Take a Self-Compassion Break

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There’s no denying it – the last handful of years have been very challenging. Aside from the personal adversity we’ve all felt in our individual lives, we’ve faced incredible collective adversity. The pandemic. Political divide. Crime and mass shootings. It has all been a lot to handle, and many of us have found ourselves searching for ways to move through it and cope.

Thankfully, the field of psychology has a very effective tool for times like these: self-compassion. By opening up to and being mindful of our own emotional experience, by realizing that we aren’t alone in the way we’re feeling, and by offering ourselves kindness rather than criticism, we can help support ourselves through truly challenging times.

The main audio of this episode is a replay of an impromptu self-compassion break I led the day after the mass shooting at the elementary school in Ulvalde, Texas. Quite a few people from around the world joined in community to learn how to apply this important tool during challenging times.

Not everyone who wanted to join was able to (it was a very last-minute session), so this week’s podcast episode is a replay of the audio of that session.

In addition, there is a very valuable section at the end of this podcast about what it means to support other people through challenging times. So many times we say, “I just don’t know what to say or do.” And so we do nothing. The final segment of this week’s podcast helps give you another perspective on those situations, and I give you some practical tips about how you can support others during painful or challenging times.

Additional Resources:

  1. Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

Your (Obligatory) Holiday Survival Guide

Christmas and Kwanzaa are right around the corner (and Hanukkah snuck right past me). Maybe you love this time of year…and maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re like a lot of folks who find it quite challenging. Personally, I don’t holiday like a lot of my fellow Americans, but I think it would be an oversight not to address the topic, even if it’s a bit late in the game.

In 2006, I was an intern at Children’s Mercy Hospital, and I had the bad luck of being on call for Christmas. That meant I was stuck in a city where I knew very few people, all of whom would be going home to their families for the holidays. My parents came to visit but headed home on Christmas Eve. I bawled the next day, alone in my studio apartment, missing everyone and everything.

The next year, I was in a different city at a different hospital but, again, stuck with the Christmas call. That year was easier. I had a friend in Omaha, and we did our own thing to celebrate.

The following years saw some holidays with friends in California, some with my family, and some with my partners’ families. I’ve gotten very unattached to any specific vision of what the holidays must be like, and, honestly, it’s been pretty freeing. My holiday stress level tends to be pretty low, but that’s not the case for many people.

The holidays bring with them changes in routines and schedules. Our self-care goes out the window. We hit the end of the year crunch time. Many people have the added task of holiday shopping, decorating, cooking,  hosting, traveling, planning, and juggling 9 million things. Others have salient reminders of what or who they’ve lost. Couple all of that with the pressure of meeting expectations (yours and others’) or not feeling as joyous as you think you should. While you’re at it, throw in (what’s typically) a cold and dark time of year and a pandemic we’re all tired of, and it’s no wonder that many people experience heightened stress, anxiety, or depression!

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to not just survive but thrive through this season. Now, I’m not advocating that you abandon your holiday traditions as I have, but I will encourage you to do ALL of the things on this list.

1. Let your values be your guide.

Get really clear on who and what is important to you, particularly when it comes to the holidays. Tune out the noise, the expectations, the perceived obligations, and put your time, energy, and attention into what truly matters.

2.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When something less than desired happens, put it in perspective. Ask yourself, “On the scale of bad things, is this a paper cut or a nuclear disaster?” and react accordingly.

3. Make time for self-care.

Prioritize the basics like sleep, eating nutritious food, drinking water, and moving your body. Make time for whatever other self-care practices help you feel like you at your best.

4. Move with ease.

When we feel stressed, our movements get frantic, rushed, and hectic. Instead, intentionally relax your shoulders and move gently, smoothly, and a little more slowly than you might want to. This will help tell your nervous system that it’s all good. There’s no crisis. Relax.

5. Channel compassion – for yourself and everyone else.

You don’t have to be merry. In fact, there may be lots of reasons why you aren’t, and I bet the way you’re feeling makes sense when you consider those reasons and put them in context. So be kind to yourself! Offer that same compassion (empathy + kindness) to others, too. Adopt the attitude that everyone is doing the best they can at that moment. Try to understand what their perspective might be, how it might make sense when you consider the context, and offer them kindness, too, even if it’s just in your own thoughts.

6. Speaking of kindness, do one for someone in need.

Not only does this help someone out and add just a little bit of goodness into the world, but altruism is good for us, too. It gets us out of our own heads and our own problems and, frankly, it feels good to do good.

To be honest, I think this is pretty solid advice for any stressful time, not just the holidays, but I sincerely hope you thrive through this holiday season.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”
 – (often attributed to) Maya Angelou

The Challenges of Facing Uncertainty

As an anxiety specialist, I spend a lot of my time helping people learn to handle facing uncertainty. OCD, for example, is perhaps best understood as an allergy to uncertainty that manifests in a number of ways: will I get sick (I need to know for sure this safe)? What if something bad happens to me or my loved ones (I need to know for sure it’s going to be ok)? What if I make a huge mistake (I need to know for sure it’s all going to work out)? 

