Be kind to yourself – a plea for self-compassion

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Before we go any further, I want to make a plea for self-compassion – I want you to start to be kind to yourself – because I was reminded once again, when I read the pieces about the Labour MP for Rochdale, Sarah Champion, by Damian Whitworth in The Times on Saturday 21st February, of how hard it is for people who carry core shame to see that it doesn’t belong to them – they still feel that everything that has happened to them must in some way be their fault, and this belief is very hard to change. Since, when I started this blog, it was my avowed intention to address this, I feel that I need to begin to construct a map.

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Taken from The Saturday Times – 21.02.15

If you look on the internet – on sites like Pinterest for example – you will see endless wonderful quotes encouraging us to love ourselves – after all (and this is very true), if we don’t love ourselves, no one else is very likely to do it (as many of them point out), so this is clearly where we need to start. But how on earth do we do that – especially if no one has ever really loved us? We may not even know what this would feel like! How can we learn to be kind to ourselves, if no one has ever been kind to us?

img-thingThere’s no point in trying to run before we can walk, and although people make it sound simple, really loving ourselves is a big step that can be hard to achieve, since in order to truly love ourselves, we have to change how we feel, which involves literally rewiring the brain. We therefore have to start with a very small step of some kind, and my sense is that the idea of ‘self-compassion’ (being kind to ourselves) is a helpful place to begin – kindness is much-underrated in modern society.

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A word about ‘self help’

I am always in two minds about what I would describe as ‘self-help’, because it often seems to make things appear easy when they’re not – the writer advises you to just do this (whatever it is), and you’ll feel much better, whereas in my experience life is rarely that simple. You read the book, you identify with the person writing it, you are impressed by the ideas, and want to change things in your life, but somehow, you just can’t actually bring yourself to do anything. Even if you do take action, I have never been convinced by the idea that (for example) looking in a mirror every day and saying ‘I love you’ ten times will change the way I feel about myself one bit, because thoughts are not feelings, and core shame is about feelings – as I suggested above, we have to change how we feel, and that involves rewiring the brain.

Having said that, I often read comments on the internet where people say how much someone else’s advice has helped them (to the extent that it is sometimes described as ‘life-changing’), so as with most things, what works for one person at a particular time, doesn’t work so well for another, and perhaps I lack the ability to apply myself!

Either way, in order to move forward, and to reach out to those who I hope to help, I am beginning to accept that I will have to offer something that will start out as ‘self-help’, otherwise nothing will change, and the whole exercise becomes pointless – it is relatively easy to identify the problem, but much harder to find solutions.

Helping each other – ‘shame buddies’

I believe that we do things better when we do them with others, and I hope that in the future, people will connect with each other through this blog (or Twitter, or Facebook or whatever), and find ‘shame buddies’ – not to wallow in their shame (although a bit of that may be necessary sometimes), but to share their feelings, symptoms, behaviours, hopes, dreams, their love of chocolate, or anything else that can connect them to each other, and encourage them to support each other’s journey towards the shame-free life that we all deserve.

Not only can people give each other support, but since, by its very nature, core shame is an interpersonal issue – it is born out of a malfunction in our early relationships with those around us, and affects our relationships with others, as well as with ourselves – it is by sharing our innermost shame with trusted others that we are most likely to begin to heal. I am assuming that most of you reading this don’t have access to a therapist, as if you do, your therapist will most likely be the person with whom you begin to share your shame – it is through the relationship with the therapist that rewiring begins to happen – but the sad fact is that in the UK at present, long-term, relationship-based therapy is very hard to come by, and the vast majority of us will have to soldier on without therapeutic support.

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Any attempt at change needs to be undertaken slowly, since in order to really change the way we feel about ourselves, the brain has to be rewired, which takes time. But change can only happen if you take the first step, thus I need to find a baby step to enable those who feel burdened by core shame to begin their journey on the road to a better place.

