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Experiencing The Positive Power of Self-Compassion

Recently,  due to a missed text, I ended up inadvertently double-booked on my patient calendar.

This simple incident reaffirmed for me the positive power of self-compassion, or conversely, the negative impact of self-shaming.

Certainly, I recognized that this mistake was minor. Considering that I see more than 30 patients a week and have several changed appointments per day, a mistake like this every six months or so is certainly not a reason to get down on myself.

I even had some logical explanations as to why the double booking wasn’t entirely my fault. I had been updating my phone software at the time the patient texted. The patient also did not get a confirmation from me agreeing to the changed appointment time and just assumed it would be OK with me.

Even though this mistake was clearly unintentional and despite my logical, cognitive reassurances, I chastised myself for the double booking.

Quite suddenly, a parade of self-critical thoughts arose. Over the next few hours as I ruminated about my mistake, I began to feel irritable and distracted. As I sat with patients, I had more difficulty focusing and remaining in the moment. I failed to follow their narratives and my thoughts wandered.

I was not an attuned, empathic therapist. I could clearly feel the difference in my body, brain and emotions from my normal self.

By the time I went home a few hours later I really wanted a drink to calm my cranky mood and I had a hard time relaxing enough to go to bed.

The feeling continued the next morning with minor irritability, lack of focus and generally low mood. To be sure, all of these sensations and thoughts were very mild and I was certainly well able to function.

To get out of my funk I repeated the logical explanations for the mistake and thought kind, compassionate thoughts about myself.

Later the next day I was completely back to normal — happy, contented and motivated. But as I look back at this incident, several lessons are apparent.

My radical change in mood due to one small mistake really confirmed to me the harm of self-shaming — a practice I had long ago give up.

Fear-triggering beliefs of inadequacy lead people to become self-critical, because they fear others will find them unlovable. People are afraid of the thought that if others knew them and saw these flaws, they would reject them.

When people feel inadequate, they feels powerless or “less than” others. It is then natural to react with a feeling of threat or fear if faced with an emotionally difficult situation. This leads to reactions of “fight,” “flight,” “freeze,” or “avoidance.”

The brain goes into a primal “survival mode” and reacts, rather than pauses and thinks realistically about a situation. The brain relies on the limbic system, where reactive, fear-based emotions are processed, not the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is where reasoning, problem solving and higher pro-social emotions, such as empathy, sharing, and compassion, are processed. If the brain spends enough time in this emotionally fearful state, it can create habitual ways of thinking and being.

Through years of the use of mindfulness, self-compassion and self-acceptance, I almost never have self-shaming thoughts and the resulting anxiety. I am nearly always in a good mood, with no fear of the judgment of others. I am calm, relaxed and in the moment, rather than critical, judgmental and fearful.

Because I am not in “fight-or-flight” mode and emotionally self-protective, my PFC is able to generate feelings of compassion for myself and for others.

Self-Shaming and Depression

What is interesting is that after my scheduling mishap I also suddenly started feeling sorry for myself about unrelated issues. Even though the day before I was quite happy with my life, out of the blue I began having negative thoughts of dissatisfaction. Thoughts of self-doubt expanded from questions about my attention to detail to questioning my ability as a therapist. I felt a lack of motivation to do housework. I noted that I have not been in a relationship in a long time and suddenly felt lonely and isolated, where hours before I did not have these thoughts.

We often label these types of thoughts and feelings as “depression.” However, my experiences of feeling mildly sorry for myself in that brief incident are indicative of how the brain works. When we feel threatened emotionally by fears of failure, we start to see threats and negativity everywhere.  These threats cause us to withdraw socially, isolate ourselves, give up trying, and feel hopeless and helpless.

The Power of Shame

In looking back at this incident I am amazed at how quickly these negative, shameful thoughts and feelings came over me, despite my cognitive understanding of the situation and my overall excellent emotional resilience. When my mind, emotions and body experienced even a brief taste of emotional upheaval due to thoughts of self-judgment, I did not like it!

I realized how difficult it must be for so many, many people who live with this feeling on a daily basis and often at much more extreme intensity.

If I had not had psychological insight and emotional resilience, I may not have been able to recognize what had happened to me. I might not have had the ability to talk myself back to normal.

Fortunately, years ago I learned the power of self-judgment to cause anxiety and depression.

I learned that compassionate self-acceptance is the key to emotional health.

As a therapist I use techniques with patients to address self-shaming and self-critical thoughts by improving their ability to be mindful and self-compassionate. I know these techniques work, and my brief experience confirmed for me the need to be self-accepting and self-compassionate.

Consider Yourself an Expert? Or Are Emotions Clouding Your Self-Assessment?

expertDo some people misjudge their own knowledge and expertise? A new study says this is true and that some over-estimate their abilities. Probably no news flash there. Certainly some people are not good at realistic self-appraisal.

However, as with many psychological studies, this one missed the boat in a fundamental way. It failed to investigate WHY people misjudge their expertise. And I believe the researchers missed the role of emotions, especially the emotion of shame.

One likely explanation is that this study was probably conducted by cognitive psychologists, who are focused on thinking and fail to take into account emotions as drivers of human behavior.

This study was published in Psychological Science and was recently blogged about with the headline: “Feeling Like An Expert Has An Ironic Effect On Your Actual Knowledge.”

(It seems this headline is also inaccurate. The study does not appear to show that if one feels like an expert it actually decreases actual knowledge. The study merely discovered that people seem to overestimate their own knowledge. These are very different concepts.)

