Before I tell you about Mindful Self-Compassion, I want to explain why we need it. I’ll start with an example from my life – a time when I experienced emotional pain.
I pulled into a parking space at my neighborhood Schnucks. Sitting in the car, I started to write a shopping list, when I burst into tears. I had just left my parents condo where my mother was in constant, debilitating pain. She had had knee replacement surgery two weeks prior but suddenly experienced excruciating back pain and needed someone with her nearly 24 hours a day – much of the care provided by me.
There I was, in my car, selfishly wishing I did not have to provide so much care for my mom. I was frustrated that she didn’t have a diagnosis and did not want to believe that daily caregiving was my new future. I also did not want to believe that the rest of my mom’s life would be filled with debilitating pain.
I was sobbing. I tried to compose myself but realized I was just too emotional to go into the store. I left the parking lot feeling like I was failing my mom by not being able to help her feel better. Plus I felt like I was failing my family by being gone so much and was apparently unable to go into a store to buy milk.
I would learn that I can give myself the compassion I need. In fact, I am the only one I can always count on to provide the compassion I need.
The above situation happened several years ago. I did not know about mindful self compassion at that time. I responded how I always did — beat myself up for what I thought were failures. I was experiencing emotional pain. What I didn’t know was that someday I would learn that emotional pain is part of everyone’s life. And that while we usually cannot change the cause of the pain we CAN change how we respond to the pain. I would learn that I can give myself the compassion I need. In fact, I am the only one I can always count on to provide the compassion I need.
Avoiding Emotional Pain
Of course we want to avoid pain. However, avoiding and resisting pain pain actually makes it worse, illustrated by the following formula:
Pain x Resistance = Suffering
Everyone experiences emotional pain. It’s natural to NOT want to feel pain. We resist pain by distracting ourselves with things like eating, shopping, gambling, drinking, streaming Netflix, etc. Even when there is nothing we can do, our minds continue to want to fix the situation and stop the pain. These distracting actions and thoughts can make it difficult to do important things like take care of our families and ourselves.
In my experience with my mother, I was resisting my emotional pain. I couldn’t stop the thoughts that kept trying to solve the problem. My thoughts created a downward spiral, and I could not see a way out. I resisted the pain and I was suffering.
Mindfulness is essentially awareness; being aware of our thoughts and feelings, without negative judgement. We can enhance our mindfulness through meditation. The practice of meditation, for example – focusing on your breath, is an opportunity to notice, acknowledge, and then release thoughts. When we notice the pain and acknowledge it, we reduce the need to distract ourselves. Simply acknowledging our emotional pain changes our experience or perception of the pain. It doesn’t change the situation causing the pain, but a change in our perception is a change in our reality.
In the above situation, if I had known about mindfulness, I could have noticed that my mom’s physical pain was causing me to feel sad and helpless. I could have noticed that a big part of me did not want to be a caregiver for her forever and that I was upset about not being with my own family as much as I wanted. When I am able to notice and name my thoughts and feelings, it’s a little like looking at my life from the outside, almost like an observer. When I don’t notice and can’t name my thoughts and feelings, it’s all just bottled up inside me, causing emotional pain.
When I was in the Schnucks parking lot, sobbing, it would have been much more helpful to acknowledge how much I was suffering.
While mindfulness is awareness of what we are experiencing, self-compassion is acceptance of ourselves. When I was in the Schnucks parking lot, sobbing, it would have been much more helpful to acknowledge how much I was suffering. I could have said, “I am in pain. This would be painful for anyone. It’s ok to feel this pain. I’ll be ok.” The interesting thing is that you don’t have to believe those words. Just saying them changes your thoughts, which changes your experience of the situation.
Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. New York: The Guilford Press.
- The Subtle Power of Mindful Self Compassion, Part 2 - October 5, 2015
- The Subtle Power of Mindful Self Compassion, Part 1 - October 1, 2015
- Catherine Klostermeier - March 22, 2015