“Self-compassion is a more effective motivator for change than self- criticism”, Kristin Neff
Those of us with a chronic health condition are generally very critical of ourselves. Our self talk is filled with anger for not “pulling ourselves up by the boot straps”and living life in a more positive way, instead of succumbing to anxiety and depression. We often feel like failures, particularly when we hear of others who might have the same degree of suffering that we have but who appear to be doing so much better than we are. We are much more kind to others than we are to ourselves.
How often have we wondered why it is we cannot control our anxiety, deal more effectively with ever occurring pain and fatigue, stop the endless angst over our life situation and live a life that is more joyful than sorrowful? How is it that others who seem even worse off than we are appear to be so much more optimistic?
I recently visited the family doctor and the young resident (who was a very assertive and quite wonderful physician) accompanying him told me to “cut myself some slack” as she pointed out I have fibromyalgia, have had a heart attack and other health issues. I was meditating daily, exercising in spite of the physical pain, taking my meds- all that she focussed on , so I was to stop beating up on myself. In other words practice self compassion, although she did not use that language.
In my approach to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue I take the position that we have too much empathy and compassion for others, intuitively feeling and experiencing the real or perceived pain of others while ignoring our own emotional response to this over-empathizing. I thought I knew the kinds of personality traits those of us with these conditions were prone to have but I had not yet discovered still more of the puzzle. The concept of self compassion has provided me with additional insights about the highly sensitive person, the majority of whom are women, doing for others what she will not do for herself- practicing self-kindness. It is that component which Neff describes as being “gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental” (p.41).
I am becoming increasingly intrigued with a search for my true self, if , in fact, that is ever possible. I understand that a difficult childhood with many fears and anxieties- the result of a highly stressful home life, and a guilt ridden, severe Catholic upbringing, produced an extremely sensitive person. I am constantly aware of uncomfortable bodily sensations that I experience every day- pain and fatigue are combined with the myriad of other symptoms that goes along with this fibromyalgia demon. Anxiety and near panic are my closest companions. My earliest memories trigger adrenalin which the amygdala and the hippocampus have imprinted on my brain (see several other blogs where I discuss these issues) and soon afterward recalling these memories I can experience these bodily sensations that are so vivid and painful. How mysteriously the mind works (if indeed we have one-I still prefer the concept of the brain which can be seen and touched).
In my view fibromyalgia begins in early childhood. The memories that are stored in the cerebellum and the basal ganglia- the automatic memory and the memory of facts and events which are the function of the cortex and the hippocampus , along with the various proteins and peptides, play a part in producing memories that affect us as we reproduce them . While these painful memories have an important function in my fibromyalgia body, it is possible to acknowledge the past while living in the moment. I can train the brain to let go but it takes much practice. These symptoms from life memories are the ways in which I do not have compassion/empathy for my own self. In acknowledging my true self, I not only have physical pain but a broken heart.
Neff has written that :”Self-compassion gives us the calm courage needed to face our unwanted emotions head-on” (p.124). Along with practicing empathy for myself the technique I have been listening to almost daily this entire year is a cd of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Body Scan. I smile to myself when I hear him say that as long as I am breathing there is more right with my body than there is wrong. On this snowy, cold, depressing end of the year day (my heart attack, my mother’s death, my fibromyalgia flare-ups did not make for a joyful 2013), I am taking what Neff calls a “self-compassion break“. I am looking for that “silver lining”.
So, in conclusion I have a suggestion to make, a practice I am about to indulge in. Neff discusses oxytocin which has been labelled by researchers “the hormone of love and bonding” (p. 47). Touching “releases oxytocin , provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions, and calms cardiovascular stress” (p. 49). She suggests that under stress giving oneself a hug or touching oneself by gently stroking the face or arms can release oxytocin. This is not an airy-fairy practice but one shown to be effective through research. In particular, I believe it would be a good strategy for those of us in physical pain, or experiencing stress and fear of the unknown regarding our health.
HAPPY NEW YEAR and GIVE YOURSELF A BIG HUG!