Nuggets of Wisdom – How Self Compassion Transforms Us

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.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

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.

DISCOVERING YOUR WANTS
AND NEEDS
September 19, 2022 Episode
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weJ817JGD9I
HOW TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE WHAT YOU WANT
September 26, 2022 Episode
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qq305-codfo

Try Some Self-Compassion

We are flooded today with confusing messages about toxic positivity, memes of self care that look more life self-indulgence, and labels of all kinds that limit not only how others see us, but how we view ourselves. We spend a lot of time trying to live up to expectations, curating a persona that looks good on social media, and checking off the boxes of what we believe equals a successful life.

What we are learning is that the demands for our time and attention are greater than ever — and that we have unwittingly succumbed to a new age “peer pressure”.

It’s increasingly hard to be our “authentic selves” — and what does that even mean?

I think it means “being comfortable in your own skin” — intimately knowing yourself — and meeting the moments of your life in a wholehearted, genuine way. It’s hard to do that when outside influences are so strong.

We get little inklings throughout the day that we are a bit untethered from ourselves, when we realize we are wasting time on things that don’t matter much (like doom scrolling or hopscotching from one website to another), losing our patience over something minor, and feel like we are treading water rather than making forward progress on a legitimate goal. We say “yes” when we want to say “no”. We walk on eggshells or white knuckle our way around people and situations.

Then we let our inner critic chime in, reminding us that we are falling short;

This ramps up our anxiety levels;

And to counter it all — we try harder.

We push through all of it without a moment’s thought to one compelling question: Is this working?

It turns out that “trying harder” and “focusing on the positives” may be doing more harm than good. Powering through our states of exhaustion and hard emotions is not the answer. All that accomplishes is a stockpiling of unresolved issues that contribute to the stress cycle. Our bodies keep score and we get further away from being our authentic selves.

There is an ever-evolving body of scientific evidence that is coinciding with the practices of mindfulness revealing some hard truths. Stuffing our emotions, not processing adversities, and numbing our pains are clearly detrimental to our overall well-being. Trying harder and pushing through does not make us stronger, more resilient and fearless. It makes us sick, clouds our thinking and keeps us stuck in old narratives.

It turns out that self-compassion is the rudder we need.

I can almost see the eye-rolls now… Self-compassion probably sounds like a bubble bath, being alone with a book on a sunny beach, or indulging guilt-free in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

Actually, self compassion requires really getting to know ourselves. It is hard work AND the benefits are game-changing for improved quality of life. Kristin Neff, renowned resource for self-compassion, offers the three elements that comprise self-compassion practice:

  • Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
  • Common Humanity vs. Isolation
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

It becomes very evident as you take in this list, that a different lens shifts our perspective. Self-judgment, isolation and over-identification take us down a very narrow path; one that often creates blind spots, insecurities and disconnection from our true selves.

Why is it that other people often see us much differently than we see ourselves. Those who see our potential or know our true hearts are using much different lenses than the limited ones we use.

I’m discovering that the mentors, coaches and guides I am drawn to are incredibly skilled at self-compassion, and in turn they are then more compassionate and empathic toward others.

Those people who impact my life in positive ways inspire and encourage me because they have overcome hard things, and yet they grew softer, wiser and kinder from those adversities.

Self-compassionate and self-aware mentors are the best teachers because they don’t give us the answers — they encourage us to find our own.

Each of us has a vast array of different experiences and emotions — and an even more complex menagerie of how we’ve coped with them. Our lives may not be exactly the same, but we do see parts of ourselves and our experiences reflected back to us in the stories that others share with us. This is the strong foundation we need when we are undertaking self-compassion work. We get the support, education and encouragement we need from others who have done, or are doing, the work.

The many experiences and emotions we have accumulated over our lives shapes the narrative of who we are. It is the “narrative” of who we are that limits our self view.

In a recent interview on the Typology podcast, author Aundi Kolber asks an insightful question to help us dive in to the current story we are telling ourselves that has roots in our childhood: “What type of accommodations did you need to make in order to get your needs met?”

Think back to your childhood environment. How did you make sense of your world as a small child?

While many people had relatively good childhood experiences with loving parents and fond memories, a lot of people did not. Some grew up with uncertainty and chaos due to alcoholism, mental health issues, financial instability, grief, emotional and physical abuse. It’s really hard for little children to make sense of their world when there is no co-regulation, no consistency and no return to safety. As a result, those children grow up being hyper-vigilant, people pleasers, harmonizers or bullies.

Even kids who grow up in stable home environments are not immune to experiences that shape their narratives in profound ways; divorce, loss of a parent, grandparent or friend, changing schools, big injuries or serious illnesses. Every single one of us has dealt with the inevitable realities of life. Some of those realities are super hard. If we did not have the resources we needed as kids to process our emotions and the events, they get lodged in us.

They get lodged in two distinct ways: In our nervous system — and in our memory.

Remember that this is happening unconsciously when we are young, with a brain that is not fully developed and an equally limited ability to regulate our emotions. This is the birthplace of emotional triggers and behavioral patterns.

So when author Aundi Kolber asks what type of accommodations we needed to make in order to get our needs met in childhood, she is also asking us to become aware if we continue to make those accommodations as adults.

What we are learning now thanks to neuroscience, psychology and neurobiology is that we can do a lot better job at supporting our bodies, our brains – and each other — by processing these hard emotions and experiences as they are happening to us. We can shift the narrative that shapes us because of these life adversities but we must be proactive.

