I’m excited to share these nuggets of wisdom gleaned from Kristin Neff’s insightful book, Fierce Self Compassion. With all the breakthroughs that have been occurring in neuroscience and psychology in recent years, it is equally important to embrace what we are learning about the dynamic benefits of healthy self-care. Kristin Neff is an associate professor educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research with more than 20 years of research, including empirical studies and training programs that are taught worldwide. Kristin explains what is happening in our bodies and our brains when we are navigating life without taking care of ourselves. She weaves this knowledge into relatable stories that are familiar to most of us. When we learn how to cultivate more self compassion into our daily lives, we reduce stress and anxiety. We free ourselves from cycles of exhaustion, pent up anger and frustration, and unhealthy releases that often cause us to merely hit “rinse and repeat.”
We got a lot of things wrong in prior generations about emotions, gender stereotypes, parenting, relationships and vulnerability. As a result, we are now living with consequences that are having negative impacts on our daily lives.
These nuggets of wisdom about fierce self compassion will transform how we treat ourselves — and others — by shattering some of those old concepts and reframing self-care as a path to being our whole, genuine selves in a much healthier way. Let’s start with this big myth — meeting our own needs is selfish……
Many of us go through life putting our needs last while we attend to others. We may even believe that this proof positive of the sacrifices we are willing to make for those we love.
Yet we cannot keep pouring water from a dry well. Eventually we are going to be depleted. The warning signs show up as resentment, lack of patience, physical and mental exhaustion and envy. Kristin Neff says these are key indicators that we are “out of balance”.
Sure, we can push through and “do” for others while those warning signs are flashing, but it won’t be rewarding or pleasant for anyone. Kristin Neff reminds us that we when attend to our own needs, we are able to be more engaged isn positive, energetic ways with others. The reason is that we co-regulate each other. We feel each other’s energy.
Many of us believe we are selfish if we take time to attend to our own needs or ask for help when we needed, but that’s not true. It’s an important step toward healthy life balance. When we meet our own needs, we feel more energy, more grace and more resiliency for life and those we love. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
For the record, we need to role model these new behaviors and attitudes for our children. When our children see that we too have needs, they develop better awareness of their own needs. This balance we attend to in our personal lives becomes their benchmark for their own needs and balance.
For anyone who has ever tried to motivate themselves to do better or achieve a stretch goal by letting their inner critic be the coach, this will be an eye-opening revelation. Our inner critic is well intentioned….BUT misguided. Our inner critic uses shame, bullying and harsh tones to effect change. Not only does it not work, it activates our sympathetic nervous system which infuses us with increased cortisol and inflammation. We will feel this in our bodies. We grow sluggish, suffer increased aches and pains, have a hard time recovering from injury or illness. The continual activation of our sympathetic nervous system will also shut down our minds. It’s harder to think clearly, remember things accurately and perform routine tasks with ease. Brene Brown calls this a state of “overwhelm”. John and Julie Gottman warn that this heightened state can lead to stonewalling in our relationships,
The antidote for this automated, mostly unconscious, response is to silence our inner critic and turn toward nurturing self compassion — the kind of comfort we would offer our best friend or our child. When we stop berating ourselves and adopt a “tend and befriend” approach, we organically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes our heart rate variability, and reduces tension. The parasympathetic nervous system is our internal care system. We connect with this “tend and befriend” hardwiring automatically for others — especially our children, spouses and best friends. We fail to access it for ourselves.
As Maya Angelou has taught, “When we know better, we do better.” Now we know. We know that banishing the inner critic and leaning into “tend and befriend” will actually get us back on a healthy track faster, and with better results. The parasympathetic nervous system is our “care system”. It releases oxytocin (the love hormone) and endorphins (the natural “feel good” opiates). Both increase our sense of safety, security and well-being. We can naturally ground ourselves in our core values and how we would really like to be responding to current situations when we are infused with the love hormone and feel good endorphins. It prevents us from being reactive and acting way out of character.
Let’s be honest, when we lash out because we listened to our inner critic, we then feel even worse, and our inner critic gets louder. We even believe all that negative nonsense because we lost control. It is an endless loop that spirals us down and makes us feel defeated. Toss out your lifetime pass for that roller coaster. Fire the inner critic and hire your cheerleader and life coach– the one that is wearing a t-shirt that says “tend and befriend YOU.”
Being caught in a ruminating cycle is so painful — and exhausting. The harder we try to jump off that merry go round, the more dizzying it becomes. To make matters worse, we chide ourselves for wasting time, not being able to stay present in our current moment, and obsessing about something we cannot change. What’s done is done. And yet…..it is so unsettling…..we just can’t let it go.
