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Self-compassion gets tested daily

Testing one, two, testing….did you take the test, the self-compassion test yet?  There is a link to it in the last blog.  It’s true there is an actual test, 26 questions to determine if you are low, moderate or high in compassion for yourself.  The reason to know is that there are health implications.  Folks that score high are more optimistic and happier with less anxiety and depression.  And they make healthier lifestyle choices about food consumption and issues of weight loss.

This makes perfect sense to me although it may be contrary to popular pundit opinion.  Why? Self acceptance is the beginning of change.  Accepting the actual reality of our common humanity means letting go of perfectionism to appreciate the wonder of our common beauty as we are.  Sure, maybe you do need to lose some weight.  But you don’t have to beat yourself up about it to lose it.  In fact, beating yourself up may have just the opposite effect.  The belittling self talk only makes you feel bad about yourself and more likely to then use food as a medicative behavior for those bad feelings.

Dr. Kristin Neff, who came up with the test, makes the point clearly.  She said that the reason many folks aren’t scoring higher is cultural.  ”Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

I had a patient who was overweight who came in to see me and I noted that she looked great.  It was clear she had lost weight.  I asked her how and she said something that fits in this discussion.  She told me about standing naked in front of a mirror and looking for long periods at her image.  Her goal was to love and accept the person looking back at her in the mirror.  The better she got at doing that, the more she made healthier choices and the more weight she lost.

Here’s Dr. Neff, “if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

The NY Times article, 3/1/11, says a much shorter test can get at some of what we are talking about here relative to self-compassion.  It’s just one question.  Do you treat yourself as well as you treat folks you care about, your friends and family?  If you do, great.  If not, start.  You’re worth it.  And you’ll lead a healthier life while infecting friends and family by example.

Vigilance VS Joy

Last time we talked about how our scared one is constantly vigilant and is chronically stressed. Then we saw the connection between chronic stress and a compromised immune defense system.  It's a paradox.
Our psychological defenses stay up and our immune defenses go down.  The result?  We can get sick.
And this morning I get this from Inward/Outward, a daily bite of soul food I receive.  Its author is Philip Slater and it is from Wealth Addiction:
"Vigilance and joy cannot coexist…. Joy is an emotion that only occurs when we let go of all watchfulness, all concern about outcomes, and simply let experience flood in and feelings flood out. Joy is incompatible with search behavior because there is nothing missing. Joy is feeling complete, full. Wealth addiction is feeling empty."

So I figure it's a synchronous event and that I should pay attention.  And I think he makes a great point. Being constantly vigilant and being joyful are mutually exclusive.  It also makes me see that being in a chronic stress state is to be joyless.

And if that is true then the remedy for being chronically stressed is to go for what brings us joy. What is it that brings you joy?  What are the circumstances in which you can drop your guard, drop your defenses and risk being vulnerable.  Do that.  For me, true joy comes from first getting my ego in check so I can relax.  Then I can feel the joy of deeply connecting with another person that I let past my perimeter to connect with my authentic and imperfect self.  That may not seem like a lot but it's enough,"because there is nothing missing."

No longer alone on guard duty, being in the guard house with a friend is also one of the best stress management strategies ever.



Give yourself a break today

We have been talking about the scared one and how stressful it is to be constantly vigilant.  Being always on guard against looking bad or doing/saying something wrong isn’t just a psychological state.  It’s also physiological. Science has long shown us the connection between psyche and soma, mind and body.  The body is a slave to the brain and what we do between our ears drives activity at a distance in the body. For example, your adrenal glands produce stress hormones, different ones depending upon the acute or chronic nature of your stress.

Chronic stress causes them to produce corticosterioid hormones.  These steroid hormones are like predisone which is used to surpress that itchy inflammatory response when you get a bad case of poison ivy.  In other words, they surpress your immune response.  This means that you are more likely to get sick when you feel you have to always be on your toes.

You know the slogan, “you deserve a break today?”  Running around all day long living our McNormal lives, dressed for success while putting our best foot forward, don’t we deserve a break today?! I think we do.  I just don’t think it’s a Big Mac.

Maybe the break is to notice the scared one running your life.  Then punch out on the trying-to-impress-others clock and do something else with your time and attention.  After all, concern for how others are thinking of you may be misplaced.  In fact, they probably aren’t thinking of you. Their scared one is probably doing with you what you had been doing with them.  :O)



The Dizzyness of Freedom

Our Best Kept Secret part 4

Although we all have feelings of inadequacy, that does not mean we are inadequate.

