Mindful Self-compassion as an Antidote to Shame

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.

IMG_1114

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.

Mindfulness

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.

Self-Compassion

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!

For More:

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:

http://centerformsc.org/self-compassion_test

How One Sentence Can Teach a Child Shame and Low Self-Worth

The power of shame is so great that just one sentence, used repeatedly in parenting, might teach a child to feel ashamed and lead to a lifetime of low self-worth.

Let’s examine a  common scenario: A child misbehaves by throwing a toy, then starts having a tantrum, and maybe starts to really lose control of his emotions. The parents try to manage the situation, stop the behavior, and teach a lesson. These are all laudable goals, but they may backfire.

One common question parents ask kids in these moments is:  “Why did you do it?” I believe this “why” question is the cause of a lot of emotional problems for children.

First, we need to understand that kids’ brains are not fully developed. They are born with a full complement of “emotional” brain, but very little “thinking” brain. The “thinking” brain develops over the next 20 years or so. This means that when they are young, they have poor cognitive ability to reason, be logical, understand the consequences of their actions, or fully consider the impact of their behaviors on others.

We also need to recognize that when any human is in the midst of an emotional “meltdown” and become dysregulated, he has less ability to think clearly. The “emotional” brain takes over and the “thinking” brain does not function well. For a child this is especially true, given their brain development. To ask a child to use higher-level thinking, especially when he is in an emotional state (tantrum), is not age appropriate. Even adults don’t think logically when they are enraged.

So, if a parent asks “Why did you do it” in the midst of a child’s tantrum, here is what can go awry:

  1. This question demands that a child switch from their emotional brain to their thinking brain in the midst of emotional distress. This is difficult for a young child to do. And — let’s state the obvious — there is rarely a reason children throw toys or hit their siblings. So the “why” question immediately sets a child up for feelings of failure and shame. He thinks: “I have no reason for what I did. I should be able to say why I did it, but I can’t. So I must be stupid. I am disappointing my parents. And why can’t I calm down like my parents want me to? I’m out of control. I must be crazy and my brain is defective.” I have had children express these exact thoughts to me during therapy sessions, so I know they think this way.
  2. Kids don’t get soothing and calming for their “big, scary” emotions. When children are emotionally upset they first and mainly need comfort. Parents must be the calm, safe place where children can go to get understanding and comfort. If, in those moments, parents focus instead on correcting behaviors and punishing, the child never gets to feel the safety of emotional regulation. Kids need emotional attunement from parents FIRST, to ENABLE them to calm down and think logically. This teaches them to attune to their own emotions and calm themselves down. This is a lesson for a lifetime of emotional health that is far more powerful than any behavioral lesson parents may teach. Children who can regulate their emotions properly will also then behave properly. But the parents must attune first and be there to handle the big emotions.
  3. Parents often divert to logical discussions because they are uncomfortable with emotions of any kind. They feel shame because their child is misbehaving and they want their own shameful feelings to go away. So they avoid discussing emotions, instead focusing on behaviors. What does this teach a child? That emotions are embarrassing, distressing, and should be avoided at all costs. What message does this send a child who is emotional? That he is defective and “crazy,” leading to thoughts of self-blame and self-shame.

Regular exposure to the “why” questions and behaviorally focused parenting sets up a self-reinforcing cycle. Children who have been parented this way start to have very negative feelings of self-worth. When they do a small thing wrong and parents punish, it triggers a strong shame reaction.

For some, they self-shame and “lash in” at themselves in criticism. We rarely notice these “good kids.” Others “lash out” with oppositional and defiant behavior — but the reason is that they feel ashamed, damaged and different. When parents ask “why” it confirms this. Especially if the “why” is asked in an impatient, angry, frustrated tone, not a loving, patient, caring tone.

Trauma is about feeling helpless in a fearful situation. If we can feel competent and act, then trauma is less likely to be harmful in the long term. However, a child who becomes upset, then is asked “Why did you do it” , then is not comforted AND then feels shame on top of the already distressing situation is likely to be doubly traumatized. Repeat this on a daily basis for years and you have a recipe for a person who has thoughts of low self-worth and has not been coached on how to control his emotions — a toxic combination.

Parents must get out of their logical parent/adult brain and try to focus on a child’s emotions and less on the behaviors. Behaviors of a child should only be used as a clue to what is going on emotionally.  When a child is sad, angry, or upset do not focus on behaviors, give logical consequences or ask “why”. Focus on the emotions with reflective listening.

Certainly it is appropriate AFTER a child is calm to ask about why they did something and help them process their thoughts and behaviors. But too much focus on logical thinking and behaviors DURING emotionally distressing events leads a child to feel ashamed.

Debunking the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory of Depression

Blogger Phillip Hickey, PhD, has another great Mad in America post debunking the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression based on an article on Florida State University’s DigiNole Commons. The article is a very easy read and I recommend it highly for anyone who has been diagnosed with “depression” or who has ever taken an anti-depressant medication (or for clinicians).

The lie that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in serotonin levels in the brain was propagated for decades by psychiatrists and Big Pharma. Please, let’s get the word out that this in NOT TRUE! I am so tired of patients and other clinicians continuing to repeat this urban myth.

To tell patients they have a chemical imbalance when this is not true stigmatizes them, promotes a feeling of helplessness that leads to lack of change, and lowers their already-low self-worth.

The public needs to take action to become aware and reject attempts by PCPs and psychiatrists who keep foisting this serotonin myth on them in an effort to sell drugs.

What is Depression?

