COMPASSION & SELF-COMPASSION
- Compassionate Brain -- audiovisual resources [LINK]
- THE COMPASSIONATE BRAIN -- Rick Hanson's series: [LINK]
- Compassionte Brain -- audiovisual resources [LINK]
- Making Mindfulness Work for You [LINK]
- Compassionate Wellbeing website [LINK]
Mindfulness and Self-Worth -- PDF by Ron Siegel PhD and Elisha Goldstein PhD -- particularly important for survivors of childhood abuse [LINK]
ASSESS YOUR SELF-COMPASSION [LINK]
Complete this research survey (including your email address), let me know you have, and I'll get back to you with the results and further guidance.
"People do what seems best from their own perspective, which looks through filters of fears and doubts, unmet needs and stuck attachments, fixed beliefs and conditioning, bad experiences and false information, pessimism and desperation ... or the clear spectacles of hope and faith, understanding and optimism, and love and compassion."
My Introduction to Mindfulness page has links to articles discussing what mechanisms may be involved in the effects of Mindfulness practice. Emotion regulation is one of the proposed mechanisms, as is Psychological Flexibility, amongst others. [LINK]. Interestingly, there is some evidence that Self-Compassion is more important than Mindfulness per se in determining symptom severity in cases of mixed anxiety and depression, as are commonly experienced by survivors of childhood trauma. van Dam et al (2011) -- [LINK] -- read article (.doc) [LINK] This study was conducted in the research lab of John Forsyth, a prominent Acceptance and Commitment Therapy researcher and clinical professor.
The three components of self-compassion are mindfulness, kindness to one's self (as opposed to self-judgment), and feeling part of a common humanity (as opposed to isolation).
Dr. Forsyth's lab analyzed some of the data they've been collecting from 504 people to look at what processes may be most important to anxiety and depression. They used Neff's Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff, 2003) and--for their measure of mindfulness--the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003). The articles uses some very precise statistical terms that I'll try to translate for a more general audience, but please bear in mind that my descriptions below lose some of the nuance of the original.
Interestingly, self-compassion was a much better measure than mindfulness in accounting for problems with anxiety, depression, and overall quality of life. The SCS has several subscales: the most important one for anxiety and depression was the self-judgment subscale. Greater self-judgment showed a comparatively larger relationship with greater anxiety and depression. What this means is that the SCS appears to be a better predictor than the MAAS in measuring treatment outcomes for people with anxiety and depression. It also suggests that awareness of thoughts and emotions may be less important than how one relates to them (the central thesis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). What this means is that self-compassion may be a particularly important component in mindfulness-based treatments, and that it is a useful predictor of psychological health.
A caveat to these findings is that the MAAS is only one of several mindfulness measures. Some of the other mindfulness measures such as the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS) and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) measure 4-5 aspects of mindfulness whereas the MAAS measures one. What it does suggest, though, is that self-compassion, as it is measured by the SCS, may be an extremely important construct in measuring treatment outcome for mindfulness-based therapies. This study contributes to a growing body of literature suggesting the importance of self-compassion as a construct.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, author of the book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself up and Leave the Insecurity Behind, self compassion is a very powerful way of relating to yourself. It simply involves being kind to yourself.
One trap that can make us fall out of kindness with ourselves is rumination. If you've ever replayed conversations, arguments, or situations that happen at work or at home again, again, and yet again, then you've experienced rumination. Nolen-Hoesema, author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life, states that woman ruminate more than men. This occurs because women tend to be more relationship focused and the ambiguity involved around relationships provides great fuel for rumination. This does not mean that men don't ruminate. Men tend to NOT focus on a problem to repress addressing issues, thus ruminating around issues.
People who ruminate may have more stress in their lives which leaves them more preoccupied. It can turn into a vicious cycle that can project negativity into your current life. This can lead to a feeling of helplessness.
Studies show that rumination can also lead to depression, anxiety, binge eating and drinking, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. When we're in challenging situations and rumination is reigning, anxiety increases and valuable time is being used up that could be spent in a positive way. The great news is that we don't have to stay there!
