I teach a lot these days about the central role of mindful self-compassion in strengthening resilience. I got to experience the power of those practices myself last week, when I came home to a note from the local police saying that a neighbor had called in with a complaint about my speeding through our residential neighborhood; the note further warned me that speed limits would be strictly enforced.
I could mindfully notice my reactivity flare right through the roof: anger over fear over shame. How dare they! Am I being targeted because I drive a red car? I could barely acknowledge that, even though I try to carefully watch out for people and pets, I do often fly out of the house and tear down the road at more than 25mph. I knew mindful self-compassion was needed, would be helpful, but it still took a full day of practice – “Ouch! This isn’t fair!” – hand on the heart, soften-soothe-allow this storm of feelings skewing my better judgment. I repeated over and over the self-compassion phrases that work for me: “May I come out of fear into calm. May I be safe from inner and outer harm. May I send myself all the compassion I need.” After a few hours of that, I could come back into some basic equilibrium. Then I could begin to think things through from a different perspective. Even though I do know and care about speed limits and safety, I do occasionally drive too fast through our quiet residential streets unless a parked garbage truck forces me to slow down. I vaguely recollected a woman pushing two kids in a stroller waving me down to slow down. I had forgotten about that.
By the next morning, I could shift my view to think about other people’s point of view. Our street has no sidewalks, so people walking their dogs, people pushing babies in strollers, kids riding their skateboards to school, all have to walk out in the street. Sometimes with cars parked on both sides of the street, there would be only one lane open for traffic. I could begin to see how my driving, even if I was obeying the speed limit, could cause some anxiety, frustration, anger among my neighbors. I decided compassion toward my neighbors would be a good idea and for the next two days drove the three blocks with no sidewalks at 15 mph. Not out of fear or shame but out of respect and care.
At 6am on the third morning, a police car was parked in front of my home. I came out to meet the officer coming up my driveway, intending to leave me another note. I acknowledged the concerns of my neighbors, mentioned the lack of sidewalks, the street crowded with cars, pets, kids, strollers, etc. I told her I had been driving 15 mph ever since I got her note. She acknowledged that I seemed like a very reasonable person with a clean driving record (which is true). She told me how often citizens call in to complain about speeders along a particular stretch of road. The police go out to clock drivers for a few hours and discover that what seems like 50 mph to a pedestrian is really more like 30 mph. The officer appreciated my slowing down and said not to worry about being harassed. As she walked back down the driveway, she waved, “Bye, sweetie!”
I was so glad I had done my work, had remembered to do my practices, had found a way to come out of the contraction of anger-fear-shame, had used practices that opened my heart again to my neighbors and their concern for their loved ones. I still drive 15 mph through my neighborhood, out of my respect for my neighbors, and out of respect for the benefits of practice.
[This practice from Mindful Self-Compassion training helps you manage difficult emotions like anger, sadness, fear, despair, shame. Use this exercise as a guided visualization when things are calm, to prime your brain to do this practice in the challenging moments.]
- Find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Close your eyes, and take three relaxing breaths. (Being comfortable physically helps you manage difficult emotions as they arise in your body.)
- Place your hand on your heart for a few moments to remind yourself that you are present, here in the room, and that you, too, are worthy of kindness.
- Let yourself recall a mild to moderately difficult situation that you are in right now, perhaps a health problem, stress in a relationship, or a loved one in pain. Do not choose a very difficult problem at first, nor a trivial problem – choose a problem that can generate a little stress in your body when you think of it.
- Clearly visualize the situation. Who was there? What was said? What happened?
- As you recollect or imagine this situation, name the different emotions that arise in you: anger; sadness, grief, confusion, fear, longing, despair, shame.
- Identify the strongest emotion – a difficult emotion – associated with that situation.
- Repeat the name of the emotion to yourself in a gentle, understanding voice, as if your were validating for a friend what he or she is feeling: “That’s longing.” “That’s grief.” Use the same warmhearted tone of voice that you might use if you were validating how a friend feels.
- Expand your awareness to your body as a whole. As you recall the difficult situation again, scan your body for where you feel it most easily. In your mind’s eye, sweep your body from head to toe, stopping where you can sense a little tension or discomfort.
- Choose a single location in your body where the feeling expresses itself most strongly, perhaps as a point of muscle tension or an achy feeling, like a heartache. Incline your mind gently toward that spot.
- Now, soften into that location in your body. Let the muscles be soft without a requirement that they become soft, like simply applying heat to sore muscles. Softening…softening…softening… You are not trying to make the sensation go away – you are just holding it in a tender embrace.
- If you wish, let yourself just soften around the edges. No need to go all the way in. If you experience to much discomfort with an emotion, just stay with your breath until you feel calmer.
- Now, start to soothe yourself because you struggle in this way. Perhaps put your hand over your heart again and feel your body breathe. Perhaps bring kind or encouraging words to mind, such as, “Oh, it’s so hard to feel this. May I be kind to myself. May I hold myself in loving awareness.”
- If you wish, direct kindness to an uncomfortable part of your body by placing your hand over that place. Maybe even think of your body as if it were the body of a beloved child, and gently say soothing…soothing…soothing.
- Finally, allow the discomfort to be there. Let go of the wish for the discomfort to disappear. Allow the discomfort to come and go as it pleases, like a guest in your own home. Allowing…allowing…allowing.
- Softening…soothing…allowing. Softening…soothing…allowing. Repeat these words like a mantra, reminding yourself to incline with tenderness toward your suffering.