Tag Archives: self-compassion

Brain/Mind: Forever Lovers

I write for several mental health and psychology journals and blogs. Every month, I field questions that may be relevant to several people and their interests. Recently, I was asked to differentiate between sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and their significance. While there is overlap, the empirical data and clinical experience indicate differences among these concepts.

In addition, I have been exploring the concept of Empath, which is somewhat different, and does not yet have sufficient research. As you know, I believe in the combination of clinical, empirical, cultural competence, and lived experience, so it’s an intriguing area for further study.
*Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
*Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
*Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It is an active process of wanting to help others.

When you are viscerally feeling what another person feels, you are experiencing empathy. Thanks to your brain’s “mirror neurons,” a concept still under neural investigation, empathy may arise when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw someone in distress, you may feel awful. This has even been witnessed in infancy, such as babies and toddlers who may start crying if they see or hear another child in tears.
Several interesting developmental psychology studies in Finland and Denmark have shown that empathy can be taught from an early age, as an active skill and strategy, so ‘baby, you were born with it,’ is not necessarily the only scenario. Just think about the possibilities of teaching empathy as an active life strategy and the possibilities for what that would mean across the world.
For more info: Why We Should Teach Empathy

It can be tricky to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference? When you are sympathetic, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand the content of what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s loved one has passed away, you may not be able to feel that person’s experience. However, you can understand that your friend is sad. This includes societal norms of grief and loss.

Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy to the level of activity. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do what you can to to alleviate the person’s suffering. It is the basis of volunteering, community service, mentoring, and helping others.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering, actively.

Dr. Thupten Jinpa, was the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the training known as Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT).  Jinpa posits that compassion, trained in neural science, is a four-step process:
-Awareness of suffering
-Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering
-Wishing to see the relief of that suffering
-Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering through behavioral activity and reaching out.
For more info: Compassion Institute

I posit one additional concept, that does not yet have sufficient Cognitive/Neural research data. I call it the mind meld, or empath. It’s being with someone in the mindful moment or experience, and has been anecdotally described in indigenous cultures and spiritual practice. Think of Diana, from Star Trek; or the conduit described by the Iroquois, and dogs who stare into your eyes, which they do not do with any other species, except their beloved humans.

Also read:
The Neuropsychology of Dog Love

When I began my neuroscience studies, the epitome of writing and research was represented by neurologist, Dr. Eric Kandel. Many chapters in his landmark textbook ended with: this is all we know, and how much we still need to learn about brain functioning. Still true.I enjoy your neuropsychology questions and comments. And I love that people are interested in the brain/mind connection. They are forever spouses.

More info:
Mental Health and Empathy
The Science of Compassion
The Neuropsychology of Self Compassion

How to get motivated when you’re not feeling it

Reasons for low motivation can include:

Avoidance of discomfort.
Sometimes a lack of motivation stems from a desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Discomfort could include feelings that a task is too hard, too big, too exhausting, or too complicated (task expectations that are not clearly laid out are one of the biggest motivation killers). Feelings of distress or task aversion are one of THE most common reasons for de-motivation.

Repetitive everyday tasks are often avoided. From doing dishes, laundry, to cleaning up after the kids, every single day feels like Groundhog Day. It feels never-ending. For students, the parallel is ‘busywork’, such as repetitive homework.

When you think you can’t do something—or just don’t know how to get it done. When you lack the tools, skills, or even the training to get it done, it can be very un-motivating.

Being over-extended.
When you are juggling a lot in life, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed. You may not even know what to tackle first and this feeling can zap your motivation.

Procrastination has a positive correlation with perfectionism. Often, perfectionists have difficulty starting or staying on task because the internalized goal of doing it perfectly feels so hard to meet.

Executive Functioning Weaknesses.
Executive function is mediated by the frontal lobe, the conductor of the brain or the Head Chef. What appears to be low motivation is sometimes a direct result of difficulties with planning, organizing, sustained effort, attention, processing speed,  prioritizing, and self monitoring. If you have a bunch of talented musicians who can’t work together in an orchestra, the result is a jarring cacophony of sound no matter the skill level. Learn more: What Is Executive Functioning?

Lack of commitment to a goal.
Agreeing to a task simply because you felt obligated, may mean your heart really isn’t in it. And you are less likely to take action when you aren’t committed to your goal.

