A lecturer walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”
This post is the third in a series that offers teachings to support a mindful practice and lifestyle. They are based on gatherings of Mindful Dads Meeting but offer universal wisdom suitable for anyone.
Stress can be defined as the space between our expectations and our reality. Our instinct when we see this space is to try make it go away. Somehow fill in the space with overwork, micromanagement or distraction. It may be that we already feel the walls closing in around us or that there is a gaping chasm between us and feeling free. But in reality, this space is small. It is a space of hyper focus and hyper vigilance. Either/or thinking, doubt, judgment, insecurity, anxiety and worry. We have a great opportunity to nourish this unpleasant place by stopping, experiencing and allowing.
The first step is to notice. To check in with yourself as you become quiet. What is here in this moment and can I be with it? What is really here? You might try the following practice to arrive at this state:
The space between how things are and how we want them to me gets filled in with messages of doubt and self-criticism. Things like “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a bad parent/partner/child.” This wanting things to be different is a natural result of our mis(perceptions), expectations, preferences, perspectives, standards and assumptions. When we get stuck in this space, we can create disconnection from ourselves and others.
Christopher Germer, the author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion writes,
“when bad things happen to us, we tend to have three unfortunate reactions: self-criticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption. Why do we react like this? I look at it this way, the instinctive response to danger – the stress response – consists of fight, flight or freeze. These three strategies help us survive physically, but when they are applied to our mental and emotional functioning, we get into trouble. When there’s no enemy to defend against, we turn on ourselves. “Fight” becomes self-criticism, “flight” becomes self-isolation, and “freeze” becomes self-absorption, getting locked into our own thoughts.”
There are several conclusions to be drawn from this passage. First, our habitual reactions are normal. Humans have evolved to escape physical threats. It wasn’t until the last several hundred years that our ability to tame and eliminate most physical threats made the stress response less adaptive. Second, by recognizing that we are in this mode, we give ourselves a choice to respond thoughtfully instead of react out of habit. When we pay attention to our stress and the habits, patterns and triggers that make up our responses, we open a space for a choice based on awareness. Most of our modern threats are emotional and psychological so this space is important.
Germer’s colleague, Kristin Neff writes, “We give ourselves compassion not to feel better, but because we feel bad.” This shift from cure to care allows our natural gentleness and compassion to emerge slowly. Self-compassion consists of three elements as described by Neff in the video below:
- Self-Kindness – Providing yourself with the compassion and self-soothing you deserve
- Common Humanity – The understanding that you are not alone in your suffering, that it is part of the human experience
- Mindfulness – An awareness of what is actually happening in your lived experience.
“It is rewarding to find someone you like, but it is essential to like yourself. It is quickening to recognize that someone is a good and decent human being, but it is indispensable to view yourself as acceptable. It is a delight to discover people who are worthy of respect and admiration and love, but it is vital to believe yourself deserving of these things.” – Jo Coudert
We closed our evening with a self-compassion meditation based on Neff’s work that brings the three elements of self-compassion into focus. As we imagined a difficulty or challenge in our life, we offered the following wishes:
- I am (struggling, suffering, stressed) right now and that is ok.
- We all (struggle, suffer, feel stress).
- May I be kind to myself. May I offer myself the compassion that I need.
Try it for yourself below and check out our upcoming events including Mindful Dads Meeting and our April co-ed full-day retreat.
Marc and I are passionate about self-compassion and its promise of self-care and kindness that then extends to all around you. Below is the most downloaded episode of our podcast followed by additional articles that you mind enjoy.
The Art of Self-Compassion Part 1: A Personal Reflection
The Art of Self-Compassion Part 2: Meeting The Critic
Secure Your Own Mask First