Self Compassion in Everyday Life

Caroline: Welcome to the call. Please tell us about your affiliation with the Wholebeing Institute. 


Dianna: Six years ago, I was excited about positive psychology and signed up for the CiWPP program. I found it to be really, really powerful. That was my first taste of Wholebeing Institute, and it motivated me to start a mothers’ group. I completed the coach training program through Wholebeing Institute later.


Caroline: I just graduated from CiWPP in December, and I’m tempted to do it again because it was such a wonderful way to not only survive, but really thrive through the pandemic. It provided me with so many tools and resources, and I was surrounded by amazing educators and people from all over the globe. It was an incredible, remarkable nine-month experience that I highly recommend.

So we’re talking about self-compassion today. I’m fascinated by that. How did you get to this topic? 


Dianna: The CiWPP course was what really introduced me to the concept self-compassion. CiWPP uses the words “permission to be human” a little bit too—it’s the same kind of focus. When I joined the course, I was a stay-at home mom. My husband was on the road a lot and my children were young. I found myself struggling personally. It was what I would call “touching burnout”. Many times particularly in the summer months when we were all together and and I picked up Kristin Neff’s self-compassion book, I thought wow, this makes so much sense to me. This is practical. This is something I can immediately use in the moment. From there, I started to share it with other moms and expand it. It’s not just about parenting, but that was my dip into it.


Caroline: Especially during the pandemic we’ve had to form our own families, form our own friendships, form our own connections with people and it’s almost like we become caregivers, unofficially, as humans for other people. So it’s like everybody needs the skill set that you’re talking about today.


Dianna: Everyone is a caregiver. Even children as young as five years old can often play the role of caregivers for their friends. So absolutely, this is all practical, even if you think, Oh, I’m not a caregiver, I’m not working as a nurse or a psychologist, or even I’m not a parent, or whatever it is, you are caregiving to somebody or an animal. 

Self-compassion is not self pity. It is not self-indulgence or shirking responsibility. It does not decrease motivation. It is a prosocial tool that helps us connect to everyone. It helps us not only to focus on ourselves but also to focus on others and see the universal suffering. There are three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. And these elements are the same, actually, if you’re talking about compassion for others, too. Self-compassion, in a broad sense, is being a friend to oneself, understanding yourself and soothing and comforting oneself. Our inner critic, our inner mean-girl, is there to protect us. It is part of our threat defense system, that fight-or-flight but instead of, you know, keeping us safe, it’s actually hurting us quite a bit. It’s turning the threat towards ourselves.

The good news is that self-kindness can activate a biological process called the attachment affiliation network. That’s really the biological need to connect and get the support from others. To demonstrate these two different things, I’d like everybody to make a strong fist with your hand and just hold it tight. This is your inner critic. Let go of that tension and feel it. Then, place your hand on your heart and let it go. This is self-kindness. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to shift from a state of that tension, the tension that is created by the inner critic, to the softening of the self-kindness.

The next thing I consider extremely important is the unity of humanity and not isolation. When we suffer, and we all suffer together as humans, there is a tendency for us to believe it is only us. And it’s not. There is no escape from suffering. And it’s just part of life. It’s part of being a human. And while people have different flavors of suffering, it’s very comforting to recognize how common this is. It’s also particularly interesting right now, because many of us are experiencing very universal suffering brought on by the pandemic, and a lot of unrest, certainly in the US, but not just in the US.

The other aspect that’s really important is understanding that imperfection is a part of life. Perfection is a myth, it really doesn’t exist. And that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good. The third aspect is mindfulness. Mindfulness versus over identification. First, you must be able recognize that you are experiencing suffering. But this isn’t about getting lost in the suffering. Mindfulness is about noticing the suffering and not trying to change it. Instead, it’s about accepting it and not getting lost. So you’ve got the self-kindness, you’ve got the common humanity, and you’ve got the mindfulness.


There’s so much research right now about self-compassion. Kristin Neff admits she can’t keep up with the pace. The benefits—increases in well-being, resilience, and health, decreases in depression and anxiety. And some of this is reduction in shame, reduction in perfectionism, better relationships, and that’s actually reported by other people—spouses saying that they notice improvements in relationships, less burnout for caregivers, more joy in the role of being a caregiver, increases in motivation, and enhanced progress towards goals. Self-compassion allows us failure without being afraid. We can set high goals, but we can also respond with self compassion, pick ourselves back up, and start again.

In my own personal experience, one of the benefits that I have found in my practice is that I’m able to sit with my own intense emotions more strongly, and the intense emotion of those around me, particularly my children. My household currently consists of my husband and my two teenage daughters. Until December 1, it also included our dear, elderly dog. We experienced a lot pain and self-compassion was important for me to be able and present with those emotions. Whether it’s someone in your house or a friend that you’re talking to on the phone, having the ability to not problem-solve, and not try and fix things, but to just sit there and be there with someone is huge, and it’s a huge gift to them. Self-compassion can be a powerful tool to help you do that.


Caroline: It seems like that’s particularly difficult if we are triggered ourselves.


