When someone says to us, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, ‘Darling, I care about your suffering,’ a real healing begins. —Tara Brach

Fear and craving and hatred and clinging are deep emotional protections against the unknown that enabled us to survive over millions of years of evolutions, and while we need to see how they hold us back, and learn how to overcome them— individually and collectively— we shouldn’t pathologize them. We actually need to respect them. 
—Jesse Maceo Vega Frey

One day, my son, Kai, and their cousin— both six-years-old at the time— were playing with a balloon when suddenly, their three-year-old cousin ran crying out of the room. A few minutes later, I went to the bedroom where she sat sobbing to see if I could help.

Her grandfather was standing in a corner with his guitar, strumming an upbeat ranchero song in an attempt to cheer her up. Her mother was kneeling in front of her, pleading with her to stop crying. And, meanwhile, the little girl was crying, seemingly oblivious to all their cajoling. I knelt down next to her and asked what was wrong. Between sobs, she told me that the boys had taken her balloon. I looked her in the eyes and said, “That’s really sad, isn’t it? You’re really sad. You really want your balloon back, don’t you?”

She turned and looked me in the eyes with a puzzled expression. Then, she let out a huge sigh of relief, put her head on my shoulder, and slowly stopped crying. “Yeah,” she said. She seemed both surprised and relieved that someone had listened to her without trying to make her stop crying. We stood up, hand in hand, and went to ask the boys to give her balloon back, which they promptly did.

What do you do when you feel stressed out or scared?

Do you tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel scared? That you shouldn’t cry? Do you try to make the fear go away? Or, on the other side extreme, do you let the fear hijack your mind, trying to find someone to blame or some way out of the situation?

How well does your approach to fear work for you?

From a young age, many of us were taught to deny our emotions, shut down, or disengage when we feel upset or afraid. We may have learned to resort to blaming others or life itself for their struggles, abdicating responsibility for finding a more effective way to deal with our challenges. Or to beat ourselves up, thinking that surely there must be something wrong with us for feeling the way we do. Unfortunately, none of these are effective strategies for coping with pain and fear.

What is not felt remains the same.

Imagine you’re a little kid again, and you’re trying to get a grown-up to understand how you feel. You keep telling them what’s wrong, but they keep trying to convince you that everything’s okay. How might you respond?

For a while, you might scream louder and louder, trying to convince them to listen. And, if that didn’t work, after some time, you might give up and try less direct strategies to get attention.

Your emotions are the same way. They want you to listen. They want to be heard. And, they’ll get louder and louder until you pay attention. If there’s an emotion or sensation in your body that doesn’t feel good, it means that your body is trying to get your attention. And, if you ignore your emotions for too long, it can lead to depression, chronic anxiety, or a general lack of joy and vitality.

When you feel what you feel, your feelings can change.

Self-compassion adds the next layer to the Orientation Practice. In the Orientation Practice, you pause to listen to your body and ask yourself how you feel. When my clients are first learning to ask these questions, they sometimes have a hard time sitting with uncomfortable emotions and try to push them away. When they ignore their fear, they might hide out and not pursue their goals, or they might take a huge leap without the preparation they need first.

From now on, when you hear the word emotion, focus on the word motion. Your emotions are energy that wants to move through you, and they convey important clues that can help you discern your path forward. When you respond to emotion by fighting against it or fleeing from it, it can get stored in your body and you miss out on what it’s trying to share. When you take the time to pay attention with genuine curiosity to what your emotions are trying to tell you, they can shift.

Self-compassion is the antidote to fear.

According to Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, noticing your emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, needs, and behaviors without trying to push them away is one of three aspects of self-compassion. She calls this aspect Mindfulness.

The two other aspects of self-compassion are—
* Self-Kindness: Embracing your pain with the warmth of a dear friend. And, doing your best to comfort yourself, care for yourself, keep yourself safe from harm.
* Common Humanity: Recognizing that everyone fails, makes mistakes and experiences pain. Reaching out to people you trust or simply remembering your common humanity can help you feel less alone.