But if we are unaware that all people have those secret feelings, those feelings can have a great impact on: our behavior, on choices that we make, on our relationships and risk management in general.

This is a key concept as we continue to explore this secret we all share.  The secret is, that part of being human means having feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.  And we named that part the scared one.

The scared gal/guy inside us is risk averse.  He/she likes to repeat familiar behavior sets because doing the familiar downsizes risk.  You see, the scared one dislikes change and avoids risk.  The motto of the scared one is safety and security at all costs.  The safety provided by repeating familiar activity in the field of action equates to security for the insecure.

In doing so, he/she stays safe, hiding behind behaviors in which adequacy has been established. She/he resists change and is quite content with the status quo.  OK, maybe not content, but too scared to risk doing something new.

Doing something new, unfamiliar, or something we failed at in the past evokes anxiety.  The scared one, driven by fear, is concerned with being exposed as inadequate.  He/she is scared about not doing or saying the exact, right, perfect thing.  That anxiety is logical because we are risking being seen as inadequate if we fail.  So why take the chance?

Good question.  Why not stay safe and avoid the anxiety?  Why stress ourselves by doing things that cause such discomfort?  Why?  Because human beings are more than human animals.

We have the animal part of our nature which is concerned with any threat to survival.  But survival is not enough and animal consciousness is just one aspect of human consciousness.  It is not the whole ball of wax.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s come back to anxiety and risk avoidance.  Kierkegaard said, “anxiety is the best educator.”  Those things that cause anxiety have something to teach us.  And, we really do want to learn.  That’s also part of human nature.

So learning is necessary if we want to have healthier relationships with others: our kids and others at home as well as others at work.  We want also to have a healthier relationship with ourselves.  We, most of us, want to be more effective at what we do and have more fun while doing it better.

One definition of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors and expect different results.  It’s nuts !  But because the final common pathway of learning is mistake-making, the scared one is anxious.  But that anxiety is what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom.”

We are no longer trapped in the metaphorical prison of the familiar.  We hold the key to unlock ourselves and experience the freedom that is unique to our species.  We are not like the panther Rilke wrote about in his poem.  Rilke visited a zoo and observed a panther over several weeks.  He saw what many of us have seen.  What does the caged jungle cat do when not sleeping or eating?  It paces back and forth in the cage.

And what does that caged cat do if a visitor tries to get his attention?  It keeps pacing.  Here is the poem, The Panther translated by Robert Bly.

        “From seeing and seeing the seeing no longer sees anything anymore,

         The world is made of bars, a hundred thousand bars and behind the bars, nothing.

         The lithe swinging of that easy rhythmical stride that slowly circles down to a single point

         Is like a dance of energy around a hub in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

         At times, a shape enters, slips past the tightened silence of the shoulders        

         Enters the heart and dies.”

The panther knows, has leaned, not to pay attention to the world outside the bars.  He has to wait for someone to unlock the prison door.  But we, fellow “scaredy cats,” live within the limits of our own choosing.

The door that connects us to our freedom opens from the inside.  There is an adventure to be lived, our own unique adventure, but we cannot have an adventure without risk.  And with risk comes stress and anxiety, the “dizziness of freedom.”

You say, “yes, but, . . .I have tried stepping out there, and fell on my face.  I took the risk of getting into a relationship . . .

. . .I took the risk of telling the boss my honest opinion. . .

. . .I took the risk of becoming vulnerable . . .

. . .and all I got was my feelings of inadequacy reinforced.”

“So, I would be crazy to try it again.”

“Maybe so, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Do you want to spend your life as a ‘scaredy cat?’”

Just kidding.  Honor that part of you that is scared.  Don’t deny the anxiety.  Accept it as part of the price of freedom.  But your feelings of inadequacy and your fears don’t have to keep you from trying again and again and again.

And if you end up with egg on your face, eat it willingly.  It is soul food.  It is fuel for growth.  You are growing as you attempt the new.  And the effort you expend, even if you get shot down, is not wasted.  It is energy spent earning new learning.

We earn our learning the old fashioned way, one mistake at a time. 

