Not too long ago, I sat across a very successful and totally in love couple at a café.
They wondered why they always fear that something will go terribly wrong because things are going way too well.
I very much identified with this question, but also sort of knew this answer from my studies and by just having finished reading Dr. Prof. Shauna Shapiro’ s wonderful book. It explores very important neuropsychological lessons and one of them (by Dr. Rick Hanson) explains how incredibly important the “negativity bias” was for our survival.
In ancient times, we had to be very reactive and extremely careful in harsh environments.
We could not afford to “waste” time being positive when we had to be prepared for the worst.
We were under constant threat and developed this skill (a bit overly enthusiastic:) to keep us from harm.
Years later, it still shows in the way we perceive our interactions, in our beliefs about abundance, how we hold on to painful and negative experiences… we just wait for the other shoe to drop. The brain is very sensitive to the negative, and a lot less to the positive. This affects our cognitive & emotional states, memories, beliefs, and actions.
Negativity is more hardwired in our genes, but here comes the great news:
We CAN rewire our brain for self-compassion, happiness, and joy, it just takes a little bit more and constant effort, but thanks to neuroplasticity this IS TOTALLY possible 🙂 You see, “neurons that wire together, fire together”. The more we absorb and enjoy the positive and good moments (for at least 30 seconds), the more our positive neural structures will wire up.
Learning how to do this can help us improve and change how we see ourselves, others, and the world and as we practice how to pay attention to the good, we grow more and more open to it.
What we focus our attention on, grows and becomes stronger and easier over time.
This also applies to the good, it just takes a bit more of it to have the same effect.
You can watch Dr. Hanson’s video on how to practice it here:
Why Loving-Kindness greatly matters:
What do we first think of when we consider using self-compassion in tough situations? Probably many of us will think that it will never help us meet our standards. We start telling ourselves that it requires letting down all walls that protect us from even greater disappointments and pain.
That it will make us so soft that we will never really change or achieve our goals. The truth is that suffering happens to us all. However, by allowing ourselves time and space we can create the room we need for clarity and acceptance, so we do not automatically react. Space allows us to perceive and act in ways that help us respond more effectively. Self-compassion means we can suffer, fear things and face adversity without bashing our feelings, well-being, and adequacy while we learn and grow and need connection.
Here is WHY it can help:
Møller, Sohrab, Sohrab & Shapiro (2019) explains how mindful self-compassion-based interventions may help our mental and physical well-being and improve our quality of life.
Shame, guilt, unworthiness, and judgement often take over during challenging and very stressful and painful times. By allowing ourselves to compassionately embrace all our emotions, whatever form they are in, we can learn to accept and observe feelings and situations without confusing them for who we are (the observing self).
Shapiro (2020) explains that we tend to see mindfulness as something that makes us overindulgent or makes us avoid difficulties, or deny them… the real meaning of mindfulness, however, is to see things clearly. Shaming, trying to perform, pressuring, and judging do not work. They inhibit us -and our brain and get us into a vicious shame cycle which cuts us off from the learning centres in our brain – and stops us from the resources we need to grow. Judgment stops us from creative and helpful thinking and makes us trip and fall into unhelpful thoughts that stop us from caring about and for ourselves. Thoughts may sound like: “You can’t be whole and imperfect”. “Only shame and self-esteem make you resilient, healthy and successful.”
Research shows how these myths are part of our system by thinking that we protect ourselves by not letting ourselves off the hook. But when we are compassionate, we are also radically responsible.
We stop ourselves from sliding and can ask ourselves what we need to create sustainable change in our lives. Longe et al. (2010) found that loving-kindness, helps productivity, reduces anxiety, and helps us feel safer when thinking about difficult situations. It helps cultivate encouragement and healthy internal and outer states and calm. It makes us likely to adopt healthy behaviours, ask for help and show up in ways that honour our integrity and our values. Compassion keeps our self-worth intact when we mess up, learn, grow, and evolve.
THE 3 main Elements of Self-Compassion:
Being aware of our feelings, pain, fears, and thoughts -even when we dislike them- in a non-judgemental observing state.
