In my practice I work from a neurobiological perspective. In a nutshell, this means I focus on how a person’s nervous system has learned to regulate and how it has adapted to past events. Neurobiology’s main premise (based on lots of research) is that we are biologically wired in certain ways and being mammals, we are wired to detect threat and seek connection. Proximity to caregivers defines our ability to survive and our brains, which are growing at amazing rates as infants, are learning how to get safety and proximity. As a result, our brains start to weed out ways of seeking proximity that don’t work and remembers ways that are effective in our family environment. Each of us has a different blueprint based on how we were responded to as babies. This blueprint forms our internal reactions and beliefs in relationship. It tells us how to get attention, when we are worthy of attention and whether we can trust others.
This is both bad news and good news. Bad news because in a way we are not totally in control of how we are able to connect with others. Our nervous systems can override when we feel safe in relationship and how to connect with others. It can send very strong signals that we need to get out, even when it might be safe. It can show up in ways that may sabotage our best efforts at creating secure relationships.
But good news, in that does not mean that we are stuck. We can learn how to become aware and work with these patterns. We can learn to predict what we need in relationship to feel safe and what our partners need in order to feel safe. We can learn what a secure functioning relationship looks like and consciously create it.
When I start to bring patterns to light for clients, the first question always is, but what do I do? How do I change?
And although there are skills that we can learn to create a new way of relating, there is a very important part that is very foundational to change that might even feel counter intuitive at times.
Self-compassion is the ability to feel our present suffering and meet it with attunement, presence and understanding. It asks us to look inward, listen to ourselves and provide ourselves what we need.
Self-compassion is being able to look at ourselves and our suffering with understanding and acceptance. Self-compassion is the opposite of trying to change our emotional state, it is allowing for that state to be what it is, especially given the history that we have.
We all have ways that we act automatically in response to different situations. I, for instance, often go into a freeze response when encounter aggression, especially in a public place. To others this looks like I don’t care, as I often lose my ability to respond directly, and just stare with a blank face.
I have worked with this response in many different ways and have learned in many instances to respond differently. However, this response still shows up from time to time. Oftentimes after the incident has passed. I feel waves of anger. I play different scenarios in my head where I responded to the aggression instead of freezing. I also feel anger directed at myself for responding in such an ineffective way.
In these moments, it takes a lot of awareness and effort to stop that cycle of self-criticism. When I can turn to my experience and see it as a natural response and my feelings as valid and understandable, my frustration lessens.
Self-compassion allows me to see my responses for what they are and not feed into my own self-directed anger. I can see my history of when I encountered scary situations and remind myself that a freeze response is a natural reaction of our nervous system to threat. It kept me safe in many situations in the past and in my family environment. Given who I am and my history, this response makes sense. I have to remind myself that my feelings are genuine, my suffering is real and provide myself some forgiveness for my body doing exactly what it was designed to do…. Keep me safe. Talking to myself the way a good friend would allows me to soften my response and provide myself what I need; comfort.
Having compassion for yourself is not self-pity, nor is this is self-indulgent. Directing anger or criticism at oneself is just inflicting more suffering on the situation. Just like you can’t make a scared cat eat food by yelling at it. You need to have patience and softness and gentleness so that it knows that you are safe and it will come when it is ready. We need to treat ourselves and our wounds the same way.
This is not a new idea; most psychotherapies and religions see self-acceptance and self-love as a necessary part of healing. “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate it oppresses.”- Carl Jung
Self-compassion is a practice that must be cultivated repeatedly because culture thrives on using shame to promote social conformity and cohesion. As a result, we turn that shame inwards into self-criticism, internal oppression and addictions.
Our western society buys into the myth that somehow as humans we are able to bypass our biology and be the masters of our own mind and universe. However, this is only a myth. Our bodies, and our minds, are still the product of evolution and as mammals our survival hinges our social cohesion. We are wired in ways beyond our logical minds to survive. We must learn to accept ourselves as flawed, confusing and geared for connection and safety. Self-compassion can be a powerful tool along the way.
For more resources on self-compassion and how to apply it in your life visit self-compassion.org. This website is based on Dr. Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion and has resources, links to her book and self-compassion meditations.
Stephanie Boulton, MA LPCC (she/her/hers) is a counselor in private practice. She works online, at People House Denver and at her office in Broomfield. She draws from attachment theory, body-based and experiential therapies, as well as ecological and feminist approaches to healing. She specializes in body image, disordered eating, PTSD and LGBTQ+ affirming counseling. Her website is soulterracounseling.com or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.