No, I am not referring to Fifty Shades of Grey sadism and masochism. I am talking about a seriously powerful, connection-building combo: self-compassion and mindfulness.
What does this look like? Self-compassion enables you to love yourself as you would love others. It also helps to ease your emotional and physical suffering. Mindfulness, on the other hand, relates to paying attention to the present moment – emotionally and physically – without judging yourself or others. It really is as simple as that!
Take for instance the current situation of Stacy and Peter (names changed for anonymity), a married couple from my private practice. They are parents to Lily, their beautiful, spirited, one-year-old girl. Although Stacy and Peter love each other and Lily very much, they both work long hours, which puts a strain on their relationship.
Exhausted from working all day, Stacy walks through the front door and has to start taking care of Lily. Peter, on the other hand, is out of town for work most days, making him unable to share in the bulk of Lily’s caretaking. As a result, Stacy feels frustrated and angry over Peter’s perceived lack of support. Every time she tries to talk to him about it, Peter gets angry. Unable to express her feelings, this triggers Stacy to tiptoe around him, making her feel disconnected and withdrawn.
From Peter’s point of view, Stacy doesn’t notice or appreciate what he does for the family. Instead of discussing it, all Peter wants is for Stacy to acknowledge what he does do right and for her to apologize so that they can move forward.
Stacy and Peter each have valid feelings and concerns; however, they are so caught up in their own stories, they can no longer see the other’s perspective. As a result, they’re unable to take a step back and have compassion and understanding for one another. As Dr. Gottman explains through his concept of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, feeling criticized can lead to defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, and ultimately the death of the relationship.
So, what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation to Stacy and Peter? It all comes back to practicing a little S&M in your relationship. Let’s explore three steps you can take to cultivate self-compassion and mindfulness.
Step 1: Take a break and “self-soothe”
As Dr. Gottman recommends, taking time to calm down and self-soothe is the first step to getting your communications and relationship back on track. Some effective ways to self-soothe include meditation and deep breathing.
Deep breathing indirectly stimulates your vagus nerve – the nerve that originates in your brain stem and runs all the way down through your heart, lungs, and internal organs. Stimulating the vagus nerve releases the anti-stress hormone oxytocin into your system, while simultaneously inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol. It also activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for calming you down.
However, if your emotions are completely overwhelming you, do something more physical like taking a walk or a run, working vigorously in your garden, or getting your body moving in another way.
Step 2: Label your emotions
Once you are calm, take a few minutes to become aware of and identify the emotions you are feeling. Take note of where you physically sense them in your body. If you want, you can take a pen and paper and write them down. Labeling each and every one of your emotions and noting their location will allow you to recognize what you are feeling, making it easier to accept them. Acknowledging your emotions while in a calm state gives difficult emotions the space to change and transform.
Step 3: Cultivate compassion for yourself and others
We’ve all heard the old adage, “You can’t love another unless you can first love yourself.” Moreover, studies indicate that self-compassionate individuals display more positive relationship behavior than those who lack self-compassion. The benefits to self-compassion don’t end there. Instead of feeling disconnected from others when things go wrong, studies have also shown self-compassion actually facilitates feelings of connection to others in difficult times.
So how can you cultivate compassion for yourself and others? Start by imagining what you would say to your best friend after he or she has been hurt or rejected. What would you say? How would you treat him or her? Chances are that you would be kind, understanding, and supportive.
Begin applying this mindset and language to yourself, no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Become aware of your language and mindful of your inner dialogue. If you wouldn’t say the same statements of criticism to someone you cared deeply about, then don’t say them to yourself!
Integrating self-compassion and mindfulness in your everyday life gives you the ability to observe and act – not react – and to be mindful of how you respond to others. Listening and speaking from your compassionate heart will empower you to reconnect with yourself, others, and the world around you.