Tag Archives: Family Therapy

Stress: Part 2B: Cultivating Self-Compassion

Giving yourself permission to be human

My mentor Alicia Gregory, and I share a sort of nerdy obsession with good research on what I’ve taken to calling “the good life.” Lately I’m really loving what I’m learning about Self-Compassion. I commend Christopher Germer’s website and free guided meditation downloads. Since I started this post, I’ve gotten halfway through Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion, which I have enjoyed too. If you’re looking for a “self-help” kind of book that introduces the concept, some of the background, and the research, this is a good place to start. Self-Compassion can begin with a startling realization: most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never talk to another human being (or even the dog).

“Suck it up!” “You are stupid to feel this way!” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and just have another drink!” “Who do you think you are to think you deserve a break?” “If you don’t do better, they are all going to realize you are a fraud and leave you.”

There are three movements to cultivating something healthier: First, we must become aware of our distress, negative emotions, self-defeating habits, and automatic responses to pain. Without judgment: just aware. Simply learning to say to ourselves before we rush off into a reactive tailspin; “oh, I am feeling bad.” Or, as Sylvia Boorstein recommends: “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Breathe. Pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.” There is a mindful part of us that is aware of our experience without being caught up in it–an inner observer. It is out of this place that we notice, label, and sit with our difficult experience.

A separate paragraph to emphasize the hardest part of this practice. The attitude is kindness. It helps to imagine a beloved child, dear friend, or precious pet. Approach  yourself as you would a beloved other, with care, with compassion, with empathy. I’ve been teaching myself put my hand on my heart and say softly; “Wow, buddy, this really hurts, doesn’t it?” Because I can’t bring myself to call myself “sweetheart.”

The second movement is normalizing your experience. Everyone struggles. Failure is normal. Everyone knows discomfort. It can be a powerful teacher. Give yourself permission to be a fallible, normal human being.

Third, practice compassion toward yourself. Incorporate your own version of Boorstein’s wonderful “sweetheart” practice. Download Germer’s self-compassion meditations and put them on your phone and do one every day. It may be hard to sit quietly and wish yourself well. I recommend sticking with it. None of us will be fully compassionate with our weakness every time, but we get better with practice.

One further note: for those of us with a strong habit of perfectionism, shame, or feeling unworthy of love, it may be really difficult even to start with such a practice. We may fear that if we offer ourselves compassion for mistakes, pain, weakness, or hurt, we will be “lazy,” or slip off the deep end into failure. It can be hard to keep in mind that just as trees bear fruit in sunshine and good soil, humans grow with love, belonging, and security. I’m not merely being poetic here: the research is in. Secure, loving relationships (with self and others) are the basis for flourishing. If you want to work on self-compassion (or want to want to), but find the inner barriers too difficult to surmount, working with a therapist or spiritual director may help.


Stress: Part 2A: Filling up the Tank

The Better News

The last post sounds like bad news. There’s some good news, too. First, knowing that certain events are more stressful that others, we can cultivate some measure of intention about what we say “yes” to. If you’ve had some big stressors in life lately, it might not be the best time to sell your house (31 points on the Holmes Rahe Scale) and move (25). Second, knowing that stress is, in part, biological, we can cultivate rest, play, and exercise to replenish the reserves (stress reserves are another of Selye’s ideas).  Third, knowing that stress is unavoidable and that some years are full of unavoidable stressors, we can give ourselves permission to be less than our best selves (more on Self-Compassion in the next post). It’s just not realistic to expect that we’ll live through a series of major life changes and still do our best work, feel utterly calm, and never snap at the children when they’re chasing the cat around the house trying to give him a “haircut” (hypothetically speaking, of course, this has never happened at Team Kell Headquarters. ahem).

Saying “yes” and saying “no”

Most of chronically overestimate our ability to cope with new stressors. So we say yes too often. We do it for any number of imminently defensible reasons: we really want to, we are afraid of what will happen if we say no, we have an internal switch that defaults to “yes,” the opportunity really is too good to pass up. What’s important is to know why we say yes, and to cultivate the ability to say no when we really should. As my friend Steve Brown at Mercer University’s Career Services office once quipped to me, “you know counselors. We don’t care what you do as long as you know why you are doing it.” If you find yourself saying yes to everything and frequently wind up burned out, resentful, and overwhelmed, it might be wise to wonder what your internal script is around saying yes or no. I’m biased, but I think talk therapy helps here. And remember Brene’ Brown’s wonderful “boundary mantra:” “Choose discomfort over resentment!”

Doing Non-Doing

2007.03.09 063
2007.03.09 063 (Photo credit: sartzsche)

Adequate rest, fun, and down-time are essential ways to re-fill your stress resilience reserves. A story to illustrate: before I started a tough graduate program back in 2003, I was an avid rock climber. I went to the crag twice a month and to the climbing gym (fake plastic rocks) three times a week. Within a few weeks, I was going climbing only once every couple weeks. The wise manager of the gym mentioned that he’d been seeing less of me. I told him about the new stresses and busy-ness and how I felt I had too much to do to devote more time to climbing. “When you have too much to do, you have to give more time to non-doing,” he said. “Otherwise, you risk getting out of balance. And then you burn out and can’t do anything.”

Doing non-doing feels counter-productive, even scary, to those of us who derive some (or all) of our self-worth from being needed, being busy, being useful. But I’m increasingly convinced that to cultivate the ability to rest, to sit, to play, and to just be when we feel pressed to do more is one of the more important secrets to living a good life.

There are different kinds of non-doing. There are physically active pursuits like fun excercise (exercise is good for you even if it’s not fun, but why not do something you like instead of something you have to waste valuable willpower on by forcing yourself?), playing, gardening, building, yoga, walking the dog after dinner, and so on. There are the quiet ones, like making a craft or art, writing, reading for pleasure, meditating, or lingering over dinner with your loved ones and friends. It’s important to cultivate both kinds. When you are feeling panicky, that is no time to knit. Go for a jog.

Meet Shaun

Meet Shaun

Shaun P. Kell, MFT, LMFT
Shaun Kell has been in practice as a couple and family therapist since 2007. Earning a bachelor’s degree with majors in Philosophy and Religion from Mercer University provides him a perspective on helping people that moves beyond merely minimizing symptoms to addressing questions about meaning, happiness, and flourishing. He earned his master’s degree in family therapy at Mercer School of Medicine. Shaun has helped individuals, families with children, adolescents, adults, and couples in educational, mental health, and primary medical care settings. Although Shaun has helped people facing a wide range of issues, he has the most experience with problems like ADHD and learning disabilities, anxiety and depression, and coping with chronic illness or disability. Working with a warm and easygoing style, he believes that everyone can make positive changes happen in his or her life and relationships. His job is to find the barriers.