Thursday, November 4, 2010

Self-compassion: Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Is Self-Compassion Important?
This workbook is meant to be an invitation to create space in our lives for understanding and compassion for ourselves (and others), especially in rough times, and so to give us the opportunity to put aside the painful illusion of a future peace without a present one.
All of us already have preferred ways to take care of ourselves and show ourselves compassion. We'll begin by exploring our own intuitive wisdom for providing a safe, accepting, compassionate space to heal from stress and conflict.
Learning Task 2: Using Neff's Self-Compassion Scale
All of us make mistakes, especially in circumstances where emotions, needs, self-identities, cultures and other complex issues are involved. Using Neff's Self-Compassion Scale, we'll reflect on our own experience of self-compassion and explore six areas essential for self-compassion.
Learning Task 3: Mindfulness as a Basic Skill for Self-Compassion
Mindfulness is an essential skill for healing from the wounds of stress and conflict and removing the destructive power of over-identification. We'll introduce and begin practicing four skills of mindfulness.
Learning Task 4: Understanding the Process
How do we cultivate self-kindness, especially when our thoughts are so often filled with judgment? Where should we direct our mindfulness? A good starting place is to look at the process we go through to produce destructive thoughts and behaviors. We'll practice using a diagram to understand a conflict story.
Learning Task 5: Understanding Our Triggers
We'll explore our own tendencies for difficult emotions and thoughts to 'flood' during stress and try to discover some of the triggers we have in a conflict.
Learning Task 6: Identifying Our Interpretive Filters
We'll look at 2 important parts of our interpretive filters: affect systems (Anger/Anxiety/Disgust; Driven/Excited/Vitality; Content/Safe/Connected) and inference systems (including life-traps). We'll then explore how they might impact our well-being and our experiences of conflict.
Learning Task 7 Soothing Our Inner Voice
While reflecting on a conflict story, we'll pay attention to what happens with our body sensations, emotions, attention/thought and action urges. We'll then make compassionate response charts and practice one of these responses.
Learning Task 8: Context is Everything
Knowing our own vulnerability factors allows us to be proactive in avoiding, preparing for and/or making plans for healing from difficult circumstances. After identifying some of our key factors, we'll brainstorm possible compassionate preparations and responses.
Self-Compassion 8a: Writing a Compassionate Letter
Self-Compassion 8b: Keeping a Compassion Diary
Learning Task 9: Experiencing & Expressing Gratitude
Because we have focused on our self-compassion during stress and conflict, we have put a lot of emphasis on the difficult and negative experiences of life. How can we cultivate an attitude of gratefulness, even when facing less than ideal circumstances?
Conclusion: Ending & Beginning
As we conclude this workbook, we remember that each new day brings an invitation to continue learning to cultivate lives of self-compassion.

Self-Compassion Introduction: Why Is This Important?

Most of us would love to be happy, patient, peaceful people. Most of us would love to be the type of person that is just wonderful to have nearby. And we'd like to be this way no matter what - good times or bad, especially the bad. But ... most of us also struggle to be that person.

So this why self-compassion is important. And to understand this, we can begin to notice what happens when we are NOT self-compassionate.

  1. Our bodies suffer: tension, poor exercise and eating habits and general stress wear us down.
  2. We tend to notice and remember our difficult, unpleasant emotions more than neutral and pleasant emotions. We have trouble being content and happy.
  3. We tend to pay increasing attention to and think about only the difficult things happening in our lives.
  4. We fantasize about and have to hold in check desires for revenge.
  5. Our behaviors risk making situations worse.
  6. And all of this creates habits and reinforces automatic thinking and feeling – making it more likely that we will react in similar ways in the future
And for many, that description is also a fair summary of what happens during conflict and is one of the chief reasons why stress or conflict can destroy relationships, opportunities, or even organizations.

As human beings dealing with less than perfect circumstances, developing personal skills for dealing with stress and conflict is foundational for helping others. Self-awareness and self-empathy open the doors for awareness and empathy of others, skills that become a crucial part of finding and sharing peace and joy in the midst of stress and conflict. We must be peace to bring peace.

It is easy to postpone this peace, to feel like there is something more urgent, and to put our own peace and joy off another day. After all, there are a lot of urgent things that need doing. We have plenty of excuses to put it off, and our habits run deep. And there is usually a strong illusion that we can build tomorrow's peace and happiness on the foundation of today's conflict and coercion. "Once I finish this degree, get that promotion, find the perfect lover.... then, I can be happy." So peace and happiness become another one of those things that we never get around to or that we touch only briefly.

