Relax. Reflect. Resolve.

Discover the healing nature of self compassion

An amazing woman left my office a few minutes ago. As is often the case my heart is still reverberating with the loving, healing nature of our conversation. It is clear to me that what this woman loves most in the world is nature, animals, and her people. When an animal is hurt, or a person is in trouble she springs into action to tend to the one in need. Her compassion for others is remarkable, she is a gifted healer of friends and strangers alike. What we discovered today is that there is one person she denies this love and compassion, herself. The way she talks to herself is terribly harsh, shaming, critical, and at times downright abusive. 

Today when she was sharing how a certain family situation has her feeling triggered, emotionally and physiologically she explained that she can feel it in her chest. She said: “it’s like a scared little bird is inside my chest” and she made a motion with her hands of a bird fluttering rapidly – her hands were right over her heart. Her facial expression conveyed anxiety and fear. I could see she was the little bird.

I shared that when she feels this intense emotion she is experiencing shame and trauma. Her stress response otherwise known as her “fight, flight freeze response” is activated. I asked her if she knew what that meant and she said yes. We talked about how when her stress response activates her parasympathetic nervous system fires and her body goes into high alert – speeding up her heart rate, releasing the stress hormone cortisol, her body preparing for an attack. I also pointed out that in these moments the prefrontal cortex of her brain shuts off, leaving her without her “logic center”. In these moments she is operating on pure reptilian instinct.

Then I asked her if she had ever heard of the “tend and befriend response”. She said she had no idea what that was. I shared with her that “tend and befriend” is a way people refer to what is called the Mammalian caregiving response. It turns out when we tend to someone, or demonstrate compassion to someone, it counteracts and calms down our own stress response. Soothing energy expressed outwardly also soothes us internally. This loving energy calms us down and reactivates the sympathetic nervous system. As we calm down physiologically, moving out of danger mode, our logic center comes back online. Many of us feel this physiological shift when we rock a baby, or comfort a dog who has been startled by thunder. This woman had a personal experience of calming a dog in this way, so she immediately had a sense of what I meant by tend and befriend.

I offered the possibility that when she notices the “scared little bird” feeling that it’s an indicator that she needs comfort and care, to be gently tended to. When she could see that a part of her, the scared little bird part, needed her to tend to it she said: “I could do that”. I then asked her: of all the people you know who is the best person you could choose to help the little bird part calm down. She said: “probably me”. She admitted she had an immediate negative response to the idea that she could and should comfort herself. Every part of her body rejected this idea. She realized that she has never let anyone comfort her in this way. When others do it, she deflects the loving care, as if accepting it means she is somehow weak and unworthy. And it never occurred to her to intentionally comfort herself. She became very curious about Kristen Neff’s work on mindful self-compassion. I shared with her some of what I was learning and how it was changing how I talk to myself when I make a mistake or am having a hard time.

At the end of the session, I opened the door and we walked out in the hall. We said a few more words and then she gently tapped her own heart and said in the sweetest, softest, most loving voice – “shhh, easy little bird, you’re alright, everything is going to be ok.” She smiled, said “thank you” and walked off down the hall.

We all have moments when our inner little ones are startled, hurt, disappointed, and overwhelmed. When your little one is struggling and having a hard moment, how do you talk to yourself? Do you speak as kindly to your little one as you do to your best friend, a trusted colleague, your own child?

What do you need most in this hard moment? What is the most loving thing you can do for yourself right now.

To learn more about mindful self-compassion visit Kristen Neff’s website.

Take a moment to reflect on how you talk to yourself, take the self-compassion assessment

Note:  Permission was given by the client to share this story.

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