WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER

An Excerpt from Radical Acceptanceby Tara Brach

There are times when we say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time — we lose our cool, we blame our mistakes on others, or we aren’t really hearing what the other person is saying. Then what?

In some cases, the key to self-compassion doesn’t come as we might expect — by focusing on ourselves. According to Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, a “compassion practice” can come more readily by connecting with, and softening to, the suffering of those around us. In the excerpt below from Tara’s best-selling book Radical Acceptance, we see firsthand how opening to others’ stories and difficulties can bring us back to our own hearts.  

Kim arrived at a New Year’s retreat on “Awakening the Heart of Compassion” feeling utterly humiliated from a mishap at work. After printing out five thousand brochures for her company, she found that she had missed several very obvious typos. In a nasty exchange with a coworker, Kim had defensively tried to deflect some of the blame, suggesting that if he had covered the phones instead of staying so long at the holiday luncheon, maybe she wouldn’t have been so distracted. She punctuated her remarks by angrily sweeping a neatly piled stack of brochures off her desk. Now, alone with her own mind, Kim found herself rerunning this scene, squirming with shame as she recalled the tone of her voice and how she had just stood and watched as her coworker stooped to collect the brochures.

In our first interview, I encouraged her to let go of the story and just drop down into the feelings of fear and shame as they arose in her body and mind. She told me she felt a deep ache in her chest and a vise around her throat. Using as a base the traditional compassion meditation we had introduced at the retreat, I guided Kim to begin with awakening compassion for herself. “Holding those painful areas with care, you might repeat the phrases you learned: ‘I care about this suffering. May I be free of suffering.’”

When I could see that Kim had relaxed, I asked if she could think of any family members or friends who’d also felt embarrassed by mistakes and emotional reactivity. Kim brought to mind her mother and her brother. As she remembered times when they’d felt ashamed and humiliated, Kim felt a welling up of tenderness for them. Thinking of her mother and brother, Kim silently whispered to them: “I care about your suffering; may you be free from suffering.”When we reflect on the suffering of others, we realize we are not alone in our pain.

Continuing with the compassion practice, Kim expanded the circle of her caring by bringing to mind people she was familiar with but didn’t know well — others at the retreat, people she saw working out at the gym, parents of her children’s friends. Still feeling the rawness of her own self-doubt, Kim could imagine how some version of that same fear she was feeling might live behind the aloofness or arrogance, busyness or defensiveness she noticed in some of them. As she let in a sense of each person’s vulnerability and offered her prayer of care, Kim felt an intimate bond arising.

With her heart feeling more open, Kim brought to mind the coworker with whom she’d felt so irritated. She remembered the hurt look in his eyes when she lashed out. She recalled his habitual look of worry, his physical tightness and self-deprecating remarks and recognized that he too feared being unworthy and incompetent. Kim felt a surge of remorse and then sadness as she realized she had probably struck him in a very vulnerable spot. With a full and focused attention she continued for the next few moments offering him her care, praying that he might be free of fear.

I guided Kim to the last step in the compassion practice — opening her heart and attention boundlessly, extending care to all beings who suffer, to all who feel insecure and alienated. When Kim finished the meditation and opened her eyes, her face had softened and her body had relaxed. Sitting back in her chair now, she rested her hands openly and easily in her lap. She gave me a smile that was both sad and sweet and said, “When I remember that other people feel the same kind of insecurity that I do, then it’s not like I’m bad — I’m just human.” She paused and then added, “I can feel how we’re all in it together.”

This practice of intentionally reflecting on suffering — our own and that of others — is the basic form of Buddhist compassion meditations. We include the suffering of those we cherish, those we barely know, those we find difficult and those we have never met, out to the widest circle. While we might not formally reflect on those in each domain during every meditation, the practice deepens our capacity for compassion. As Kim found, when we reflect on the suffering of others, we realize we are not alone in our pain. We are connected through our vulnerability.“When I remember that other people feel the same kind of insecurity that I do, then it’s not like I’m bad — I’m just human.”

Without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty. Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his regular parish duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes,” the wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher. “Excuse me,” he began, “perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?” “Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. “Then, my question is, What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love — and realize that their needs were no different from his own. The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

Stop Beating Yourself Up: 40 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic

tinybuddha.com

By Laura Tong

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

If you’re anything like I used to be, your inner critic packs a powerful punch.

You’ve got a vicious voice bad mouthing you for much of the day. And when it’s in one of those moods, wow, are you going to suffer.

It’s no wonder you feel small, disappointed, and ashamed of who you are.

It’s the reason you lie in bed at night feeling like a failure, convinced you’re a nobody, certain you’re a serial mistake maker.