So if we stop a moment, we might see that an urgent need in the world is for more compassionate people. It is our own need, a daily need for empathy and compassion, as well as a daily discipline.

There are three skills for being compassionate people: 1) expressing compassion to others, 2) receiving compassion from others, and 3) cultivating compassion for our selves.

This workbook is meant to be an invitation to each of us to renew our attention to this pressing need and to build skills for coaching ourselves and others in self-compassion.

Self-Compassion 1: Your Intuitive Wisdom of Compassion

Note: this activity is adapted from the work of Paul Gilbert (Source)
To begin, we’re going to connect with our own intuitive wisdom of empathy and compassion. All of us have symbols that communicate wisdom, acceptance, compassion, and safety for us, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

1. Bring to mind a situation where you have experienced conflict, blame, anger, or other difficult emotions. Write a key word or phrase to remind you of the situation.

Caution: Be wise about the situation you choose, especially if you have suffered traumatic stress.

2. Now let your mind settle on a new question. If you could go anywhere or be with anyone to cope with that difficult situation, what would it be?
  • What would you see? Is it a person, place, animal, or thing? What colors?
  • What would you hear? What type of sounds? How loud? If there is a person, what kind of voice?
  • What about other sense? Smells? Touch? Temperature?
  • What happens to you? If there are people, how are you treated?
  • Do you do anything? What is your response to being in this compassionate place?

You might find it helpful to draw a picture or write a poem about this place.

Also, you can find more exercises and information in the work of Paul Gilbert, a psychologist and researcher who has developed Compassion Focused Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training, HERE.
Even if this exercise is difficult for you at first, it is important to begin seeing ways in which you already know what compassion means to you and how you experience it. Just like with exercising the body, your compassion muscles may be very weak or undeveloped - but they are there! You are strengthening something that you already have, not creating something from nothing.

Self-Compassion 2: Using Neff's Self-Compassion Scale

It is a common saying that "practice makes perfect." The tough thing about it is that it's true! In fact, there are many indications from psychological studies that it is best to 'over-learn' skills – learning it well enough to do once is not enough to do it well or even do it again. This may be especially true of skills we need to use in difficult, stressful situations. So no matter how committed we are to healthy communication and dealing with conflict and stress constructively, it's likely we are not as good at it as we'd like to be.

Because this is generally true, there is a very important set of attitudes and skills to take with us into our practice of handling stress and conflict: self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Because we do not become experts overnight, we should anticipate making mistakes and prepare for it. The self-compassion scale by Kristin Neff can help us create awareness around practicing these skills.

You can access the scale HERE.
Note: The scale allows you to get a snapshot of your self-compassion. For each category, the higher the mean is, the more you demonstrate a tendency toward that trait. Remember that this scale is not meant to establish a standard for you to live up to, for that would just generate less self-compassion. Rather, the scale is intended to help you build awareness around how you react to difficult circumstances. Your awareness then brings opportunity for transformation.
After completing the scale, REFLECT on the results of your self-compassion level.

• Was there anything surprising, confusing or that you disagree with?

• How do you think your self-compassion level affects your experience of stress and conflict?

• Where are your strong points?

• Where do you have the most room to grow?

• Look again at your strengths. Make a list of the your thoughts and activities that you use to do this well.

• How can you build on these strengths to increase your self-compassion?

Understanding the Scale.

Now that you've explored your initial reactions to the scale, spend some time exploring the meanings of these categories. The goal is that these categories can become helpful, mindful descriptions (NOT destructive labels).

If you find this exercise difficult, or you want to have more material for reflection, you can read Kristin Neff's descriptions of these elements HERE.

Self-Compassion 3: Mindfulness as a Basic Skill

Mindfulness skills are essential for the practice of self-compassion, so it’s important that we spend some time thinking about what mindfulness is and is not.

A helpful definition is from Jeff Brantley at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine:
"Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us." (Source)
The point here is not that it is never appropriate to draw conclusions, make moral judgments, or take a stand for what you believe is right. Rather, it is the realization that judgments are really shortcuts for a process of thought and interpretation.

Unless we can become conscious of that process, we cannot slow it down and look for errors along the way. And we will miss out on the freedom to deal kindly with ourselves, our circumstances, and others. But this kindness CAN arise out of our mindful awareness.

Throughout this workbook, we’ll be returning to this different way of seeing, a way outside of our usually judgmental approach to life. The following chart offers some the possibilities.

Can you recognize ways and times when you are relating to your life with mindfulness?

In what ways might mindfulness be especially important during stress and conflict?

Four Skills

A basic mindfulness practice for conflict and difficult circumstances can be developed by practicing four skills, which can be remembered using the word ROLL.

