Episode 14: The Science Behind Self-Compassion + Mindfulness
Compassion, Empathy, and Parenting
At the Science of Mindfulness and Self-Compassion workshop hosted by the Greater Good at UC Berkeley and highlighting the work of Drs. Kristen Neff and Shauna Shapiro, Dr. Neff was clear to highlight the distinctions between self-compassion and empathy and self-compassion and self-esteem. Taking our understanding of this important construct to the next level. Lets first look at the difference between empathy and compassion. If you are with someone and they are experiencing joy or suffering the same area in your same brain is activated so you experience what they are experiencing, this is empathy. We call these mirror neurons and its how we are able to understand and soothe a preverbal child. This is why a crying infant can be so overwhelming (who’s neurons will win? You kind of have to use some Jedi skills on your baby). Empathy is also why sitting with someone’s grief or depression can make us feel so sad or helpless. Therapists are trained to practice boundaries and self-care because they sit with people in their toughest emotions. If you have any relationships, you are going to be sitting with tough feelings, yours or someone else's- so it is always useful to remember to practice taking a break or doing something soothing afterward to prevent burning out.
When we get burned out the field of psychology calls this compassion fatigue, and there is a lot of literature on this. But based on the research of Tanya Singer- these researchers think it should be called empathy fatigue not compassion fatigue and here is how we can use this information to the advantage of our parenting and our sanity. When our children are small we help them regulate their physical bodies and their emotions. It can take a long time to get a small human to the place where they can regulate their own emotions (identify them and manage them). If you are using empathy alone to support your child (or a friend etc.) you are at risk for burn out. Because your brain is along for the ride of suffering. A screaming baby, a frustrated toddler or a grieving friend is turning on all the same activity that is happening in their brain on in yours and your body and emotions will feel the effect.
So what do we do? Should I distance myself from my friend when they need me most? Do I finally ignore my child's distress because I have nothing left to give? We are human and we have all likely faced moments like this. But the research on compassion offers us a lot of hope. We reach for compassion vs empathy. Instead of feeling empathy for our screaming baby (which can risk making us feel like a screaming baby ourselves) we practice having compassion for them, we untangle ourselves from their suffering while staying present and probably a lot more patient. Compassion for suffering is still a positive emotion and lights up the reward center of our brain. Are you feeling guilty that your rewards center will be turned on while your child is screaming or your best friend is crying? DON'T. And here's why: Empathetic resonance goes both ways. It is not selfish to use compassion or even self-compassion at this moment because your calmer mind state will impact the mind state of those you care for. You will BE the GOOD VIBES, in the most literal sense I have yet to identify. These awesome calming Jedi skills lead our children to the capacity to self-soothe, self-regulate and have self-compassion.
So if you are caring for other people, which if you are listening to this podcast I'm sure you are, give your brain and body a break and focus on practicing compassion. Dr. Shapiro talked about growing WHAT you practice. How can you practice this? We will be incorporating all sorts of ways for you to add this to your parenting but please start NOW with our Valentine's Day gift to you- our bonus episode of a loving-kindness meditation.
Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem
We hear a lot about the importance of good self-esteem for ourselves and our children. However, younger generations can be mocked for their self-esteem by older generations. As a culture, we have a lot of mixed messages about what is a good amount of self-esteem. Dr. Kristen Neff pointed out why she focuses on self-compassion in children and adolescents vs. self-esteem. Our self-esteem involves us comparing ourselves to others vs. self-compassion which focuses on feelings of connectedness. With a high level of self-compassion there is no need to succeed to be special, whether we feel special at the moment or not, our self-compassion does not desert us. While self-esteem goes up and down with external factors. Self-compassion stays with us on good days and bad- congratulations! Wow, you've been working so hard for that OR this is really hard right now, let's be really gentle with you today.
