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.

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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.

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?

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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.