R: Recognize the overwhelming emotion or thought.
Paying attention gives us freedom to understand what has happened. Often, this is an emotion (e.g., SADNESS), mental activity (e.g., FANTASY), or recurrent thought (e.g., I AM WORTHLESS).
O: Open up to the experience.
Understanding empowers change, while denying, ignoring, or otherwise resisting the reality of your experience makes transformation that much harder.
L: Look Deeply.
Investigate it, be curious. What is it like? Especially -
• Body Sensations: How does it feel in the body? Is it pleasant? Unpleasant? Does it change?
• Emotional Experiences: What emotions are present?
• Attention & Thought: Where do my thoughts tend to go to? What beliefs or stories do I tell myself?
• Action Urges: Is there an urge to act or cling? What do I want to do?
L: Let Go.
Most of the time we are unaware of how strongly we attach to our bodies, thoughts and feelings. We build up very strong self-pictures and then get carried away with the force of them. But once you are able to be mindful of these things, you see just how temporary all of this really is. When you watch your experience change, you can realize that “This is just a passing process that comes and goes, not who I am.” Instead of, “I am an angry person,” you may think, “This is what anger feels like.” You'll find a lot of relief just in loosening your grip.

As you develop your mindfulness, you’ll notice that sometimes one skill is more useful to you than others. Sometimes you need all four, sometimes only one or two. The key is to practice.

If it's useful, you can use this chart to help you become mindful of what you actually experience during stress and conflict. To practice, just call to mind a simple experience - pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Remember, only use the skill that is helpful to you; you won't necessarily use all four or use them in any certain order.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Self-Compassion 4: Understanding the Process

Conflict and stress normally unfold in situations were there isn't much chance to really think things through. We react automatically, and our reactions reveal patterns of thinking and feeling that we establish over the years. The bad news is that this means our reactions are often difficult to change, the result of a lot of momentum. The good news is that by understanding how, when, and why we react in these ways, we have already started to change the pattern. Over time, mindfulness and self-compassion will automatically create new habits in us. They, too, can grow stronger and support us to live more kindly and wisely.

The initial challenge is obvious. When it comes to mindfulness during conflict, how do we become aware of processes that most often happen automatically? Typically -
• When we get in a conflict situation, we react without consciously deciding what to do. We find ourselves feeling, thinking and doing things with immediacy.

• Because these feelings, sensations and urges come in this manner, we don't often have a very deep understanding of the actual process behind them.
Self-compassion depends on understanding and slowing this process down so that we can choose how to respond to our automatic reactions. This diagram is a resource for developing our skills.

All of us recognize certain elements of the process from time to time, and we intuitively know that we can use them to explain our feelings and actions. We find ourselves saying, “I was just so tired” (vulnerability factor), “she just doesn’t understand what I’ve been through” (interpretive filter), “he has no idea what that does to me” (trigger event), “when I heard that, I was just shaking inside and wanted to scream” (inner voice). We often have the idea that if the other person could just see things our way, everything would make sense.

Self-compassion means we become conversant with this picture (often unconscious and sometimes illusory) that we have created to make sense of the world. When we understand how changing factors can affect the whole experience, we can choose to respond thoughtfully instead of react automatically. Some things to remember -
• In conflict, each person’s reaction often becomes a trigger for the other, which is one of the most important ways that the cycle of de-conciliation is sustained.
• This diagram is complementary to the empathy model of Marshall Rosenberg known as Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (more information HERE).
--- Making observations without evaluation is parallel to separating the actual trigger event from our interpretive filters.
--- Mindfulness of our inner voice is parallel to understanding our feelings and needs.
--- Making requests to meet our needs and responding with empathy is parallel to mindfulness of our outer voice.
• It is usually enough to become mindful of only one or two parts of the process in order to activate your compassionate self.
You can practice using the diagram by reading the following story and then guessing what Matthew might have experienced while having lunch with Tanya.
Matthew had a bad beginning at his new job. He felt out of place and couldn’t seem to fit in with the others. One day he even heard a couple of co-workers making jokes about how Matthew had acted at the last staff meeting. Any trust he had left was gone.

When Tanya was hired, Matthew experienced some competing feelings and thoughts. On one hand, he liked being around Tanya and wanted to know her better. On the other hand, he just knew she would turn out like everybody else. But he never had a chance to really find out, since he did his best to stay in the background and out of everybody else’s way.

During lunch break one day, Matthew was eating alone. Tanya came to his table and asked to join him. Matthew couldn’t help smiling and feeling happy at first; he said yes. But as Tanya started chatting, Matthew found himself worlds away in his own thoughts and doubts. “Why is she doing this anyway? Is she just feeling sorry for me? Or maybe she’s heard their stories about me and wants the inside scoop. Yeah, that’s it – she’s just like the rest of them… just looking for a way to get a laugh at my expense.”