But, you may be thinking, I want my child to care about succeeding. That's okay, self-compassion will still get them there. Did you know that self-compassion actually increases test scores and academic performance better than Kaplan? I have a whole episode planned on this topic. I don't think this is a surprise to teachers or therapists but parents and teens can feel so much pressure academically. Kind attention and self-compassion reduce shame- which shuts down the areas of our brain focused on learning and growth. All energy is routed towards fear based, survival pathways. Vs kindness which bathes our learning centers in dopamine. What we practice grows. If we are practicing self-criticism which releases cortisol and adrenaline, that grows too and can lead to anxiety and depression.
What is modeled makes an impact. How are you practicing your own self-compassion? Here's another tip for building this: Good morning, I love you. This is what Dr. Shauna Shapiro shared that she says to herself every morning. Pretty radical for some of us right? She also shared it took her a very long time to get there, and she started with good morning.
Resilience. We think about this a lot, is our child resilient? Can they handle what will come across their path? So here is some powerful information about resiliency for us to think about. Dr. Shapiro described the research done in veteran's homes that showed levels of self-compassion were more predictive of PTSD in veterans than what action they saw or experienced. Just let that sink in. When parents, teachers and child advocates talk about giving kids tools to succeed- this is what we are talking about right? Something an individual can walk into a tough situation with, use when faced with a challenge or an obstacle and come out resilient. Self-compassion, is this in your child's toolkit?
What factors affect one's self-compassion? Attachment security (the way in which we connected with our primary caregiver and felt trust or did not), parental criticism and a history of abuse. What if we are worried about the impact we have had on these things so far, have we been overly critical? Has our own mental health issues caused us to yell, be unkind or be neglectful at times? Okay before you spiral someplace dark, remember your mindfulness skills and your own self-compassion. I'm not messing around in the podcast introduction where I talk about leaning on these skills. I lean hard on these skills professionally and personally. Say something kind to yourself right now and know that it is going into your child's self-compassion bank account. I promise.
If you would like to learn more ways to build resilience in your child or yourself, listen to episode 4 of this podcast- How to Stock Up on Resilience.
Managing Difficult Emotions
What happens when we are in the moment with what is difficult. My clients and those of you that listen to the podcast know I am a big fan of the simplicity of labeling our emotions. And I was so happy when this topic came up during the workshop. When you feel yourself or see your child become overwhelmed with sadness, anger or frustration labeling these difficult emotion helps to calm the amygdala. By saying, I am mad right now, we are reminded that we are more than the difficult experience. This gives us space so we are not so identified with the emotion. It also helps us be present with what made us mad, and once we calm down maybe we can are able to carefully examine this.
Go the extra step and help your child identify where this emotion is living inside their body. This is called interoception and what we have found is that what we can feel, we can heal. Some words I love are, let's let this emotion do it's dance so it can leave our body. Emotions will never last much longer than 30 seconds- a couple minutes at the very most if we stop ruminating. That is, rethinking about the same upsetting thoughts over and over again. When we resist feeling the emotion, it persists.
Here is a exercise to try next time you feel a difficult emotion.
Exercise: Soften, Soothe and Allow. Identify and name the feeling, find this feeling in your body, soften and soothe and make space for the emotion there. Just let it be. Allow the emotion to do its dance so that it can shift. Visualize this part of your body healing.
Be Gentle with Yourself
We will wrap up with this reminder: Selfecompassion can be activating. Dr. Neff used the firefighting term backdraft to label this process. When our own unconditional love rushes in to us or our "house" and the old pain rushes out there can be an explosion. So continue to check in with yourself as you heal and add self-compassion into your parctice. As we focus on teaching our children about their emotions we can start to feel our own again and Numb hands in the snow don't really feel like anything, right? But these same hands can hurt when you come into a warm house. Our mindfulness skills can really support us through this process and by practicing we are laying out new neural pathways that will eventually become our new normal. However, if you have healing to do, don't go it alone. Definitely put your own team of support into place. If you have a history of trauma or have been in an abusive relationship, get professional support. Walk slowly and go farther.