Depression is merely an expectable reaction to a situation where a person has many thoughts of self-loathing, which lead to chronic high levels of “stress” (aka threat or fear.) The brain reacts to internal messages of self-criticism as a form of threat, which to the brain are processed in the same way as an external physical threat, such as being mugged. This internally generated “fight-or-flight” response cannot be sustained by the brain and body for long periods of time. The body eventually gives up and shuts down physically and numbs out emotionally, with “symptoms” of lack of motivation, excessive sleep, sadness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, etc.

Perhaps one day some brain chemical cause of depression might be discovered. But until then, please stop repeating the lie that unhealthy serotonin levels cause depression. Because the above explanation IS actually based on science!

Guilt-ridden Parents Don’t Make Pack Leaders

It’s amazing what we can learn by observing animals — things that also reveal truths about human relationships.

For example, many pet owners who adopt an abused, homeless or disabled dog quite naturally feel sorry for it. They “love” the dog, but this can actually be more pity and spoiling than love, which is not healthy for the pet. The animal doesn’t need pity — it needs a Pack Leader. Dogs need confident, firm, decisive owners, not owners who talk in “loving” voices or are permissive.

Animals live in the moment. They move on from past abuse or neglect if the owner does. When the owner exhibits weak, emotional behavior, rather than Pack Leader behavior, the pet won’t know WHY this is happening, only that the owner is weak. Dogs sense a person’s energy. They don’t understand that the owner is well intentioned, only that the owner isn’t behaving as a secure, confident Pack Leader.

I see often this same dynamic with humans families, especially those involving adopted children or divorces. Parents feel guilty about the child’s situation and then pity the child, reacting by being permissive and not enforcing chores or rules, and by spoiling with gifts or excessive attention.

The TV show “Intervention” offers fascinating observations on this permissive, pitying behavior in parents. In one episode of “Intervention”, the family had a child, Terri, who was abducted from the house, raped and murdered when she was about 9 years old.

While this was a shocking incident, the mother, Diane, grieved excessively, not leaving her bedroom for 6 months. She probably felt guilt about her perceived role in the kidnapping, perhaps believing that she had failed as a mother by “letting” this incident occur.

This behavior was also self-involved, weak and Submissive, because she did not do what was best for her remaining family. She had two other children who needed a mother. She did not step up, manage her emotions in a healthy way, and help the family move past the tragedy. Instead she wallowed in it far too long.

Then she got pregnant. As you might predict, her guilt affected this new child, Brittany. Diane spoiled Brittany in an effort to make up for the lost child and to assuage her guilt. She essentially ignored the older two children. She also put tremendous direct pressure on Brittany to live up to Terri’s unfulfilled life.  The mother never saw Brittany as an individual, merely as a placeholder for Terri. Brittany perceived her mother’s weakness and took over, becoming Dominant and bossy, to the point where she demanded money for drugs from her parents and grandparents, took their car keys and threatened to prostitute herself if she didn’t get money for her drug habit.

This mother was living in the past, guilt-ridden and grieving for her lost child — for over 20 years!

But the children in the present needed her to be present for them. They needed her strength, not her weakness, yet that is the energy she expressed to them — submissiveness, insecurity, fear, and worry. Children who depend on their parents don’t need those emotions and behaviors. They need confidence, assertiveness and calmness. They need a Pack Leader.

Honor past traumas, but live in the moment, as a Pack Leader would. Don’t pity the person (or dog) who experienced the trauma.

If you treat people as if they are too fragile to handle a situation, they may believe you. They will also certainly believe that YOU are fragile. That is not a message parents should send to children.

Re-thinking Homework Refusal in Teens

Have a teen who refuses to do homework? Some teens even do the homework, but do not turn it in or “forget it”, ensuring them a failing grade. This makes no sense to parents, who only read this behavior as irrational or oppositional:  “He’s just doing it to piss me off,” or “He’s just lazy and irresponsible.”

Instead, let’s look at this behavior through a compassionate lens, which gives us an understanding of the likely emotional underpinning of this behavior.

Teens who are brought into therapy always have issues with low self-worth (same goes for adults.) This is the core cause of issues with low motivation, depression, anxiety, and especially suicidal or self-harm tendencies.

So, if we understand low self-worth as the core issue, it plays out with homework in the following way.  A teen has come to believe she is “stupid,” yet she does not want to turn in homework and have this fault confirmed by earning a bad grade. So she refuses to turn in the homework or loses it, because it is easier to be labeled “lazy” or “oppositional” than confirm the fear that she is “stupid” or “worthless.” Not turning in the homework allows her to protect her self-worth to some degree by keeping alive the thought that she might not actually be stupid.  “I’m not stupid. I just didn’t do the homework.”

Teens are also extremely sensitive to peer judgment. A teen who feels “stupid” does not want to expose this presumed fault in front of her peers. Avoiding turning in homework may be one way they attempt to solve this problem.

Yet parents do not understand and teens often can’t or won’t express these fears. (Because admitting feelings of shame or low self-worth is very difficult to do!)

When parents respond with labels of “lazy” and “irresponsible,” this feeds the child even more shaming messages, guaranteeing the misbehavior spiral will continue.

Parents: Rethink your child’s reluctance to do homework. Find a time to calmly and gently inquire about how she feels when doing homework or how she feels about turning in the work. Try to uncover any fears about grades and feelings of low self-worth.

When you have this talk, don’t immediately reassure the teen that she is “smart.” Just listen. Be fully emotionally attuned. Reflect on her emotions and experiences.