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.