"Ouch, this hurts."
Step 1: Mindfulness
I shifted my purse to my left side and rushed through the store. Because carrying my purse on this side feels awkward (I always carry my purse on the right), I unconsciously shifted it to the right again while waiting in the check-out line. A few seconds later I lifted my hand to grab the straps and move it, again, to the left.
Then, a moment of awareness. "Ouch. This hurts."
I'd been hustling along for days; ignoring the pain in my shoulder and neck, shifting my purse from right to left and back again. In this moment, I realized that it wasn't just my physical body that was hurting. I know that the only time this particular pain shows up is when my emotional stress is high and my self-care is low. (The times when I, metaphorically, try to carry the weight of the world on my ((right)) shoulder!) I had been feeling afraid of disappointing myself and others, confused, and worried that I was being ineffective. It took a couple of days for me to notice my body tensing up, resulting in pain radiating through my shoulder and arm. Once I realized this I made it a priority to take care of myself and to explore the difficult situation and emotions that I was resisting.
Thanks to the threat protection system, our bodies instinctively tense up in an attempt to protect us from real or imagined danger. Only once we realize that we are suffering can we begin to respond compassionately to our difficulties and offer ourselves what we need.
Without mindful awareness of our suffering, we tend to either suppress or exaggerate our pain. Difficult emotions are like all other emotions: they are transient and fluid. They ebb and flow. When we resist our difficult emotions we don't allow them to inform us about what we need, what is important to us, and our shared human experiences. On the other hand, when we get lost in our difficult emotions we can lose perspective and feel overwhelmed. One of the simplest things we can do to support ourselves in a moment of pain is to acknowledge, with a tender, supportive inner-voice, that"this is a moment of pain" and then label the emotion being experienced. This simple step reduces activity in the amygdala - the brain structure that registers danger - and makes it less likely that a stress reaction will be triggered. We can then bring an open, accepting, and curious attitude to the experience. "Where do I feel the emotion?" "What is the sensation like?" "It can just be here for now. I can make room for it."
Self-compassion involves treating ourselves, in moments of difficulty, with the same care, concern, understanding, and support that we would extend to a good friend. Dr. Kristin Neff, an author and researcher, has identified three elements of self-compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) common humanity, and 3) self-kindness. Combined, these elements help us create a state of warm, connected presence in difficult moments. Research concludes that self-compassion supports stress resilience, more fulfilling interpersonal relationships, and overall improved well-being.
Look for next week's blog featuring the second element: common humanity.