Mental health issues.
A lack of motivation is a common symptom of depression. It can also be linked to other mental illnesses, like anxiety. So it’s important to consider whether your mental health may be affecting your motivation level. Read more on how mental health can sap your motivation.

Strategies for Motivation That Work
One Goal.
Probably the most common mistake that people make with regard to motivation: they try to take on too much, try to accomplish too many goals at once. You cannot maintain energy and focus (the two most important things in accomplishing a goal) if you are trying to do two or more goals at once. You have to choose one goal, for now, and focus on it completely.

Find inspiration.
Inspiration can come from all over: clients, mentors, friends, entrepreneurs, colleagues. Read blogs, books, magazines,  Watch movies and shows, talk to people. Write down ideas that you find inspiring. Having an inspiration journal is a boon when it feels like your mind is blank.

Ask for help.
Having trouble? Ask for help. Join an online forum. Talk to a colleague or friend you trust.  Find somebody who can coach you through the rough bits. Having an executive coach or emotion coach can get you back on your feet.

Reward Yourself.
Create small rewards for yourself that you can earn for your hard work. You might find focusing on the reward helps you stay motivated to reach your goals. For example, if you have a long paper to write for a class or a work assignment, you might tackle it in several different ways: Consider whether you are likely to be more motivated by smaller, more frequent rewards or a bigger reward for a complete job. You may want to experiment with a few different strategies until you discover an approach that works best for you.

Use the 10-Minute Rule.
When you dread doing something, like walking on the treadmill for three mile or lifting weights for 30 minutes, you may lack motivation to do it. You can reduce your feelings of dread by breaking it up into short components.  The 10-minute rule can help you get going. Give yourself permission to quit a task after 10 minutes. When you reach the 10-minute mark, ask yourself if you want to keep going or quit. Life, 10 minutes at a time.

Break it down.
I work with a lot of students, researchers, and writers. Having to write or produce a large amount of material is a daunting task for most people.  Learning how to break down a large project or paper into smaller steps, each with its own deadline, requires practice. One of the largest factors in motivation is feeling overwhelmed by the huge-ness of a task.

Ebb and Flow.
Motivation is not a constant thing that is always there for you. It comes and goes. But realize that while it may go away, it usually doesn’t do so permanently. Be patient with yourself on bad days.

Start small.
If you are having a hard time getting started, it may be because you’re thinking too big. If you want to exercise, for example, you may be thinking that you have to do these intense workouts 5 days a week. Do small, tiny, baby steps. Just do 5 minutes of exercise. Organize one cupboard or drawer.  Want to wake up early? Don’t think about waking at 5 a.m. Instead, think about waking 10 minutes earlier for a week. That’s all. Baby steps are powerful. Just think about it, a tiny human learning to walk. That’s a powerhouse.

Manage Your To-Do List.
First of all, it’s impossible to keep everything in your head. When some of my students or clients tell me it’s all up there, I just nod politely. No matter how great your memory, something will slip through the cracks. Having a list is not optional.

It’s tough to feel motivated when your to-do list is overwhelming. If you feel like there’s no hope in getting everything done, you might not try to do anything. Keep in mind that most people underestimate how long something will take them. And when they don’t get it done on time, they might view themselves as lazy or inefficient. This can backfire by causing them to lose motivation, which makes it even harder to get more things done.

Take a look at your to-do list, and determine if it’s too long. If so, get rid of tasks that aren’t essential. See if other tasks can be moved to a different day. Prioritize the most important things on the list, and move those to the top. I like keeping separate notebooks, for tasks that are essential and those that are long-term. You can further divide both categories into work deadlines, social commitments, family commitments, self-care,  and academic or educational endeavors. I actually like to use different color pens for each area. The important thing is to break your to do list down into components that are actually possible or else you will have the same long list day after day.

Mindfulness and Self-Care.
You’ll struggle with motivation as long as you aren’t caring for yourself. Sleep-deprivation, poor nutrition, stress/worry, and lack of leisure time are just a few things that can make trudging through the day more difficult than ever. Learn more about Mindfulness and Self-care.

The Pillars of Self-Care.

