I read Greater Good Magazine online, a publication by University of California, Berkley that “studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society,” to quote their website.
Recently, the magazine offered up an article on “Our Favorite Books of 2019.” Always interested in keeping abreast of the latest science and thought, I scanned through their recommendations. Just a quick read of the titles made me realize: All of these books could be replaced with a good book on self-compassion. (See my blog on “How to Develop Self-Compassion” for my suggested resources.)
Now I realize I have not read these books and this is a simplification, but let’s run through these titles alone and see how self-compassion really is the solution for all these problems. I’ll offer up my personal experience at having gained self-compassion and self-acceptance and how some of these problems were solved for me.
A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, by BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger
The existential fear of death has been written about throughout human history by far wiser minds than mind and I am no philosopher, so I’ll only share my anecdotal experience on this topic. Prior to my personal transformation through self-acceptance, I was not consciously afraid of death. I just generally avoided thinking about how this might affect me personally — I was young and healthy and invincible! I was uncomfortable at funerals and felt the desire to leave the room when death was discussed. Without any effort on my part, just as a natural result of self-acceptance, I now have no fear or avoidance of the topic and actually am curious about my own death. I believe once you develop a sense of self-worth and self-love you know you will never be alone — even in death, no matter what it brings. Without self-acceptance you are constantly fearful others will leave you, reject you, abandon you and you will be left alone with your deeply unworthy self. When you are your own source of threat and rejection, you fear being alone with yourself. This is what is frightening about death to so many people.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt
Many of our biases are mental shortcuts that help us think quickly and effortlessly, so it is helpful to be aware of these hidden ways our brain can trick us. Many of these biases, however, are based on the survival instinct related to the emotion of fear. Our brains are designed to make instant decisions to keep us safe. When operating out of threat-focused reactivity, mental shortcuts help us do that. We do not thoughtfully weigh facts or think empathically. By learning self-compassion, especially the mindfulness component of it, we decrease the time we spend in the physiological state of fear. Those who lack self-compassion are especially fearful of social threats of shame, exclusion and feeling unworthy. Their inner critic is also their own worst enemy, but triggering the brain into the threat mode via self-judgment and self-loathing. By eliminating those threats by accepting ourselves as worthy, our reactive fear of being inadequate and rejected disappears and our use of cognitive biases goes way down.
The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness, by Rhonda Magee
The description of this book notes the author uses mindfulness to be less reactive and more compassionate on issues of race. The book is “an introduction to meditation practices aimed at making us more resilient and more able and willing to withstand the discomfort, pain, and ambiguity that come with responding to racism as a victim, a witness, or an unintentional perpetrator.” The author also addresses the concept that by healing racism in all of us, it will make a safer, more cohesive society. The idea of “common humanity” — that we are all in this struggle together — is a key component of mindful self-compassion and Buddhist philosophy.
The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, by Kelly McGonigal
I have been an athlete all my life in various ways, and even consider my very active gardening hobby to be a practice in meditative movement. I believe my fairly rapid path to self-acceptance was greatly aided by the fact that I was a daily runner for three decades and I’ve had a daily yoga practice for over 25 years. Exercise calms the mind and body, reducing the “fight-or-flight” neurochemicals that naturally are generated by our body even with daily life stressors. Getting out into nature with a hike or run is deeply restorative to our minds and bodies, as numerous research studies have found. Exercise gives us confidence and trains us in self-discipline, resilience, pride, and self-trust — all character traits that are generally lacking those with feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing. Coming back from many a long, difficult run in cold, snowy or hot conditions, I often told myself with self-satisfaction: “You should be proud! You are tough! You can do anything!”
The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity, by Catherine Sanderson
This book apparently also advocates for practicing self-compassion and gratitude, which are very effective ways to improve a positive mindset. But do we really need a separate book when just learning self-compassion naturally brings a more positive mindset. I am leery of books that advocate for cognitive interventions, such as learning how to reframe negative thoughts into more affirming ideas. While these can be helpful in developing positivity in some people, I find that these approaches are not long-lasting or effective because they are like window-dressing if one has not developed true self-acceptance. When we change our fundamental, emotional relationship with ourself through self-compassion, then our thoughts naturally change as a result. Emotions are far more powerful than thoughts, especially the emotion of fear. When we are fearful that we are not worthy to our fellow humans or to ourself, this deep-seated fear is where we should focus our efforts at personal growth. Trying to use affirmations about thinking positively when we are gripped with an overwhelming fear of worthlessness is clearly like rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.
