In an earlier interview, Christopher Germer, Ph.D. explored with us why compassion is getting so much attention lately and how it might heal the prevalence of unworthiness in our culture. Christopher Germer, PhD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Arlington, Massachusetts and author of the recent book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. He is a founding member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, and co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Christopher also conducts workshops internationally on the art and science of mindful self-compassion.
Today Christopher shares with us the radical notion of accepting our difficult emotions, some neuroscience behind it, and a bit of advice for the rest of us.
Elisha: You suggest something radical in your book, which is the practice of accepting our difficult emotions and even responding to them with compassion. Can you give us a practical example on how someone might go about this?
Christopher: I know that’s a tall order, but we don’t need to dive headfirst into our difficult emotions to transform them with compassion–we only need to touch them.
There are many ways to do this that I explain in my book. Perhaps the easiest way is simply to label the emotion—fear, anger, sorrow. When we label an emotion, especially with” tender attention” rather than “worried attention,” the emotion seems to lose its sting. Brain imaging studies have also shown how labeling reduces the fear response of the amygdala, the part of the brain that signals danger.
Another strategy is to find the emotion in your physical body. All emotions have a bodily component. For example, fear is often felt in the gut, sadness in the chest, and shame in the head. Once you’ve identified where the feeling can be felt most strongly, you can soften that part of your body, allow the physical sensation to linger without fighting it, and direct a little loving energy to that spot on your body as if it belonged to the body of someone you love very dearly, such as a beloved child. This exercise is called “soften, soothe, allow.” Since emotions are a web of mind and body reactions, changing one part of the web affects the rest of it. For example, you’ll find yourself ruminating much less after an insult at work when you can soften, soothe, and allow the pain of the insult in your physical body.
A third strategy is to use language to soothe and comfort yourself when you’re feeling really bad. You could try the following phrases, which Kristin Neff calls the “self-compassion mantra.” The self-compassion mantra is an exercise taught in the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) training program that Kristin and I are currently developing. When you’re in the midst of emotional pain, try saying to yourself:
This is a moment of suffering
Suffering is a part of life
May I be kind to myself
May I accept myself as I am
You can customize your own phrases, making sure that they’re credible and appropriate to your situation. For example, if you’re feeling guilty, you might want to say, “May I forgive myself.” Often the greater you’re suffering in the moment you use the phrases, the larger the impact.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling with destructive thoughts and emotions, what advice might you give them?
Christopher: That depends, of course, on who the person is and what he or she is going through in the moment. In general, I don’t like to give advice when I first meet someone because it may feel like pushing a person away—much like women often feel when they share their difficulties with well-intentioned spouses. Instead, I’m inclined to first feel the person’s struggle in my own body.
There’s a larger issue here, too, which rests on a core tenet of mindfulness and acceptance-based therapy: “What we resist, persists.” Resist sleeplessness and we’re likely to develop a case of insomnia, resist anxiety and we start ruminating or suffer from a panic attack, and resist grief and we’re eventually saddled with a case of depression. Even Sigmund Freud said, “A person should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them.” What we’re cultivating is a new relationship to what ails us—a relationship characterized by moment-to-moment awareness (mindfulness) and a kindly, accepting attitude (compassion). This relationship is less like “getting rid of” or “reducing” bad feelings and more like living safely and peacefully “in the midst of” what’s bothering us.
Pema Chödrön, a western nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, said it best:
“…we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is…not to try to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
This approach may not sound or feel much like therapy, but it’s the invisible foundation of all emotional healing.
Here’s the riddle: We practice mindful compassion toward ourselves not to make ourselves feel better, but because we feel bad. Self-compassion is a natural, healthy response to feeling bad. Even a clever, new approach to emotional pain like mindful self-compassion will be undone if it’s used to manipulate our moment-to-moment experience. Compassion will definitely transform our emotions, but feeling good is a byproduct of compassion. And when we’re in a mindset of mindful compassion, a little space grows around our destructive emotions that allows us to make positive changes in our lives.
Thank you again Christopher for your sage words!
To the readers: As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.