Can we intentionally learn to be less self-critical and more self-compassionate? Psychologist Kristin Neff believes that we can. Based on her pioneering research, she has identified three basic elements of self-compassion: self-kindness vs. self-criticism; common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. over-identification; and she has developed techniques for strengthening each of them. This week’s subject is mindfulness, a skill which she sees as crucial to strengthening our capacity for self-compassion.
When Martin began therapy, he described his childhood as happy and non-problematic. He told me that his parents had both loved and cared for him, and that he grew up feeling safe and secure. But it wasn’t long before this picture became more complicated. He continued to know that he had been loved, but he had to revise his idealized picture of his family when he remembered periods of neglect, and even of cruelty, at the hands of both of his parents. Martin reacted by feeling intense rage at both of them. He ranted about them in his sessions and drafted denunciatory letters to them which – fortunately – he never sent. For a time, his feelings of victimization and betrayal consumed him.
This is a moment in the therapy process which many people experience. On the one hand, we can’t heal what we can’t feel. On the other hand, when we begin to experience painful emotions that we’re used to suppressing, the danger is that we can be overwhelmed and respond impulsively and destructively. This isn’t uncommon, because so many people just can’t acknowledge the depth of the pain they’re feeling; and others, when confronted with life challenges, get so lost in problem-solving that they don’t pause to notice the suffering they’re feeling in the moment.
That’s why I’ve come to see training in mindfulness as an important part of the therapy process. Mindfulness (in case there is anyone out there who is still unfamiliar with the term) is a non-judgmental, receptive mind-state in which we neither suppress our feelings nor act on them. When we’re mindful, we have our feelings, but they don’t have us. Mindfulness of our negative thoughts and feelings means that we don’t become over-identified with them, and don’t get swept away by our aversive reactions.
The term “mindfulness” is, in some ways, a misleading term for the state of presence what it tries to describe, because it suggests something detached, even cold. But when we’re able to be still and to stop either resisting our pain or wallowing in it – and just give it our full attention – something beautiful begins to happen. A deep, soothing warmth – self-compassion – arises, all by itself, and moves us to think and behave with kindness toward ourselves. For this reason, some meditation teachers prefer to call the practice “heartfulness” or “kindfulness.” It’s a tremendous thing to find, that, in our deepest selves, we all hold the potential for limitless, unconditional love. Unfortunately, this discovery rarely comes without work, because practicing mindfulness is like swimming against the stream. The mind doesn’t want to sit still and just be present to what’s happening, especially when what’s happening hurts. It is more or less constantly leaning into the future (unless it’s rehashing the past). Mindfulness is a learned skill, and something that must be practiced regularly to yield results.
In our work, Martin made an agreement not to talk to his parents about his anger until he had finished processing it with me. In time, he was able to experience his hurt and disappointment fully while containing it all in a gentle and spacious awareness. Mindfulness gave him a perspective which allowed him to see that, while the abuse and neglect he remembered were real, they were only a part of the truth, and that the love he remembered receiving was equally real. That larger view enabled him to be experience a genuine forgiveness for their imperfections that was also rooted in realism. When he was ready to talk with them, he centered himself with a period of mindfulness practice first. The conversation that followed was honest, but free of acrimony, and actually wound up bringing them closer together.
For those who would like to learn more about Kristin Neff’s pioneering research on the process of cultivating self-compassion, I highly recommend her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.