Don’t use your failures as excuses to reinforce your feelings of inadequacy.  Give yourself a break!  Use my line.  “I’m slow, but trainable.”  It may take me longer than most, but there’s nothing I can’t learn.  Just because I have feelings of inadequacy, doesn’t mean I’m inadequate.

Maybe William Blake is right, “Even the fool that persists in his folly, will become wise.” 



Avoiding Risk

We have been discussing a secret we all share, yet rarely reveal to anyone.  That is, we all have feelings of inadequacy / insecurity and we have named that part of us, the ‘scared one.’  We all have a ‘scared one’ inside.  All males, regardless of age or achievement, have a ‘scared guy’ inside.  All females, regardless of age or achievement, have a ‘scared gal’ inside.

The ‘scared one’ inside us is fully formed once we learn to be ashamed of ourselves.  This was learned from those we were dependent upon early in our development.  We learned to do things the “right way” by trial and error.  When we erred, we got our feelings of inadequacy reinforced.

“No, don’t do it like that, stupid, do it like this.”  “Come on now, pay attention.  You know better than that.”  “Come on.  You’re not using your brain.  Did your brain fall out?”

To compensate for our feelings of inadequacy, we want to show how adequate we are.

We, as parents, show how adequate we are through the performance of our children.  I mean, how many of us heard our parents say, “Now remember, when you go over there you’re a reflection on our whole family.  So don’t pick your nose or scratch yourself.  Stand up, for Pete’s sake.  Don’t slouch around like that.  How many times do I have to tell you to stand up straight?  And look at those shoes.  Aren’t you ashamed of yourself.  I told you to polish them yesterday!”

Because our children demonstrate our competence as parents we have seen bumper stickers appear on the scene.  “Proud parent of HONOR ROLL student at Maplewood School.

The unwritten message is “I am an adequate parent. Just wanted you to know so I put it on the car.”  You may have seen the take-off on these.  “My kid beat up your honor roll student.”  The unwritten statement is “I’m adequate too!”


I thought we needed another bumper sticker.  “Proud parent, regardless of their grades, my kids have an “A” in my book.”    “A” for love and acceptance, regardless of their performance on the world’s stage.  So I had them printed.( if interested)

Can we affirm, affirm, affirm our children unconditionally?  I’m not saying catch ‘em being good.  I’m saying remind them and ourselves, often, that they are radiant gems that have come through us into the world.  We have them for a short time on their journey.

We need to do everything we can to create a safe, loving environment for learning.  For learning is required for them to be able to take their place in the larger community.  Learning is required for them to have the internal where-with-all to thrive in the jungle that is the world.

And the final common pathway for learning is mistake-making.  When mistakes happen, we need to focus on the learning that is gained rather than the mistake that is made.  We don’t want to reinforce our child’s feelings of inadequacy, but we do want our children to learn new things.  And anything worth learning, is worth failing at.

You see, the ‘scared one’ inside us feels safe when doing what is familiar.  Repeating behaviors in which we have already established adequacy allows the ‘scared one’ to feel secure, to feel safe.  Safety and security are the most important elements to the risk averse ‘scared one’.

To do the new or novel is to put the ‘scared one’ in a position where there is a high risk.  If we risk failing at the task or if we try a new behavior in response to familiar stimuli, the ‘scared one’ risks exposure.  So there is a great deal of psychological inertia that has to be overcome to break out of old patterns, even if they don’t work anymore.

As for children, their gaze is upon us.  They watch us and model what they see.  How much healthy risk taking do they see?  Let’s say some change happens at work.

By the way, have you noticed there are a few changes happening at work?  Oh, I know, there are also plenty of changes happening at home.  Change is everywhere apparent.  In fact, it is the one constant in life.  Yet dealing with change is stressful.

Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, it is the learner who inherits the earth, while the learned finds himself beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

How do our children see us responding? In fact, how did we see our own parents respond when they were stressed?  Was the stressful event used as an opportunity for learning something new or an excuse to go for an unhealthy coping strategy ?  Here’s one from the past:

“Boy, you wouldn’t believe what those idiots did today!  With that kind of management, this company is in for big trouble.”

“What happened?”

“Well, everything has been going along fine.  The business is growing.  We’re making more money.  And now they want to gum up the whole works.”

“What do you mean?”

They want us to change the way we do things.  They actually want us to put everything on computer.  Do you know how long it’s gonna take.  It’s crazy.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  This whole computer thing is just a fad.  It won’t last.  So we’ll switch everything over then be stuck switching back to the way we’re doing business now.  It’s nuts!