Matthew suddenly realized that Tanya had been talking – he remembered answering a few questions about his work – but he had no idea what about. Besides, he now knew the ‘real’ reason she had joined him for lunch and gave himself permission to be as gruff and grumpy as he wanted. It didn’t take long for Tanya to finish her lunch and move on.

Matthew saw Tanya empty her tray and then join another table. Sure enough, they were soon laughing and talking away. Matthew congratulated himself for not being tricked by another co-worker. “I knew it,” he told himself, “she wasn’t really interested in knowing me.”
Based on Matthew’s story, what might have been his experience of the having lunch with Tanya?

You can also use this diagram to help you understand your own experience. You never have to feel obligated to use every part, either. Use what is most helpful to you.

Self-Compassion 5: Understanding Our Triggers

Now that we’ve got a general idea about the how our brain processes difficult circumstances, we can go into each part more deeply. We’ll also keep in mind the aspects identified by Neff:
• Mindfulness (instead of over-identification): what should we be especially aware of?
• Common humanity (instead of isolation): how is this part of the human condition?
• Self-kindness (instead of self-judgment): what compassionate response could be made?
For these activities, think about a simple conflict you have been involved in.

1. Trigger Events:

Triggers are simply incidents that set our automatic or habitual reactions in motion. A common phrase to describe these reactions is “flooding.” Emotions, thoughts, and urges ‘flood’ our minds and body. In the moment, we do not choose to react this way, although our choices over time reinforce or transform these reactions.

Below are some key questions to help us understand what triggers us during a conflict:

• Is there a certain behavior that you are consistently upset about?

• Are there any particular words or non-verbal communications that others use that you are consistently upset about?

• When you are trying to communicate to others, are there any responses that you are consistently upset about?

• Of the behaviors you listed above, which ones are hardest for you to handle well?

If you are at a stage of cultivating empathy-for-others, you may also ask:

• Have you noticed any ways that your own Outer Voice triggers others?

Self Compassion 6: Our Interpretive Filters

Note: A big part of our interpretive filters include culture and self-picture, which will be included in another future post.

Our thoughts and emotions are connected with each other. Thinking certain thoughts can trigger certain emotions, and certain emotions can trigger our thoughts. Further, we often experience these emotions automatically – we usually become aware of them only after or while we are experiencing them and the thoughts that come rushing into our heads.

Paul Gilbert has done a nice job simplifying Three Types of Affect Regulation Systems. The basic idea is:

(Adapted from Paul Gilbert, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2009;15:199-208,
Available as a pdf file HERE.)

Better Safe Than Sorry

Two of these systems are typically OVERdeveloped, because they are especially useful in keeping us alive during difficult circumstances. Can you guess which two?

If you're like most of us, you'll find yourself experiencing the Wanting and the Protecting states a lot more frequently than the Connecting/Soothing state.

And this raises an important point: our ‘negative’ emotions are actually quite important. If your brain activates the soothing system when what you need to do is get out of the way of the oncoming car, you won’t live very long! Anger-Anxiety-Disgust may be unpleasant and Wanting may motivate us to do inappropriate or dangerous things at times. And we may sometimes experience them when they are unnecessary or destructive.

But we could not survive without them.

Strengthening Our Weak Affect 'Muscles'

As true as this is, it also means that Content-Safe-Connected System is often UNDERdeveloped. And since the three systems influence each other, Protecting and Wanting often overpower our feelings of being Content-Safe-Connected. Self-compassion does not mean we eliminate emotions associated with defending or achieving. It means we strengthen our Content-Safe-Connected system so that it is also there when we need it. It means we are more balanced. And it means that we can influence the other systems when the time is right. We can re-train our minds to soothe and care for ourselves during difficult circumstances.

Inference Systems & Life Traps

So how does this work? One theory that is useful for understanding how our minds work brings attention to Inference Systems.

An inference system is just the way our minds link together certain thoughts, as well as the way it does this automatically. Inferences are shortcuts for what would otherwise be really long thought processes. For example, if you heard that my computer was broken by a virus introduced by Barry, you may think –
“David is angry because Barry broke his computer with a flash drive virus.”
What your brain is actually doing is much more involved. It may be something like this –
David is angry AND anger is caused by unpleasant events that other people cause AND anger is then pointed at those people AND David knows that Barry was using his computer AND he knows that Barry had a virus on his flash drive AND now David’s computer crashed because of a virus AND on and on.
It is very good that our brains can do all of this subconsciously, otherwise our conscious thinking would be exhausting! But the weakness is when an unhealthy thought gets incorporated into our inference systems. For example, what happens if you add, "AND people who make us angry deserve to be killed" into the system? Sure enough, you'll find yourself being driven by anger to want to severely punish others. It will seem obvious and irrefutable.