Dianna: Yes, absolutely. This is the right time to get these tools. I’ve got a daughter who just turned 15. She’s very passionate and she can say the most creative, ugly things. And she gives the best hugs—you know, there’s space for both of that. And I have often, in response to “You’re the worst mother” or “I hate you”—slam the door—gone into the bathroom and practiced some of this self-compassion, which then shored me up to go out there and feel calmer inside.


It’s time to do an exercise. So the first tool that I’m going to teach is soothing touch. Soothing touch is one way to activate your care system, get endorphins, oxytocin, and all the wonderful things in your body. And while we may all miss some days, when we’re getting more hugs or soothing touch from others, we can provide this for ourselves. This is a superpower. [You can]Try one hand on the heart. Notice how it feels. You might try another hand to feel if it feels different. Sometimes it’s nice actually to have a fist under there and one on top, kind of a very firm support. You can also try tapping or rubbing. I’m assuming you’re not in public where you can’t touch your face, so you might want to gently cradle your cheeks or chin or stroke your cheek a little bit. A nice one is hands on belly or one on heart and the other on belly. You may already be familiar with these if you do any kind of yoga. You could also do something as simple as rubbing your hands or hugging yourself.

I was waiting in the car to pick my children up, anticipating a difficult situation. I just kind of rubbed my legs and rubbed my hands together. It was a private, soothing moment. That’s where soothing touch can be really helpful. You could be on a Zoom meeting, or in a car, and you can rub your hands and people won’t know. You can be in front of the people who are triggering you and they don’t know what you’re doing. 


The tool that I’ve used most over the years is something called the self-compassion break, created by Kristin Neff. Chris Germer, who is a frequent collaborator with her, has recordings of it. And it’s a very portable tool. I’ve done it in the bathroom, I’ve done it in a car, it can even be adapted to driving situations. So, there you have it. [to try it]Consider a time in your past that caused you stress. And if this is the first time that you are practicing self-compassion, you might not choose your most intense because you’re just trying to get a feel for the tool and how it may work. Now think about this situation and feel the pain in your body. Notice the discomfort and all emotions that arise. Notice that everything is acceptable, and you don’t need to judge. You can use whatever words you like and what they mean to you. It might be. This really hurts. This is awful. This is hard. Sometimes just owI’m feeling so much overwhelm right now. The next step is to accept that suffering is part of human life. This is common humanity. This is what other people feel. I’m not alone in this. This is part of being human. Every person has to struggle in this life. Although our struggles may look different, they are all the same. All of us struggle. Many people feel the same struggle as you.

Find the soothing touch. You might find the one that feels best to you right now. Give it a soothing touch right away. Because you’re acknowledging that you are in pain, that this situation is a very hard and painful situation. But you’re not alone. Let me be kind to myself right now. that’s what you want to find—words that are meaningful to you. Other examples could be: May I show compassion to myself. Accept myself as I am. May I forgive my self. If you are struggling, you might want to think about the language that a friend uses with you. It could be. I’m here for you. I care about your well-being. Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Or Sweetie, or your name, even that might feel good. Your choice of words is entirely up to you, and they may vary. You just need to notice it and say that. Wow, this is hard. I’m not alone. I’m worthy of compassion and love. Oh honey, I’m here for you. Lately, I’ve been using this every day. 

I think a doorway into this is thinking about how you would respond to a friend in distress, what would you say to them, and try offering it to yourself and being present with that awkwardness and acknowledging that that this is a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe I feel a little bit silly, it doesn’t feel quite right. I also would say that if you want to try different words, you don’t have to use those suggestions, you can write your own.


Caroline: Do you think also, Dianna, with the negativity bias of the brain, that we’re not really used to saying positive things to ourselves, we’re actually kind of used to criticizing ourselves, and that in some strange ways that feels more normal? Sometimes people are afraid. if I’m too kind, I won’t get anything done.

Dianna: Yes, absolutely. That is our go-to, the critique. So that’s why it takes a little extra work to to do the compassion because [the self-criticism]This is part our survival instinct. One of the ways that you can work with your inner critic, which is there, too, is to recognize that although the words are not very nice that you often say to yourself—and personally, I’ve never had anybody say anything as ugly to me as what I’ve said to myself—your inner critic is actually trying to take care of you. So sometimes it’s like, Okay, I hear you, I hear you’re worried about me, you’re wanting me to be taken care of, and I know you want to take care of me, and this is a better way I can be kind to myself. So that’s a technique, too, for working with some of that. And you’re never going to be always self-compassionate. I think it’s important to recognize that this really is a practice. You’ll catch yourself, the more you do it, and then hopefully respond with that kindness.

Caroline: Research shows that compassion makes us more productive, more successful, and more open to taking on new challenges. So it’s this counterintuitive thing where we want to be hard on ourselves in a way or we’re used to that, but it’s almost an upgrade to say when I’m going to recognize how I’m feeling and the message that I’m getting from my brain,I’m going to shift it to a compassionate outlook, and then I can make different choices.