    • Exercise regularly.
    • Get plenty of sleep.
    • Drink water, and eat a healthy diet.
    • Make time for leisure and fun.
    • Use healthy coping skills to deal with stress.
    • Find meaningful social connection.
    • Avoid unhealthy habits, like binge eating and drinking too much alcohol.
    • Seek professional help as needed.

Get support.
It’s hard to accomplish something alone. A landmark study in 2016 (Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology) found that not feeling alone was an incredibly potent variable in motivation. Researchers gave out an impossible task, that is, it had no actual solution. The participants were split into two groups and given a complex puzzle to complete. People in one group were told they’d be working in teams, and were introduced to their teammates before being sent off to work on the puzzle alone. The other team was told they’d be working alone, and didn’t meet any teammates. While working on the puzzle, those in the team group were given handwritten notes supposedly from their teammates (they were actually from the researchers). These notes, and the process of meeting their teammates before starting the puzzle had an impact on their experience, despite the fact that they were working on the puzzle all alone, just as those in the non-team group were.

The participants who felt like they were part of a team, worked 50% longer on trying to solve the puzzle. They also reported finding the puzzle more fun and more interesting than participants who didn’t have teammates. The mere idea that one is working with a group and not alone can increase intrinsic motivation, that is, an inner drive to finish the work and increased internal satisfaction working persistently.  Read: How to Ask for Help Without Feeling Weird.

State Your Mantra.
Print out your goal in words. Make your goal just a few words long, like a mantra (“Exercise 15 mins. Daily”), and post it up on your wall or refrigerator. Post it at home and work. Put it on your computer desktop, bathroom mirror, and cell phone. You want to have real reminders about your goal, to keep your focus and keep your excitement going. Learn more about Mantras.

Pair a Dreaded Task With Something You Enjoy.
Our emotions play a major role in motivation level. If you’re sad, bored, lonely, scared, or anxious, your desire to tackle a tough challenge or complete a tedious task will suffer. Boost your mood by adding a little fun to something you’re not motivated to do. You’ll feel happier and you might even look forward to doing the task when it’s regularly paired with something fun.

Here are some examples:

  • Listen to music while you run.
  • Call a friend, and chat while you’re cleaning the house.
  • Light a scented candle while you’re working on your computer.
  • Rent a luxury vehicle when you travel for business.
  • Invite a friend to run errands with you.
  • Listen to audiobooks or interesting podcasts while commuting.
  • Turn on your favorite show while you’re folding laundry.

Give yourself a time out.
Giving yourself breaks throughout a large task can be very energizing. The average person can only sustain attention for30 to 45 minutes and often less. Get up, stretch, move, see below.

Include physical movement.
Although you might be getting ready to do something that’s not physical, like working at a desk, your schedule routine should include some movement. Exercise oxygenates your brain and can do wonders for your motivation and energy.

Get outside.
Walking or spending time in nature can be very beneficial. A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking half a mile through a park or working in a garden for thirty minutes reduces brain fatigue.

Write it down.
Numerous studies have shown that you are more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. A guided day planner with a daily list of goals will give you the motivation to achieve your objectives step-by-step. When you know what steps to take to achieve your goals and you see them in writing, you’re more likely to get motivated to complete them.

Practice Self-Compassion.
You might think being hard on yourself is the key to getting motivated. But harsh self-criticism doesn’t work. Research shows that self-compassion is actually much more motivating, especially when you are struggling with adversity. For example, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of California found that self-compassion increases the motivation to recover from failure. After failing a test, students spent more time studying when they spoke to themselves kindly. Additionally, they reported greater motivation to change their weaknesses when they practiced self-acceptance (a key component of self-compassion). Self-compassion may also improve mental health (which can increase motivation). Having a kind inner dialogue is a key component of avoiding discouragement, the motivation killer. Learn more about Self-Compassion

How to be Mean… to Yourself:

