You’ve got two laptops and a tablet open on your desk, with ten tabs open on each, and you’re thinking you’ve got just a couple of hours to get so many ideas afloat, or even just to get your tax return filled out. Then like a cheeky hamster, a little thought pops into your head. “Didn’t I say I was going to do some meditation today?” Now you have a flicker of shame to add to your feelings of overload. Totally buying the idea that self-care is important, but feeling bad about having no time to do it? Fears of not measuring up to your own ideals, or not getting anything meaningful done start to bubble up. You glance at your emails. There seem to be enough helpful messages and newsletters about “increasing your effectiveness” to be a full time job just to try them all!
This year I’m training as a teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion. Let me tell you a secret. I’m a REALIST. I’m not interested in wrapping myself (or anyone else) in cotton-wool. What I’m interested in, deep down, is how these techniques help in the tough situations. Like the times when your partner is abroad and both children are sick. Or dealing with the painful onion-layers of bereavement. Or redundancy. Or a struggling business. Or just wanting to feel good enough to wear a bikini on the beach.
My first experiments with self-compassion were full of resistance. I just couldn’t see how I had time to be kind to myself! I feared that self-compassion would result in me being less efficient, less driven, weaker, or self-indulgent. I had feelings of shame about wanting to explore self-compassion – like it somehow made me less of a fully-functioning human.
Alongside these feelings of resistance, one word kept coming up for me: “Time”. I’m a working Mum of two young children, with a husband that frequently is working abroad. I felt like I was barely hanging on, putting on a brave face to the world and still smiling, but gradually losing my sparkle just due to the sheer number of responsibilities I felt I was carrying. Part of my resistance to self-compassion was due to fierce ambition. I wasn’t ready to let go of my professional life just to make my life easier, even though at times the thought was tempting. That ambition remains – I don’t want to give up on creating meaningful impact in the world, even though I take my responsibilities as a Mum seriously. So “Time” is something I have had very little of in the past few years. Adding anything extra to my to-do list didn’t feel like an option.
So how did I get to this point – training to teach Mindful Self-Compassion? Part of my big transformation came when I noticed how much “Time” I was throwing away: worrying about my appearance, worrying that I didn’t know enough, worrying about getting it all done, worrying about being good enough, resisting asking for help, insisting on fixing everything myself, worrying about not meditating! Sound familiar?
Since my training in Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), I am not waiting for my next meditation session to put myself back together. The tools I learned are with me all the time. I now recover quickly from set-backs. I see clearly in the moment how I’m reacting and adjust where necessary. My previous habit of worrying for hours about what others have said, or not said, is replaced with noticing the thoughts and checking whether I need to take any action and then letting them go. I notice my shame, my resistance, my fears and I can talk myself through them. I allow myself to take braver risks because failure isn’t such a devastating option. In short, I’m wasting a lot less time fretting about stuff, and just getting on with enjoying myself!
When I ask other high achievers about self-compassion I hear them say “important but difficult” or “I know I should but I don’t”. I understand the resistance, but I know that developing these skills didn’t cause me to lose my motivation, or become weak. In fact I am more productive, because I waste less time on worrying.
So how does MSC achieve this? We now know that within the body, different thought patterns cause release of different chemicals. Self-criticism causes us to feel attacked so our body releases stress hormones. Self-compassion causes release of oxytocin, which counteracts stress hormones, and allows us to be more relaxed, and to think more creatively and more broadly. MSC teaches us to rewire our automatic thoughts. Instead of jumping to self-criticism, my own inner dialogue is now honest and encouraging. It’s not relentlessly positive. MSC allows me to experience my emotions with courageous honesty so that I’m not running away from my feelings.
Learning MSC hasn’t all been easy. At the beginning I felt waves of grief as I realised I had never been particularly kind to myself. It also requires some practice, but for me the benefits were very quickly evident, so practising didn’t feel that hard.
And what about that “Time” I had so little of? All I can say is that freeing my mind from repetitive thoughts and self-criticisms has been energising and has released creativity in me that I didn’t know existed. I just seem to have more time. I’ve started learning the clarinet!
So the next time you notice that you are berating yourself for not meditating, or not being good enough, I hope you will think of this blog. You really can be free of those thoughts, and have a whole lot more time to play with!
(If you are interested in reading more try Kirsten Neff’s book “Self-Compassion”, or sign up to my newsletter for information on forthcoming MSC courses later this year.)