Welcome to Part 2 of our Self-Compassion series. As we mentioned in our introduction, self-compassion is comprised of three parts: Mindfulness, Common Humanity, and Self-Kindness. Today, we’ll learn about Mindfulness.
Google’s dictionary defines mindfulness as:
the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something: "their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition"
a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
In a short video about mindfulness, Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion, defines mindfulness as “Seeing things just as they are — no more, no less; having a balanced perspective on whatever’s occurring.” She says that “you can’t heal what you can’t feel,” but warns against out-sizing emotions and creating drama around them. That’s where the balance comes in: “no more, no less.” If we have no idea what we’re feeling, it’s impossible to comfort ourselves. But if we give our feelings too much weight or too much significance, we put ourselves through more pain than is necessary.
Say you’re at work and you have a big assignment due. Without giving it a second thought, you rush around your day getting things done and then when the workday is over, you dive into happy hour head first. Had you acknowledged your busyness and its connection to stress and anxiety, maybe you could have said no to a few cocktails. Same busy workday, but instead you look at the 101 unread emails in your inbox, the to-do list that labels everything as due ASAP and you freak out. You’re so stressed that you head to the stairwell to hyperventilate. Then you cry at your desk as you try to knock item after item off your to-do list.
Do either of these scenarios sound familiar? Neither of these are healthy ways to cope with a busy day. Though the first way seems more productive in the moment, eventually, you’ll burn out. And living with a constant, low-level of stress fills your body with the stress hormone cortisol and does nothing good for your health.
To be mindful, you need to be able to *notice and name what you feel. Notice: My stomach hurts and my heart is pounding and I just want to scream. Name: I am anxious. Notice: I want to cry and I have a headache. Name: I’m tired. Notice: Every time someone talks to me I want to punch them in the face and my stomach is gnawing and I’m shaky. Name: I am hangry.
Notice that it’s impossible to name your feelings if you don’t know what your feelings are or what they might mean. (Notice, also, that in noticing and naming you’re not out-sizing your feelings: “I’m starving to death!” or “I’m so stressed I’m going to explode!”)
Over the next couple of weeks (or every day, forever), try to develop a 5-minute body-scan practice with the simple intention of noticing — not changing — your feelings. Start at your toes and go over every body part until you’ve reached your head. Notice your muscles (where you’re tight, where you’re loose), your skin (where you’re hot or cold or itchy), your organs (your rumbling stomach, your pounding heart), your breath (inhaling cold in and then exhaling hot out of your nostrils, expanding your chest or belly). Notice everything from the soles of your feet to your scalp. Take your time; 5 minutes is a recommended length, but you can take longer if needed.
At the end of your scan, take what you’ve noticed and turn it into something you can name. Start with the following 3 things:
How do you feel physically?
How do you feel mentally?
How do you feel emotionally?
There are no right or wrong answers. There is no right or wrong time to do your scan. (OK, if your house is on fire, get out. This is the wrong time to do your scan.) I like to scan before bed because it helps me relax and fall asleep, but you can do it first thing in the morning, after work, before work, on a break, when you’re stressed, when you’re happy, or whenever works for you.
It’s normal to find this challenging at first. Who wants to sit quietly and focus on their toes when they can answer trivia on their phone? Don’t worry; it gets easier with practice. If you find 5 minutes too difficult at first, try to shorten the time to 3 minutes or try a different time of day/mental state. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to your body. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
*Note: I got the notice and name strategy from Precision Nutrition. See Practice #3 under the heading “Sample Practices” for their description of the mind-body scan and noticing and naming your feelings.
Thanks again to Eduardo Espada for his amazing illustrations!
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