25 Ways to be Mean… to Yourself

    1. Not asking for help: school/work/personal.
    2. Carrying a negative narrative or origin story about yourself.
    3. Not keeping your word to yourself.
    4. Not trying something new.
    5. Not allowing yourself to rest, or feeling guilty when you do.
    6. Procrastinating.
    7. Habitually saying self-derogatory things about yourself.
    8. Apologizing for everything.
    9. Setting unrealistic goals.
    10. Not setting goals.
    11. Faking having fun, pleasure, togetherness.
    12. Maintaining hurtful relationships.
    13. Not being appropriately assertive or reciprocal in personal relationships (Say: “Hey, you said that you would pay me back on this personal loan that you needed by such and such, can we work on getting that together? “)
    14. Giving up when you slip (well, I already ate the ice cream so I might as well eat everything else).
    15. Not keeping up with hygiene, health habits, or medical regimens.
    16. Doing something self-destructive when things are actually going well. 
    17. Not accepting compliments or appreciation.
    18. Avoiding daily responsibilities and chores that are relatively small until they become not so small.
    19. Paying for services that you don’t use (such as the dozens of subscriptions and services that are free for a month and then kick over to your credit card).
    20. Beating yourself up for past mistakes.
    21. Minimizing yourself because you get messages that you are “too much“.
    22. Raising your hand for a task because no one else is.
    23. Not protecting your emotional energy when you are going through a vulnerable time.
    24. Wasting time on things that bring no actual sustenance.
    25. Not speaking up when someone is being overtly rude.

And one more for good measure:  Allowing others to steal your creativity, product, or hard work.

Many of these things require practice and unlearning old habits. Also see How Can I Be More Self-Compassionate.

How Can I Be More Self-Compassionate?

A frequent discussion with patients is how to be kinder… To oneself.
According to clinical psychology research, self-compassion includes three major components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and connection with humanity. Scientifically, self-compassion promotes well-being, decreases depression and anxiety, and can be a buffer during difficult times.
See The Neuropsychology of Self-Compassion.

Become aware of your inner critic. The Ping.
When you notice your self critical thoughts like “I am a failure”, “I am such an idiot” or “No one likes me”. Pause and intervene with thought stopping (picture a stop sign) and replace it with another thought. Another method that my clients have found to be helpful is what I call ‘the ping’. Wear a stretchy style bracelet and ping it on your wrist when you find yourself being mean to you. It’s a quick reminder that this is an automatic thought. Self- denigrating thoughts can become internalized and require mindful vigilance to address them.
See Why Self-Compassion is More Important Than Self-Esteem

What would you say to a dear friend if you heard them saying these things aloud? The No-Trash-Talking.
If you heard someone you care about beating themselves up, you would likely tell them to be kinder. You would remind them that they did their best and help them remember what makes them special. Just as you wouldn’t let somebody else trash talk your bestie, being mean to yourself is not helpful.
See 13 Ways to Practice Non Compassion

Take a self-compassion break. The Timeout.
I also call this the reboot. When a laptop is glitching, you shut down everything and reboot. When people feel like they are in a downward spiral, stop everything and take a break. Use affectionate breathing, loving kindness meditation, or the self-hug as strategies to show yourself compassion.
See On the Power of the Self-Hug

Realize your suffering is a part of collective pain: Dukkha.
In Eastern thought, understanding that suffering is a part of common humanity versus your own isolated experience may help put things into perspective and to feel more connected. Pain makes people feel alone. Understand that although you may feel you are the only one suffering, you are not. Suffering is a part of the human range of experience and brings us closer to the bigger world.
See The Science of Compassion

Mindfulness. The self-scan.
Mindfulness is a receptive mind state where one observes thoughts and feelings as they are without suppressing or denying them. This state helps you become mindful of both positive and negative emotions and keep it in a balanced perspective. This can be combined with journaling, if desired. Writing how you feel in the moment from a stream of consciousness (no editing) perspective has been linked to a decrease in depressive or negative thoughts in numerous studies.
See Restorative Writing and Mental-Health

Kindness to others: Giving.
Community work and volunteering is strongly linked to an increase in positive mood. Somehow the act of helping others boosts us along with them. There are fewer things that are a bigger win-win.
Also see The Kindness of Strangers

On Self Care

I’m 55 and I’m frequently asked about self care. First, genes and luck are a huge deal. I don’t care about youth. I believe in ancient roots. I love being half a century old plus five. Especially the century part. I’ve seen a lot and not enough. Don’t let anybody who wants to sell you a $150 moisturizer tell you otherwise. I don’t do a great job at self care and I’m always learning. I am surrounded by great people who know more than I do.