It was exactly why I used to just lie in the dark, a lot. Most days in fact. Not sleeping, not even thinking, just lying.

I was forever longing for my life to go away. I’d gotten so good at beating myself up that each day seemed to present more opportunities to fail, to feel insignificant and never good enough. 

Alone in the dark, I could pretend that all my problems disappeared and that I was free of the stress. I could make-believe that the pressure had evaporated.

You see, I’d taken on one of those jobs, one of those supposed leaps up the career ladder. But hell, being the head of a college department turned out to be a bad life choice … given my oh-so critical inner voice.

Every day added to my imagined portfolio of failures. Every day blew another hole in my smokescreen of having any confidence in my ability. And every day, I became more fearful of being exposed as the ‘fake’ I believed I was.

I felt like I was constantly aching yet feeling numb at the same time, which became too painful to bear. I dragged my shameful self into the college and quit. I left my entire library of books on the table along with my resignation.

Four years on, even though I’d tried to move on, even changing countries, I still felt the same. No more confident and no less self-critical.

That’s when I learned that even if I hadn’t packed any belongings, I still took a devastating amount of baggage with me. Even worse, I’d allowed my inner critic to ride passenger.

That voice—that mean, vicious, ever-present voice—had to go if life was going to be worth living.

Consciously and patiently, I set out to understand why this self-critical person had become such a huge part of me. I learned how to recognize and counter the habitual negative messages and destructive behavior patterns. I learned how to beat my inner critic, for the most part.

And now it’s your turn.

Because it’s time you felt free from the pain of constant self-criticism as well. It’s time you finally stopped beating yourself up over everything you say or do. And it’s time you were able to breathe, smile, and be pleased with yourself, just as you are.

How? With one simple, small action at a time.

Some of these ideas will speak to you; some will shout. Others will only mumble. Try a handful that grab your imagination. Add in others from the list over time as you learn to build them into an inner-critic-beating habit.

1. Keep a self-praise journal.

Pocket-size is best. Each time you feel pleased by something you’ve done or said, jot it down. Flip through the pages every time you feel your critical voice starting to pipe up.

2. Write a positive self-message.

Use a permanent marker and inscribe it on the inside of your shoes.

3. Diminish your inner critic’s power.

Repeat a negative thought back in a silly voice.

4. Update your Facebook status:

“Happy to be me. Work in progress.”

5. Send yourself a loving text.

Keep it, and re-read it often. Appreciate yourself.

6. Add a positive self-message to an image.

Put it on your phone and laptop.

7. Draw a caricature.

Give your inner critic a silly feature that makes you laugh. Stick it on your fridge.

8. Make a face or blow a raspberry.

At your inner critic, not yourself!

9. Visualize your inner critic.

Imagine it as an evil gremlin squatting on your shoulder. Each time it speaks up, turn and flick it away.

10. Look in the mirror.

Smile and compliment yourself on one quality or trait you like.

11. Keep a list of self-forgiveness quotes.

Or sign up to receive daily emails from Tiny Buddha.

12. Write a list of qualities others like about you.

Keep it in your purse or wallet.

13. Write a list of qualities you like about yourself.

Add it to your purse or wallet as well.

14. Remind yourself: 

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” ~Unknown.

15. End each negative thought with a positive.

For example, “But I’m human and I can learn not to make the same mistake,” or, “But I have the power to change this.”

16. Jot down one thing you’d like to be better at.

Then take one tiny step toward that.

17. Remember “not good enough” doesn’t exist.

“I don’t know a perfect person, I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.” ~John Green

18. Ask yourself why you think you should be good at everything. 

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Concentrate on your strengths.

19. Find one thing each day to reward yourself for.

Make it something you truly look forward to.

20. Apologize to yourself.

Do this every time you recognize self-criticism (tell yourself you’re sorry out loud if you can).

21. Ring someone you haven’t spoken to in ages.

Tell them how much they mean to you. The best way to feel better about yourself is to make someone else feel better.

22. Remember that self-hate is not an option.

You’re the only person you can guarantee you’ll be in a relationship with from birth to death, so learn to love yourself.

23. Remember there’s no shame in messing up.

You’re trying to do something, grow, and contribute.

24. Break the cycle.

Admit you made a mistake and ask, “Now what can I do about it?”

25. Look at a mistake or “failure” in context.

Will it really matter in a week, a year, or ten years from now?

26. Recognize that you make fewer mistakes than you think.

You just criticize yourself repeatedly for the same few.

27. Drown out your inner critic.

Put on your favorite feel-good music.