Dianna: Yes. This is a great skill to teach your children. It’s not something that really has been taught. It is not easy to overcome the fear of failure. However, we can encourage one another and create hope and momentum.

So the next practice is a practice that Kristin Neff developed called “compassion with equanimity.” And that practice was specifically developed for caregivers to deal with burnout. You can also listen to Chris Germer and Kristin Neff leading this practice. It is a little bit of a longer meditation—and it doesn’t have to be a meditation. The way that the tools are taught here are in that meditation perspective, but there’s always a way to adapt it in the moment. This is a practice that I’ve used versions of say, as I mentioned, when our dog passed away and near the end, she was very sick and there were many many mornings where I was spoon-feeding her or doing some hands-on nursing. Even though it was developed for caregivers, it’s just a really wonderful practice for when you’re having any relationship difficulty, which includes everybody. Perhaps in your family there’s a difference in political views—this is a practice that will teach how to include compassion for yourself with compassion for others. This is a long, intense practice that takes eight minutes and is probably the most intense I will teach. 

To begin, get comfortable. And let’s take just a few deep breaths to settle in to the present moment. Now, let’s breathe in and out. I love to breathe out through pursed lips, it’s very calming.

Pull up a situation—somebody that you are caring for, or who is exhausting you, frustrating you. You might be caring for someone who is in pain. This could be a situation where you are caring for someone else. You could also be interacting with them. And if you have several candidates right now, lots of people coming up, that’s okay. You can choose one to do the exercise. If you have more candidates, you can always return and do it again with another person or a different situation. If you are new to the relationship, you might not choose the most complex and tense. While the exercise is great for those types of relationships, it’s not ideal for practicing. You want to choose a difficult, but not overwhelming, situation for practice. 

Bring this person to your mind and picture them in this caring situation. Visualize it in your head. Feel the struggle in you body. Notice the pain that you’re feeling. Pay attention to the details. Now, as you think about this person I’m going to read some words and and just let them gently roll through your mind. Each of us is on our own journey. I am not the cause of this person’s suffering. It is not within my power to make the suffering go away, even if I wish it could. These moments are hard to bear. But I might still try to help if it is possible.

Now be aware f the stress you’re carrying in your body; inhale fully and deeply, drawing compassion inside your body and filling every cell of your body. Imagine this compassion as a warm, golden light and inhale it into your body.

You may want to add some soothing touch if you haven’t already. Allow yourself to be calmed by taking a deep inhale and giving yourself the compassion you need. Now, exhale and send compassion to the person who is causing your discomfort.

Continue breathing compassion in for yourself and out for the other person, allowing your body to find a natural rhythm with your breathing, you don’t need to do anything differently with a breath. Allow your body to just breathe, feeling compassion for yourself. Breathe out compassion for the other. One for me, one to you. In for me, out to you. Sometimes, you can scan your inner world for any distress. Then, inhale compassion for yourself into that particular part of your body. Then exhale the compassion for the other. You might find that you have more compassion than you think. It’s very possible that your pain in dealing with this very difficult situation is is really strong and it is calling to you. If this is the case, you can take more deep breaths for yourself and allow yourself to feel more compassion. Focus your attention on your breath and feel compassion for yourself. It might be that you feel the need to show more compassion to someone who is in pain, or the person you are caring for. You can offer extra compassion to that person, but you should always remember your own compassion. You should first show compassion for yourself, then the other.

Allow yourself to float on an ocean full of compassion. There is no limit on the compassion. There’s enough for everybody, for yourself and the other. Both in and out.

All this compassion, this ocean embraces all suffering. These words are worth repeating. Each of us is on our own journey. I cannot make this person’s suffering go away. Moments like these are hard to bear. But I might still try to help if it is possible.

Now we’re going to start to let go of this practice and allow yourself to be exactly as you are in this moment. All your feelings are fine and you don’t have to change, correct or solve the situation. That’s part of being human. You can let go and let the situation unfold. And when you’re ready, you can gently open your eyes.

This practice brought me to tears when I first heard it. Although it is true that sometimes I’ve heard Kristin Neff and Chris Germer say sometimes you shouldn’t focus on your child, because it’s complicated, I think a lot of relationships, whether you’re caring for parents, your spouse, a client, they can all be pretty complicated. Tears are normal when you’re releasing some of this. You can practice this practice of compassion in and out for yourself and others in the moment. Whether in the exact moment you’re caring for somebody, you know that breathing in and out compassion will regulate your nervous system. And definitely, if you’re in close contact, that regulation of your nervous system passes on to those around you. Kristin NEFF gives the example of her autistic son who was crying on a plane. After trying everything, there was nothing she could do. Then, in the end, she was just letting go of all that compassion and giving herself that compassion. That got her through the moment. I don’t remember exactly if her son calmed in that moment. But I think in general, we often see that there’s a calming for others, too. 

This is a quote from Kristin Neff that really speaks to me: “We don’t give ourselves compassion in order to feel better. We give it instead because we feel bad. The burden doesn’t always get lighter but the back gets stronger.” 

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