In the study people were given a general knowledge quiz about personal finance with some fake terms thrown in. People who stated they were financial experts were more likely to claim they knew all about these three bogus terms.

What the study really shows is that some people have a deep inability to be wrong, which indicates they have a difficulty tolerating shame. This study isn’t about knowledge or expertise. Instead it is about pride, hubris and defending against shame.

We all know someone who is the “expert” on every subject, has an opinion about every topic, will argue unceasingly about a point, and can’t back down and be wrong. In “Pack Leader Psychology” I label these people “Dominators.” They lack an ability to be accountable and be wrong, because they are deeply insecure people. As a result, they have difficulty tolerating any additional experiences of shame.

This study points out a behavior that this “Dominator” type of person exhibits: They think they know a lot and proclaim they are “experts.” And even if they don’t know something, they certainly will not admit it. That would feel too painful to their delicate sense of self-worth.

One key insight into human behavior is this sentence: “Even after people were warned that some of the terms were made up, people who thought they were experts still over-estimated their knowledge.”

This indicates a person who — even when given a warning flag — cannot consider that they might be headed in the wrong direction.

What the Sandra Bland Case Teaches us About the Power of Shame

shame artI saw key parts of the dashcam video from the Sandra Bland arrest and immediately noticed how the emotion of shame played a big role.

Early in the traffic stop Ms. Bland stated to state trooper Brian Encinia that she hadn’t signaled a lane change because he was coming up behind her quickly and she was trying to get out of his way. That was the turning point in the interaction.

The officer quickly became irritated, then angry, which led to the interaction escalating.  Sadly, Ms. Bland later ended up dead in a jail cell following her arrest and three-day detention.

The psychology is quite obvious. The officer did not like the fact that Ms. Bland had an explanation for her behavior that pointed, ever so slightly, at him having some accountability for her alleged traffic violation.

People who have difficulty tolerating shame have great difficulty handling any criticism. Even if that criticism is a fact.

These people, which I label “Dominators” in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” have a hard time handling shame or blame they feel from others. They have high levels of self-loathing and this leads them to fear and protect against experiencing any additional shame. Most noticeable is the Dominator’s inability to be accountable for behaviors. These people are defensive, attack others, blame others, shame others, refuse to apologize and can never be wrong. All in service of protecting them from feelings of shame.

Anger is Shame’s Bodyguard

As the saying goes: “Anger is shame’s bodyguard.”

When Dominators are insulted or even perceive an insult they can be easily triggered into anger and even violence.

The police officer in the Bland case likely experienced feelings of shame when she alluded to his responsibility for her behaviors, then felt Ms. Bland was disrespecting him by smoking and later insulting him. It all fed his feelings of shame.

If he had insight, he would recognize that he was feeling and thinking something like this: “Your questioning of me and disrespecting me makes me feel ashamed and hurt. So I’m going to lash out in anger at you to avoid dealing with these feelings of shame. It’s too hard to feel shame and feel so unworthy as a person.”

The influence of shame may be subtle in this case, but it’s there. Shame is a powerful influence on human behavior and, sadly, is often masked over by anger. It is easy to notice the anger and miss the fact that a person’s shame is the real driver of the behavior.

We must begin screening police officers for their ability to tolerate shame. Those who can’t tolerate shame escalate to anger and cause situations like this.

Happy Birthday, Reilly

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Happy 11th Birthday, to my muse for “Pack Leader Psychology,” and my instructor on how to become a pack leader. I am so glad I spent nearly 10 years and 7,000 walks with this fabulous dog. She was the best model for a calm, assertive, balanced pack leader who came into my life at a propitious moment. I hope where you are now there are lots of  woodchucks, squirrels, deer, waterfall ponds, and meadows to race in all day long. Hope and I miss you!

Anger: A Sign of Fear of Conflict

I had a patient describe her husband as someone who bites his tongue for days about an issue, then becomes angry at her out of the blue.

I said: “Oh, he is afraid of conflict,” and she looked at me quizzically.

“But he gets angry and we fight. He seems to like conflict.”

“Yes, it may look like that on the surface. But, first he tried hard to avoid a fight by biting his tongue and not saying things. Then he blew up, perhaps in an attempt to avoid future fights by teaching you to not confront him. Overall, this tells me he is very uncomfortable with conflict.”

Avoid or attack are two common communication and relationship strategies people use. But when I see this dichotomy it signals to me that this person is afraid of conflict. If he fears conflict he will do everything he can to avoid it — either by directly avoiding it or by attacking others to keep them from confronting him.

Someone who is comfortable with direct, assertive, forthright conversations can have those interactions without behaving in either extreme — avoidance or aggressive attacking.

Assertiveness is not a skill many people are comfortable with, perhaps because they did not learn it as a child from their parents. Many people learned and had modeled for them those unhealthy extremes of avoid and attack. Perhaps as children they were raised by parents who attacked them via criticism, judgment or lack of warmth and connection.

Assertiveness, however, can be very healthy for relationships. The assertive person gets to speak her mind and feel heard in a healthier way than automatic submission or dominance. The person hearing the truth may get a lesson in self-awareness that can lead to improved behaviors in the long run. The relationship itself is healthier because thoughts are expressed appropriately and promptly, not held in, leading to resentment, or vented in dysregulated anger.

Assertiveness may seem to go against our natural human instinct to avoid conflict. Getting along with others is a prosocial, adaptive skill that helped assure our survival in tribal days. But while social hierarchies can be greased in the short term with submission and dominance, in the long term it is a healthy boundary established with prompt assertiveness that is essential for healthy relationships.