Some years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I found myself drawn to the baby department of a large London store. For quite some time, I wandered around gazing longingly at the tiny garments and prettily decorated furniture. Gradually I became aware that I was avoiding the other shoppers and trying to hide myself from view. I kept looking around nervously. Slowly it dawned on me that I was afraid of being thrown out, exposed as a fraud, called out for not being a mother—disputed as even being a ‘real’ woman. This memory still has the power to move me, and causes me to shudder even now. I had been told a few weeks earlier that it was very unlikely that I would be able to have children of my own. An infection in my fallopian tubes had caused them to close and buckle and the likelihood of them ever being healthy again was remote.
Of course, there was no-one in the store who was going to treat me in the way I feared. It was my own critical voice telling me over, and over again that I was a failure, a sham woman, worthless to myself or anyone else.
During my countless periods of treatment to try to restore my fertility I met only kindness and understanding. My partner, family and friends gathered around me to support me in my grief. During my short period of counselling that I sought to try and unpack my emotions I was treated with respect and more kindness.
It was only the voice in my head that insisted on telling me that I was a failure. Yet for quite some time that voice was skilful and effective. It knew just where to focus to undermine my efforts to deal with my disappointment. It could assume the sneering voice of my horrendous Latin teacher who tormented me over my lack of ability in Latin when I was a teenager. It could become the voice of my mother disapproving of my childhood rebellions. Sometimes it sounded like my father reproving me for not being everything he wanted for me. It could even assume the voice of a close friend who had just had her second child and who, in my worst moments, I imagined was crowing over my own failure to reproduce.
For the longest time I had no idea how to be a friend to myself.
Of course, this is a story of a crisis. To have a life dream dispelled so completely is a lot to deal with. Nonetheless, it does paint a picture of how our inner critic can work as a harsh judge and jury, rather than as a compassionate and caring friend. If this is linked to an idea that we should be perfect, and that anything less can only be seen as failure, it can be a toxic cocktail.
How we react to events in modern life has its roots in how we have evolved as a species. In order to survive and to pass on our genes, we have been conditioned to be alert to threats and to respond quickly to avoid them. When faced with danger our hunter-gatherer ancestors were conditioned to stand and fight, or run away if the enemy was bigger and stronger than them. They might also freeze in the hope that the enemy would be fooled into passing them by. Nowadays we still have these instincts of fight, flight, or freeze when faced with threat. The thing is that for most of the time the threats are not threats to our survival (except in extraordinary circumstances) but simply arising from the wear and tear of everyday life. They might be frustrating but they are not life-threatening and yet we react as if they were.
The elements of self-compassion
In his work on self- compassion Christopher Germer explains that when we turn on our fight response it quickly can become strong self-criticism. Our flight response can lead to a sense of self-isolation and the freeze response to self-absorption. Kristen Neff, in her book, Self Compassion explains that compassion for yourself is made up of three elements—self-kindness, connectedness and mindfulness. Let’s look at how this all fits together.
As I told in my story—the thing that helped me most was the kindness and support that I received from others but that I as unable to show that kindness to myself. I could not find the way to be a good friend to myself. Had I been called on to support other people in my situation I would have responded with care, and concern, but in my own case, I could only blame myself and feel inadequate. When painful, or frustrating things happen to us and our threat response kicks in, we tend to turn our frustration on ourselves when what we need is to show ourselves understanding and kindness, just as any friend would. In fact, a helpful strategy is to try and temper our inner critic with compassion and to learn to rephrase its observations in softer language that we can more easily hear.
It is not surprising that when we are distressed we feel as if we want to run away. Sadly, this can mean that we isolate ourselves from the social support that will help us to process what we need to go through. The second element of self-compassion comes in here—remembering how as human beings we are all connected. It is sobering to think that at any given moment, whatever difficulty you are facing, it is likely that there are many other people going through pretty much the same kind of struggle. Furthermore, we all want to have a happy life and to avoid pain and discomfort but the truth is that, inevitably, life is made up of a mixture of all kinds of events and circumstances. Some of them will be challenging and difficult. Remembering that we are all in the same boat can enable us to allow ourselves to let go of the drive to be perfect and to accept ourselves as the vulnerable, brave human beings that we are.
Feeling too much pressure or sadness can be overwhelming and lead to a feeling of being frozen and unsure how to act. We can turn in on ourselves and become absorbed in our difficulties, which seem insurmountable. Mindfulness can help us to get things in perspective by enabling us to be present to what is happening to us, rather than losing ourselves in rumination and worry. We learn to view our thoughts, emotions and circumstances with less judgement—accepting them as they are, rather than wanting them to be different. Often when something happens that we don’t like we react quickly to try and change it. This can cause even more problems when we lash out at other people. Mindfulness helps our minds to calm down and be less reactive. We can pause for a moment before we react and check we are behaving is a way that is helpful for ourselves and other people.
Meditation as the source of self-compassion
In my own experience, my meditation practice has been the basis for developing self-compassion. Meditation helps us to see that we do not need to be defined by our thoughts and emotions. In fact, they can be viewed like clouds that come and go across the sky, leaving no lasting impression. Working with our minds in this way helps to develop calmness and clarity and to enable us to make friends with ourselves, as we are—even with the parts that we find difficult. Kindness for ourselves and others rises naturally from this attitude and we no longer need to reach for a harsh and critical inner voice to knock us into shape. Even if this harsh voice does make its presence felt, we can pacify it with kindness and compassion, rather than reacting with fear and insecurity.
Start date: 5 January 2017
Registration opens: 5 December 2016