Why hello there!
Nice to see you all, nice to be writing again, nice to be observing this Labor Day from my couch where I’m doing nothing very laborious at all. I hope you are getting the time and space for something you need today too, whether it’s being with friends, rest, a good start on a project. Whatever it is, may it be yours!
Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring the idea of self-compassion here on the blog. And as usual, the theme has come from the wonderful work I get to do with my clients. When meeting with folks, I always like to take a look at the amount of self-compassion an individual is able to express. Surprisingly, the people who list “compassion” as one of their core values, usually respond to the question “and how much compassion do you show to yourself?” with a long pause followed by something like “very little, if any!”
Surprising yet not. We are subtly and blatantly taught to bend over backwards for others, push ourselves to succeed, never give up, “just do it”, and through many other “inspiring” messages, we’re encouraged to work ourselves to death. And it all seems to be worth it if we’re working for the good of a larger group, in the helping professions, or just generally just trying to make the world a better place. While our regular strain and struggle may continue to help us produce, it isn’t a sustainable, long-term way of being and it doesn’t come without some self-destructive costs.
So what if instead of driving ourselves into the ground for the sake of productivity, we were productive and energized AND kind to ourselves? We’d probably end up engaging in our work more fully and leaving at the end of the day with more than fumes in the tank. What if we committed the care we show those we love to our our own selves? All of our relationships might become more authentic, resilient, and life-giving.
In short, will self-compassion make life easier? Probably not. Will it stop the storms and the wars and the bad hair days? I doubt it. Will it ground and grow us through the rough and tumble? I have reason to believe so!
To start us off, today, we’re looking at self-soothing, which is the ability to calm and comfort oneself. Perhaps you’re used to hearing about self-soothing in the context of infants and sleep. While young children do have to learn how to calm themselves, adults too have to utilize this skill in daily life.
Touch and holding are two ways caregivers comfort children. Gradually the child learns ways to calm himself. These activities are critical for the healthy development of the young child.
Adults may have others to comfort them as well, such as good friends who offer companionship or spouses who give hugs. But self-soothing is a basic skill important for emotional and physical well-being. – Karyn Hall, PhD
When we put some self-soothing skills into practice, we not only change our day-to-day life but we also begin to reshape our response to what Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala hijack.” (gesundheit!!) During an amygdala hijack our brain’s hardware responds to threat from a place of survival mode. This worked very well for humankind when we were fighting off wild animals and living in caves. Fast forward to 2015 and I doubt many of us are running from wild tigers on a daily basis. Still, our brain doesn’t do a fantastic job of filtering the threat level so to be safe rather than sorry, it may respond to a bad email from our boss at a bad time on a bad day like it were a tiger.
The amygdala is the center of the brain that controls this response, and also controls empathy; when it feels threatened, it can respond not just irrationally, but destructively. “When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear, it was a very bad business decision – it cost him $3 million. It was an amygdala hijack.” –Shel Horowitz & Daniel Goleman
Now, it needs to be said that of course (OF COURSE!) there sometimes is a real threat. When a car suddenly pulls out in front of you on the road. When a grease fire starts on the grill. When someone is having a serious allergic reaction. Yes, these are times when we are on “Team Amygdala”, pompoms and cheering and the whole deal! However, we don’t want to be responding to our child every time she colors on the wall with marker like she’s playing with a hornets’ nest. (puts pompoms down…)
If we can change the priority in these situations from having to respond to the threat to calming down our brain, we may find that we can break the cycle of anxious responses and stress out our system on a less regular basis. Raise your hand if that sounds like an appealing door prize!! To get started, let’s focus on the senses, all five of ’em: vision, taste, smell, hearing, and touch. Rather than telling ourselves to calm down, if we can bring ourselves out of the five-alarm alert and into the present through our senses we’ll be able to respond from a more grounded and clear place.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy is an approach that utilizes self-soothing through the senses as a way of coping and increasing distress tolerance . Practitioners using DBT often suggest some of the following exercises to help people tune in to their senses.
And these are not the only ways to self-soothe. There’s soft stretching, blowing bubbles, doodling with pen and paper, reading a prayer or poem out loud. Create a list of your own as you take some time to notice what soothes your system.
As with most things, stepping back and observing your senses will take time and practice. But with as little as five minutes twice a day, you may begin to notice a slight pause between a perceived threat and your response. Hopefully this pause will grow into an opportunity for you to soothe rather than stress and will give you a chance to practice self-compassion in some small ways every day.