Intolerance of Uncertainty

Every anxiety disorder essentially boils down to some intolerance of uncertainty. But it’s so much broader than that. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you’re likely impacted by levels of uncertainty in some way. Our brains don’t like it, and we often have a built in adverse reaction to it.

The Assumptions We Make

How many times have we all heard over the past 18 months something along the lines of “These are uncertain times”? They are, of course, uncertain times. To be fair, though, times have always been uncertain. We just weren’t necessarily aware of it. The pandemic slapped us in the face with uncertainty – we can no longer take for granted that life is going to plug along the way it always has or the way we expect it to. A lot of our assumptions were shaken.

This foundation shaking has always happened, just typically on a more unique, individualized basis. Someone gets a life altering medical diagnosis. Someone is laid off. Or moves. Or an important relationship dissolves. We’ve all had periods of transition, periods of uncertainty in which our vision of the future becomes blurry.

Outside of those obvious, in your face moments, we often overlook uncertainty, assuming certainty without an actual guarantee of it. For example, how much are you worried about the plane barreling toward you right now about to crash into you as you read this? Are you running for cover? Seeking shelter? I doubt it.

Do you know for certain, 100% without a shadow of doubt, that a plane is not barreling toward you? No. Could it happen? Sure, theoretically. But, in the face of little evidence to the contrary, little sign of danger, we assume certainty and, therefore, safety. We operate as though the plane crash absolutely cannot and will not happen.

And that’s adaptive. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t assume certainty in some instances. Would you still go to work and save for retirement if you weren’t assuming you’d be around to see it? Would you still invest in your children if you weren’t assuming they’ll grow into healthy adults? Would you still eat kale if you weren’t taking care of your body with the hope of health and longevity? (No. Who eats kale for the enjoyment of it?!). The point being that we make a lot of assumptions about the continuity of things as they are. 

That’s ok. In fact, it’s quite helpful.

But, the past 18 months have made us keenly aware that the future is not certain. Things can change abruptly. Our foundations have been shaken, and uncertainty is actually quite hard for us.

Our Brains Hate Uncertainty

Our brains are designed to keep us alive. When things are familiar and predictable, our brains can relax a bit. We’re safe. As soon as we enter into uncharted territory – something new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or – you got it – uncertain, our threat detection system goes into high alert. We have a fight or flight response. We don’t know what to expect. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. We might not be safe.

Our brains begin to scan, looking for every potential danger or thing that could wrong, and we experience that as anxiety or unease. Our brains are constantly looking for worst case scenarios to save us from. Our brains start striving toward certainty and safety again. Remember, that’s their number one job. This striving comes out in all kinds of ways, all centering on getting some sense of control. For example, we may plan, figure out, avoid, ruminate, try to control others, analyze, and any number of strategies ultimately aimed at getting rid of the uncertainty, getting us back to familiar, predictable ground. We want a sense of control, and we want a guarantee of safety. While it’s natural, the problem is that sometimes there isn’t a way to resolve the uncertainty, to get that guaranteed outcome that we’re looking for, and all of those efforts actually exhaust us or stress us out further. The goal, then, is to learn to tolerate uncertainty. To learn to be ok with not knowing and, hopefully, trust that we’ll be able to handle whatever might arise.

Tolerating Uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty is like training a muscle that can be developed (think risk tolerance or expanding your comfort zone, both similar concepts here). One step you can take is to start to get clear about what is and isn’t knowable so that you can stop spinning your wheels seeking certainty where it’s not possible to get any. Ask yourself these key questions to determine if it’s worth your time and effort:

  • Is this knowable?
  • Is this knowable by me?
  • Is this knowable by me right now?

If the answer is yes, yes, yes, by all means, continue to spend the time analyzing, thinking about, figuring out, and controlling. You can find the answers you’re looking for, then act accordingly.

If, however, the answer to any one of them is no, you’re better off working on accepting the uncertainty and putting your time and effort into other things that you actually can control.

When will COVID really be over? 

I don’t think that’s knowable in general, certainly not by me right now. Rather than analyzing every bit of news (or noise – opinions and predictions masquerading as facts), I’ll focus on thriving through uncertainty.

What if my business venture (kids, relationships, fitness efforts, etc., etc.,) doesn’t succeed?

The future isn’t knowable. I can feel overwhelmed worrying about success, or I can spend my time working on strategies and steps that improve performance and move my business forward.

