Date: June 26, 2020
Author: ANDREW DALEY, RAMHP Coordinator
I got out of bed the other day and looked at the state of my house. It was grubby. I talked to my flatmate and said “this place is a pigsty, that lazy sod in there has been doing nothing to help out” I continued “he has left his dirty dishes in the sink, undies on the couch and his towel on the bathroom floor”. I was getting quite wound up by this stage and said “I’m going to give him a piece of my mind”. My flatmate looked worried, he said “please take it easy on him, he’s had a bad week” I was indignant “he needs to hear the truth, he’s not a baby”. I confronted my other flatmate and started to yell at him while I waved my finger in his face “you need to pull your socks up. Your father was right when he said you were a long streak of misery, you’re wasting your life”. He cowered in his bed and pulled the blanket over his head “leave me alone” he whimpered.
This story is true and a little bit sad. You see I live by myself. The conversations took place in my own head. Have you ever had that loud critical part of yourself just rip in? What’s that all about? Echoes from the past, a bit of trauma, not feeling good enough? Our minds are marvellous, no doubt about it, but they don’t forget. They have a savage way of reminding us of past hurts, all our mistakes and that time you flooded your father in-law’s house with a leaky washing machine (I hope he doesn’t read this).
Some psychologists tell us this is an internal dialogue, an interplay of language, symbology and our brains trying to keep our whole body safe. Evolution tells us to pay attention to anything that has the potential to harm us or get us kicked out of our tribe. The primitive parts of our brain are finely tuned to look out for threats in our environment. Threats can be real or perceived, physical, psychological or social. We have a negativity bias, a propensity to remember our mistakes, a propensity to worry about all the bad things that could happen despite having no proof they will. This can all play out inside our head. Ridicule might grab your attention, criticism might be a way to motivate you, and a harsh word might make you try harder. If you treated other people like this in the real world they would not stand for it. Why do it to ourselves then? Is there a better way?
Fortunately there is a remedy to this negativity and a way to stop falling victim to the “dark side” of thinking. Self-compassion. I like the way Kristin Neff (researcher and psychologist) explains self-compassion as a three faceted process.
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing ourselves for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with your personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
- Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.
- Common humanity vs. Isolation.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. It is the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we don’t get caught up and swept away by negative thinking.
With all this in mind I did a bit of soul searching. I decided that an apology was called for. I had a long hard look into the mirror. Warning, it feels a bit weird when you eye ball yourself in this manner. Anyway, I did it and I meant it. I acknowledged that the “mean” part of me was only trying to make me aware that some things in life are important so it’s helpful to pay attention. I said I understand that life is full of twists, turns and happenstance, and we can all buckle at the knees at times. I apologised for being so harsh, being a bully, being so quick to judge. I told myself it is okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to be human. Lastly I said to myself, keep trying to do your best, and always remember to bare your burdens with dignity because I have your back.
Dear readers, please remember.
Reach in: Take stock of where you are now. Have a compassionate conversation with yourself today. It’s OK not to be OK.
Reach out: Asking for help when you need it is a wise thing to do. Talk to your family, friends or a professional. You’re not alone.
- Dr Kristin Neff at self-compassion.org
- “The Compassionate Mind” by Paul Gilbert