Jeff Young called this type of automatic thinking our “life traps” and summarized eighteen that he found most important.
  1. Abandonment/instability
  2. Mistrust/abuse
  3. Emotional deprivation
  4. Defectiveness/shame
  5. Social isolation/alienation
  6. Dependence/incompetence
  7. Vulnerability to harm or illness
  8. Enmeshment/undeveloped self
  9. Failure
  10. Entitlement/Grandiosity
  11. Insufficient self-control/self-discipline
  12. Subjugation
  13. Self-sacrifice
  14. Approval-seeking/recognition-seeking
  15. Negativity/pessimism
  16. Emotional inhibition
  17. Unrelenting standards/hyper-criticalness
  18. Punitiveness (SOURCE)
Take some time now to read more about these life traps by visiting Dr. Young's website, Schema Therapy, HERE.

After learning more about these Life Traps, go back to your conflict story. Do you notice any of the life traps at work in your story?

You can also use this chart to reflect on how you'd like to respond to your life traps.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Self-Compassion 7: Soothing Our Inner Voice

Consider a 2008 study documented that compassion practices changes our brain activity.
"Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? A new study suggests the answer is yes. Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states….

"This study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to indicate that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.

"The research suggests that individuals - from children who may engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression - and society in general could benefit from such meditative practices, says study director Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation."

-University of Wisconsin-Madison (2008, March 27).“Compassion Meditation Changes The Brain.” ScienceDaily. (Available HERE)
If we are in the middle of being flooding with overwhelming thoughts and emotions, we will not usually become aware of our automatic reactions until our Inner Voice gets activated, when our emotions and thoughts enter our consciousness. So the first step is to practice mindfulness and understand what is really happening inside of us.

We can also be intentional about planning compassionate responses.

Below is an example of a Compassionate Response Chart.

Bringing to mind your own automatic responses, choose at least one aspect of your inner voice and brainstorm some possible compassionate responses you could practice.
NOTE: Remember, you are practicing compassion, so it is okay if a response “doesn’t work.” Respond with curiosity and more compassion – it often takes time to learn to listen well to our selves.

For Further Practice. It is also useful to develop self-compassion practices for each part of our inner voice. If you have interest, use the practices below. Afterwards, reflect on how you experienced it. Was it helpful? Unhelpful? Were you easily distracted? Can you accept your experience?

Paying Attention - Often, just being mindful of our reactions is very soothing.

Remembering the Little Things – Move your attention to something you take for granted (e.g., eating something mindfully, remembering a happy memory, etc.).

Go Slow – Set some time aside to do something very slowly and intentionally, like drinking a cup of tea. Give it your full attention.

Gratitude: Bring attention to the fact that your body is the gift of life and invites you into experiencing the world. Do a body scan and cultivate gratefulness for the miracle of life, from the hair on your head to the tips of your toes.

Forgiving Ourselves – Remember that you inherited this body (and its automatic reactions) from others and from your past actions. Can you see your own body (and its reactions) as you would a body belonging to someone you love?

Self-Compassion 8: Context is Everything

Other key skills for self-compassion are preventative. As we become mindful of our triggers and our vulnerability factors, we can prevent conflict from escalating by:
  1. avoiding situations that are likely to provoke us (when possible),
  2. practicing self-compassion before entering a situation likely to trigger us, and
  3. making preparations for taking care of ourselves after the situation.

Take a few moments to start reflecting on the circumstances where you are most likely to experience overwhelming thoughts and emotions.

Knowing these vulnerability factors, how can you practice self-compassion?

Self-Compassion 8a: Writing a Compassionate Letter

Adapted by David Ketchum from the work of Paul Gilbert (SOURCE)
“In this exercise we are going to write about difficulties, but from the perspective of the compassionate part of ourselves.”

• Call to mind a compassionate image and your own wisdom of what is safe, wise, and accepting.

• Now imagine the human qualities connected with that image. Try to “feel your compassionate self” – you “at your best – at your calmest, at your wisest – at your most caring.”

• Consider the manner, tone of voice, and presence of this compassionate self. Remember, you are not judging yourself. This is your own wisdom of what compassion feels and acts like. Spend at least one minute just becoming aware of how this compassionate self acts.

