In past blog posts, we’ve talked about how to use mindfulness and acceptance to cope with uncomfortable thoughts, sensations and emotions. The take-away message is that in order to avoid unnecessary suffering, we must let go of any ideas about the way we wished things could be and instead accept the way that we are in the present moment. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. This allows us to shift the behaviors that we control and take steps towards the fulfillment of our goals and values.
The one thing in life we can count on to remain constant is fact that things are always changing. Change is like the undercurrent of an ocean. It’s always there, surrounding us. It affects us whether we like it or not. One minute, the waves of change are imperceptible and we float along feeling peaceful and safe. And then, without warning, the tide suddenly shifts. The waves grow bigger and become more threatening. They crash down on us, creating a sense of panic and instability. How do we navigate choppy waters when we find ourselves up the creek without a paddle?
Water puns aside, the ocean offers a good metaphor for how to cope with unexpected and challenging times. Take a look at some key lessons:
The balance between acceptance and change
When we find ourselves in unpleasant and distressing circumstances, our first instinct as human is to spend a lot of energy resisting or avoiding the situation. It seems helpful in the moment because we are preventing ourselves from experiencing suffering. But how would it play out if we caught in an actual riptide? Would we say to ourselves “hmm, this is quite unpleasant…maybe I will feel better if I pretend this isn’t happening to me”. Of course not. Nor would we resist the situation by fighting against the current–that would be self-sabotaging and just lead to more unnecessary suffering.
This is where the balance of acceptance and change takes place. To cope effectively with any unpleasant situation, we must let go of any ideas about the way we wished things could be and instead accept the way that we are in the present moment. That is not the same as approving of the situation or resigning ourselves to our fate. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. It is then that we can begin to look at all the pieces of the puzzle, determine what we have control over and identify potential action steps. Just like the riptide, reality will not change for the worse or better just because we accept that it exists.
The virtue of patience
Just like a fisherman at sea, it is natural to experience fear and uncertainty when conditions are tumultuous. It can seem like that the storm will never pass and we wonder how we will survive. But eventually, the storm does pass and things do quiet down. Embracing reality can be distressing. But it is important to ourselves that life is inherently full highs and lows downs, and that we have experienced and survived all of the ups and downs in the past. In times when we don’t have control, all we can do is patient and ride out the storm.
Reflect upon what strategies you have been using to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself honestly if those strategies resulted in less suffering and made the problems go away. Most people would likely say that they intentionally or unintentionally “check out” from unpleasant feelings or ruminate on them—making things feel completely out of control. If this sounds familiar, remember that you are the captain of your own ship. Keep the two simple lessons in mind and know that you have the freedom and competence to chart your own course though life.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
As children, one of the first things we learn is how to be kind to others. A strong emphasis is placed on helping, sharing and what it means to be a good friend—unarguably imperative qualities to instill at a young age. However, Western culture places far less importance on showing that same kindness to ourselves—the thought of practicing “self-compassion” likely seems like an absurd and almost undesirable trait to most people. Unfortunately, this mindset takes away one of the most beneficial coping skills we have at our disposal.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion goes beyond just “positive self-talk.” It is an all-encompassing mentality that aims to decrease emotional suffering by increasing self-worth, self-acceptance and connectedness with others. It can be broken down into three main faucets:
- Mindfulness: when we are mindful, we are aware of our experiences without avoiding or exaggerating them
- Understanding: we practice understanding by responding to our painful feelings with nonjudgmental acceptance and kindness
- Connectedness: to avoid emotional isolation, we must remember that all humans experience pain that we are never alone in our suffering
Benefits of self-compassion
It is easy to feel threatened by emotions because we often cannot control, understand or rationalize them. As a result, we can either find ourselves detaching from these feelings or becoming obsessed and overwhelmed by them. Self-compassion works to soothe the intensity of our emotions by allowing us to let go of unrealistic expectations that cause us to be overly critical. Practicing self-compassion can also help us become more compassionate toward others, leading to healthier relationships.
How do you practice self-compassion?
Here are a few simple exercises that can help you foster self-compassion:
- Mindfulness When feeling frustrated, overwhelmed or irritated, ask yourself: What do I observe? What do I feel? What do I need right now? If you are unable to provide yourself with what you need, don’t be afraid to seek out support from others
- How would you treat a friend? As mentioned previously, sometimes it’s easier to be kind and supportive to other people than it is to ourselves. When grappling with a painful experience, ask yourself how you would respond to a friend who was coping with the same thing.
- Journaling: Reflect upon the day and without censorship or judgement, write down anything that caused you to feel badly. Be sure to include kind words of reassurance or comfort about your experiences such as “this was a really tough day for me and I am feeling emotionally raw. I will be gentle with myself until it subsides.”
Pain and suffering are part of the shared human experience—you are not alone. Remember that you are deserving of empathy and kindness. Take care of yourself and do not hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend or mental health professional f you need extra support.
-Carolyn Moriarty, LPC