28. Stop trying to do too much.

Strike one task from your to-do list that won’t stop Earth from revolving if it isn’t done.

29. Reflect on how you’re only on this planet for a short time.

You can either spend it beating yourself up and being miserable or learn to love yourself and be happy.

30. Stop focusing on the one thing you got wrong.

Focus on the many things you got right.

31. Recognize the good you do for others.

The more you beat yourself up, the less good you do.

32. Keep a daily, written tally of positive self-messages.

Increase this by at least one each day.

33. Physically pat yourself on the back.

Do this for everything you’ve done well this week.

34. Look at a satellite image of the earth.

Realize that you are an important part of this amazing creation.

35. Realize that over six billion people in the world don’t care.

Only you care that you made a mistake.

36. Think of a fun, positive adjective.

Adopt this as your middle name so that every time you criticize yourself by name, you’ve described yourself in a positive way.

37. Buy a houseplant.

When you tend it remind yourself you need this much love and attention.

38. Note down kind words from others.

Write them on slips of paper and keep them in a compliment jar. Dip into this whenever you need to counter a negative self-message.

39. Halt a negative self-thought.

Use an act of self-care. For example apply hand cream, or give yourself a neck rub.

40. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Remember Dr. Seuss: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

Stop Beating Yourself Up Once and for All

Beating yourself up leaves you feeling horrible.

All that constant self-criticism is exhausting. It leaves you aching inside.

Small, simple actions can bring great leaps in breaking this negative cycle—for good.

Let these ideas speak to you. Pick the ones that shout loudest.

Defeat self-depreciating thoughts you’ve heard over and over with conscious, positive acts of self-compassion.

Stop letting your inner critic overpower you. Fight back with self-love.

About Laura Tong

Laura Tong is a regular contributor on The Huffington Post and other top blogs. Grab her free cheat sheet: 5 Guilt Free Ways To Say No Without Offending Anyone (Even If You Hate Conflict). Laura also hosts the Re-write The Rules In Your Life interview series where she shares awesome happiness and positivity tips from experts around the world. Click here to listen free to the latest episodes.

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?

As psychologists continue to help those suffering from the impact of COVID-19, they should watch for signs of their own distress or burnout. By Rebecca A. Clay Date created: June 11, 2020

Psychologist Heidi Allespach, PhD, of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, knows that the big hearts that propel people into psychology and other caregiving careers also put them at risk of developing compassion fatigue. Ironically, she explains, caregivers can become so over-empathic that they find themselves growing numb to their patients’ suffering. That’s why she urges the medical residents she teaches to develop what she calls a “semi-permeable membrane” around their hearts. “Without enough of a shield, everything just comes in,” says Allespach. “And being overwhelmed with the feelings of others can feel like drowning.”

Now Allespach and other psychologists are worried that psychologists are facing increased risks of compassion fatigue as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

Compassion fatigue occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma, explains Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University. It is an occupational hazard of “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart,” he says, and represents the psychological cost of healing others. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go and invades your thoughts,” he says.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t just make it difficult to feel empathy for your patients, says Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, of Coastal Carolina University. One component of the condition is burnout, which is associated with too much work and not enough resources to do that work well. Burnout can result in depression and anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, less enjoyment of work, and more arguing. Another component of compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress, or indirect exposure to trauma via helping others. “I sometimes refer to this component as ‘empathy overload,’” says Schwanz, adding that symptoms include anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, numbness or feelings of having nothing left to give.

To keep compassion fatigue from developing or to address it if it does, compassion fatigue experts suggest that psychologists do the following.

Recognize the signs

“Psychologists and other people in helping roles really do forget that they’re vulnerable,” says Schwanz, explaining that psychologists are trained to be empathic but also to put their own emotions aside. If psychologists suspect they are experiencing compassion fatigue, Schwanz recommends they assess themselves with the free Professional Quality of Lifemeasure developed by psychologist Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD. This self-report tool covers symptoms, such as loss of productivity, depression, intrusive thoughts, jumpiness, tiredness, feelings of being on edge or trapped, or inability to separate personal and professional life. The measure also assesses compassion satisfaction—the positive emotions associated with helping others, such as happiness, pride and satisfaction.

Make self-care part of a routine

Psychologists should adopt the mantra of flight attendants: “Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,” says psychologist Amy M. Williams, PhD, of the Henry Ford Health System. Good self-care means developing a routine that makes each day predictable and that includes what Williams calls the big five of self-care: adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, physical activity, relaxation and socializing. The schedule should also include five minutes for a self check-in each morning to assess tension in the body and worries in the mind. “Don’t do it 10 minutes before bed, when the mind spins off into worry,” she suggests.

