Richard was stuck! After making initial gains in the first three months of weekly therapy it felt like to both of us that he hit a brick wall. In therapy, he was still engaged even making notes to himself of things he wanted to change and ideas he found useful. However, he had reverted to old patterns of isolation and trying to make his way through his problems with more thinking. As a thinking type, more thinking just led to more of what he had already done or tried. He needed a different approach. I, too, had been lulled into his thinking trance and at first was surprised by his regression. As we later found, he had indeed made progress, so much so that he got scared. His ego, his old unconscious patterns reasserted themselves and took dominance. He went unconscious, retracted, and became depressed.

Many of us in our personal work have come across the ideas of mindfulness and self-compassion. However, do we really know what both of these concepts mean for ourselves? We have heard the terms, and often each becomes another should in self-improvement that we add to our to do list. “I will work on being more mindful or have more self-compassion for myself.” Also, it becomes a thinking process, a chore, an injunction rather than something to reflect about and delve deeply into what each of these ideas means for me.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Christopher Germer, PhD,  who wrote The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, notes that self-compassion, loving kindness towards oneself is learned, not innate. We do not get there with a to do. We get there with a practice. Practice is just that, something we are lousy at when we begin. We get more self-loving as we focus on it many times throughout each day, each week and month. Also, being self-loving is not that we always excuse and give ourselves a pass when we behave poorly, act against our values or are overly me focused and not focused on our community. True self-love is knowing what our programmed tendencies are and bringing understanding and compassion as we do the hard work of staying awake to become more present & engaged with ourselves and with others.

Awareness

To accomplish this we must first accept the problems we have, fully and completely. This, of course, is easier said than done. Accepting the problems we have means being aware of the external obstacles—other people or the systems and institutions we live within and how those outside influences constrain and impinge on us. Alone, outside of community, we can do little to change the external world. Fully accepting the problems we do have means that we are aware of our patterns. We are aware of our tendencies that repeatedly impinge us in our interactions, emotional realness, and ability to work with others. So even before getting to self-compassion we have to have a practice of confronting and seeing our patterns. In my 40 years of counseling others, I have come to the conclusion that the ego does not like to be seen. It operates in the background, influencing but seldom being recognized. It is only in seeing how our ego dominates, the patterns that it brings, only then do we have the chance to become compassionate towards ourselves with those problems. Seeing our ego and feeling the effects of its patterns is painful.

I suggested Richard read The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. I also changed the focus of therapy to be on his body and emotions. He started to make progress again. One of the first things he brought to me was this quote from Germer’s book:

“A new approach is to change our relationship to pain and pleasure. We can step back and learn to be calm in the midst of pain, we can let pleasure naturally come and go. That’s serenity. We can even learn to embrace pain as well as pleasure, and every nuance in between, thereby living each moment to the fullest. That’s joy. Learning to spend some time with pain is essential to achieving personal happiness, but in order to be happy we must embrace unhappiness.”

This passage moved Richard along with the formula:

Pain X Resistance = Suffering

He was resisting changing his ideas about himself. He had learned to cope with a disappointing childhood, by doing what many children do, assume it was their fault. He resolved to always look on the sunny side of life. He overfocused on his own sense of responsibility and shame that he was the problem and berated himself for being so negative. With therapy he learned to question his personal narrative that he was the problem. He began to have a more realistic view of the disappointing choices his parents had made. All this new awareness scared him. He started to think that maybe he wasn’t so bad and always at fault. He started challenging his perfectionistic nature where he could never live up to his inner expectations. In short, he started to see his previously unconscious patterns and accept that he had invented this reality to deal with pain.

Stages of Acceptance

Richard was helped by Germer’s Stages of Acceptance:

  1. Aversion, resistance, avoidance, rumination
  2. Curiosity, turning toward discomfort with interest
  3. Tolerance, safely enduring
  4. Allowing, letting feelings come and go
  5. Friendship, embracing, seeing hidden value

By incorporating all of the above into a daily practice and adding the mindfulness exercises of stopping, observing, and returning along with a focus on his breath, Richard became gradually more accepting and self-loving. Whenever his perfectionistic tendencies came up, he could see their true nature as a type of protection. He’s learned to say to that perfectionistic part of him: “I know you tried your best to keep me safe and protect me from pain.” He learned whenever he found himself blaming himself or taking on more responsibility than the situation warranted to say to himself: “Of course, you were so young and felt so helpless. Now you are not so little and can act and believe differently.”

Move beyond the cycle

Everyone benefits from a system of inquiry, curiosity about yourself and your pattern of responses. Indeed without such a practice we are doomed to repeat the past and recycle what we already know. Our ego process goes unconscious once again. Therapy as well as mindful walking, journaling and breath practices done with curiosity can help keep you awake to the reality that you are so much more than your thoughts, opinions and beliefs.

 

Image: Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20

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