Friday, October 17, 2014

Self-Awareness, Self-Acceptance, and Self-Compassion

Much of what people can learn from life falls on deaf ears because of daily pressures and busy lifestyles. In trying to achieve so much in the material world, many have lost touch with what is important--the ability to feel contentment in life. We are bombarded with messages about who we should be, what we should want, and how we should be getting it. Our minds become filled to capacity and we feel overloaded. Life becomes an unending race toward achievement, leaving us little or no time to relax and enjoy. This is the way to burn out: too much doing and not enough being.

You can change!
The first step is learning to calm your mind.
- Ron Rathbun, Author of The Silent Miracle - Awakening Your True Spiritual Nature By Stilling Your Mind

Back in mid-July of 2012, I began working as a volunteer at Barnabas Health/Kimball Medical Center located in the same town in which I currently live. My volunteer schedule entailed working on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM. On Mondays, I provided non-clinical support to the PCU nursing team on the 3rd floor of the building. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I visited with patients admitted the previous day and later in the morning I made follow-up calls to patients who recently visited the emergency room or received outpatient services to determine whether or not the hospital had met with their expectations when providing medical services to them.
It was important to me to perform all of my assigned tasks to the very best of my ability while demonstrating empathy and loving-kindness. In order to do so, I thought that I needed to find or get in touch with these emotions within myself. So, in an effort to accomplish this objective, I began looking back at past life experiences wherein I was the fortunate recipient of compassion, generosity, and understanding from others and I decided to try to vividly recall and come as near as possible to reliving what those personal encounters felt like with the strong hope of reproducing similar experiences upon becoming immediately engaged with the hospital's patients. These actions were not met with immediate success. In fact, it took many weeks before I began to loose myself to the point of becoming more of an extension of the other person--no longer a separate entity but rather as one be-ing in the same occupied space. My hands, my heart, my legs, and their needs all became joined together making it possible for me to provide greater assurance, comfort, and a sense of hopefulness which uniquely affirmed that improved health and wellness was truly in progress.

Such a relational experience is difficult to put into words. Allow me to suggest to you that this encounter closely resembles that of both child and mother. The young child, hardly aware of more than its discomfort, calls out in every way possible for attention to its needs and expectantly aware of its mother's presence, loving touch, and responsiveness to doing that which it cannot do for itself; to provide comfort, security and safety. Through this magnificent interaction comes appreciation, forgiveness--if at first we don't succeed in some capacity, an ongoing interdependency, and finally and most especially a absolute willingness to trust in another.

As I continued in learning the way towards having a more accepting and compassionate relationship with patients who may be angry, anxious, depressed, grieving, ill or experiencing tremendous pain and suffering, I began to consider the possibility that my own self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion had long been in need of further development. However, I had to ask myself, is this really something that we can actually teach ourselves? If the answer is yes, then how might anyone effectively go about accomplishing this? I would like to find the answer.

Fortunately, educational psychologists Kristen D. Neff, Kristen L. Kirkpatrick and Stephanie S Rude (2007) at the University of Texas at Austin together have been actively investigating a very important and rapidly emerging construct for self-compassion as an adaptive form of self-to-self relating and by all accounts, the initial study findings are particularly encouraging. 
Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one's experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them. [1] 
Self-compassion involves being caring and compassionate towards oneself in the face of hardship or perceived inadequacy (Bennett-Goleman, 2001; Brach, 2003; Hanh, 1997; Kornfield, 1993; Salzberg, 1997). [2] 

At times, in the past, I felt well justified in being self-critical or without regret for being seated in despair owing to what has at times been a troubled marriage, the loss of my eleven year old son Jonathan, being downsized from Deutsche Bank after fifteen years, and in not having accomplished a number of personal and professional objectives after several years of attempting to do so. But my life is not over yet, and therein lies an opportunity to write another chapter and to seek to attend to a good finish despite the occasional unforeseen event which manages to always play a defining part in each one of our evolving life-stories. 
Neff (2003a, 2003b) has defined self-compassion as being composed of three main components: self-kindness versus self-judgement, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification. If individuals are self-compassionate when confronting suffering, inadequacy or failure, it means that they offer themselves warmth and non-judgmental understanding rather than belittling their pain or berating themselves with self-criticism. This process also involves recognizing that being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties is part of the shared human experience--something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to "me" alone. Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to one's negative experiences so that painful feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. One cannot be compassionate towards feelings that are repressed and unacknowledged, but self-compassion quickly turns into melodrama when one is so carried away by negative emotions that all perspective is lost. [3]

[1] K.D. Neff et al. Journal of Research in Personality 41 (2007) 139-154.
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.