Get off the Rumination Carousel
Write! Create a journal. Write words of compassion to yourself. Address yourself kindly and be encouraging in a way a friend who loves and supports you would. Make a lists of your successes, things you like to do, things you like about yourself, and affirmations that you truly believe.
Be Solution Focused - Choose one small thing that you could do to overcome the problem and take action on it. If the problem seems unsolvable at the moment, invite someone positive to help you come up with a solution or action step. Taking one small step can take the wind out of rumination's sails.
Step into the Present - Use your senses. Feel the "YOU" inside your body. Notice what it feels like. Notice what your skin feels like. If you are sitting in a chair, feel your body against it. Feel the temperature of space you're in. Notice the rhythm of your breath. Take a walk. Feel the "YOU" connection.
Notice Things Around You - Look around the space you're in, and notice what you see. Silently, start naming the objects you notice. For example, "There is a light brown desk with a cream colored lamp on it. The desk is a modern design and there is a matching chair. It has some scratches. It has two drawers with chrome handles..."
Keep the list going until you feel a shift. Though this may sound simplistic, it can work to give you a reprieve by shifting the focus away from the grind going on in your head and toward the peace that is available.
Be Mindful of Other Daily Traps
Practicing self compassion by being mindful of several other potential traps can help us to maintain balance in our lives. Addiction recovery programs teach to never become too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT). This is not reserved only for those in recovery. This applies to everyone! When these needs aren't being met, we are out of balance. We are vulnerable. We are more susceptible to the negative voices in our heads. Our reactions to daily life can become amplified and it's harder to make the best choices for our own good.
If even one of these needs is not met, the others can be thrown out of balance. We can be too tired to eat, and too angry to sleep. When we get too hungry or too tired, it can make us go from zero to angry in a minute. If we are lonely, we can become despondent and have no appetite. These interdependent needs can have a huge impact on our lives.
I've learned through experience that if I ensure that each of these needs is taken care of before I participate in important meetings or situations, then they will either go well or I'll handle them better if they don't go according to plan. This balance helps me to keep my confidence and feeling of wellbeing at a level that provides a measure of peace, before I participate.
Keeping Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired (HALT) in Check
Hungry - Address your physical hunger with good food and at appropriate times. There are other types of hunger --hunger for positive things in your life, spiritual hunger, hunger to be connected, and hunger for fun. If the hunger you're experiencing is not physical, identify the type of hunger or need you're experiencing through journaling or meditation. Then commit to take small, positive steps to feed it. Each tiny step will bring you closer to feeling balanced.
Angry - When you feel a shift toward anger or any other emotion that you'd like to curb, breathe deeply focusing your awareness at the air moving in and out through the tip of your nose. Breathe in and silently say the words, "I am." Breathe out and silently say, "Peace." Continue this exercise, changing the focus words to ones that resonate with you, such as balance, love, rest, calm or joy. Choose positive words that resonate with your current situation.
Lonely - Ask yourself if you are actually lonely or are you just bored? Add some fun to your life by taking up a hobby. Call a friend. Get involved with people who have similar interests. Help a friend with a project. Volunteer at a local shelter, food bank, or school. A visit to meetup.com can easily connect you with a multitude of people with similar likes and interests. Just a few courageous steps outside a lonely comfort zone can help you to feel connected in no time.
Tired - Getting adequate rest is healing and can help to restore our balance. The National Sleep Foundation states that the average adult needs from 7-9 hours each night, but that can vary between individuals. Tune into your body to find out what is optimal for you to support your daily wellbeing. Take advantage of the opportunity to sleep. It is a powerful healing tool.
Remember that addressing a single area of HALT impacts all the rest. The road to balance is not a straight line. If you get hungry, angry, lonely, tired and ruminate all at the same time, you still have the gifts of awareness and choice to make one small step in favor of your wellbeing at every moment.
