Self-Compassion It

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I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.

At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.”  I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.

The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but.  As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else.  That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again.  Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless.  Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.

Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well.  But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.

As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear.  She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions.  Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.

After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public,  for example, as some autistic children do —  she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.

Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable.  It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.

If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all.  And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.

The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.

The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact.  Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.

Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”

Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet.  It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment.  For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.

It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.

The Happy Lawyer?

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The other night I attended a training session at the New York City Bar Association called “Happiness for Lawyers: Mindfulness and Emotional Skills to Improve Our Professional Life (and Make us Happier).” As I was leaving, the security guard remarked that all the participants walking out of the room had a smile on their face. “That’s not the way they looked when they got here,” he said. “I guess it works.”

I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s rare that I leave a meeting of lawyers smiling. I guess it’s pretty rare for others, too, since this security guard works at the City Bar Building, which houses events for lawyers all day.

There’s something about gathering a roomful of people, whether lawyers or anyone else, for the purpose of observing and settling your minds that has a naturally calming effect. Instead of focusing on some external problem to be battled or solved, which is what lawyers normally do, we were focused on just being aware of the anxiety caused by always having to solve people’s problems.

Lawyers are famously depressed and anxious, compared to people in other professions. Robert Chender, a longtime mindfulness teacher and lawyer who led the bar association training, explained why: our role as lawyers is mostly to worry. It’s to anticipate the worst that can happen and try to prevent it. While that may sometimes work to the benefit of our clients, it tends to spill over into our lives and make us chronically stressed out. Not only is it stressful to always focus on the worst that can happen; you come to believe that bad things predominate – in other words, you become a pessimist. (Or you already were a pessimist, and that’s why you were attracted to being a lawyer.) Ultimately, it’s a stressful and depressing way to live.

On top of that, lawyers have a tendency toward perfectionism. We might like to call that “detail-oriented,” and it can be useful if you’re writing a brief or researching a legal argument. But if you insist on everything being perfect in every aspect of your life, and that those around you have to be perfect as well, that’s a recipe for misery. Nobody’s perfect. You’ll always be disappointed.

We’re not doomed to depression or anxiety, though. By becoming aware of how our minds work and the thoughts that lead us astray, we can develop the capacity to have a choice: in a particular situation, do we want to assume the worst, or demand perfection, or not?

Context matters. If you’re drafting a contract you might well want to at least consider the worst, and protect against it, and triple-check the details. But if you’re home with your family or out with friends, worrying the worst will happen or demanding a perfect experience can put a real damper on your (and others’) ability for enjoyment. The key is to be aware when you’re mind is automatically taking you there.

The antidote to all this, of course, is mindfulness training. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see our thoughts and consider whether they reflect something real or imagined, and whether an impulse that follows them is one we want to act on or not. Mindfulness training usually includes some form of sitting meditation, as well as other simple practices you can use throughout the day. One is just to stop yourself when you feel a strong emotion and an impulse to act on it. Before acting, pause, take a deep breath, and let yourself feel the emotion as a physical sensation. Drop the story you’re telling yourself about it. Just experience the sensation. Now, you’ve calmed the stress centers in your brain enough to more carefully consider how you want to respond.

In fact, researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can create physical changes in the brain, increasing gray matter in parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

There’s a growing movement of mindfulness for lawyers — one I wish had existed back when I was first entering the legal profession. It’s more than self-help, though:  mindfulness not only makes lawyers happier; it helps our clients and colleagues as well.

 

 

It’s Not a Package Deal

images-1One of the problems with being a cynic is that, when you’re trying to learn something new, it’s easy to focus on all the things that sound wrong or silly or otherwise questionable and to disregard the entire lesson or experience as a result.

I was sitting in a meditation class recently, for example, when the teacher said something about past or future lives. I don’t even remember what he was talking about -– probably something about karma and our minds -– but it didn’t really matter. My internal alarm bells went off immediately. I thought: “That’s ridiculous. I’m not coming back here.”

The thing is, I know and like this teacher, and I know he’s very good at explaining meditation, its practice and purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth and engaging way. And I know, from personal experience, plus all the scientific studies backing it up, that meditation can be very helpful. I hadn’t been to that particular meditation center for a while, and I was enjoying being back and laughing along with his painfully accurate descriptions of how absurdly our minds work sometimes, and how they often cause us distress. Until he said the thing about multiple lives. At that point, my internal critic leapt to attention and immediately dismissed the value of whatever it was he was trying to say. I didn’t hear it. And chances are, it was something interesting.

Aware that he was talking to a group of mostly secular Brooklynites like me, the teacher quickly interrupted himself to let people know they didn’t have to believe in past and future lives to learn to meditate or reap its benefits. But I was aware of how easily and quickly my mind was ready to dismiss him and the whole meditation project, simply because the teacher — who was, after all, teaching at a Buddhist meditation center with a big golden Buddha statue behind him — had briefly mentioned something that is a basic tenet of Buddhism.

I’ve written before about how our minds have evolved to focus on the negative aspects of our experience, largely in order to protect us from mortal dangers. The part of the brain that reacts to fear, centered in the amygdala, also steps up when something isn’t physically threatening, but just doesn’t sound quite right. But it’s important to learn to step back a bit, and let the more developed, discerning part of my brain –- centered in the prefrontal cortex -– play its part, too.

I may not believe I’ll have multiple lives to live, although sometimes I wish I did. But I’m capable of distinguishing that piece of the teaching from the larger point, which is that our minds are influenced by all sorts of things –- including past experiences — that we’re often not aware of. Whether it’s something I did in my past life or something my mother said to me in grade school doesn’t really matter. The point is it may or may not be helpful to me, or to anyone else, today. The purpose of meditation is to develop more awareness of what’s going through my mind so I can choose how I want to respond rather than letting unconscious habits choose for me. And one of my habits is letting a cynical mind quash any new ideas that come packaged in or accompanied by something that makes me squirm.

As my positive psychology instructor, Tal Ben Shahar, pointed out in a recent class: “this is not a package deal.” I was in the middle of a week-long immersion for my Positive Psychology certification course, and struggling with some of what at the time seemed like really dumb, pointless exercises. More than once sitting in that lecture hall, I wanted to flee. But it helped me to hear Tal acknowledge that that’s okay. “You’ll hear things here that don’t make sense to you or just sound silly or unconvincing. If you don’t like them, forget about them. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and use it. Leave behind the rest. This is not a package deal.”

It was an important reminder for a skeptic like me. I too easily dismiss things as irrelevant or meaningless because some piece of it doesn’t jibe with me. This aversive reaction may feel immediately comforting, because now I don’t have to bother engaging with new material and can stay safely ensconced in my own cocoon of imagined superiority. But it’s ultimately extremely limiting, and really kind of silly. It’s a bit like dismissing Freud as irrelevant to psychology because I don’t believe in penis envy. But he did develop our modern understanding of the unconscious, which underpins much of our understanding of the human psyche today. So maybe there’s some value in his work after all.

Our culture of cynicism and irony is so focused on mocking and disparaging what we think is wrong that we tend to overlook or outright dismiss ideas that may be really valuable. The criticism might make us sound really clever — especially if we can express it as a witty 140-character commentary on Twitter. But in the process, we may find ourselves flushing a lot of really helpful wisdom down the drain.