• When you have a compassionate frame of mind (“even just slightly”), you are ready to start your letter. If you find yourself getting distracted (“am I doing this right?” or “I don't feel very compassionate!”), just be mindful of those thoughts and return to the compassionate self.

Returning after distraction is part of the self-compassion practice, too.

• The goal of your letter is to express self-empathy. You might begin by recognizing your feelings and needs. For example,
Dear David, I know you are feeling really anxious right now, that you would really enjoy having your needs to be understood and accepted met.
• Next, it may be helpful to affirm your experience. For example, your letter may continued with,
It's understandable that you're feeling that way, since you worked really hard to write that email to your friend, to disagree in a really polite way, and you were hoping that it would become a positive conversation. Instead, your friend decided to stop emailing you for a while.
• Continue by standing back. What will be most helpful to bring your attention to now? You can do this by: thinking about “how you'll feel about the situation in a couple of days, weeks or months, or you might recall that distressing feelings can lift and then remember how you'll feel when this happens.” For example, you might write:
I want you to remember, though, that your brain is designed to help you care about relationships. You're feeling anxious because you also have a need for connection and community, and your brain is reminding you of that. That reaction is natural and important, and you can use it to help you keep making decisions that meet your needs.
• Encourage a compassionate response. What might your compassionate self encourage you to do? What needs are most important to you right now, in the present? What strategies are available? You can also include any elements from the emotional fluency diagram that you think would be especially helpful in connecting to your own self-compassion. For example,
In fact, would you be willing to go spend some time connecting with a friend sometime soon? It's been a while since you played guitar with X – would that be a good place to start?
• End by thanking yourself for taking the time to listen.

Note: Paul Gilbert provides in-depth instructions HERE.

Self-Compassion 8b: Keeping a Compassion Diary

One basic skill for self-compassion is using your emotions/thoughts/body sensations/action urges as a cue to look deeply for the underlying process that is producing them. This serves two important purposes.

First, we become better equipped to handle the overwhelming emotions we experience during conflict and stress.

Second, we become more sensitive to the fact that this process is happening in everyone else. In both cases, emotional fluency can be an aid in cultivating empathy both for ourselves and others.

The goal is to be able to slow the process down even in the midst of overwhelming emotions, but it is helpful to practice using both memories of overwhelming emotions and the normal and positive emotions we experience.

If you would like to practice this skill, considering using the diagram or a compassion diary on a regular basis. You can explore your present emotions, important memories, or even make guesses about reactions of others that have been confusing or frustrating to you (remembering they are just guesses!).
NOTE: If you have had traumatic experiences, please be cautious using these exercises. Consider having a trusted counselor, therapist, pastor, or other such person to help you heal.
Some questions for a self-compassion diary:

1. Trigger Events: Are there any situations (places, people, issues) that you associate with overwhelming emotions? (e.g., talking about a certain issue, seeing someone roll their eyes, interacting with a particular person, etc.)

2. Interpretive Filters: What is the meaning you assign to the trigger? What beliefs/assumptions do you relate the trigger event to? (e.g., “sighing like that is so disrespectful”) To go deeper, can you pick out the core beliefs, evaluations, and inferences involved?

3. Listening to your Inner Voice:
a. Emotional Experience: What do you feel most intensely in those situations? (e.g., grief)
b. Attention/Thoughts: Are there intrusive thoughts or preoccupations?
c. Body Sensations: What is happening to your body? (e.g., tension, sweating, etc.)
d. Action Urge: What do you want to do? (e.g., yell, run away, hit something)

4. Context: Are there times when you notice you are more likely to be overwhelmed? (e.g., lack of sleep, hungry, a certain person's company, etc.)

5. Listening to your Outer Voice:
a. What feelings and needs do you actually name and express to others? Are they accurate?
b. What facial or postural expressions do you notice yourself using to communicate your Inner Voice? (e.g., slumping in your chair, turning your head away, etc.)
c. What words do you actually say? What requests do you make or actions do you take?

6. Compassionate Responses:
a. What compassion practices have you tried?
b. What worked well? Not so well?
c. What would you like to try now?

Enlarging our vocabulary for identifying and expressing feelings and needs is also a significant part of developing emotional fluency.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Self-Compassion 9: Experiencing & Expressing Gratitude

Note: Much of the content in this section is influenced by Dennis Rivers.
You can find his workbook on healthy communication HERE,
with a specific chapter on gratitude HERE

Chances are that you have to spend a significant part of your time focusing on problems - sometimes fixing them, sometimes anticipating them, sometimes avoiding them. It's even possible to view the daily work of survival as a collection of problems, especially if we have a view of the world that sees resources are scarce (and for a huge percentage of the world population, even the most basic resources ARE scarce!). The risk here is when we are tempted to view life as broken and we become unable (or unwilling) to notice and respond to those parts of life that really are wonderful, enjoyable - those moments that bring us delight. And healthy relationships - with ourselves or others - depend on noticing and dwelling fully in those moments.

