Self-compassion

A month ago I wrote about my tendency to take on the role of SuperWoman to myself and others. At the time, I recognized the troubling aspects of this voice and vowed to speak kindly to the go-getter in me, thanking her for her efforts and releasing her from her role. The next day I read my blog post to my partner. His candid response was, “That’s great, Meg. Do you think it will stick?” I paused. “This time, I think I’ve finally learned my lesson,” I said. “I’m done with trying to prove myself and be efficient and impress others.” Ahem. Yep. Not so much.

I am who I am. I am driven, compelled, obsessed (?!). I tackle everything on my to do list like it has to be done now and it has to be better than the last time. I have been like this for as long as I can remember. As a child, every moment spent playing would be more interesting or memorable than the last. I would make it so! As a teen, every journal entry would be more inspired. I know I can do it! As a college student, every boyfriend would be closer to my perfect match. If I just try harder, he has to be out there! As an adult, every difficult moment in life will be my greatest lesson. I WILL grow wiser…even if I die trying!

Cue my new superhero: Self-Compassion. This is something I have read about, practiced (loosely) in my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder, and preached to my clients. Yet, it wasn’t until I was tackling another thing on my to do list last week that it dawned on me just how essential self-compassion is…for me and for all of us.

As I sat down to watch a recorded workshop by self-compassion “guru” Kristen Neff, PhD, I thought, “Let me just watch this on fast-forward and then take the online exam and get these CEUs out of the way.” But she opened with a guided meditation for self-compassion and I thought, “Well, this might be nice. I’ll just listen for a while and then skip ahead.” I ended up listening to the whole thing. And I felt better. It was as if all the rough, jagged edges of my inner struggle were softening. I began seeing my compulsive drive to succeed as it is, without judging it as good or bad. I felt as if I was breathing more easily (or for the first time). I cried. As the tears spilled down my cheeks, I gave myself a gentle hug and rocked from side to side. It was one of several suggested physical gestures of kindness that Dr. Neff says is part of compassion. And it felt so good. I realized how much I wanted to be held and rocked…how much the inner child in me misses being taken care of by others instead of having to do everything myself. And I felt relieved. I felt okay, as I am. That moment of self-compassion opened my heart to the power of self-love.

In her workshop, Dr. Neff shares oodles of research on the positive impact of self-compassion, not just on ourselves, but on others. She shared a personal story about how showing herself compassion while her autistic son was having a meltdown on an airplane actually calmed him down, too. This makes so much sense to me. And it makes me want all of us to be kinder to ourselves. We need it. Our world needs it!

So here are the three components of self-compassion for those who want to begin practicing it: 1) mindfulness of suffering; 2) recognition of our common humanity; and 3) kindness to self. Mindfulness of suffering goes against our inclination. We want to avoid it, right? I used to avoid my emotional pain by over-eating , restricting, or over-exercising. Now I over-work. It’s still avoidance of pain. So, being mindful of my suffering involves taking a breath, turning toward it, and saying, “This is a moment of suffering.” or “This is really hard for me.” or “This hurts.” Then, I can remind myself that others have probably hurt like this, too. (We want to claim ownership of this pain and believe that no one else in the history of humanity has ever suffered this way. But really…!) Lastly, I can show myself some kindness — something as simple as sitting still and breathing or resting my hands over my heart or giving myself a gentle hug.

Since watching Dr. Neff’s DVD, my eyes have been opened to how often I am self-critical and how much in need I am of self-compassion. If you’d like something more concrete than what I shared, I encourage you to listen to any or all of Dr. Neff’s self-compassion meditations on her website (Click here).

I hope that you grow in self-awareness and self-compassion. It’s certainly the next step on my journey.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Emotion Regulation for Eating Disorder Recovery

Dialectical Behavior Therapy as developed by Marcia Linehan (Click here for more info) combines four major components for effective treatment: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation. Although developed and studied as a treatment for individuals with chronic suicidal thoughts and difficulties in interpersonal relationships, these four elements can be helpful to anyone who takes the time to learn and practice them. I’ve found them especially useful in my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder and I use mindfulness and emotion regulation every day.

Tonight I find myself turning to these skills following a fun-filled weekend that nurtured my mind, body, and spirit. You might be wondering why I would need to use these skills after being so filled (and fulfilled). Well, as long as I can remember, my emotions have felt very BIG to me. (When I was six years old, my mom bought me a book called, “Today I Feel Like A Warm Fuzzy” which taught children “to understand and talk about their own emotional responses”.) Anger felt like it would consume me. Sadness was all encompassing. Joy made me so elated I thought my heart would burst. Anxiety threatened me every day. Each feeling was enormous and overwhelming. Over time, I learned how to “cope” with the feelings by eating until I was so full I was numb to anything but the physical feeling of fullness.

Now, no longer trapped in the cycle of bingeing and restricting, I’ve come to appreciate the gift of being an empathetic, emotional person. I can also “sit with” my feelings, just noticing and being aware of them without judging them as overwhelming. I know how to express some feelings through written and spoken words and how to vent the bigger ones through creative arts like painting, mosaic-making, and scrap-booking. These modes of expression are all healthy ways to regulate emotions which begins with identifying the emotion, acknowledging it, reflecting on it in some tangible way, and ultimately changing it.

Tonight, when my partner was packing up to go home, I felt a wave of disappointment, sadness, and anxiety wash over me. In a flash, my mind had reviewed the wonderful weekend that was ending and looked at the jam-packed week ahead and assessed this moment as “terrible”. (It’s a familiar feeling — the let-down after any holiday, celebration, or social gathering.) I withdrew into the kitchen, dished out my favorite ice cream and put rainbow sprinkles on top. This feeling was NOT going to consume me. I was going to consume it!

Fortunately, the little voice of compassion inside me said, “Breathe, Megan. It’s going to be okay. You’re just sad. You had a lovely weekend. What you’re feeling is normal and it will pass. Put the ice cream in the freezer and eat it when you’re feeling calm.” Thank God for that gentle voice! I was able to put the ice cream back, was present enough to say goodbye to my partner, and then self-soothed by texting a friend. When I felt even more calm, I called my partner to explain my sudden withdrawal and to thank him for being part of my weekend.

And then I ate my ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.

Feelings are not right or wrong. They are not good or bad. They just are. We can all learn to tolerate and regulate them. It just takes time and practice. Check out Marcia Linehan’s website for more information or consider buying some books on mindfulness or DBT.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan