↩️ Return to the newsletter table of contents

Dharma Toolbox

Mindful Self-Compassion

Thank you to Critter S. for this article

I was introduced to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) while in residential rehab. It was the most powerful tool I learned while in treatment. It became a regular practice for me and has since become invaluable during this pandemic and isolation.

MSC was developed by two psychologists: Kristen Neff, PhD, and Chris Germer, PhD. It has been used as an effective tool for treating PTSD, interpersonal conflict, psychological well-being, suffering, disordered eating, body image, anxiety, depression, problematic alcohol use, and many more areas!

For me, MSC works by helping me sit with uncomfortable emotions. That’s a bit of an understatement–it truly saved my life. For me, my addiction was largely fed by a need to escape the feelings, thoughts, memories, and physical sensations that were a result of a long history of trauma and depression. MSC was the key tool I used when getting sober and all of a sudden I was having to feel all these intense emotions: all of the feelings I’d been working so hard to escape came flooding in. Some people felt euphoria and relief when they first got sober. I felt all the years of trauma symptoms I’d been covering up with drugs and alcohol. It was horrible and difficult to manage until I was introduced to MSC.

MSC is many practices that share common components. In fact, one of the Recovery Dharma meditations–Meditation for Sitting with Difficult Emotions–is based on an MSC practice. The way it was taught to me in rehab was that MSC has three main elements: Mindfulness, Common Humanity, and Self-Kindness.

Mindfulness

In the context of MSC, mindfulness is being able to observe, without judgment, what I am thinking, feeling, and experiencing. This allows me to step back from identifying with what I’m experiencing. Over-identifying with the emotions and thoughts I experience (believing I am those thoughts and emotions) contributes to the experience of suffering. I can experience pain without suffering and mindfulness is the tool to get me there. Sometimes I practice this by noticing the language I use to describe or talk about how I’m feeling, shifting from “I’m sad” to “I’m experiencing sadness,” or “this is a moment of suffering/sadness.” I sometimes bring in aspects of what meditation teacher Tara Brach and psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan call Radical Acceptance: completely and totally accepting something without fighting reality. I do this by using a phrase like “I accept that right now I’m experiencing a strong desire to drink/use.” All of these mindfulness practices allow me to acknowledge and accept the experience I’m having, which has been incredibly powerful and healing, in addition to helping me be present with the harder feelings.

Common Humanity

Many of us who have struggled with addiction and substance use disorders feel alone and separate from others. The common humanity component of MSC helps me feel connected to others and less alone with what I’m feeling. It is as simple as stating “Many people are struggling right now,” “it’s human to suffer,” or “anyone would have a hard time with this”–some phrase that acknowledges what I’m feeling is something others experience. As I write this, we are heading into week four of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place experience. This is a very real example of common humanity. We are globally experiencing something scary and difficult, and many of us are sharing emotional ups and downs, confusion and difficulty keeping track of what day it is, fear, and scarcity, to name a few. I felt less alone and more connected when I am reminded of these shared experiences. Experiencing common humanity leads me to feel less suffering.

Self-Kindness

The ways I’ve practiced Self-Kindness have included practicing Metta (also referred to as “Loving-Kindness”) with self-focus. I was guided through a process where I was asked the following questions:

  • What do I need? (something that without it, my day will not feel complete)
  • What words do I need to hear from others?

I listed as many words for each and then picked the top three or four to create my own personal loving-kindness phrases. One of the mantras I came up with was:

May I value myself

May I feel held

May I feel loved and accepted

May I learn to love myself as I am

Bringing the Three Components Together in a Simple Practice

I was taught a very simple practice that can be used anytime, anywhere, and takes only a moment. This is a brief MSC practice that brings together the three components of mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. I was encouraged to use warmth and touch during my practice, so I might wrap myself in a blanket or simply rub my hands together until warm and place a hand over an area of my body where I might feel some suffering (like my heart). Then, I make a mindfulness statement about what’s going on (e.g. “this is a moment of suffering,” “this is really painful,” etc.) followed by a common humanity statement (“many people are experiencing hurt and pain right now,” “all people experience suffering,” etc.), and then ending with kind words to myself (e.g. “may I be kind and gentle with myself,” “may I be at ease,” etc.).

When I’ve experienced intense craving, when I’ve felt like my feelings were too much to handle, and, especially right now when we are all dealing with a pandemic and social isolation, I use this practice frequently. Placing one hand over my heart, I say to myself:

This is really painful right now

Many people are struggling right now with this situation

May I be gentle with myself

When I practice with these tools, I often experience less suffering, more self-compassion, more compassion for others, and more connection.

Be gentle with yourselves during this time!

For Recovery Dharma resources related to this dharma tool, check these links out:

Do you have a practice technique or approach that might be featured in Dharma Toolbox? Please send your submissions (about 500 words) to newsletter@recoverydharma.org.