Now that we know better, we can do better. Start with experiences and emotions that are unfolding right now. Help yourself, and your children, to acknowledge and accept reality, to honor all those big emotions and to hold space to process them.

“Even though trauma is becoming more normalized to talk about, there is a BIG disconnect. Just because you go through an experience that has the POTENTIAL to become a traumatic experience, doesn’t mean it will. It is what happens AFTER that experience that will have a really big impact to the extent that it stays stuck in your body.” — Aundi Kolber, Author of Try Softer

Everyone of us needs resources to support us through the challenges of life and the emotions that accompany them. Stuffing our emotions or powering through them is no longer an acceptable way to deal with the really hard parts of life. If we have everything we need for our bodies and brains to complete a stress cycle, it does not need to become lodged as trauma in us.

This is how we develop emotional chronicity — by providing calm co-regulation and a return to emotional safety. This is how we proactively attend to those developing little brains and bodies. This strongly influences childhood narratives in a much healthier way. We can hang a “no vacancy” sign on the place we once lodged unprocessed, painful memories.

When we have a greater self-awareness AND a toolkit to resource ourselves, we become better teachers for our children. This is the path to breaking generational cycles of poor emotional regulation and unprocessed traumas.

Because kiddos don’t have a fully formed brain and their nervous system is not able to regulate through especially really overwhelming experiences, things that might not be traumatic to an adult have the potential to be highly traumatic to kids…..especially if they don’t get the support that they need.” –Aundi Kolber, Author of Try Softer

This work feels a lot like the messages we get onboard an airplane before takeoff. “Put your own oxygen mask on first, then assist your small child.”

Changing how we attend to ourselves in the face of hard, painful experiences starts with self compassion. Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Imagine you are parenting yourself; picture yourself as your child — and you will be transported to that place where you organically offer these very comforts to others. Give them to yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first.

Aundi Kolber says that a basic understanding of our nervous system is profoundly empowering — “it’s like having the keys to your car.” She enthusiastically explains that our bodies are “freaking amazing” and that we are designed to get through difficulties and survive. The more we understand how to tap into both our brains and our bodies to assist with its full capabilities, the smoother a ride we will have. Self-compassion is like regular maintenance. The repair work we need to do requires us to “get under the hood.”

Aundi introduces us to the Window of Tolerance: the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. Our “window” is that range where we can feel our feelings or have an experience and are able to tolerate it.

When we are in our “window of tolerance” we are typically able to receive, process and integrate information; we can respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.

It is when we move out of that window that our body takes over and sounds the “all hands on deck alarm” in order to protect us — we fly out the window and go up into Fight, Flight or Fawning. Aundi says that anytime we go outside our window of tolerance, the highest part of our brain – the executive function – goes offline and is not available any more. We no longer have full access to our brain.

It’s like a rollercoaster….we go up into the danger zone of fight or flight and if we can’t resolve things there, we head down into dissociation. This state of dissociation will be very familiar to many — it is where we feel disconnected from our body, we might feel numb and we definitely are not fully present.

It’s easy to see that a little child starts out with a small window of tolerance. Any childhood experience that took us out of our window of tolerance (without support or resources to process it), becomes stored, like all our other memories. Anytime something reminds us of that experience (a smell, a raised voice, a facial expression, a car accident, an ambulance, something breaking, etc), that sends the trigger to our body that it is happening again. Lots of little unresolved traumas, or big T trauma will cause our window of tolerance to narrow. Our bodies are on red alert all the time.

Our stories live in our bodies. Our childhood experiences that were not processed and integrated, get stored into our nervous system and memory and we created a story to go with it. In doing so, the size of our window of tolerance may be too small for all that we are dealing with as adults. There may be times when daily life stressors push us out of our window of tolerance and we find ourselves overreacting to things that shouldn’t bother us so much. We wish we had more bandwidth.

The good news is that we can expand our window of tolerance. As an added bonus, in doing the work to expand it, we can also do some serious housecleaning in the process. We can process and purge ourselves of old narratives. We can change the story we wrote as kids and enjoy one better suited for adulthood.

It all starts with self compassion and self-parenting. We gather the resources we need, including safe people who can support us – and we do the hard work. We attend to unprocessed trauma. We neutralize it, integrate it and gain more safety, more agency over how our bodies and brains respond to triggers.

Our bodies are designed to move through pain. The reason we hurt so much, get triggered by old stories and get stuck is that we haven’t let our experiences and emotions move through us. That’s how it is supposed to work. Accept, feel, process, neutralize, integrate and let go. It’s only hard work now because we have waited so long and it’s fossilized in us. When we take proactive steps to deal with our current life experiences and emotions, it actually takes less time in the long run.

Most importantly, we extract the life lessons that guide us rather than the stories that misdirect us.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts in Self-Compassion
https://self-compassion.org
Hosted by Ian Morgan Cron, Enneagram Expert & Author of The Story of You https://www.typologypodcast.com/podcast/2022/31/03/aundikolber

TRY SOFTER: A Fresh Approach to Move Us Out of Anxiety, Stress & Survival Mode and Into a Life of Connection and Joy, by Aundi Kolber
A compelling and relatable understanding of the positive impacts of mindfulness practices. Gain control over your attention!