A Mindful Self-Compassion Journey

On April 21, I was fortunate to hear Christopher Germer speak on “Looking at Shame Through the Eyes of Self-Compassion” as part of The Awake Network’s Compassion in Therapy Summit.

This seems to have been one of those pivotal moments for me. A few days later, I committed to reading about and practicing Mindful Self-Compassion at least 30 minutes per day.

Here are some of my notes from the talk — giving you a sense, I hope, of why I was so struck by it.

  • Shame is the most difficult human emotion… but ultimately shame is an illusion.
  • Shame loses its grip when we turn toward it with kindness and curiosity, and also when we turn toward ourselves with curiosity and kindness when in the grip of shame.
  • Kristen Neff operationally defines self-compassion as having 3 overlapping components:
    1. Self-kindness
    2. Common humanity
    3. Mindfulness
  • The opposites of those components are:
    1. Self-criticism
    2. Isolation
    3. Absorption/rumination (protecting self, licking our wounds)
    “And these are key attributes of shame.”
  • So practicing self-compassion is learning to overcome shame.
  • Shame is a lot more common than we think. Even little stuff like saying “I’m lazy” is a self-attack.
  • Shame also prevents us from living up to our potential.
  • Shame kind of wipes out the observer. Usually shame makes us want to disappear, go small, go silent, go away.
  • Someone has to be present to deal with shame, but that’s the last thing we want to do.
  • Shame itself is not a problem. Avoiding shame is the problem. Avoiding shame feels better in the moment, but it makes shame last longer.
  • We are hard-wired for shame. Shame served us well in hunter-gatherer days when it was necessary to be in a group to survive.
  • Research shows that wrong-doing itself is NOT the main cause of shame. Rather, being devalued and judged by others, or anticipating such, is more likely the trigger for shame.
  • Shame is often a short-term state. But shame can also become an emotional habit. It can become a trait that can negatively impact all aspects of our lives – shame-proneness – like carrying around a heavy suitcase everywhere.
  • When shame is a trait, it’s also the result of how we’ve been treated by others. Trait shame is learned. Mostly it’s learned from childhood or our culture.
  • Shame is especially associated with trauma. Shame becomes central in our lives when we relive it in words, in images, in thoughts, in emotions, etc. Shame can lead to trauma and trauma can lead to shame, when people blame themselves for their traumatic experiences.
  • Self-compassion is the opposite of shame — both theoretically and empirically.
  • Shame and self-compassion are inversely related in therapeutic interventions – very reliably. As self-compassion goes up, shame goes down.
  • The 3 parts to treatment in self-compassion based therapy:
    1. Mindfulness – the ability to recognize shame, especially as it’s occurring in the present moment. Recognize it with a kind of friendly or tender awareness.
    2. Respond to shame with kindness and compassion.
    3. Understand and work with backdraft. Backdraft is the distress that arises when we give ourselves compassion.
  • New eyes on shame – considering three paradoxes.
    1. Shame feels blame-worthy, but it’s actually an innocent emotion that calls for kindness. [Kindness]
    2. Shame feels isolating, but it’s a universal emotion. [Common humanity]
    3. Shame feels permanent and global, but, like all emotions, it’s transitory and a burden carried by a part of ourselves – it’s not a global truth. [Mindfulness]
  • The first part of each paradox is the illusion [blame-worthiness, separateness, permanence] and the second part is an insight: shame is innocent, universal, and impermanent. Shame starts to lose its grip when we understand these insights.
  • Re. the first paradox – an innocent emotion that calls for kindness. Shame is innocent because of the motivation and energy behind shame, which is the universal wish to be loved. This is important because it’s so much easier to feel compassion when we can perceive innocence. And we were all born with the wish to be loved. Later in life it can take on other forms and words — the need to belong, to be appreciated, to be respected, to be included, or to feel connected and safe.
  • Two “secrets”:
    1. When we suffer from shame we practice self-compassion not to feel better, but because we feel bad.
    2. When we suffer shame we practice self-compassion not to improve ourselves, but rather to embrace our imperfections.

My Primary Resources for Mindful Self-Compassion