion that something about you is broken and needs to be fixed, I hope to show you how to respond to emotional pain in a new, more compassionate, and loving way. I recommend you try the exercises for 30 days and see how it goes. You might notice yourself feeling lighter and happier, but that will simply be a by-product of accepting yourself just as you are.

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Part I

Discovering Self-compassion

Being kind to yourself

The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain. ALLEN GINSBERG, poet

I’m afraid of what you’re about to tell “me, ’cause it probably won’t work!” Michelle blurted out, fully expecting to be disappointed by what I had to say. Michelle had just finished telling me about her years of struggle with shyness, and I was taking a deep breath.

Michelle struck me as an exceptionally bright and conscientious person. She had read many books on overcoming shyness and tried therapy four times. She didn’t want to be let down again. She’d recently received an MBA from a prestigious university and gotten a job as a consultant to large firms in the area. The main problem for Michelle was blushing. She believed it signaled to others that she wasn’t competent and that they shouldn’t trust what she had to say. The more she worried about blushing, the more she actually blushed in front of others. Her new job was an important career opportunity, and Michelle didn’t want to blow it.

I assured Michelle that she was right: whatever I suggested wouldn’t work. That’s not because she was a lost cause, far from it, but rather because all well-intentioned strategies are destined to fail. It’s not the fault of the techniques, nor is it the fault of the person who wants to feel better. The problem lies in our motivation and in a misunderstanding of how the mind works.

As Michelle knew only too well from her years of struggle, a lot of what we do to not feel bad is likely to make us feel worse. It’s like that thought experiment: “Try not to think about pink elephants the kind that are very large and very pink.” Once an idea is planted in our minds, it’s strengthened every time we try not to think about it. Sigmund Freud summed up the problem by saying there’s “no negation” in the unconscious mind . Similarly, whatever we throw at our distress to make it go away relaxation techniques, blocking our thoughts, positive affirmations, will ultimately disappoint, and we’ll have no choice but to set off to find another option to feel better.

While we were discussing these matters, Michelle began to weep gently. I wasn’t sure whether she was feeling more disheartened or in some way the truth of her experience was being articulated. She told me that even her prayers were going unanswered. We talked about two types of prayers: the kind where we want God to make bad things go away and the kind where we surrender “Let go and let God.” Michelle said it had never occurred to her to surrender her troubles to God. That wasn’t her style.

Gradually we came around to what could be done for Michelle that might actually decrease her anxiety and blushing, not deep breathing, not pinching herself, not drinking cold water, not pretending to be unflappable. Since Michelle wasn’t the kind of person to relax her efforts, she needed to find something entirely different. Michelle recognized that her anxiety decreased the more she accepted it, and it increased the less she accepted it. Hence, it made sense to Michelle to dedicate herself to a life of accepting anxiety and the fact that she was simply an anxious person. Our therapy was to be measured not by how often she blushed, but by how accepting she was of her blushing. That was a radical new idea for Michelle. She left our first session elated, if a bit perplexed.

She sent me an e-mail during the following week, happily announcing that “it worked.” Since we hadn’t discussed any new practices, I wasn’t sure what Michelle meant. Later I learned that she had begun saying to herself “just scared, just scared” whenever she noticed she was anxious. Labeling her fear seemed to take Michelle’s mind off how flushed her face felt, and she was able to chat briefly with colleagues in the lunchroom without incident, for example. She was relieved to feel more like “a scared person getting lunch” than like a “weak, overly sensitive, ridiculous person who didn’t know what she was talking about.” I marveled at how Michelle had taken the concept of “acceptance” and invented a useful technique in such a short time.

At our next meeting, however, Michelle was discouraged again. Her forays into the lunchroom once again became a battle against the blush. Her original wish to “stop looking anxious” reasserted itself. Acceptance had begun to “work” for Michelle, but she’d let go of her newfound commitment to cultivate acceptance. She mistakenly believed she’d found a clever bypass to her problem.

Unfortunately, we can’t trick ourselves. There was a part of Michelle that was saying, “I’m practicing acceptance in order to reduce anxiety.” But that’s not acceptance. Within modern psychology, acceptance means to embrace whatever arises within us, moment to moment, just as it is. Sometimes it’s a feeling we like; sometimes it’s a bad feeling. We naturally want to continue the good feelings and stop the bad ones, but setting out with that goal doesn’t work. The only answer to our problems is to first have our problems, fully and completely, whatever they may be. Michelle was hoping to skip that part.