Examine beliefs about self-care

It’s not enough to just go through the motions of self-care, emphasizes Schwanz. It needs to be a legitimate attempt. “In our society, we applaud people who work themselves to death, who neglect their own self-care to help others,” says Schwanz. “We rarely applaud people for taking the day off.” Psychologists may have internalized this message, viewing self-care as selfish, says Schwanz, who is studying such beliefs’ relationship with compassion fatigue. As a result, psychologists may not reap the benefit of any self-care efforts they make, because they engage in behaviors such as worrying about work on a day off. And psychologists shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time for fun and laughter during this sad, anxious time, adds Thomas Skovholt, PhD, of the University of Minnesota. Playing games, watching funny movies and the like can replenish the energy needed to help others, he says. Even a tiny dose of positive emotion, such as noticing flowers blooming, can help.

Practice self-compassion

Psychologists are having a hard time along with everyone else, says Allespach, and that’s unusual. Most psychologists are now experiencing the same problems their patients are experiencing—worries about safety, uncertainty, financial concerns and disrupted routines. “Psychologists are usually the rocks in the river of life’s uncertainty for our patients, but right now, we’re in that river with them,” she says. “For those of us in the helping professions, we’re trying to help our patients make sense of this strange new reality while doing that ourselves.” That unusual situation can increase psychologists’ stress, says Allespach. But so can psychologists’ own tendencies, says psychologist Anna Baranowsky, PhD, founder of Toronto’s Traumatology Institute, who says psychologists tend to be “over-copers.” “They are capable of working really hard and delivering great results,” says Baranowsky. “But they are very self-demanding and very focused on the perfection of what they’re delivering, until the point of total exhaustion.” It’s important for psychologists to take time to reflect—alone, with a trusted colleague, religious leader, or therapist—on any wounds that are surfacing during this uncertain time, she says. “You want to really respect the fact that you’re human, too,” she says. “Bearing witness to another person’s suffering ignites things within ourselves.” 

Create community

Connecting with like-minded others is another strategy that can help prevent compassion fatigue. “It may not sound fancy or sophisticated, but building community is the most powerful thing you can do,” says Geoffry White, PhD, a private practitioner in Los Angeles who has worked to prevent compassion fatigue in mental health practitioners responding after terrorism and war. In addition to staying connected with family and friends, psychologists could set up Zoom consultation or supervision groups to check in with each other and prevent and address signs of compassion fatigue. “Compared with other societies, the United States has a very mind-your-own business culture, prizing independence and self-reliance over community” says White. “But anything that takes away from that isolation—peer support—will help.”

Help colleagues

The pandemic is exacerbating what was already a crisis of burnout for health-care providers, say researchers and medical professionals at Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital. They found that intensive care unit workers are facing longer shifts, increased patient deaths, lack of personal protective equipment and financial fears among other stressors (Sasangohar, F., et al., Anesthesia and Analgesia, published online ahead of publication, 2020). Those stressors can also lead to compassion fatigue. If psychologists see signs that a colleague, whether another psychologist or a health-care professional, is developing compassion fatigue, they should check in, says Schwanz. Psychologists and trusted colleagues can give each other permission to point out potential problems and keep at it despite attempts to deflect or deny, says Schwanz. Schwanz herself has a self-care buddy. They text each other to check in on each other’s stress levels and to report daily acts of self-care, such as taking breaks and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.

It’s also important to normalize compassion fatigue, adds Williams. “You could say, ‘These are crazy times, and I’m struggling,’” she says. “Then ask, ‘Is that something you’re going through, too?’” In the support groups she runs, for example, participants often admit that they didn’t realize compassion fatigue is normal, and so they were hesitant to ask for help. Once they realize that feeling this way is normal for others, she says, they are more willing to talk about their struggles and to accept help. 

Focus on compassion satisfaction

Psychologists should celebrate the positives of helping others. “There can be terrible things going on, but focus on the wins,” suggests Schwanz, citing the celebrations health-care providers hold when patients come off ventilators. Focusing on gratitude can also help, she says.

Additional information

To learn more about compassion fatigue, read “Compassion Fatigue Resilience” or The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-care Strategies for the Helping Professions. There is also a special issue of the journal Traumatologydevoted to secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

Toronto’s Traumatology Instituteoffers online compassion fatigue specialist training and other resources. The institute also offers an entry-level online compassion fatigue resiliency and recovery training for students and community members.

Get more tips on self-care by reading about how to take care of yourself and avoid burnout. Or listen to a podcast on self-care. To earn continuing education credit, read the Monitor article “Are you burned out? Here are signs and what to do about them.”