“So, what are you going to do?”

“What am I going to do!?  I’m going to fix myself a drink.  Then I’m going to fix another.  In fact, I think I’ll just mix up a pitcher.  Care to join me?”

“Sure, but dinner won’t be ready for a while, so take it easy.”

“Don’t try to tell me what to do.  And why isn’t dinner ready, yet!?  You sit around all day, the least you could do is have a man’s dinner ready when he comes home.  I’m gonna watch TV.  Call me when it’s time to eat.

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  But you don’t have to yell.  Just go in and try to forget about it.  You’re all upset.  I’ll call when dinner’s ready.”

The child observing this interaction watches in innocence.  The grownups act out unaware that their performance demonstrates psychic compensation and risk avoidance.

The father is at-risk at work because he will have to learn how to do something new.  His ‘scared guy’ felt safe doing things in which he has established adequacy.  Now he’ll have to learn something new and what if he fails?  He risks being seen as inadequate.  His anxiety is masked to others by his anger.

Feeling small, he acts out with a big voice as the evil twin of the ‘scared one’, the ‘Big One’ appears.  The ‘Big One’ only appears when we feel little.  His fears are then medicated away with alcohol after he reinforces his wife’s feelings of inadequacy by putting her down.  The TV also serves as an entertaining distraction from his interior discomfort.  It also puts control back into his own hands, albeit remote control!

Mom tries to placate her husband by apologizing even though she may have done nothing wrong.  By doing so she avoids a confrontation and models a behavior for the observing child.  The ‘scared one’ within the child needs to feel safe at home and when there is tension between the grownups invisible sensors in the child’s psyche make note.  The child feels the tension and learns from mom to avoid the risk of confrontation.  No healthy risk taking here!

There is learning, however.  First, change is bad.  Second, when change happens hold on to something familiar, that you can count on to help you cope.  Third, deny the actual reality of the situation and then you can avoid the risk of doing something unfamiliar or new.  As a good friend of mine says:

“I have two constant companions, two friends who never desert me.  No matter what happens they are always there.  I have never faced a problem, crisis or situation I couldn’t handle with their help.  Even in the middle of the night, they are there to comfort me. Those two friends?  Denial and avoidance.”

Know  ‘em?  I do.  Next time we’ll explore looking risk in the eye and see how anxiety may be the “dizziness of freedom”.



Naming Our Best Kept Secret

When last we visited, I brought out into the open a secret that we all share, regardless of our unique differences.  That secret is: we all have feelings of inadequacy and insecurity – regardless of age or achievement.  I would like to name that part as the ‘scared one.

The ‘scared one’ inside the psyche is very concerned with being exposed to the outside world.  His/her fear is that, if constant vigilance is not maintained, someone may discover the truth.  We are not what we seem.

In other words, the persona, the mask we display to the world hides the real us below, just out of sight.  We expend energy maintaining the facade to protect the ‘scared one’ within.

Here, we can see the exquisite logic of many relationship problems.

When we plumb the depths of the psyche we find the ‘scared one’ projecting images to the surface of life that compensate.  Example:  the ‘scared one’ has an evil twin, the ‘Big Guy/Gal.’  The‘Big One’ is shown to others only when we are feeling small, ie: inadequate.  The bully picks on weaker kids because they are “safe” targets.  When the bully runs into the older sibling of his/her victim, who is bigger than he/she is, the bully disappears and the ‘scared one’ is revealed.

The bully’s treatment of another is not a reflection of feelings for the other, but rather reveals feelings for self.  When I am feeling great about me, I am meek, tolerant, patient with my children.  When I am not feeling so great about me, the ‘Big Guy’ pops out of the psyche.  I hate it when that happens!  But hey, it’s just psychic compensation.

Let me give you an example.  I am the father of four children, four daughters!  They are incredible treasures.  My vocation includes traveling and working with others around the planet. I had been on the road quite a bit and returned Friday evening feeling guilty about being away from home. 

“What kind of husband and father am I anyway?!”

So, I made a plan. Saturday morning I got up with the youngest two, Jordan and Brynn, 4 and 7, and went downstairs.  I planned to occupy the young ones downstairs while Alice and Hope, the older two girls and my wife, slept in upstairs.  Then, later on when the late-sleeping beauties came down to begin their day, they would see what a great father and husband I was!  After all, I kept the little girls out of their rooms so they could enjoy awakening from their slumber at their own pace.