This story has a happy ending, which was reached slowly over the course of 2 years. Michelle discovered how to live in accord with her sensitive nervous system. Relapses reliably occurred when Michelle tried not to blush, but she hardly blushed at all when she was ready to let blushing take its course. As Michelle made her peace with blushing, she found she could apply the same principles to other stress symptoms that inevitably arose during her day, tension in her chest, headaches, heart palpitations and her life became much easier.

This is a book about how we can benefit by turning toward our emotional pain. That’s a tall order. Any thinking person is likely to ask, “Why would I want to do that?” In this chapter, you’ll see why it’s often the best thing to do. The rest of the book will show you how to accomplish this improbable task. First you’ll learn how to bring mindful awareness to what’s bothering you. Then you’ll discover how to bring kindness to yourself, especially when you’re feeling really bad. That combination, mindfulness and self-compassion can transform even the worst times of our lives.

TURNING TOWARD THE PAIN

From the moment of our birth, we’re on a quest for happiness. It may take no more than mother’s milk to satisfy us in the first days of our lives, but our needs and desires multiply as we age. By adulthood, most of us don’t expect to be happy unless we have a nice family, a good job, excellent health, lots of money, and the love and admiration of others.

But pain still strikes even under the best of circumstances. Billionaire Howard Hughes found himself desperate and alone at the moment of his death. And our circumstances inevitably change; one person’s marriage may fall apart, another may have a child with a developmental disability, and yet another may lose everything in a flood. People differ from one another in the amount of suffering they endure over a lifetime, or in the type of suffering, but none of us gets off without any. Pain and suffering are common threads that unite all of humanity.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we’d like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. For example, if a car accident lands someone in a wheelchair for life, the first year is usually the toughest. As we learn to adapt, we typically return to our former level of happiness. We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.

The Hedonic Treadmill

In 1971, Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell proposed that we’re on a pleasure-seeking treadmill, vainly trying to achieve happiness by seeking what’s just around the corner, a better relationship, an easier job, a nicer car. The problem is that our nervous systems quickly adapt to anything familiar. Once you get a nice new car, how long do you enjoy it before thinking about renovating your home? Studies show that most lottery winners are ultimately no happier than nonwinners, and paraplegics usually become as content as people who can walk. For better or worse, we adapt to both good and bad life events. This general adaptation theory has held up empirically for decades, with some recent modifications that you will read about in Qhapter 5.

When we’re on the hedonic treadmill for too long, though, it can lead to exhaustion and disease. In his immensely entertaining and informative book on the causes and consequences of stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky describes how animals are perfectly adapted to respond to physical crises. Consider a zebra running from a lion that wants to rip out its stomach; when the danger passes, the zebra goes back to grazing peacefully. But what do humans do? We anticipate danger lurking around the corner. Sapolsky asks, “ How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?” Our bodies react to psychological threats the same way they react to physical threats, and a sense of constant danger raises our overall stress level and the risk of heart disease, immune dysfunction, depression, colitis, chronic pain, memory impairment, sexual problems, and much more.

The exact mechanism by which psychological stress leads to disease is unclear, but preliminary evidence shows that it may be related to your telomems DNA protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes. Cells age-they stop dividing-when they lose their telo-meric DNA. Life stress has been shown to shorten the telomeres in the immune system, and fewer immune cells can lead to disease and shorten your lifespan.

Most of us believe that our happiness depends on the external circumstances of our lives. Therefore, we spend our lives on a treadmill, continually arranging to have pleasure and avoid pain. When we experience pleasure, we grasp for more of it. When we experience pain, we avoid it. Both of these reactions are instinctive, but they’re not successful strategies for emotional wellbeing.

The problem with pleasure seeking is that the pleasure will end at some point and we’ll become disappointed: we fall out of love, our bellies become full, our friends go home.

The problem with avoiding pain is that it’s just not possible to do, and it often gets worse with our increased efforts to try. For example, eating to reduce stress can cause obesity, and working excessively to overcome low self-esteem can land you in the grave.

*

from

The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

by Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

get it at Amazon.com

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