Saturday, February 1, 2014

Meet Life’s Challenges with Acceptance, Awareness, and Compassion


Helping People Find Therapists & Advocating for Ethical Therapy

ocean storm
    “But this revolutionary act of treating ourselves tenderly can begin to undo the aversive messages of a lifetime.” —Tara Brach

    Pause for a moment to reflect on a situation that is challenging and causing you difficulty and pain. Can you bring awareness to your thoughts around this issue? How are these thoughts impacting your emotions? How is your body reacting to these thoughts and feelings?

    Sometimes, when we face painful or difficult situations, our self-talk and the stories we tell ourselves can be toxic and full of judgment. This intensifies our pain and leads us to feel overwhelmed and out of touch with life. In losing our connection to the present moment, we may get swept up in an emotional storm that affects our ability to think and see things clearly. Lost in this storm, we lose our ability to help ourselves and instead react in ways that create more suffering and pain.

    For example, suppose I’m facing financial stress and problems in an intimate relationship. As I begin focusing on these issues, I might start ruminating on how awful the situation is and chastising myself for not being good enough. Perhaps I’d criticize myself for picking the wrong partner or being financially irresponsible. As I go through the day I might feel tired, gloomy, and irritable. Throughout this whole process, I’m unaware of how my reaction to the situation is negatively affecting me. My inner world is reeling with negative thoughts, stories, and judgments, and this in turn affects my physical, emotional, and mental well-being. In order to shift out of this emotional storm, I need to recognize what I am doing that is creating suffering.

    “When the mind is steady we can see a little truth. When the mind is disturbed we can’t see anything. Growth allows a portion of the mind to remain an objective witness even in the face of disturbance. This witness is always there, if one can keep a wakeful attitude.” —Swami Kripalu

    Awareness is the first step toward helping ourselves shift from a reactive, stressful response to a healing and healthy one. In order to practice awareness, we must be willing to let go of judgment and be open to our inner experience. So rather than tightening up, shutting down, or lashing out, we begin to connect with what is happening in the present, and we meet reactivity with awareness, acceptance, and compassion.

    How Do We Initiate This Shift?

    Triggers are things that elicit painful thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Sometimes these triggers are tied to past painful or traumatic experiences; other times they’re connected to expectations or assumptions. The important part is to notice the pain that arises when you’re triggered and your reaction to that pain.

    Some Questions to Help You Become Aware of Your Reactions

    • Do you go into catastrophizing, ruminating, worry, or anger?
    • Is your self-talk negative, full of blame and anger?
    • Do you feel tension in your body (i.e. heart racing, muscles tense, stomach upset)?
    • Is there an urge to lash out, criticize, or avoid the situation? (This is the body’s fight-or-flight response being activated.)
    It’s important to remember that as humans our instinct is to resist pain, and it is this same resistance that can create prolonged suffering. So instead of blaming yourself for reacting, see if you can soften the judgment and accept that in this moment you’re triggered and in pain. Bring acceptance to the situation you’re facing even if you hate it!

    Acceptance Is Not Resignation

    Acceptance doesn’t mean you like what’s happening, or that you give up and accept that things are never going to change. It means you stop resisting or avoiding what you don’t like. This shift helps us respond to the difficult/painful situations in ways that heal, bring clarity of mind, and help us make decisions based on what is in our own best interest. When we soften the judgment that fuels the resistance, we begin to open our hearts toward ourselves and we hold our experience in a compassionate embrace.

    Self-Compassion to Soothe the Pain

    In practicing self-compassion, we ask, “How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” —Kristen Neff

    Self-compassion is a loving and kind response to our own pain. In moving from acceptance to self-compassion, we honor and accept that reacting to pain is a part of being human. We realize that things don’t always go according to plan and acknowledge that all of us, at one time another, will encounter frustrations and losses. Making mistakes is part of learning and growing. The more we open our hearts and accept this, the more we’re able to feel compassion toward ourselves and others. This movement helps us reconnect to the good inside us and is a loving and healing response to pain.

    Until next time, may you be free from suffering, and may your heart be filled with compassion.