This article was originally published on December 23, 2018 and updated on November 14, 2019
Practicing self-compassion can be a challenging adventure. We don’t know what we might find when we start to explore our internal landscape, so it’s a beautiful act of self-care and self-compassion to tool ourselves up for the journey.
It’s important to collect the right tools of self-care for the particular journey we are embarking on. Having the right tools adds to the skill with which we manage our practice – we empower ourselves with these tools. Two important tools are:
- titration: understanding the self-care process of emotional opening and closing, and
- interoception: knowing how it feels, viscerally, to be in places of different degrees of choice so that we can manage our emotional experience skillfully.
You can read about titration here, and we’ll explore the value of interoception in this article.
Degrees of choice in our nervous system’s experience
We can think of emotional experience as being in one of three areas:
- Resting in low emotional stimulation, when we don’t really learn anything: a bit like sitting on our comfy couch with all our familiar things around us and nothing new to learn from;
- Sitting in our window of emotional tolerance (a term coined by Dan Siegel), where we are stimulated just enough so that the discomfort gives us information about our system that we can work with: a bit like being at the threshold window between the safety of our house and the big unknown world outside in a way that we feel held and can easily move back into the safety of our couch if needed;
- Feeling emotionally overwhelmed where our sympathetic nervous system – our fight-flight system – comes online to manage a threat: a bit like being out in an unknown world with few resources to help us maintain our balance other than our survival skills. Overwhelm can also lead us to a parasympathetic freeze response when our system identifies that our fight or flight responses aren’t effective and we move to shutting down.
Nervous system response
Sometimes, in self-compassion practice, we start to touch on emotional material that feels overwhelming. When we are in a place of emotional overwhelm, the power of our sympathetic nervous system kicks in with whatever energy it has. A healthy sympathetic nervous system will have enough cortisol and adrenaline to rally our muscles, our heart, our lungs and other important survival systems to get us out of that situation. A depleted nervous system may simply shut us down, numb us, lead us to dissociate. Either way, there is no capacity to take on new emotional material at this time – our amygdala has identified threat and our ancient brain is reacting. This is how we survive, but it is not how we grow emotionally or spiritually.
Moving into a place of overwhelm is not a place we want to intentionally go to during our self-compassion or mindfulness practice. Our daily life will test our survival response system enough and it isn’t served by moving ourselves intentionally into overwhelm at other times when it is not needed*. Our threat defense system is not strengthened through testing it out in non-threat times – we simply deplete our resources of cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine when we are in continual and repeated instances of threat. During mindfulness and self-compassion training we are encouraged to explore how it is to feel challenged around mildly difficult emotions, but we don’t need to go so far as to feel that our life is in danger in order to practice with new tools for emotional resilience.
Noticing signs of overwhelm
Places of overwhelm might look like any of these:
- seeing images of trauma experiences that we don’t feel emotionally equipped to be with;
- feeling a sense of panic rising in our system;
- feeling emotionally or physically unsafe;
- rapid heart rate and breathing;
- “checking out,” feeling suddenly tired, feeling numb or dissociating.
Noticing these signs through interoceptive awareness is part of our self-compassion training: part of the mindfulness piece that we cultivate. During practice we want to keep ourselves, as much as we can, in the window of emotional tolerance. We know we are no longer in that window of tolerance when our body gives us some of the signals listed above (this list is not exhaustive – we all have our own personal signals of overwhelm). When we notice we are moving into overwhelm, titrating our level of exposure to new material helps us move back to the window. Choosing to pull out of our emotional experience is one of the most skillful and profoundly self-compassionate things we can do. It’s an act of fierce self-compassion: responding through clear boundary-setting in order to protect vulnerable and less-equipped parts of ourselves.
Choosing more safeness
Titrating might mean you close the tap of sensory and emotional experiences by:
- moving your awareness to a neutral object of meditation like the sensation of touch or sound, your breath, or sensations in your internal body. You might also do one of the HeartWorks meditations designed to help you relax your nervous system;
- ceasing to explore material emotionally, by bringing your experience up into your intellect and viewing it with the curiosity of an objective scientist. This might include writing about your experience, researching terms and concepts online or in books, or simply listening to a teacher talk about this material without engaging with it emotionally; or
- employing the self-care strategies in this Somatic Self-Compassion First Aid article.
You can learn to tune into the wisdom of your body in finding out what you need in any given moment. This might take some practice, but you will eventually get to a place where you can lean on your body’s wisdom more and more. You can learn to collaborate with the wisdom of your body to take care of yourself emotionally so that you start to feel as if you are not wandering into your emotional material alone and unskilled. Your body becomes your guide and your companion.
If you’d like to explore self-compassion in a carefully scaffolded way that allows you to gradually explore your window of tolerance, we’d love to see you at Somatic Self-Compassion training.
* An exception to this might be within the held container of a therapy session where “exposure” to a perceived threat is intentionally brought on so that a therapist can skillfully introduce new material – but this kind of work definitely requires the help of a professional.
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