We noted that Gratitude can be an important compassion practice in Learning Task 7, and the practice of gratitude is a good way to end this workbook.

Step 1. To begin, make a list of those things (relationships or circumstances) in life that fill you with anticipation – dread or joy, anger or excitement, exhaustion or energy, irritation or gratitude.

Based on your reflection, what kind of approach characterizes your daily experience of life?

Step 2. Think about how important those positive emotions are in the context of your relationships and the way you spend your day.

What do you think is the relationship between appreciation and our experience of conflict?

Appreciation is what makes it possible for our relationships to strong - and to stay strong even during the stress and disagreements of life.

Dennis Rivers shared research findings on the role of appreciation in healthy relationships. For example -
For Couples:
"... researchers at the University of Washington have discovered that couples who stay together tend to have five times more positive interactions than negative ones. Couples who stay together often have real disagreements, but a strong pattern of appreciative and affirming interaction appears to give them the positive momentum they need to work through their problems."
For Parents & Children:
"The child development research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley produced a strikingly parallel conclusion regarding parent-child interaction. 'They found that children who are the most intelligent, self-confident and flexible ... at ages six to eight had experienced five times more positive than negative interchanges with their parents by age three' By age three, the children who would thrive had received an average of around 500,000 positive interactions!" (SOURCE)
In what ways do you experience appreciation in your primary relationships?

What actions (outer voice) do you associate with gratitude? What attitudes (inner voice)?

2. Looking Deeply for Places Where Gratitude Can Grow

If you think back to our exploration of Interpretive Filters, you'll remember how constantly we are forming judgments and creating stories. We are constantly assigning meaning to our experiences. We are all story tellers.

This isn't a bad thing. We create stories in order to make sense of our lives, to bring order to what might otherwise feel chaotic and inconsistent. The trouble is that often the stories or themes we use to interpret and organize our lives can also be obstacles to a grateful, joyful experience of life. After all, we have plenty of raw material for almost any kind of story we'd like to tell. Each day is filled with any number of good of bad things. Or, when our stories kick in, any day can be filled with anticipation of the good or anxiety of the bad. Pretty soon, we think we know the story before anything even happens. We become "the guy with good luck" or "the man who never gets it right." With a trail of broken dreams behind us, the labels start to stick. "I'm a [insert your favorite put-down here]" may be a chorus, with a litany of "if only this..." to back us up. We remember everything that supports this interpretation and the rest of life falls into the background. It just doesn't count.

This is part of the reason why two people can experience very similar things in life but respond so differently. Those labels can lock us into a certain way of seeing the world, whether it's that way or not. Because even if our labels are true, they are not ALL that is true about us. This means that there is often a lot of experiences in life that have drifted out of view. Many times, it is those good moments. And that means that if we look deeply, we can often find some places in our hearts where gratitude can grow.

This doesn't mean to ignore or repress the labels and interpretive filters that have supported you up to now. In time, you can even be grateful for all those things that have helped you survive, especially during the dark and difficult times of life. Instead, we are talking about being compassionate and gentle with ourselves by intentionally developing new stories that will help us live more happily in the present moment.

And when we do have deeply troubling and even traumatic experiences (or remember those in the past), these new stories can be a resource to us by enabling us to continue to celebrate and enjoy those things in life that ARE still worth celebrating and enjoying. Our suffering will not have the power to control every part of our lives.

Reflect –
• What themes or stories have you used to make sense of your life? Were you conscious of these?

• What do your themes or stories encourage you to look for and pay attention to in life? How has this encouraged or discouraged experience gratitude?

• How can seeing the parts of your life that are 'bigger' than your stories and themes "open a path toward gratitude"?

• In what ways can gratitude be a form of resistance to oppression and injustice?

• Do you see any opportunities to give your heart and mind some "small moments of rest" from the problems in your life?

3. Experiencing Gratitude

For many of us, experiencing and expressing gratitude is actually quite difficult. Especially if praise and blame have been used to control our behavior, judgments of our self-worth might either lead us to believe that we are not worthy of anything good or that we are entitled to certain privileges. Neither of these stories help us feel grateful, even if all our basic needs are being well met.

So instead of being able to really enjoy life, we end up searching endlessly for something, anything. Gratitude can help us awake to all the things in life that are NOT missing. And, just as importantly, gratitude can help make us more mindful of happy moments throughout the day, so we don't miss them as they come.