Things went along smoothly for a while, then the worm turned.  Brynn and Jordan had been playing quietly after eating their breakfast.  My plan was working well, when all of a sudden their play stopped and they went at each other!  Their loud battle was going to wake-up the sleepers.  So I quickly moved in to separate them.

As I was saying, “you guys need to play separately for a while, to calm and quiet down, so you don’t wake anyone up.  Then you can play together again,” Jordan walked over, picked up a bucket of Brynn’s stuff and dumped it on the floor.

I said, “hey, Jordan, I saw what you did.  It’s one thing to spill something by accident, but what you did you did on purpose.  So here’s the deal.  You can play anytime you want, after you pick up what you dumped on the floor.”  (Pretty hip parenting, don’t you think?)

But I had to add this caboose… “So why don’t you pick it up, now?”

Jordan folded her arms and stuck out her chin in defiance.  Then I knew the game had changed.  But, I also knew I had to win!  I said “Jordan, did you hear me?”

She turned her head away and stood her ground.  My voice got bigger.  “Jordan, get over there and pick up that stuff!

She didn’t budge.

With a bigger voice I heard myself say the same thing with a bigger “NOW!” at the end.  She turned her head toward me, looked me in the eye and gave me the finger!  That’s right!  She gave me the bird!

At that point, the ‘Big Guy’ in me grabbed her off the spot she defiantly held, carried her in the other room and placed her underneath the dining room table.  We didn’t spank our children.  We  could shame our children in other ways!

I couldn’t believe it.  She gave me the finger.  If I had given my father the finger, I wouldn’t have the finger!

I was justifying my abrupt handling of my daughter because of the seriousness of the offense.  But a nagging voice from inside began to force its way into my awareness.  It said, “Gee, she’s only 4 years old.  I wonder if she knows what that means?”

Do you think I wanted to hear that voice?  Heck no!  I wanted to rationalize my actions as an appropriate response to my child.

But the voice persisted.  “Gee, she’s only 4 years old.  She probably doesn’t even know what that means.”

As this voice repeated itself, I finally relented.  You know, she is only 4 years old and she probably does not know what she just did.  She is probably just repeating a gesture she has seen other kids in the neighborhood give or on TV.  Uh Oh! I just screwed up!

I walked in the other room and crawled under the table.  Jordan was sitting there holding her blanky and sucking her thumb.  I said, “Jordan, do you know what that means?”  My fingers displayed the protruding third digit.  She shook her head revealing her ignorance. 

By now I was feeling quite small anyway, but when she signaled her not-knowingness, I became minute.  I said, “Jordan, I am so sorry.  I over-reacted.  Someday I’ll explain what it means.  But it’s not nice.  I love you and I am so sorry.”

With that, the thumb came out of her mouth, a wall of tears came down her cheeks, and we embraced there under the table. 

Tears were running down my face also as we connected.  The warmth of that moment stood in stark contrast to the frigid temperature of the previous exchange.

When I thought about it later, I wondered about my behavior and how I love my children dearly, so why would I treat one so? 

Well, guess what?  It didn’t have anything to do with them.  My treatment of Jordan was a reflection of how I was feeling about me.

Remember, I wanted to be seen as a great father and husband for taking care of the youngsters Saturday morning.  Why did I need to be the hero?  Could it be I was feeling guilty about my recent absence? And, furthermore, didn’t that have something to do with my treatment of Jordan.  Feeling small, I acted Big.  If I had been feeling great about me, I would not have added the caboose.  I would have just said, “. . . you can play anytime you want, after you choose to pick up what you dumped on the floor.”

Then, if she would have begun to play prior to picking up Brynn’s stuff, all I would have had to do was clear my throat and she would have probably altered her behavior, secondary to the “observer effect.”  Her behavior would have changed just by her noticing my observation of her behavior.

Alas, I was not feeling good about me.  Worse, I was not observing myself!  But that happens.  The ‘scared one’ / ‘Big One’ has no self-observation skills.  So, he acts out on the world stage, what is unresolved in the psyche.  He is not awake.  He is asleep at the wheel.  Running on automatic pilot he will swerve off course in his relationships and can end up causing harm even to someone he loves.