I am thrilled to have another contribution as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined, from Dr. Jeff M. Christian about how we can all grow a healthier discourse in our online communities. His thoughts offer some creative ways to cultivate a kinder experience that makes space for a healthier, healing discourse in our society. Thank you, Jeff, for your insights:
The New Dinner Table
Only about an hour before company arrives. The smells of onions and garlic are starting to permeate the rest of the house beyond the kitchen, smells that will hit the guests the minute they cross the threshold of the front door. By that time, the food will have magically transformed from separate ingredients into whole courses.
The table is set. You went through the stacks in the cabinet to make sure that you did not bring out one of the chipped plates. The glasses, forks, knives, spoons. The bread in the oven will not finish baking until five minutes after the guests arrive. That is on purpose. Everything is in its right place.
The guests arrive. You shake hands, perhaps a cordial hug shared among those who do not know one another quite well enough to embrace. These are not the kinds of guests like family where you let down your guard. These guests have never seen you on a bad day. They do not know about some of the pain you carry down deep. For now, handshakes and side hugs will do.
A Season of Handshakes and Side Hugs
I am wondering these days if a season of handshakes and side hugs might be in order, in some sort of general sense. The tone of voice with one another online, for instance, is more like that of a dysfunctional family forced to eat Thanksgiving dinner together when no one actually wants to be there. Comments sections of online news stories are filled with drunk uncles who yell more and more as the night wears on. Raised voices fly above the table cloth only a few inches above the appropriately placed fall colors and side dishes. Grandma makes a passing comment about the price of her prescription medication and three-sheets-to-the-wind-uncle verbally pounces on her for saying something that may have the potential to undermine all of western democracy.
I know things are strange. In no way do I suggest that we bury our heads in the sand. On the contrary, past civilizations thrived in times of healthy debate. When people think critically together, lights come on where people wind up saying things like, “Well, I never thought of it that way.” Civil discourse is not only necessary; it is good. It is healthy. It is, well, civil.
The only way to resurrect the corpse of civil discourse is to hit the pause button on the entire project and practice some recently forgotten virtues. We need to welcome one another like acquaintances spending time together for the first time, like people who will take the time to actually get to know one another. We need to set our tables assuming the best in others, rather than holding those who might potentially disagree with me in suspicious contempt.
Most of all, we need to listen to one another.
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:
- Alleviate Negative Emotions
- Reduce Food Cravings
- Reduce or Eliminate Pain
- And Implement Positive Goals
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.
Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.
The light stream is a relaxation meditation used to calm distressing sensations in the body. It is also a body scan that allows you to be compassionate and mindful of what you are experiencing and feeling in this present moment. This is an adaptation of Francine Shapiro’s original Light Stream.
At some point you have probably made a New Year’s resolution and then broken it. But instead of a resolution, what would it be like this year to create a meaningful habit?
Last year I wrote a series about self-control and how to achieve your goals. While researching the topic I was surprised to find that using willpower and self-determination alone sets us up for failure. I am not sure why this is such a surprise. How many times have I broken my resolutions when life got too busy? Sliding back into old habits can be a familiar pattern for many of us:
- Let’s say you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed trying to avoid the donuts all day that you later give in to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant that night. What a frustrating experience.
- Or suppose you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.
This is a common experience because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.
“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
How Can I Achieve My Goals?
If willpower does not work, what can I do?
According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control and increase staying power (Desteno, 2014).
- Authentic pride
“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
Breaking It Down
For the month of January, I will focus each week on a virtue that boosts staying power. This week will focus on compassion, and how a compassion practice can have a positive impact our ability to reach our goals.
How Can We Build Compassion?
Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing our surroundings, and then feeling moved to care. When we allow ourselves to notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.
Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care in the same way we would another human being.
One way we can build compassion is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.
Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
What Gets In The Way?
In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.
“A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)
The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry. When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be compassionate with ourselves, as well as others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow the pace of life.
When we begin each year, we are full of hope and excitement about the possibility of making positive changes. But over time, the fast pace of life gets in the way and pulls us off track. How we respond to ourselves when we make mistakes is essential to reaching our goals. If I beat up myself with self-criticism, I lose heart and momentum. “I failed again just like last year; I will never get this right.” This approach increases frustration and makes it difficult to keep going. Kim Fredrickson suggests another approach: Acknowledge my mistake and realize that even when I mess up, I deserve to be treated with dignity as a fellow human being.
“Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address this mistake directly)… Self-compassion is absolutely essential for healthy, balanced living. It provides huge benefits including emotional resiliency, stress reduction, contentment, and healthier relationships. Without it we are vulnerable to the opinions of others and find it difficult to deal with and let go of our mistakes.” Kim Fredrickson
When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.
“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff
A compassionate approach allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness and get a fresh start every day. Our mistakes do not define us. We are able to decrease the heavy burden of our missteps and move forward compassionately with our hopes and dreams.
Ready to Boost Your Compassion?
Here are some tools to get started:
- A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
- A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
- Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.
Resources on Building Compassion
Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/feeling-control-america-can-finally-learn-deal-impulses-self-regulation-89456/)
Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion?language=en)
Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC
A loving kindness prayer uses words and images to evoke feelings of loving kindness toward oneself and others. According to the article, “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving Kindness Meditation Today,” a consistent practice of a Loving Kindness meditation can decrease symptoms of PTSD, improve wellbeing, and bolster the immune system.
The following Loving-Kindness meditation is inspired by the virtues celebrated during the weeks of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This form of a prayer focuses on God’s loving kindness toward us and how we then become a vessel of His love toward others.
Wired for Danger
We have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong. Over thousands of years we have developed a built-in survival mechanism wired to detect danger. Our minds know that learning from negative experiences is a matter life or death. Our brains are like velcro for anything negative that crosses our path. This skill is important for our survival but also impacts our feelings. If focus only on negatives, we can become angry, anxious, or depressed.
On the other hand, positive or neutral experiences happen all the time each day, but have no bearing on whether we will live or die. Our brains are like teflon for the positive experiences. Something pleasant happens, it slides right off, and we continue through our day. What does this have to do with how we think, act, and feel?
Nourish the Brain
According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we place our focus has the power to shape our brains.
If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.
Hanson suggests that we have the power to build inner strength and resilience by focusing on positive experiences in such a way that our brains are reshaped to respond to life with more positive feelings, sense of calm, and confidence. He suggests that we literally “hold the good” for as long as 10-20 seconds each time we have a pleasant experience. In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Hanson has a number of simple practices that have powerful benefits. He developed the HEAL exercise to build the positive centers of the brain and also decrease the negative charge of painful experiences, both past and present:
- H: Have a positive experience: Notice a positive experience that’s already present in your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you’ve completed. As much as you can, help ideas like these become emotionally rewarding experiences, otherwise it is merely positive thinking.
- E: Enrich it: Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Find something fresh and novel about it. Recognize how it’s personally relevant, how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together, so they’ll really wire together.
- A: Absorb it: Sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let it really land in your mind. Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it washing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.
- L: Link positive and negative material (optional): While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background. For example, when you feel included and liked these days, you could sense this experience making contact with feelings of loneliness from your past. If negative material hijacks your attention, drop it and focus only on the positive; when you feel recentered in the positive, you can let the negative also be present in awareness if you like. Whatever you want, let go of all negative material and rest only in the positive. Then, to continue uprooting the negative material, a few times over the next hour be aware of only neutral or positive material while also bringing to mind neutral things (e.g., people, situations, ideas) that have become associated with negative material.” (Hanson, 2013)
When we “hold the good,” we open our hearts to experience joy, and remind ourselves that each moment is our life.