There is an interesting and welcome change in self-help and brain biology books these days. “The Social Animal” by David Brooks strings recent scientific discoveries about social behavior on a framework of storyline about several intersecting fictional lives. Kristin Neff interleaves her academic study of self-forgiveness and self-compassion with stories from her own life. The books intersect on the brain studies of Buddhist monks during meditation, but her stories are non-fiction and much more compelling.
Reading examples of how self-compassion works in her life brings it into sharp focus, especially the stories about her autistic son. The best is at the end of the book… a compelling story of the journey to Mongolia with her husband, son, and a film crew to have the revered shaman, reached by horseback in the high steppes, cast out the spirits that were causing the son’s autism. What happened next is amazing and worth the read.
This posting on Facebook exemplifies Dr. Neff’s message of accepting one’s mistakes as part of being human, and of calling up the memory of a loving caregiver who could be counted on to soothe the emotional pain. All the more interesting because the Mom and Dad that she misses are both dead. The mother, of a drug overdose and the father (my first cousin) of chronic alcohol abuse. Yet they continue to be a source of comfort to their young adult daughter.
Dr. Neff’s mantra to remind herself to practice compassion is:
May I be safe
May I be peaceful
May I be kind to myself
May I accept myself as I am
May I accept my life as it is
She recommends distracting oneself from dwelling on the bad feelings by taking a walk or plunging into a physical chore like cleaning or gardening while practicing the mantra and self-compassion. She points out that “Forgiveness does not mean condoning bad behavior or that we need to interact with people who have hurt us.” Other notes:
P. 156. People who invest their self worth in feeling superior and infallible tent to get angry and defensive when their status is threatened. People who compassionately accept their imperfections however, no longer need to engage in such unhealthy behavior to protect their egos.
Not only is High self-esteem is linked to narcissism but, in contrast, high self-compassion is not linked to narcissism.
Love allows us to feel confident and secure (oxytocin) while fear sends our amygdala into overdrive and floods our systems with cortisol.
p. 170 Failure is less likely to damage the self-efficacy beliefs of self-compassionate people.
P. 45 John Bowlby argues that early attachment with parents created the “internal working model” of self in relation to others. Betrayed and abused children become insecurely attaches, tend to feel unworthy and unlovable and that other people cannot be trusted. This creates pervasive feelings of insecurity, long-terms emotional distress and impairs the formation of close, stable relationships. Not surprisingly, they turn out to have low self-compassion. These internal working models can be changed through healthy romantic partnerships and skilled therapy. (also compassion meditation) and consistently giving ourselves nurturance and understanding we come to feel worthy of care and acceptance.
Self-criticism is associated with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate (error processing and problem solving) Kindness and self-reassurance is associated with the left temporal pole (left pre-frontal cortex) and insula activation.
Physical touch releases oxytocin, provides a sense of security and soothes cardiovascular stress. Hug yourself.
p. 119 There are four elements to self-compassion mindfulness.
This is a moment of suffering (mindfulness of emotions)
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment (be in the present)
May I give myself the compassion I need. (set the intention to be self-compassionate)
Christopher Germer (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion) observes that his client typically go through several distinct stages during therapy. People who feel worthless can experience a backdraft, like when a door is opened on a fire and the rush of fresh air suddenly fuels an oxygen-starved fire causing flames to blast through the newly open door. Through mindfulness, the backdraft may be experienced with compassion. Then, sometimes, infatuation follows and the self-critical person is suddenly tender towards oneself.
p. 225 Rather than relying on your partner to give you exactly what you need, try meeting your own needs first. Identify what you’re craving (validation, care, support, etc.) and see if self-compassion can help give it to you. This will help take the pressure off your partner. As you learn to rely more on self-healing, your would, given the care and attention they need, can heal.
Dr. Neff also refers to John Gottman, famous for identifying the four horseman of divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Her insights into her own failed first marriage in light of her father’s abandonment of her family, and her stresses with her second husband illuminate the academic information. A useful and readable book. I recommend it.