After genes, I think passion for whatever your endeavors, eating delicious and natural foods, movement, touch, being outdoors make a great difference. Love makes you glow. That includes love for partners, friends, chosen family, and the world (our ultimate partner). I have nothing against people getting “work” done. More important is doing the Work.

This is a bit different. I believe grief makes you beautiful. Our heartbreak and losses are part of us. They form us as much as joy. Compassion for self and others, that’s the beauty secret of the world. The second one: don’t care about others’ opinions.

13 ways to practice non-compassion

  • Saying yes to things you don’t want to do.
  • Returning to relationships that have decidedly not worked out in the past.
  • Giving in because you don’t like conflict.
  • Telling people you’re OK when you’re not.
  • Making an unhealthy decision even when you know better.
  • Forcing yourself to stay awake when you need to rest.
  • Not asking for clarification when you don’t understand something.
  • Not soothing yourself when you’ve had a bad day.
  • Messing up and not forgiving yourself.
  • Not making time for things that mean a lot; music, reading, whatever your craft or personal passion may be. The ME time.
  • Refusing to treat yourself- Not buying yourself the plants/flowers, the perfume, the book, that you really want.
  • Saying mean things about yourself.
  • Overriding your intuition.

See also Why Self Compassion is More Important Than Self-Esteem.

When self compassion hurts

Some clients have recently mentioned that when they start practicing self compassion, they feel a wave of pain that’s almost overwhelming. Their pain actually increases at first. You can call this phenomena backdraft, a term used by firefighters and emergency workers that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is first opened: oxygen goes in and flames rush out. What should you do? I believe in staying in place, hunkering down.

This can include breathing, meditation, going about your everyday tasks, making your coffee, petting your companion animal, going for a walk. Eventually the wave subsides.


Brain Lies: Internalized Negative Thoughts

Your brain can be a trickster. Depression and anxiety create automatic negative thoughts that can become our internal dialogue. They are obstacles that influence our everyday life. Therapy is useful for identifying and giving voice to these internalized beliefs. And actively combating them.

Some examples of negative thoughts that can be harmful:
– All or nothing
Binary thinking. If you stick to your exercise plan for a month, you think you think you are the most disciplined person on the planet. If you miss a day at the gym, you think you have no discipline and give up and go back to being a coach potato. Being able to hold multiple opinions and thoughts, often contradictory ones, is mental flexibility.

– Catastrophizing
Jumping to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, we may still feel like we are in the midst of a crisis.

– Shoulding
Our “shoulds” come from internalizing others’ expectations and comparing ourselves unfavorably. This is the hallmark of regret, the what if, the opposite of living in the moment.

– Overgeneralization
You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. These thoughts make you see only the negative aspects of situations and make you more inclined to give up on your efforts.

– Labelling
When you call yourself or someone else names or use negative terms to describe them. A lot of us do this on a regular basis. You may have said one of the following at some point in your life; “I’m a loser”; “I’m a failure”; “I suck,” or “I’m lazy.” The problem with repeatedly calling yourself names is that your brain starts believing them.

– Personalization
You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not responsible for. For example, you see someone scowling as they walk down the hallway. You automatically assume that they are angry with you, when they could’ve actually had a really bad day.

– Assuming
When you make assumptions, you’re usually filling the void of the unknown by imagining an undesirable outcome. In reality, a number of good things are often also possible.

– Fortune-telling
Predicting an outcome, usually negative, even though you don’t know what will happen is the hallmark of fortune telling. These thoughts disregard data.

– Mind reading
When you think that you know what somebody else is thinking even though they have not told you, and you have not asked them, it is called mind-reading. Listen carefully to the other person instead of trying to predict what they have to say. See also Active Listening.

– Blame
Blaming others for your problems and taking no responsibility for your own successes and failures.
Also see How to Practice Self-Compassion.

Why Self-Compassion is more Important than Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self and self-worth. While there is some overlap, self-compassion doesn’t require that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as “above average”. Instead, the positive emotions of self-compassion still kick in when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations, suffer a loss, fail in some way. It is a way of relating to yourself. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. Self-compassion has been linked to higher resilience, better physical health, and increased life satisfaction.

External circumstances, skills, friendships, intimate relationships, even physical capabilities, may wax and wane. Self-compassion, as practice, is a constant. 

Also see The Neuropsychology of Self-Compassion.

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