I recently attended a 6-day retreat and seminar on Mindful Self-Compassion led by Kristen Neff, PhD, and Christopher Germer, PhD, two of the leading authors and researchers on the topic. I am grateful to have had such a relaxing personal experience and opportunity for professional learning. I got to meditate for hours, enjoy the beauty and solitude of a Buddhist retreat center and learn how to bring MSC skills to my patients.
I stumbled upon the concepts for mindful self-compassion years ago by reading about Buddhist ideas about compassion and by re-invigorating a meditation practice I had learned in the 70s. I then experienced the amazing power of being self-compassionate and how it transformed my personality, which I wrote about in “Pack Leader Psychology.”
I discovered back then how harmful self-criticism can be to one’s emotional health and relationships. Recent research strongly shows that learning mindful self-compassion is a great skill for managing self-critical thoughts, which reduces anxiety and depression.
While MSC is a complex topic and cannot be simplified in a blog, here are some of the core concepts.
You must first develop an awareness of your mind and how it works. Mindfulness is merely observing how you think, feel, judge and perceive yourself, others, and your experiences. Mindfulness involves merely attending to experiences rather than emotionally reacting.
The key is not just observing but accepting your thoughts, emotions and bodily experiences — even if these are negative or unpleasant!
Some people call this process “staying in the moment.”
With practice, a person can eventually replace unthinking reactivity with mindful consideration and measured responses.
Mindfulness can be practiced informally or formally. Informal practice can be as simple as taking a few moments throughout the day to merely bring your awareness to your physical experience. You can savor food, notice your breath, or do a body scan to observe tension. The idea is to pull yourself from your worries, thoughts and Inattention, to attentiveness to the present moment.
Formal practice generally involves seated meditation of 20-30 minutes with a focus on the breath or repetitive phrases or a combination of these two. There are many variations on formal practice that can be learned.
The goal of meditation or informal practice is not to clear the mind, but to practice noting your thoughts when they wander away and gently returning your focus to your breath or whatever is your focus.
Meditators, research shows, are less self-absorbed making them more stable and loving in relationships because they can monitor their thoughts and pause before reacting. They are able to notice, “What am I saying to myself and how am I treating myself?” They are curious about their emotions, not avoidant. As a result, emotions from others are less often met with fear and reactivity.
Learning a practice of self-compassion is key also to being less reactive. Those who are more self-compassionate can be less triggered into the “fight-or-flight” survival mode when threatened emotionally or relationally, so they can spend more time in the “tend-and-befriend’ caregiving system.
What I find most exciting about self-compassion skills is they directly address the core difficulty most people struggle with — excessive self-criticism and shame. Self-compassion is the antidote to shame.
Self-criticism directly triggers the internal “fight-or-flight” system. Worse yet, a person who is self-critical is both the attacked and the attacker, leaving them feeling both shamed and fearful.
I strongly encourage exploration of Mindful Self-compassion concepts in depth for anyone who struggles with feelings of unworthiness, shame or guilt — which is most of us!
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff, PhD
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, by Christopher Germer, PhD
Take a self-compassion test: