Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Year's Resolutions - How About a Little Self-Compassion?

Right now we're in that funny place "between the years" - recovering from heavy meals, holiday get togethers, and getting ready for the new year.  New Year's Resolutions are starting to pop up in conversations.  These resolutions can take on a variety of shapes.  Increasing health and fitness, along with decreasing unhealthy habits, is probably one of the most common New Year's resolutions (did you know there's a public run in New York City's Central Park at the stroke of midnight of 1/1/12?).  Others resolve to improve their relationships, change their world view, volunteer and give back, set new priorities, work less and play more, or play less and work more.  I'd like to propose another option - increasing self-compassion.  

Too often do we beat ourselves up about mistakes we make or failing to achieve a goal.  While this may be an attempt at self-discipline, it often unfortunately backfires by creating more pressure, stress, anxiety, or even depression.  Most of us would agree that it's easier to feel sympathy and compassion for others than for ourselves.  How about starting to turn a little of that inward - accepting that we make mistakes, and being warm and understanding towards ourselves.  When we start looking at our imperfections and life's difficulties with self-compassion, we recognize that we can be gentle with ourselves and approach our position in life with sympathy and kindness.  This can ultimately lead to greater emotional balance.  

Kristin Neff, a prominent researcher on self-compassion, defines self-compassion as a two-fold concept.  First, self-compassion entails noticing that we are suffering at a given moment.  Let's say you beat yourself up about your failure to complete a task on time.  Instead of playing over and over in your head that you did something wrong, try to recognize that you are having a hard time with this.  Second, self-compassion means that you feel warmth and care towards yourself, along with a desire to soothe your pain.  So instead of judging yourself harshly for your failure to complete a task, try extending understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes.  

Now you may find yourself wondering how this approach will help you accomplish your goals.  You may even find yourself arguing that unless you discipline or judge or criticize yourself, you will "never" get where you need to be.  I encourage you to ponder how self-compassion may actually help you become happy and healthy.  By accepting that like others, you too are a human being who is less than perfect and makes mistakes, you can start to let go of unrealistic hurdles you place in your own way.  Life does not always happen according to our expectations.  That's okay.  That's what makes us part of this place called Earth, of this wonderful and diverse humanity.  Every single being on this earth has encountered frustration, loss, made mistakes.  We are all part of this.  Accepting this instead of fighting against it can make things so much easier for ourselves and those around us.

Some resources to learn more about and increase self-compassion:

- Visit Kristin Neff's website.  
- A great book is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by C.K. Germer
- Talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can be a great help. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Staying Sane During The Holidays - Part II

I ran across this fantastic column in the Huffington Post and felt like I needed to share it here.  The author is Laura Munson, who has also written a book and a column in the New York Times.  In the spirit of the holiday season and taking care of oneself during this hurried time, consider this an opportunity to stop, breathe, and re-prioritize your life.  For more tips on staying sane during the holidays, please also see my previous blog entry.

Check out this great column by clicking on the link below:

Why I'm Not Micromanaging Christmas This Year by Laura Munson

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Art of Secret Keeping

Everyone can relate to having and keeping secrets - such as secret romances, illness, sexual orientation or preferences, job or financial problems, drug/alcohol problems, or illicit ways of pleasure seeking.  You may also be keeping secrets for others - like a family member or friend sharing something troubling and asking you to not share it with anyone else.  Humankind has kept secrets for thousands of years, but is keeping a secret good for your health?

James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated a large part of his career to studying the health effects of keeping and disclosing secrets.  He and his colleagues found that keeping secrets increases the body's stress response.  On the other hand, their studies found that writing down one's deepest thoughts and feelings around private matters (also called expressive writing) can have immense benefits.  Over and over again it has been shown that sharing deep, dark secrets on paper or a computer (for some even anonymously online) can improve both emotional and physical well-being.  For example, individuals who participated in the writing study made fewer visits to their physician and showed improved immune system markers.  

Besides posing a stress to our bodies, how else could keeping secrets hurt us?  People who lead a double life may have more difficulty defining their identity and may be unsure of how others may react if they showed their true selves.  Secretiveness can also affect self-esteem, as it causes people to seek out less (much needed) social support.  The social environment also poses the question of who will listen.  A social network can be of little use if it signals that it does not want to know or see the truth (also called denial).

It turns out the question around sharing vs. keeping secrets is more complex than originally assumed.  Recent research shows that keeping secrets can have a protective function for people.   For someone who is sensitive to rejection, it may be better to keep certain secrets.  And it may not be the secret keeping per se that drives people to ruin, but rather the possibility that secrets keep people isolated from others.

Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that if you choose to reveal a secret, do so to someone who feels safe and close to you.  When applying this to the concept of psychotherapy, it is interesting that one of the major factors of positive change is a positive and trusting relationship between therapist and client.  Therapists are required by law and ethics to keep what is told to them confidential (with some very specific exceptions), which is another important aspect promoting safety and therapeutic change.  This may give way to another lesson: the ability to form a safe and trusting relationship may be a pre-requisite to any big revelation.  If all else fails, we all can turn to the trusty old pen and paper - and then either shred or lock away our written secrets.

PS:  Dr. Pennebaker co-chaired my dissertation and provided invaluable support and guidance throughout my graduate student days.  I am forever grateful to him.

Resources for further reading:
Anita Kelly at University of Notre Dame
James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin