By Steve Flowers
Family therapist Steve Flowers on how self-compassion can free us from the grip of the mental judge and jury that is running, or even ruining, our lives.
You don’t need to feel trapped by your inner critic’s nagging voice. Nor do you need to suppress it, or escape it. Sometimes all you need to do is notice it.
While on a flight home 10 years ago, I found myself sitting next to a woman who seemed like she wanted to bring something up with me. Finally, she got up the courage to ask me her question: “Did you ever attend Fairfield High School?”
“Yes I did,” I said. “I attended Fairfield for the first semester of 10th grade.” Before I could say another word she had an even more astonishing question: “Is your name Flowers? Are you Steve Flowers?”
I was blown away! “Yes, I am, but that was 46 years ago! How could you possibly see that skinny boy in me now?”
“You were in my class,” she said, “and I had a terrible crush on you. I wanted so much to say hello and introduce myself, but I never could muster the courage to approach you, and then you were gone. But I never forgot you and still think of you to this day.”
My heart and my eyes welled up with such an ache I couldn’t contain my tears, “You wanted to be my friend? I didn’t think anybody could see me. I felt there was something wrong with me and that I was different from everybody and that no one could ever like me.” I might have been able to have a friend, at least one friend, throughout that hellish eternity of high school.
Both of us had thoroughly identified with a flawed and unworthy sense of self that was separate and disconnected from everyone else. My life path through those days has led me to become a student of mindfulness and look for a way out of this painful delusion I’ve shared with millions.
A Mindful Path through Shyness
If you too are shy you can probably relate to this pain. Fearing the judgments and rejection of others, you avoid them and find yourself principally in a relationship with your own thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, often this isn’t such a great relationship. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that you can say critical things to yourself that you would never say to anyone else or tolerate from anyone else for that matter.
It’s a predicament. You can’t outrun your own thoughts and feelings, so your meanest critic can follow you anywhere. And does. Relentlessly. As you read this, you may recognize an important and fundamental truth: The pain of shyness is not only created by these self-critical thoughts and feelings, it’s exacerbated into personal suffering by our efforts to avoid or escape those thoughts and feelings.
It’s only natural that you would try to use the same escape and avoidance strategy with thoughts and feelings as you’ve used with external threats. It’s what most people do. Unfortunately the very effort to escape thoughts or even suppress or control them usually intensifies them. As a result, this way of trying to deal with mental and emotional difficulties can lead to entrenched patterns that create a confusing mess, and more suffering in our lives. Avoidance is like Miracle-Gro for anxiety.
Fortunately, you don’t have to try to avoid or control painful thoughts and feelings in order to reduce their power and influence in your life. You can simply let them be and instead put your energy into what you value in life. There’s no need to seek out personality flaws and fix them in order to have fulfilling interpersonal relationships. In fact, being flawed has nothing to do with deep and satisfying relationships with other people anyway. (You’ve got to know it doesn’t, otherwise satisfying relationships would be impossible for everyone.) The practice of mindfulness can help you come into a healthier relationship with painful thoughts and feelings. It can help you come home to being who you are and where you are—without judging or trying to change anything that we experience.
Problematic shyness is inherently self-critical and rejecting, whereas the nature of mindful awareness is compassionate and accepting. Learning, through daily meditation practice, to look at yourself with awareness rather than criticism is an enormous benefit. It will allow you to begin to see the habits of mind and behavior that create the pain of shyness. This new awareness can loosen the grip of these old habits and reduce their power to influence you.
- Non-judging – You can be accepting of yourself rather than self-critical.
- Moment-to-moment, here-and-now awareness – You can actually be here rather than in some imagined futures you feel anxious about.
- Turning toward and being with – You can stop avoiding the thoughts and feelings that scare you and stop generating the self-criticism and shame that can be fueled by avoidance.
- Compassionate and open-hearted awareness – You can extend compassion to yourself rather than condemnation.
- Opening to the fullness of being – You can stop identifying with a false and limiting sense of self.
- Generous of spirit – You can free yourself from the prison of self- consciousness and extend the same generosity of spirit to others that you extend to yourself.
The Healing Power of Kindness and Compassion
The notion that love starts within ourselves is widespread in many cultures. The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca said, “If you wish to be loved, love.” The golden rule asks us to think of others feelings as we would think of our own feelings. Drawing on Tibetan wisdom, Pema Chödrön says, “What you do for yourself —any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself—will affect how you experience your world. In fact, it will transform how you experience the world. What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.”
Kindness and compassion are qualities of the heart that often don’t come easy to us. In fact, most of us are habituated with thoughts and feelings that are exactly the opposite, especially with ourselves. You are more apt to be just as judgmental and critical with others as you are with yourself, and these attitudes of mind can come up quickly and be very compelling. Kindness and compassion are skills that may also grow in you as you deliberately cultivate these thoughts and intentions in your life. It’s like repeating scales on the piano until they come naturally.
A painful habit of people who are shy and socially anxious is reviewing personal collections of negative self-beliefs and judgments. Not only is this no fun (!), you can become so consumed with your thoughts, feelings, appearance, and behavior that you have a difficult time understanding, empathizing, or even noticing anyone else (like I never knew anyone liked me in high school). Usually the phrase “full of himself” refers to someone who is an exhibitionist or extraordinarily vain, but in truth, we’re just as full of ourselves, just as self-involved, when we’re under the spell of negative self-talk. This is how we create the state of mind that makes us feel separate from the fundamental essence of life.
Shyness involves maintaining thoughts and behaviors that alienate and isolate us from others. When in this state of mind, you experience yourself as separate and create a personal prison for yourself, maintained and guarded by a scared internal gatekeeper who tells you things like “They screwed me,” “Don’t trust them,” or “They can tell there’s something wrong with me.” In one of Einstein’s famous quotes he enjoins us “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” All living creatures includes ourselves. You can’t give love to others if you can’t give it to yourself. The physical heart infuses itself with blood before sending it to the rest of your body. So too with the heart of kindness. You don’t even have to believe your loving thoughts and intentions as you begin them. In time they will take root and grow.
Like a mother turning toward her crying baby with her own heart filled with the baby’s suffering, compassion inquires deeply into what’s wrong, and then finds a caring response concerned with alleviating the suffering. Giving this loving balm to yourself will carry you through the most difficult of challenges when nothing else seems to help.
When you do find a sprig of self-compassion in your heart, nurture it with your tears and encourage its growth. If you practice self-compassion daily, it can heal your aching heart, and even your jittery body. It heals at the deepest levels and is a noble endeavor that can greatly assist you in finding your way through shyness.
Daily Doses of Self-Compassion
If you do some meditation practice daily, a good way to ease self-criticism is to mix compassion practice into your session (see instruction below) at just the moment when judgments overtake you. Compassion grows as you turn toward parts of your mind that you usually try to ignore or dispel—parts of yourself that may surprisingly become all the more vivid and troublesome when you are meditating.
Apply this practice anywhere there is pain, even in the wounds of your own self-blame, self-hate, and shame. Apply it to your cherished victimhood. Compassion is a small door that’s wide open in a dark corner of the self- constructed prison cell that separates you from others. You’ll never discover this small doorway as long as you’re intent on avoiding the ugly and scary places inside yourself. You have to enter and investigate the dark places of judgment and fear to bring love there. It will be like fresh air rushing into musty old rooms.
Compassion as a Way of Life
Everyone has to cope with loss, fear, sorrow, and self-doubt. Look for these feelings in others from time to time and allow your heart to respond to them with loving-kindness. They needn’t know what you’re doing but sometimes, surprisingly, they may actually feel your loving attention and turn toward you as if to greet and acknowledge your open heartedness. “Compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” to join with suffering with an intention to care for that suffering and wish to alleviate it. We feel more connection to others and are able to transcend our personal desires and fears and extend our heartfelt caring to all that suffer.
One of the greatest sources of suffering is the concept that we’re separate from everyone and everything else. Mindfulness and compassion practices can dispel this painful delusion if you cultivate them in formal meditation practice and in the day-to-day circumstances of your life.
With time and practice, you’ll grow in your ability to attune to others and learn to empathize with their emotions because you’ve learned to respond with kindness to the pain in your own heart. You may see their pain and fear as the same as your pain and fear. In that moment you are united with others and can let go of feeling like a lonely alien.
When asked how all the meditation he had done had influenced his personality psychologist Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) replied, “Oh, my personality! I don’t take it so seriously anymore—I think of it more as a pet.”
Imagine how much less troublesome your personality would seem if you were able to look upon it as a pet wandering around in your house and yard. And what a better world it would be if we saw everyone in that simple way. We might stop taking everything so seriously, especially ourselves, and discover how our own vulnerable heart connects us to everyone else.
Breathing through the Harsh Judgments
Because the breath is always coming and going, you can practice mindfulness of the breath anywhere, anytime. This well-known basic practice is a powerful and convenient way to not only remain present wherever you go and in whatever you do, but also to undermine negative mind-chatter that causes us undue pain.
If you’ve done this practice many times before, here is an opportunity to try it with particular focus on harsh judgments.
1. Sit comfortably where you are right now, in a typical meditation posture that feels comfortable but wakeful and alert.
2. Bring attention to your breathing at your belly and notice the breath coming and going. If you like, place your hand on your belly to feel this movement. The belly rises and falls. Please make this rising and falling the center of your attention and let the breath come and go as it will, in its own way and at its own pace. It knows how to “breathe you” and you can let it do what it does without trying to change it in any way. If your mind wanders from the breath you may return to it again by feeling the belly’s movement. Use these sensations of the breath as your way to be present, here and now in each successive moment for at least the next five minutes or longer if you like.
3. This practice is an ideal place to begin cultivating non-judging. You will likely soon notice that the mind is not all that interested in following the breath. You have to bring it back to the sensation of the breath again and again. Take notice of the judgments arising. No need to enter into a conversation with them. Simply return to the sensation of the breath. By simply noticing the judgment you can quickly see through it. It’s just a fleeting thought. That’s how you will gradually, breath by breath, undermine the power of harsh judgment: “Just another judgment, back to the breath.” With as much kindness as possible, begin again. This is how you may erode the power of judgments to define you. And you can do this anywhere— whether you are with others at a social gathering or alone in your room.
Replacing Judgment with Compassion
At the very moment of anxiety, when the internal critic or fear monger is roaring, you can begin to grow a new attitude of mind and heart by offering yourself some kind words like:
May I awaken to my loving heart and follow its path of compassion and kindness.
Repeat. The more you repeat this the more it grows.
Breathing with Compassion Practice
Attending to your breath in mindful breathing practice, you notice a feeling of sadness or fear and you see that your mind is no longer with the breath but caught in an old self-judgment. Stop. Take a breath. Offer yourself one of these phrases:
I care for this frightened and lonely heart.
May I be free from fear and suffering.
May I be at peace and know ease of being.
May I be happy in this life right now, just as it is.
Return to the breath. Repeat as harsh judgments re-arise.
This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.
Steve Flowers is the director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in Chico, CA.
Mindful celebrates mindfulness, awareness, and compassion in all aspects of life—through Mindful magazine, Mindful.org, events, and collaborations.
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