In her book, Fierce Self Compassion, Kristin Neff helps us better understand the root cause of rumination — the inability to express our anger.
For generations, many of us were raised to believe that anger was a bad emotion and needed to be suppressed. We really got this wrong. Emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They are guideposts and guardrails for what matters most to us. Anger is simply a warning signal. It’s telling us with a sense of urgency that something is wrong. In prior generations, children were told to bottle up that anger, even punished for expressing it. A small child’s anger is simply an indicator that they are not feeling safe, secure, protected.
For the record, we also need to understand that it takes twenty years or so for our brains to develop and mature. We do not have access to the executive functions of our prefrontal cortex (especially when we are kids). It would be equivalent of asking a 5 year old to drive a car — they are not yet capable of processing all that is needed to accomplish this safely and productively. As Dr. Gabor Mate says, “we should not expect our little people to have to manage themselves when it is the adults that are out of control.”
Is it any wonder that we are not very skilled at handling anger? We got so many mixed messages about anger in childhood and we carry that confusion into adulthood. We are challenged to handle our own anger –AND to be on the receiving end of another’s anger. We can get much better at both.
Suppressed anger and dismissed anger has to go somewhere — and all too often we stuff it internally hoping to hide it from both ourselves and others. Anger that is not processed is going to grow, marinate and percolate. Eventually it may surface like a volcano spewing hot lava — often over some small incident totally irrelevant to the initial warning we felt.
Other times, suppressed anger causes us to ruminate. While we know what it feels like, we may not know why we are so prone to it. Kristin Neff offers this revealing explanation: “Rumination is a basic safety behavior – a form of resistance to what’s happening rooted in the desire to make our pain go away. Rumination represents a freeze response to danger.’
Unfortunately rumination as a basic safety behavior does not produce the desired results. It simply keeps us trapped in our pain instead. We just keep reviewing the past over and over, deepening our hurt and confusion. The increased cortisol and inflammation caused by constant sympathetic nervous system activation wreaks havoc on our ability to regulate stress and anxieties. In fact, rumination can contribute to depression.
Breaking a rumination cycle requires self-awareness. We have to “catch” ourselves when we realize we are caught in a negative thought process that loops endlessly without conclusion. Taking a pause and shifting our mind’s focus to the present moment, or to something pleasant is a deliberate and meaningful first step in rewiring our brain.
All the work that we do to cultivate more self compassion is really helping us “upgrade” our brains from the unconscious, child-like, default settings to the more self-aware, mature, responsive functions. We move from the “reptilian” brain to the “mammalian” care system. This is an exciting part of our human evolution that we are just coming to know more about thanks to neuroscience.
We’ve all heard about our reptilian brains — the quickest and most easily triggered reflective reaction to danger — the place where our automated choices are fight, flight, freeze or fawn. The reptilian reflective responses activated our sympathetic nerve system and feeds our bodies more of the chemicals that negatively impact our ability to stay cool, calm and collected. Our hearts race, our muscles tighten, we lose control. We know this reptilian state all too well.
We’ve heard less about proactively shifting from our reptilian brains to our mammalian care system. As Kristin Neff explains “this is the evolutionary advantage of mammals over reptiles. Mammalian young are born very immature and have a longer developmental period to adapt to their environment. Human beings take the longest to mature – 25 to 30 years for the prefrontal cortex to develop due to our remarkable neuronal plasticity. To keep vulnerable youngsters safe during this long developmental period, the “tend and befriend” response evolved which prompts parents and offspring to stay close and find safety through social bonding. When the care system is activated, oxytocin and endorphins are released, which increases feelings of security.
I am a firm believer that knowledge is our best portal for meaningful change. Now that we are learning about our human evolution process, especially with our brains and bodies, we are gaining a deeper understanding of how we can shift from an outdated autopilot operating system to a more advanced, meaningful and rewarding dynamic operating system. Cultivating self-compassion is the gateway for this transformational change.
I’m so delighted to share some very timely resources with you that can deepen your self compassion practices. Kristin Neff’s latest book, Fierce Self Compassion is a resource and reference guide that you will want to keep in your home. You’ll refer to it often for yourself, for your spouse and kids, for friends and family members.
Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart, is another great reference book for our homes. She expands our emotional granularity with her education around 87 emotions and experiences that we all share.
And last, but not least….these 3 episodes of the Being Well podcast…are great, relatable conversations around rumination and meeting our own needs.