The secret to getting and staying on a more balanced path is to allow ourselves to be human at EVERY point along the way and to continue taking self compassionate steps in the direction of our wellbeing. If the path between start and balance is crooked, yet cushioned with self compassion, we can still reach our destination and arrive there in one piece.
Other Positive Benefits of Self Compassion
University of Arizona researchers studied 38 men and 67 women at an average age of 40, who were married for more than 13 years and were divorced for an average of three to four months. They found that those with higher levels of self-compassion were able to recover faster from the devastating impact of divorce. According to a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, a study with 177 graduate students showed that those with more self compassion had better personal initiative. Self-compassion was also linked to more happiness, optimism, brain function, and coping strategies. A 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University showed that self compassion is an antidote to the self-critical thoughts and emotional distress that fuel overeating and accompany dieting, which can lead to more effective overall diet control. Practicing awareness and staying tuned into the path of self compassion keeps us balanced. Each of us deserves the self compassion to care for our needs when they arise.
So, as you continue on your life's journey, always remember to take it easy on yourself. If you don't, who will?
Can a compassionate attitude towards self and others be taught?
Thupten Jingpa, Ph.D., the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, has developed a nine-week compassion cultivation training (CCT) that combines elements of Theravada lovingkindness and Tibetan compassion meditations. Jazalieri et al. (2012) [LINK]) studied compassion and fear of compassion (e.g., fear of being taken advantage of, feelings of unworthiness) in CCT trainees. The trainees showed greater self-compassion and decreased fear of compassion when compared with a waitlist control group. The amount of time trainees spent in meditation was directly correlated with their decrease in fear of compassion towards others.
The development of social emotions such as compassion is crucial for successful social interactions as well as for the maintenance of mental and physical health, especially when confronted with distressing life events. Significant changes in both brain morphology and functioning have been demonsrated as a result of mindfulness training. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting the training of these emotions are poorly understood. To study affective plasticity in healthy adults, Klimecki et al (2012) [LINK] measured functional neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others in a newly developed task (Socio-affective Video Task). Participants' initial empathic responses to the task were accompanied by negative affect and activations in the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex-a core neural network underlying empathy for pain. Whereas participants reacted with negative affect before training, compassion training increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress. On the neural level, it was observed that, compared with a memory control group, compassion training elicited activity in a neural network including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area-brain regions previously associated with positive affect and affiliation. Taken together, these findings suggest that the deliberate cultivation of compassion offers a new coping strategy that fosters positive affect even when confronted with the distress of others.
Unfortunately, despite all its importance in promoting improved mental and physical health, self-compassion doesn't come easily to some people Perhaps those who need to foster it most, victims of childhood emotional and psychological abuse, are those who struggle with it the most, perhaps because their earlier abuse has altered how their brain functions (van Harmelen et al, 2012) [LINK]. But, the previously cited effects of specific training in such things as loving kindness meditation, give rise to some hope that these early effects can be reversed, at least to some extent.
Fortunately, Kristin Neff has also provided insight into why self-compassion can be a difficult process to learn. John Folk-Williams, editor and author or the Storied Mind blog has provided a "layman's version" of Prof. Neff's explanation [LINK].
Neff writes: "[P]people who are used to constant self-criticism often erupt in anger and intense negativity when they first try to take a kinder, more gentle approach with themselves. It’s as if their sense of self has been so invested in feeling inadequate that this “worthless self” fights for survival when it’s threatened.". Folk-Williams writes of his own experience: "But I think the fear of losing the security of home and family ran so deep that I still resist the very thought of going beyond self-acceptance to self-compassion." In my case, I never had the security of knowing "family", but was unable to leave one day when my aunt ordered me to leave "home", afraid as I didn't know where else I could go -- regardless of how bad "home" was. Actually practising self-compassion remains an everyday struggle. Of course, when you "know you've stuffed up", such as by abusing alcohol or drugs to deal with the pain you carry, like many of those with Complex Trauma, it's easy to prove to yourself you don't "deserve" to be self-compassionate, as discussed in this recent article in the journal Meditation by Brooks et al [LINK]