Imagine you are walking by a construction zone and you see a worker pounding on a nail with his fist.
"That looks painful," you observe.
"Yeah. It's really painful," he responds.
"And it doesn't really look like it's working," you observe.
"No. It's not really working," he responds.
"Well, there must be a hammer that you could use."
"Oh yeah, there are plenty of hammers around, but I'm not really a hammer person. I don't really like the way they feel in my hand. I'm just the kind of person who uses his fist. Might have to do with the family I grew up in. Just between you and me, I think it would work a lot better if they bought softer wood and sharper nails."
"But hammers really seem to work for the other construction workers," you observe.
"Okay, look, if I'm being really honest, I think there is something wrong with me, and that's why I can't seem to make this work."
"Or maybe you could just accept that your fist isn't working and that a hammer might, even if it is a little awkward at first."
"Hmmm. Nah, this is just how I do it. Just a bit more effort is all that's needed. Thanks anyway."
Each of us has a strategy for working with the feelings we don't want to have. We try avoiding them, indulging them, and resisting them in an effort to keep them from showing up or to make them go away. We try blaming others, blaming ourselves, blaming our situation, and blaming our past. We try shopping, working, yelling, hiding, procrastinating, impressing, drinking, eating, and anything else we can think of. But these feeling always find a way to show up again. What we are doing isn't working, and it may even be causing greater pain, but it is what we have always done. So we try doing it with a little more effort in hopes that this time it will work.
You have probably imagined what would be possible if you did not feel fear, anger, stress, anxiety, or cravings. You have probably thought about the things you could achieve, the peace and energy you could have, and all the ways you could connect and contribute. First the hard news - you will never be permanently rid of these feelings - they are a natural part of being human. Now the good news - you don't have to be rid of these feelings. Feelings are only feelings - they are the result of temporary activity in the nervous system. Anything you can do in the absence of these feelings, you can also do in their presence. The hidden truth of being human is that you can feel angry and be kind. You can feel anxiety and be grateful. You can feel fear and be courageous. You can feel stress and be calm. You can feel cravings and choose freely.
Awareness and acceptance of feelings allows them to show up and move on without creating unnecessary struggle. No matter what you do, you are going to experience unpleasant thoughts and sensations. Awareness and acceptance of this truth creates a doorway to self-compassion. And there is a lot of research to support the power of self-compassion.Self-compassion is connected to successful self-regulation and physical health. It is associated with psychological health, achievement, resilience, creativity, and strong interpersonal relationships.
Self-compassion does not excuse you from responsibility for your actions and it is not self-pity. Self-compassion comes from a deep understanding and appreciation that you are human. Being human means that your nervous system produces all kinds of thoughts and sensations. Being human means that you have a part of your brain that wants you to do what you did yesterday, even if it is painful and ineffective. Being human means that what is familiar and comfortable will temporarily distract you from what is important and useful. Being human means that when you are aware and accepting you can simply begin again by focusing on what matters most. You cannot control what shows up - and this can be a source of great frustration. But you can choose what you practice - and this is a source of great freedom.
Self-compassion is a powerful skill that is strengthened with practice. Self-compassion also goes nicely with a sense of humor about all the wonderful and awkward ways that you stumble through life trying to make the world a better place. And the best news of all is that life will always provide you with unlimited opportunities to practice!
To read more about self-compassion, try these books:
Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by Christopher K. Germer and Sharon Salzberg
Dave Mochel, CEO of Applied Attention, teaches individuals, teams, and organizations how to optimize the human brain for performance and well-being. The research-supported practices he teaches lead to personal fulfillment and health, strength of personal relationships and organizational cultures, overall productivity, and effectiveness in leadership. Dave teaches one on one, on site, remotely, and in retreats and seminars. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org