In the past blog posts I talked about how evolution has hard-wired us to protect ourselves so we can survive to see another day. One of the mechanisms for survival I mentioned was the fight-flight-freeze response when we saw a tiger. In this day and age we know we are not going to be eaten up by a tigers or be harmed by anyone under ordinary circumstances when we step out of our houses; we have developed very sophisticated rules to be able to live in our crowded society without coming to harm. You may have noticed that living in our society does not however eliminate the problem of stress we feel almost everyday; this stress is not unlike the stress we felt when we saw a tiger, although now it is in the form of emotional and internal stress. Strangely, we are still using our thousands of years old way of coping with this stress: the fight becomes self-criticism and we turn on ourselves, the flight becomes the self isolation and we avoid relationships, and the freeze becomes self-absorption and we get struck in our own thoughts.
In the last 10-20 years there has been lot of attention given to coping effectively with stress. It is becoming apparent that what ever that’s causing the stress or suffering becomes amplified if we try to resist or ignore it. With resisting we may turn sleeplessness into chronic insomnia, anxiety into panic attacks, temporary grief into chronic depression, back pain into chronic pain syndrome. We may feel this resistance in the body as a muscle tension, in the mind as rumination and in our behavior as avoidance. There is lot a of information about “techniques” that will allow you to feel better within minutes but unfortunately these are not lasting solutions. If we want real change we have to feel and accept our suffering.
Mindfulness and acceptance are opposite of resistance; it changes the process by which the resistance amplify the psychological suffering. When we turn our attention to the source of our suffering it may at first amplify the suffering so it is really important to use our intuition to distinguish between safety and discomfort. Feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable doesn’t mean unsafe; hurt doesn’t necessarily mean harm but we must know the difference. Generally speaking it is best to take the middle path between facing and avoiding.
When our suffering is profound than mindfulness by itself may not be enough. When we are anxious and we try to be mindful our anxiety may become worse. In this kind of situation loving kindness and compassion towards oneself will diminish any intractable discomfort. Self-compassion is bearing witness to ones own suffering and responding with kindness and understanding. It means taking care of ourselves just as we treat someone we dearly love. We have to also remind ourselves that we are not the only person suffering in the world, it is common to all humanity; and we needs to have open-balanced awareness and not get absorbed in our troubles, rather we need to approach our feeling with sense of curiosity. Self-compassion is a way of responding to what’s happening within us and who we are in a healthy way. We don’t want to assume that there is something wrong with us that should be fixed. We don’t want to throw ourselves away and become something better; rather it is about befriending who we really are. This is the essence of self-compassion.
We give ourselves kindness and understanding NOT TO FEEL BETTER, but BECAUSE we feel pain. We have to contact the sorrow before we can become compassionate.
The art and science of self-compassion by Christopher Germer