So how do you experience gratitude? Is it an emotion that comes easily? Or is it difficult? How about gratitude for certain situations or people? It can be useful to get familiar with how you experience gratitude. And a simple way to do it is the time-honored tradition of counting your blessings.
Set aside 15 minutes and write down ten happy events in your life (or as many as you can think of – but try not to rush, savoring each memory as you go). This can include both specific events, such as winning a much-desired prize, and also particular people who have been a blessing in your life.

After you've done this, take the time to notice your mood. How do you feel? Were there some memories that were especially joyful? Difficult? Mixed?

4. Expressing Gratitude

An awareness of experiencing gratitude is a crucial step in a joyful life, developing new habits of mindfulness along the way. The next step, though, is just as crucial. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for us to have learned ineffective ways to express gratitude. But it is possible to practice new ways of using words to express gratitude. The example here is not the only way, but it is a good place to begin.

First, it is helpful to reflect on why a common way to express gratitude is often not the most effective way to connect with ourselves or others. Phrases like, "You are the greatest piano player in the world!" or "You are so beautiful" have at least 3 limitations –
1. The speaker is making a judgment/evaluation.
2. The speaker is NOT connecting to the appreciation personally (i.e., these are not 'I' statements)
3. The listener does not really know what is being appreciated or why
This is not to say that we can never use these expressions. Rather, we just want to make sure we are aware of the ways we communicate and what communicates most effectively. So let's take these 3 limitations and turn them into 3 strengths for communicating gratitude.
1. Be specific: without a judgment, what happened that inspired your gratitude?
2. Share your heart: what positive emotions arose with your gratitude?
3. Celebrate: what specific need(s) was met?
Take a moment and practice these three steps with something from the list you made in part 3, Experiencing Gratitude. Here is an example:
Thank you so much for washing the dishes this afternoon (be specific!). I feel so relieved and grateful (share your heart!). I had a really rough day at work and was really feeling tired, but now I can relax a little bit and still have time to go to bed early (celebrate the needs!).

It doesn't hurt to do this exercise from time to time and especially to practice with a willing partner. As you get familiar with the process, you can also reflect on the following questions:
• What do you like about expressing gratitude with this model?
• What could make it more useful?
• Can you think of any reasons it may be helpful to replace an evaluation with an observation when expressing gratitude?

5. Symbols of Gratitude

Gratitude is also a profound spiritual practice, a deep way of experiencing the world that connects us with others during the short time we are blessed to live. Being capable of joy, wonder and awe are two of the most wonderful things of being human.
In whatever way is right for you, take the time to write a prayer, draw a picture/symbol, spend some time in quietness, write a letter, or do something else that helps you experience the wonder of being alive.

Self-Compassion: Ending & Beginning

I hope that this introduction to self-compassion is a good beginning for you in cultivating a compassionate life. We began our practice together with a few goals for developing mindful awareness –
• Exploring our own intuitive wisdom for providing a safe, accepting, compassionate space to heal from stress and conflict.
• Remembering that all of us make mistakes, especially in circumstances where emotions, needs, self-identities, cultures and other complex issues are involved.
• Reflecting on our own experience of self-compassion using Neff's six aspects of self-compassion.
• Recognizing the importance of Mindfulness as an essential skill for healing from the wounds of stress and conflict and practicing four skills of mindfulness.
• Identifying our own tendencies for difficult emotions and thoughts to 'flood' during stress and discovering some of the triggers we have in conflict.
• Understanding two important parts of our interpretive filters and how they might impact our well-being and our experiences of conflict.
• Paying attention to what happens with our body sensations, emotions, attention/thought and action urges and planning compassionate responses.
• Becoming familiar with our own vulnerability factors so that we can avoid, prepare for and/or make plans for healing from difficult circumstances.
• Cultivating an attitude of gratefulness, even when facing less than ideal circumstances.
It is my hope that the time you have spent practicing these skills has met some of your own needs for living more deeply, more compassionately, more mindfully, and ultimately more joyfully. I appreciate the time you have given me to share these ideas with you; it helps meet my own needs for contributing to others and, I hope, adding beauty and compassion to the world.

I want to leave you with one last thought about the importance of a compassionate life.
Everything we do becomes part of our lives - for a moment, for months, for years. We store the memory of it in our minds and even in our bodies. As difficult as dealing with the momentum of our difficulties and destructive habits is, the good news is that creating new habits in our lives creates new possibilities. Our levels of stress can decrease, and we can create habits that make joy and peace possible, and even support us in our most difficult situations.
May our hearts daily be nourished to walk the path of peace!