Self-Compassion Break

This morning, I was listening to an interview with Kelly McGonigal about working with clients who are stuck, and I had one of those moments where process and content collided. I watched as a very old process moved through me–a process where I was stuck for decades. And then I watched as a new habit kicked in–a habit that is getting me unstuck.

Distressed man

Dr. McGonigal made an offhand remark that made me think of a recent moment at work in which I felt I’d made a mistake. Not a terrible, irrecoverable mistake–just a moment I didn’t feel great about. I was hardly aware of the discomfort, though, because my habit here moves with lightening speed–a blink-and-you-miss-it thought, “I don’t want to think about that,” followed by a slight head shake that I’ve been doing since I was a kid. My mind is prone to critical self-review, and at some point, I learned to literally “shake it off” when a troubling memory threatened the corners of my consciousness.

This is where my self-compassion practice comes in handy. I’ve become familiar with this habit and it’s now a cue for me to pause and turn inward. If I’m shaking my head, there’s something I’m trying not to think about. If there’s something I’m trying not to think about, there’s something I’m trying not to feel. When I paused and looked, I found embarrassment and anxiety. These feelings (and my resistance to these feelings) were showing up in my body as tightness in my chest, an acid feeling in my gut, and a tense jaw. This is a state that naturally pushes my fight/flight/freeze system. This system was evolutionarily shaped to help us handle threats, and in this case, I am experiencing a threat to my self-concept. The head shake is a flight response–“I can escape this threat, if I just stop thinking about it.” Another path with which I’m quite familiar is to attack the problem (me) through critique. This is the fight response. My inner critic says that in order to not feel embarrassed and anxious anymore, I should carefully review what I said/did, acknowledge how utterly terrible it was, and make a series of plans to improve.

What I’ve found is that following the push to flee, leads to the feelings getting suppressed and leaking out sideways somewhere else. Suddenly, I find myself grouching at my daughter and I don’t know why. And the next time, I’m in a similar professional moment, I feel anxious, but I don’t know why. On the other hand, following the push to fight through self-criticism, tends to lead to shame and, paradoxically, less awareness, freedom, and creativity in the moments I am seeking to “improve.” It also tends to add to the suffering I’m experiencing in the moment. Telling myself I’m a bad psychologist who needs improvement tends to increase the flow of that acid drip in my gut. So what to do instead?

handonheartI’ve learned through my training as a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher to take a “self-compassion break.” It’s a quick and simple practice. The first step is to employ mindfulness to acknowledge that I’m in distress. I can silently say to myself, “This is a moment of suffering.” From the vantage point of fight/flight, one might imagine that turning toward the heat of the suffering would increase the discomfort one feels. I find (and research supports) that the opposite is true–there’s something calming about recognizing and naming that I’m in a tough moment. The next step is to acknowledge that it is human to suffer. I can say,“Suffering is a part of life, a part of what it is to be human.” In doing so, my membership to the community is restored–I am no longer an aberrant problem to be fixed as my inner critic would have me believe. The last step is to offer myself what I would naturally offer a good friend who is suffering. I can say, “May I give myself the kindness and compassion that I need right now.”

When I went through these steps this morning, I feel what I always feel. As my heart melts around my suffering and I remember how normal I am, much of the tension in my body releases. The memory is still uncomfortable, but not unmanageable. I’m neither afraid of it (meaning I can address the mistake openly and non-defensively if needed), nor do I feel an urgent press to fix it/me (meaning if there’s nothing to be done, I can let go of it).

And here’s the kicker–it took you longer to read about all this than it took me to do it. One of the refrains I hear a lot in our overworked culture is that developing a mindfulness practice would be nice, “but I really just don’t have the time.” Taking a self-compassion break can be a thirty-second process, and the dividends are exponential. Perhaps you can remember an occasion when you lost time to an anxiety spiral, or grouched at someone close to you and ended up in a lengthy conflict, or found yourself mysteriously depressed and unmotivated for days. What if there were an alternative, and all it required was taking thirty seconds to care for yourself in the moments when you need it?

The self-compassion break is one of many skills we teach and practice in the eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion course. You can learn more about our courses by clicking here.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Sue Ellen Johnson

    Thanks Sean. Your blog really is really speaking to me this morning. I find the urge to go into overwhelm when I am trying to juggle too many different things at one time. It is my pattern and I shall work to step out of it this morning through a self-compassion break

    1. Sean

      Hi Sue Ellen. So glad it spoke to you. I’m feeling you in that juggle!

  2. Meghan

    I wanted to express my appreciation for the compassion and clarity with which you have articulated the inefficacy of the fight/ flight/ freeze reaction versus the efficacy of the self- compassion break.

    1. Sean

      Thanks, Meghan! Appreciate the feedback

  3. Mary Larson

    Sean, I so much appreciate your personal and very articulate sharing. This inspires me. And I have remembered to do this kind of compassion break numerous times this week, with calming results (usually!) which is encourages me that this approach can be part of my life. Definitely need more practice.

    1. Sean

      So glad to hear my practice s feeding yours. Thanks for sharing.

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