Notice the places where you find yourself saying (or thinking) “I just need to know” or worrying about how things will turn out or struggling with the unpredictability. Ask yourself those key questions. Then focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Psychological Strength Is Key

When I look back over periods in my life that have felt very uncertain or were characterized by big transitions, I see how psychological strength is so helpful in navigating those times. These skills are invaluable in being able to thrive through adversity and deal with challenges. Fortunately, psychological strength can be developed. Dr. April and I will be diving much deeper into uncertainty and, more importantly, how to thrive through it, in a live virtual workshop on Wednesday (October 2021). If you want to take charge of your life and be more proactive in shaping how life feels for you, we’d love to have you join us. Tickets are only $19 (or free for Ascend members).

 “If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.”
— Eckhart Tolle

How A Skinned Knee Had Me Feeling Grateful

I have to share a painful/slightly hilarious story with you.

I’m currently training for my first half-marathon. Yesterday, I was a little over 7 miles into my planned 8 mile run, and I was feeling good. Really good, in fact, so I picked up the pace. I crossed 75th Street, the busiest intersection on my route, and the next thing I know, my face was plummeting toward the ground.

  • “What’s happening?”
  • “I’m falling!”
  • “This is bad!”
  • “My face is going to hit the pavement.”
  • Images of teeth shattering (one of my front teeth is already half fake because of a bike riding/pavement situation as a kid)
  • “I’m hurt!”

Those were the thoughts that blinked through my mind in a jumbled instant.

Thankfully, I was able to stop my momentum at the last second, with my face hovering an inch from the ground, teeth intact. Stunned, I pushed myself up as a red minivan pulled into the nearby parking lot to make sure I was ok (did I mention it was a busy intersection? There were SO MANY cars stopped at the light, witnessing my fall.)

I was also able to stop my mind. Paying attention to the present moment I began to look around and breathe through my emotions.

Then another thought entered my mind: “You fell. You can’t run anymore.”

Fortunately, I was able to set that thought aside before it could take hold. I quickly assessed the damage, realized I was shaken but not seriously injured, got up, and finished my run. I even beat my goal time.

I was on a path I’d traversed 100 times. I didn’t feel myself trip or stumble. I didn’t see it coming. Yet, I fell. Hard. And it sucked. Yet I called in some positive emotions. 

And I got back up and persevered.

As I finished my run then bandaged myself up at home, I reflected on what happened, and this is where the feelings of gratitude came in. 

Gratitude is more than a throwaway emotion. It’s a verb. An active, not a passive thing. Truly being grateful, meaning that we are actively feeling and showing that gratitude, is really more of an action taking place.

I was feeling grateful to my past self for all the hard work she’s done to build psychological strength. That work was the reason I was able to get up and move forward so quickly. I had my eye on the goal and a clear sense of who I am.

  • I’m the kind of person who can handle painful things.
  • I’m the kind of person who doesn’t let my mind take me off course.
  • I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid of failure.

I can handle painful things.

I don’t like pain. I mean, who does? Yet, aspects of psychological strength help me move through painful experiences without getting crushed. 

Yesterday, it was my mindfulness and acceptance skills that allowed me to notice and assess the painful sensations throughout my body without my mind turning up the pain volume. I didn’t realize when I started cultivating these particular skills just how crucial and widely applicable they’d be.

I don’t let my mind take me off course.

Minds are masterful excuse generators. They are SO GOOD at making up reasons and giving us justifications for not doing hard or uncomfortable things. Part of the psych strength work I’ve been focusing on lately is noticing when my mind is giving me those excuses, even the really plausible, completely rational sounding ones like “You just fell. You can’t run anymore.”

The reality is, I was stunned, slightly embarrassed, and in pain, but I wasn’t really injured. I saw the Excuse Generator for what it was and quelled it before it even had a chance to really get going.

I am not afraid of failure.

This one hasn’t always been true me. As a (mostly) recovered perfectionist, I’ve had to do a lot of work to redefine my relationship with failure so that it doesn’t hold me back, and it’s an ongoing process. Even after all the work I’ve done, deep down I still don’t like being wrong, making mistakes, or failing. It’s disappointing, and it hurts, especially when you’re feeling really confident and don’t see it coming.

That said, I am getting much better at picking myself up, dusting myself off, and persevering despite bruises (to my body or my ego). I’m steadily working on becoming the kind of person who Is not afraid to falter, who can own mistakes without internal angst, and who can even find the humor in my biggest fails.

I am grateful.

So here I am, a 40 year old woman with a bandaged up skinned knee and a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful for the work I’ve done to build my psychological strength, for the community who supports my journey, and for the opportunity to help others.

I practice what we teach at Peak Mind every day, and it’s had a real impact on my life experience. I want the same for you.

That’s why we created ASCEND, our most comprehensive endeavor to date. ASCEND includes the best of everything we know that goes into building psychological strength.

You, too, can have a strong sense of who you are and be the kind of person you want to be. You, too, can pick yourself up and move forward through painful times. You can build skills like mindfulness and acceptance, and you can learn to find the bright spots even in the darkest moments. 

You won’t regret the effort you put into building psychological strength. I know I haven’t. 

“Failures are like skinned knees, painful but superficial.”
– Ross Perot