A state that helps us see with clarity and allows self-soothing instead of shame, criticism, and avoidance.
Offering ourselves care, support and space when we suffer. Exactly like we would unconditionally do for a friend or anyone we love. It requires that we allow ourselves to be our own stronger, wiser truest SELF who embraces growth and mistakes. It means we practice holding empathic space when we feel fear and pain and trust ourselves while we learn.
Reminding ourselves that we are not alone in this experience. Many problems tend to isolate us because we believe that they are personal and only ours. But we are not alone in many situations. These are shared and common human experiences. Some things truly can happen to every one of us and they very often do. Recognizing that can make us feel more calm, less separated, and more connected (Shapiro, 2020).
Compassion makes us real:
It means holding ourselves accountable with healthy discernment. It means consciously witnessing our thoughts and behaviours so we can deliberately choose differently. It means we recognize unhealthy behaviours that need to change with curiosity even when we feel ashamed about it. It means we understand that self esteem and self-worth are not the same thing.
Self-compassion means letting go of the exhausting thought that we cannot be worthy until we “arrive. “Self-esteem defines us by our successes, comparisons, and accomplishments so we feel enough. Self-compassion, however, states that our self-worth is unnegotiable, even when we have room for improvement and will grow all our lives.
We can see how shame plays with us when we e.g. eat something unhealthy and immediately tie it to our worthiness. As a result, we then tend to binge more out of shame, guilt and self-criticism.
By learning to use loving kindness with ourselves, we do not trade in our power. We can then clearly see these moments for the temporary-very common human- stumbles they are.
Beating ourselves up does not get us to where we most want to be. It keeps us from listening, trusting and seeing what needs our attention to heal in order to be the agents of our lives.
Compassion makes us owners of our paths. It helps us embrace our true nature without needing to pretend or force happiness when the other shoe drops. In the middle of chaos, it can help us to recentre ourselves to take aligned, meaningful, and powerful action. It opens our minds and hearts. It frees us to our potential and from the idea that we need constant fixing because something is chronically wrong with us. Practice allows us to – as David (2016) says: be emotionally agile.
“To open ourselves up to the love that will come with hurt and the hurt that will come with love, and to the success that will come with failure and the failure that will come with success.”
When we practice compassion, we also practice nonidentification. We let life be and give ourselves permission to explore all emotions and experiences with grace.
Self-compassion makes us face our own fragility with courage. It assists us with our emotional regulation and helps us shift our “hardwired” perspectives and narratives without asking that we betray ourselves. Practicing also means we may learn how to remove the blurry filters that stop us from seeing opportunity, choice, beauty, love, magic, and awe.
Becoming real can only be accomplished when we REALLY learn to be loved and love ourselves unconditionally. Even if we can still get hurt, we may learn that we mind it happening just a little bit less.
If you are considering talking to a professional about self-compassion, quality of life or any other topic, you are welcome to contact our expert online psychologists at Personal Online Therapy on firstname.lastname@example.org or by filling in the contact form below.
David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. Penguin.
Longe, a Maratos Gilbert, Evans, Volker, Rockliff & Rippon (2010). Having a word with yourself: neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance. NeuroImage 49(2), p. 1849-56, Elsevier Inc., pubmed, doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.09.019
Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2017). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In B. A. Gaudiano, Major themes in mental health. Mindfulness: Nonclinical applications of mindfulness: Adaptations for school, work, sports, health, and general well-being (p. 495–517). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Quist Møller, Selma & Sami, Sohrab & Shapiro, Shauna. (2019). Health Benefits of (Mindful) Self-Compassion Meditation and the Potential Complementarity to Mindfulness-Based Interventions: A Review of Randomized-Controlled Trials. OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine. 4. 10.21926/obm.icm.1901002.
Shapiro, S. (2020). Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy. Sounds True.
TEDx Talks (2013, Nov. 7). Hardwiring happiness: Dr. Rick Hanson at TEDxMarin 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.rickhanson.net/ted-x-marin/