I was always an outwardly positive person and faced life quite fearlessly some ways. Yet I also did not know myself and was constantly judging and trying to fix what I saw was fundamentally flawed — in an effort to gain the approval of others, but also my own approval. As a people-pleaser I was dependent on the acceptance of others, because I was so self-rejecting. I used negative thinking, largely self-directed, to try to correct my flaws. Once I became self-accepting, my fear of the judgments of others disappeared and so did my negative, fear-based attitude.
The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms, by Paul Napper and Anthony Rao
I see so many people, largely adolescents and young adults, who struggle with indecisiveness and lack of agency. This often shows up in low academic performance, underfunctioning as adults, poor relationship choices, drug use, and inability to launch a career. I find that 100 percent of the time the root reason is low self-worth and lack of self-compassion. They procrastinate and fear making decisions because they fear what might result if that decision turns out poorly — they will judge themselves harshly. By healing their low self-worth, I help them become more confident and fearless at making all sorts of life choices, from careers to marriages to where to live. They know they will meet themselves with compassion no matter the result of their decision, so they are better able to charge into life, rather than underperform and avoid responsibility.
Those who lack self-acceptance often fail to advocate for themselves, because they believe they are not worthy of this self-care. I know that I ambled through my early adult life appearing to make decisions about careers and marriages, but actually did not advocate for myself. I took easy paths and did not stretch myself, because I did not believe I should or could. I got accepted into an Honors Program at Michigan State University, but turned it down because I felt I was not smart enough. I passively dated whoever asked me, rather than actively choosing who would be a good partner. I had not been taught self-reflection or self-awareness as a child and as a result I did not know my values, interests, needs, and wants. I literally did not have strong opinions about simple subjects like what type of food I enjoyed or clothing styles. I deferred to the opinions of others to avoid offending. My first thought in most decisions was: “What would other people think?” Now I worry first about what I would think.
The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
This book discusses negativity bias, the “tendency of our brain to focus on what’s going wrong so we can avoid potential danger and harm in the future.” While this is a natural effect of fear, we know that spending less time in an anxious state (“fight-or-flight”) naturally reduces the negativity bias in our thinking. Negativity is helpful in physical threat situations, as it looks for possible danger to keep us safe. But our brains also use it in social or emotional threat situations and tend to lead us to imagine that others are rejecting or shaming us, when perhaps they are not. If you have low self-worth and are already rejecting and shaming yourself, this triggers your brain to be fearful, then you are more likely to assume that others are also being hurtful toward you. A shame spiral begins, where you feel excluded, then judge yourself as a failure (what I call “Self-Blaming”), and this can sabotage healthy interpersonal interactions. The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World, by Adam Waytz
The concept of “common humanity” is key to learning self-compassion. By understanding that we all struggle with fears, failures and inadequacies, this can help us be less judgmental toward ourselves. By feeling normal in this way, we feel less different and isolated from others. I have advocated that Western society is leading to worsening feelings of disconnection and loneliness, certainly through the use of technology, as this author advocates, but even our single-family homes and sense of the value of individualism and independence are destroying a sense of community and togetherness that could be healing.
The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, by Jamil Zaki
I end my blogs with “…be kind to yourself” because this is the core of self-compassion. So many people literally were not raised experiencing kindness from their parents and so they never learned that it was healthy to be kind to themselves. In fact, many learned that being harsh and rejecting of themselves was they way forward to self-improvement. The research on self-compassion says the opposite, that when we learn to accept our imperfections and struggles with kindness, that is when we can experience our shame with equanimity and learn and grow in healthy directions.
While I’m sure all of these books offer excellent insights and information, I hope this blog encourages more awareness of the power of self-compassion. I find every day in my own life and the lives of my patients that this fundamental shift in how we relate to ourselves offers so many answers and spins out in our lives in so many positive ways. I’ve blogged and videoblogged about some of these incidental ways self-acceptance changed my life — without even trying!
….be kind to yourself