Kristin Neff, Psychology Professor at the University of Texas and leading researcher on the benefits of self-care, reports that three regular self-care practices give us the resources and resilience to thrive:
1. Acknowledging how difficult our current struggles are
2. Appreciating that everyone struggles eventually, and we are not alone
3. Practicing mindfulness
As a species, we humans have evolved along two paths: surviving and thriving. In any given moment, when a threat is present, surviving overwhelms thriving. In contemporary life, busyness, distractions, and demands are perceived as threats. This activates our nervous systems, which kick in when we’re not in our natural state of being calm, content, caring, and creative. So as modern humans, we live mostly in reactive mode, feeling the symptoms of stress in our bodies: escalated heart rates, muscle tension, and perhaps even pain in our chests, abdomens, or backs.
Whether we spend time in surviving mode or thriving mode is actually much more of a choice than most of us realize. Between the stimulus of a threat and how we respond, there is a space. In that space, we can choose what happens next; reactivity is not the only option.
For decades, when I made a mistake, whether small or large, my reaction was to say to myself, “You dummy! How could you be so stupid?” This was my conditioned and unskillful attempt at avoiding repeated mistakes. I had heard language like this growing up. I had learned self-discipline in high school sports. Being tough on myself, to the point of being harshly self-critical, was my usual reaction.
Today, I know that such language is not helpful at all. Harsh self-criticism actually causes us to be more likely to repeat our mistakes.
When there is a powerful threat to our physical well-being, it is desirable and essential that we react quickly and instinctively to avoid the threat or get the situation under control. This capacity evolved when our survival was vulnerable to attack by animals and other humans. Today, the sense of being threatened is mostly to our psychological selves, to our egos. Someone makes a critical comment about our work or a family member reminds us of a childhood mistake, and our nervous systems go into survival mode. This can spur us to say or do something out of pure reactivity that, upon reflection, we wish we could take back.
Having the space for thoughtful, non-harmful, and creative responses calls for three skills: concentration, awareness, and connecting with kindness. These skills are at the heart of a mindfulness practice.
Concentration helps us stay in the moment of the experience, just as it is, without judgment. Awareness helps us move away from being under the control of the emotional reaction that has been triggered. Connecting with kindness most directly supports thriving by helping us live with love and gratitude. Connecting with kindness begins with self-care.
The phrase self-care can evoke a range of responses. It may be perceived as soft, self-indulgent, not serious, not committed, indifferent, or ignorant of what’s really important. But researchers have learned in recent years that self-care (and self-compassion) help us to become more resilient, better able to cope with the difficulties of life, more likely to engage in healthier behaviors, more responsible, and more willing to apologize.
Historically, the fears of self-care being perceived as soft and self indulgent were the predominant view. Qualities like self-sacrifice were valued along with a certain toughness and repression of our true emotions. Self-care versus the old practice of being tough with ourselves, of being harshly self-critical, wins out in study after study in giving us what we need to cope well in contemporary life. Upon learning this, after some period of practice, I no longer make that old self-deprecating statement about being a “dummy.”
My practice began with being aware, without judgment, of when I was being self-critical. I learned to concentrate my attention on the accompanying and unpleasant physical sensations, allowing them to pass and then saying to myself, “this is hard; I am struggling.” I would also recall how my father struggled in these moments, and the fact that I’m not alone in my struggle with self-criticism. Over time, my inner voice began to soften. I can go months now, still making just as many mistakes, without criticizing myself even once.
Meditating daily, pausing to breathe, and paying attention to what I’m doing helped me to cultivate concentration and awareness, and connect with kindness. Attending meditation retreats takes me out of my “daily performance mode” and offers a quiet place for practice with wise guidance. We all tend to be more reactive than, upon reflection, we would prefer, so we end up criticizing ourselves. The more demanding and busier our lives, the more likely we are to be in reactive mode. Just in the last couple of days after tipping over a plant I merely went about cleaning it up without self-recrimination. These practices make a difference!
I’ve come to understand that living in surviving mode or thriving mode is a choice that is mine to make. And it’s your choice, too.