Self-compassion

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 19, 2018 # Health

For those of us who have experienced acute trauma, 2017 was a banner year for insight and encouragement. The operative word was “resilience.” Resilience was the theme of a half a dozen best-selling books and reams of newspaper articles. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, in their book, “Option B,” hammered home the point that resilience is not a God-given trait, but is elastic, more like a muscle than a gene code. You can learn to be more resilient, more capable of handling major body blows – paralysis, losing a spouse or child, going broke -- and still keep moving forward.

Grant, a social psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, contends there is a “naturally learnable set of behaviors” that can build resilience. For instance, learn to avoid the pitfall of personalizing your injury. God isn’t punishing you. You aren’t automatically one of life’s losers. This thing happened, and so it goes.

In my own experience, a sure path to building what high school football coaches call “intestinal fortitude” is to be tested and survive. As pointed out in another bestseller, “The Vanishing American Adult,” our kids lack resilience because we constantly protect them from disappointment and emotional pain. This kind of infantilization is doing them no favors. You have to get punched around a little to learn that you have more grit than you imagine.

Most people in wheelchairs or otherwise downed by a disability have been given that test and aced it. Congratulations. Believe it or not, in this respect, you are ahead of the game. However, assuming resilience is elastic, then, like a bicep, it can turn flabby over time. You can’t become paralyzed again and pass the same test. How do you keep rebuilding it?

This leads us to what I think will be a touchstone word of 2018 – compassion. Or even more precisely – self-compassion.

Self-compassion is a fancy way of saying stop beating yourself up every time you fail or falter. In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Kristine Wong sets out to show how self-compassion – as mushy and feel-goody as that sounds -- is much more valuable than what we all think we need – raging self-confidence. Confidence is something that is easy to feign and often the defining feature of jerks. Self-compassion is treating yourself in a more even-handed, sympathetic way. And, to bring things full circle, one expert she talked to – Dr. Kristen Neff at the University of Texas – concluded that that “the most remarkable benefit of self-compassion is”...drum roll…”resilience.”

Ms. Wong quotes several studies showing the benefits of this kinder approach. One remarkable project surveying returning Iraqi and Afghan vets with PTSD found that “the more self-compassionate veterans were” – meaning, the ones quicker to accept their own shortcomings and weaknesses – “the less severe their PTSD symptoms were.” The unrelenting tough guys had it much tougher.

More generally, we all have a voice in our head doing a play by play broadcast of our lives, and it’s usually there to castigate us and make us feel like perpetual screw-ups. Practice a little more overt compassion for yourself – stop ceaselessly ruminating about how you said or did the wrong thing and fill that head space with a nod to some accomplishment, however small. Keep it up, and as Dr. Neff says, you can “break that cycle of negativity.” Back to one of Adam Grant’s resilience building tools – Practice Optimism. Not in a silly, obnoxiously cheery way, but simply in habits of mind that sidestep cynicism and the oddly comforting pose of self-defeat. That’s good for a drunken Friday night head-clearing, but it doesn’t advance the football, if you follow me.

I don’t really like the term, self-compassion. It feels like the tag line of a cheesy self-help book called “Love, Love, Love Yourself!”. Would that it were so simple. The practice of empathizing with yourself is not the easy out. In fact, it’s not easy at all. You have to break through that endless chatter of guilt, shame, and inadequacy implanted in your brain by your mother. A big self-hug won’t do it.

Maybe I’ll write a new book entitled, “Self-Compassion – It’s Not As Dumb As You Think, Dummy!” But I won’t hate myself if I don’t.