Many people who extend caring, kindness and compassion toward others, often have difficulty extending compassion to themselves.  Sound familiar?  The good news is we can learn to be kinder to ourselves.  It is possible to help train our brain to respond to our difficulties or suffering so we feel happier rather than more miserable. Health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, spoke about the brain studies showing the importance of self-compassion and how it helps us succeed at our goals and increase our happiness at the Stanford Happiness Conference. Different regions of the brain are activated by the type of response we have toward our daily challenges.  If we take a self-critical or harsh approach when something bad happens, saying, ‘it’s all my fault” or “what’s wrong with me” and “I should have been better,” the reactive mode of our brain is triggered.  This mode is one of defense, threat and self-judgement.  If we take a self-nurturing approach when we suffer a rejection, saying, “I can see how disappointed you feel “or “I know the hard work and preparation I did,” the responsive mode of the brain lights up.  This mode is one of acceptance and encouragement.

So how do we train ourselves to activate the responsive mode of the brain?  Here is a simple exercise from Paul Gilbert, a therapist, who also does brain research.  At the end of the day, name the worst thing that happened to you that day.  Then, for a week, write yourself a letter, for 5-15 minutes, about the worst thing that happened that day, using the self-nurturing /compassionate approach.  So you will write one letter each day.  So maybe on the first day you are bummed because you were the only one in your yoga class that couldn’t do a headstand.  You would write to yourself saying, “it’s amazing I even show up for yoga” or “my balance keeps improving, but headstands are not easy for me,” and, “I have only done yoga for 6 months and I can feel how I am getting stronger.”  Another day, maybe you had a misunderstanding with your best friend.  You may write, “ best friends can still disagree” or “it is good I could say what I felt and needed” and “even if it is uncomfortable right now, usually we calm down and work things out.”  Research has shown, after only one week, this may both influence how you think about suffering and rewire your brain toward greater self-compassion.  It also helps reduce depression and increases happiness.

By now you may be feeling a common discomfort or mistrust about self-compassion.  After all, our culture says being tough on yourself is the right way to live.  Many people feel they must use anxiety, guilt and shame to stay motivated.  People fear if they are self-compassionate, they will never get their work done, their high standards would drop or, worse yet, they fear they will fall apart.  The findings suggest otherwise.  Once again I refer you to Dr. Kristin Neff, a proffesor at UT, Austin, who specializes in self-compassion research.  Individuals who use self-compassion rather than guilt, shame or fear to guide their lives often experience less anxiety, anger, compare less to others, and are happier and healthier.  They procrastinate less, are able to re-engage with their goals after failure, are able to receive and act on constructive feedback, can look at what didn’t work and take responsibility in situations.  All this data is very contrary to the fears and false beliefs our culture  perpetuates.

So consider the exercise.  None of our learned  habits evaporate over night.  It’s important to be patient and bring our awareness to how we treat ourselves when life gets hard.  Maybe this week- long intervention will come in handily in helping you find more freedom and happiness.