Here’s an example of the difference between self-criticism and self-compassion. Say you just graduated law school and despite your best effort, you fail the bar exam. Your inner Judge may scream at you— “How dare you fail! You’re so stupid! I knew you’d fail. You always screw things up. You were stupid just to think you’d pass the exam!”

Self-compassion sounds like the same caring, tender voice you’d use with a small child or a dear friend. It might sound like— “Oh sweetheart, that’s so disappointing. I know how hard you worked for this and how much it means to you. I know that doesn’t make it less disappointing, but I want you to know you’re not alone in this. Many other people fail the exam, too. It’s gonna be hard to study again, but I support you to keep working at it till you get there.”

Self-kindness physiologically soothes your fear.

Back when I used to teach childbirth classes, I would talk a lot about oxytocin and adrenaline. Amongst its myriad of functions, oxytocin is the hormone that creates labor contractions. It’s also known as the “love hormone.” Oxytocin is largely responsible for the intense upwelling of emotion a mother feels for her new baby, the passionate attraction two people feel when they’re falling in love, and the warm glow you feel during a dinner with good friends. It increases empathy and compels you to reach out for support when you’re having a hard time.

One magical thing about oxytocin is that it binds with the same hormonal receptors in the body as adrenaline and other stress hormones. That means that when you offer yourself compassion— whether it’s through a hug or thinking kind thoughts— it gets oxytocin flowing through your body, interrupts adrenaline and makes it harder to feel fear. For example, if a woman feels excessive fear in labor, adrenaline can spike, making it can be harder for oxytocin to do its job, and sometimes stalling labor. But when oxytocin is flowing well, labor picks back up.

Give yourself a hug.

One simple way to get oxytocin flowing and experience the effects of self-compassion is to give yourself soothing touch. Let’s try this now. Place one hand on the opposite cheek and the other hand on your opposite arm. Then, tilt you head to the side, resting on your hand, allowing yourself to receive your supportive touch.

How do you feel?

At first, you might feel kind of awkward or silly. If so, find a private space so that you don’t have to worry about people seeing you. If you’re able to allow yourself to receive this embrace, you’ll probably notice that this touch feels soothing.

Different types of touch elicit different responses in different people. I invite you to take a moment and experiment with finding a soothing touch that feels safe and comforting to you. You may try crossing your arms and giving yourself a hug, holding your hands, stroking your arms or hair, or placing one or two hands over your heart, face, or belly. I invite you to practice this soothing touch whenever it feels helpful and to be on the lookout for ways to create a sense of soothing and relaxation in your body.

Let’s practice some self-compassion now.

From now on, when you feel fear, stop running from it. Instead, turn around, face your fear, and embrace it with compassion. This practice will teach you how, and I encourage you to integrate this practice into your daily life.

First, grab a piece of paper and a pen to write with, then bring to mind something that you’re feeling nervous or scared about. Make it about a 3 or 4 on a 0 to 10 fear scale (on which 0 is not at all scary and 10 is the most terrifying). Write it down. Now, for the three elements of self-compassion

  1. Mindfulness— Notice how you feel in your body. Move closer to the sensation, becoming familiar with your fear without judging it as good or bad or without diminishing or exaggerating what you feel. Write down what comes up in response to the following questions
    • Where do I feel the sensation of fear in my body?
    • When I pay attention to the fear, what happens? Does it remain the same? Does it shift and change?
  2.  Self-Kindness— Offer the part of you who feels scared the same warmth and kindness you’d offer a child. Place a hand on the spot where you feel the fear. Imagine sending warmth and loving kindness to the part of yourself. Write down the kind, understanding words that come up when you ask yourself—
    • What would I say to a good friend in this same situation?
  3.  Common Humanity— Think about ways that your experience is part of being human, and write them down. Although you might feel like the only one in your situation, it is entirely normal to feel the way you do. Take a moment to think about all the other people who are feeling similar emotions and experiencing similar challenges, and write down what comes up.

I’d love to hear from you!

What was your experience of this self-compassion practice? And, what do you do to offer yourself loving kindness?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks!

If you have a friend or two who struggles with self-judgment or has a hard time being kind to themselves, would you please share this article with them? They deserve the gift of self-compassion. Thank you!


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