A little word about rewiring the brain

Before we start, here are a few facts about the brain to encourage you:

  • We now know that the brain is what neuroscientists refer to as ‘plastic’, meaning that the wiring can be changed, even in adulthood – how we think and feel now does not have to be how we will think and feel in a month’s time.
  • We react to things and people according to how the wiring in our brains has developed since childhood, especially where our survival is concerned – our brain immediately takes the route along the ‘motorway’ of wiring that has developed in response to the experiences we have had in the past, so that if we want to change it, we have to make a conscious effort to take the ‘B roads’ every time a particular situation occurs:

If we grow up in fear of a violent father who shouts, our brain will react as if we are in danger when we hear another man shouting, even though he may not be dangerous (a teacher at school perhaps), and we have to remind ourselves every time that this is not our father, and we are not in danger. By constantly using the ‘B roads’ (using our conscious, thinking brain to remind ourselves that this is not our father, and we are not in danger), they eventually become ‘motorways’ – this is rewiring the brain.

If we are used to those around us paying us little attention, we will assume that everyone else will behave in the same way – the ‘motorway’ reaction – and we may even find it uncomfortable or threatening when others approach us, or try to help us with things, until we make a conscious effort to take the ‘B roads’, and remind ourselves that these people are not our family of origin, and have a different way of interacting with others.

  • Changing the wiring in our brains requires a conscious effort, and when we are under pressure, we are not always able to make such an effort, so that we find ourselves back on the ‘motorway’ of our habitual response – be kind to yourself: none of us is perfect, and we all fall back on our default setting from time to time. It is the intention to change, and the commitment to using the ‘B roads’ that matters most – eventually they will become ‘motorways’, and the old motorways will be forgotten. Thus forward movement inevitably consists of a tendency towards a ‘two steps forward/ one step back’ sort of rhythm, and you must always focus on the progress you have made, rather than beating yourself up about the relapses – again, be kind, be kind; be kind.

I once knew a girl who said ‘done’ when she should have said ‘did’ – ‘I done this’ – and she decided that she wanted to get it right, so she asked everyone to correct her every time she said ‘done’. I watched, as she struggled to change the ‘motorway’ of ‘done’, to what at first, was the ‘B road’ of ‘did’, and slowly, slowly, over the next few weeks and months, I noticed that ‘done’ appeared less and less often in her speech, until it disappeared completely – ‘did’ had become the ‘motorway’, and the ‘B road’ of ‘done’  was forgotten. She had rewired her brain.

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So, about that baby step…………the more that we are able to peer into the living brain, the more we are beginning to understand about how it works – the parts of the brain that we use in particular circumstances, and the chemicals that flow when we feel, think or do particular things. By this means, we now know that as well as being stimulated during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding, and (in both parties) when a baby is handled lovingly by his mother, oxytocin (often referred to as the ‘bonding’ hormone), is also produced (in both parties) when we hug or kiss a loved one – yes, human beings are pre-programmed to care for each other – and we can use this finding to begin our journey on the road to being kind to ourselves.

This may seem like a strange idea, but bear with me for a bit while I encourage you to take your first baby step – you might enjoy doing a ‘self-compassion test‘ before you start, and then you can measure your progress as you use this technique over the coming weeks:

Find somewhere quiet to sit or lie down on your own, close your eyes if that works for you, and think about someone who you love – this could be a parent, grandparent, neighbour, friend, lover, child, dog, cat, horse..….. indeed any living thing who you would be happy to hug or stroke, and if there is no one in your life now who fits that bill, maybe you can remember someone from your past. Really bring them into your conscious mind now, as you read this – maybe you can find a photo to look at, or something to touch that belonged to the person, or a smell that reminds you of them, or music that they like, to help you, so that they become truly present for you right now.

Imagine showing kindness to them by hugging or stroking them as you might if they were with you………. really imagine the feel of their skin…………..and then…….. (and this is the weird bit), hug or stroke your own skin (your arms, or your face perhaps), as if it were theirs, feeling all the feelings that you would feel towards them – in other words, you are giving yourself exactly what you would be happy to give to someone else. Believe it or not, when you truly feel these feelings in your body, even if you only imagine doing it (if you’re in a public place perhaps), oxytocin flows in your brain, just as it would if someone were doing it to you, and you can do it at any time, and as often as you like – a dose of oxytocin, free and available on demand! Oxytocin is known to reduce stress, fear and anxiety, while promoting feelings of safety, trust and calmness, and it increases our ability to be compassionate towards ourselves – you have taken your first, baby step towards self-kindness, and you’re beginning to rewire your brain!

A random, and very moving find

And lastly, a wonderful interview in two parts with Iby (part onepart two) a woman who survived Auschwitz, that I heard on Radio 4 recently…….stories like Iby’s are a reminder (if ever there was one) of the equality of all human beings, and the importance of kindness.

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