The Practice and Benefits of Mindful Self-Compassion


By Theresa Nygren, LCSW

How can mindful self-compassion transform your life?

Well, this is surely a great question, and we may all search for the answer in various ways. The self-help section in bookstores everywhere stocks a steady supply of the latest “how to” books.

Mindful self-compassion practice steers clear of the quick fixes and instead brings warm-hearted presence to each moment. So you may ask, how does one become mindfully self-compassionate? As in any lasting change, it takes practice. The turtle really had it right all along in the race for life. Slow and steady practice gets us to where we want to be in our lives. This concept bumps up against the bombardment of messages that push us, prod us and want us to hurry up.

Our reptilian brain wants to keep us in overdrive as well. As much as we have evolved since the caveman era, this oldest part of our brain is still scanning the environment for danger. Unfortunately, instead of being on the watch for the saber tooth tiger, our brain now attacks our self-concept at every chance it can get. The litany goes something like this, “why did I say such a stupid thing right now”, “what is wrong with me, I am so inept”, “I will never have friends, there must be something wrong with me.” You get the drill, right? It is such a brutal, painful enterprise and often occurs without our conscious awareness.

This is where a mindful self-compassion practice can make a tremendous difference. Let’s take another look at our brain and notice that we also have this mammalian caregiving system at the ready. Unlike other mammals, we come into the world less able to survive on our own. Being upright on two feet as opposed to on all fours has its downside! Not to worry, if all goes well, our primary caregiver provides us with the safety of the warm embrace, as their soothing touch and soft vocalizations provide the template for our little brains to prune themselves into greater functionality. Fast forward to being all grown up and realizing that we have had less than perfect childhoods. Perhaps our caregivers themselves were riddled with fear and uncertainty. Perhaps their reptilian brains were firing constantly and our little, helpless selves absorbed the energetic vibrations of mistrust in the world. But this moment here is a new moment to claim the practice of activating our mammalian caregiving system for our benefit. How wonderful is that?

Let me share a typical example from my experience. Being in the field of social work, it is no surprise that my empathic skills are highly tuned. That is a blessing and can be a curse. There are more times than I can count that my heart feels extremely heavy with the suffering around me. Perhaps it is a friend having a hard time or family member experiencing emotional pain.

So, when I find my heart full with pain, it is a wonderful time to take a break and practice mindful self-compassion. The self-compassion break is an easy one to apply. It goes like this:

  • First, we become aware (mindful) that we are having a hard time.
  • Second, we remind ourselves that this being human can be tough. We are not alone in our challenges.
  • Lastly, instead of the “inner critic” getting all over us, we bring a measure of kindness and compassion to ourselves for what is occurring for us right in this moment. I often offer a hand to my heart to benefit from the warmth and tender touch it provides.

The self-compassion break along with the other numerous informal and formal mindful self-compassion meditations helps activate our mammalian caregiving system. This is huge news since on a physiological level we are helping shift out of “alarm mode” into “tend and befriend” mode. This practice helps quiet and calm our entire system, making it easier for our prefrontal cortex (the highest functioning part of our brain) to remain engaged and ready to reason, and to make good decisions to create the life we want and need.

Mindful self-compassion can be life changing. It has been for me.

Upcoming Programs with Theresa Nygren

Awaken Everyday Blog
Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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