The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

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by Christopher K. Germer
     
 

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“Buck up.” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” “Don’t ruin everything.” When you are anxious, sad, angry, or lonely, do you hear this self-critical voice? What would happen if, instead of fighting difficult emotions, we accepted them? Over his decades of experience as a therapist and mindfulness meditation practitioner,

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Overview

“Buck up.” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” “Don’t ruin everything.” When you are anxious, sad, angry, or lonely, do you hear this self-critical voice? What would happen if, instead of fighting difficult emotions, we accepted them? Over his decades of experience as a therapist and mindfulness meditation practitioner, Dr. Christopher Germer has learned a paradoxical lesson: We all want to avoid pain, but letting it in—and responding compassionately to our own imperfections, without judgment or self-blame—are essential steps on the path to healing. This wise and eloquent book illuminates the power of self-compassion and offers creative, scientifically grounded strategies for putting it into action. You’ll master practical techniques for living more fully in the present moment — especially when hard-to-bear emotions arise — and for being kind to yourself when you need it the most. Free audio downloads of the meditation exercises are available at the author's website: www.mindfulselfcompassion.org. Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) Self-Help Book of Merit

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Editorial Reviews

Independent Practitioner

"A very accessible introduction....[Germer] writes in a relaxed style that makes the book easy to read, without skimping on detail....The layout is clear and uncluttered, with a mix of explanation, theory, practice, along with case study examples from Germer's own life and that of his clients. There are useful websites scattered through the book....Mindfulness could well become an important part of my own self-care, which will also feed into my client work. This book is a helpful start and a handy resource."--Independent Practitioner
PsycCRITIQUES

"Very well written....filled with practical suggestions and methods....Both the reasoning supporting the importance of the method and the method itself are presented in a clear and compelling fashion. I felt excited, touched, and enriched as I read on, and I am sure most readers will have a similar response....Offers a good integration of Eastern spirituality with Western science to make a compelling argument for the values and effectiveness of mindfulness and compassion meditation. Not only is the argument clear and convincing, but the book also offers plenty of practical aids....Should you read this book? Enthusiastically, yes....An excellent review of the evidence for mindful self-compassion in a psychoeducational manual and a step-by-step guide to developing awareness, self-compassion, and loving kindness."--PsycCRITIQUES
British Journal of Psychology

"In this intelligent, concise, and easy-to-read book, Christopher Germer presents an exciting synthesis of mindfulness and self-compassion that is much needed and long overdue. Drawing upon decades of practice as a clinician and meditator, Dr. Germer offers a rich and insightful guide to emotional healing. While thoroughly covering the relevant psychological research, the book is written for a general audience, and will be of enormous benefit to both therapists and their clients....Germer's narrative voice is warm, gentle, and down-to-earth. His years of meditation practice have clearly paid off in the writing of this book: every word is infused with wisdom and compassion. An invaluable guide to anyone wanting to learn how to transform their relationship with difficult emotions, this important book will undoubtedly change the lives of many who read it."--British Journal of Psychology
Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand
"This book is a gem. It offers readers a lucid, succinct, and honest look at the value of mindfulness and self-compassion in everyday life and clinical practice....This book is highly readable, informative, and compatible with Gestalt theory's emphasis on awareness, the paradoxical theory of change, contact, and connection. Germer comes across as a dedicated and wise clinician, who sees that the ground of healing is rooted in awareness and compassion, for ourselves and for others. Through the combined cultivation of mindfulness and compassion practices, the book offers a number of very useful strategies for building clients' awareness, self-support, and relational capacity."--Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

Journal of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy
“In an insightful contribution to the literature, Germer provides a book full of ideas and techniques aimed at the reduction of self-critical thinking using self-compassion and mindfulness....The book achieves a good balance between theory and practice. Explanation of different aspects of mindfulness and compassion are placed alongside 'Try This' boxes containing strategies that relate to them. It is written for the client rather than the clinician and the author uses clear, everyday language....One of the things that make the book interesting and engaging is the eclectic source material, which is built into a rich tapestry....Although positioned within the self-help literature, the book offers pragmatic strategies that could be adapted to fit a wider treatment program. Given this adaptability, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in self-compassion, both clinicians and clients, whether they are beginners or experienced practitioners."--Journal of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy (British Publication)
Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic
"The book is clear and well organized....This book is written not only with the therapist in mind but also for the use of the layperson through a process-oriented design for individual growth."--Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic
From the Publisher

"Those of us treating people who struggle with addictions know all too well how clients' feelings of shame or self-blame often undermine efforts to achieve effective interventions. In this remarkable book, Germer shows readers how to use mindfulness and self-compassion to open up to their pain and treat themselves with kindness. Ideal for recommendation to clients who have fallen off the wagon or who are blaming themselves for failed relationships, lost jobs, and scattered lives, this book offers a way out of a vicious cycle."--G. Alan Marlatt, PhD, Department of Psychology and Director, Addictive Behaviors Research Center, University of Washington
 

"In this important book, Christopher Germer illuminates the myriad synergies between mindfulness and compassion. He offers skillful and effective ways of making sure that we are inviting ourselves, as well as others, to bathe in and benefit from the kind heart of awareness itself, and from the actions that follow from such a radical and sane embrace."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author of Arriving at Your Own Door and Letting Everything Become Your Teacher
 
"Loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference--in our own lives and those of others....In the following pages you will find a scientific review, an educational manual, and a practical step-by-step guide to developing greater loving-kindness and self-compassion every day."--from the Foreword by Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness

 
"Self-compassion is the ground of all emotional healing, and Dr. Germer has produced an invaluable guide. Written with great clarity, psychological wisdom, and warmth, this book will serve anyone seeking practical and powerful tools that free the heart."--Tara Brach, PhD, author of Radical Acceptance

 
"Explains both the science and practice of developing kindness toward ourselves and others. Dr. Germer offers powerful and easily accessible steps toward transforming our lives from the inside out. It's never too late to start along this important path."--Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of The Mindful Brain
 
"An elegant and practical guide to cultivating self-compassion, by a dedicated and wise clinician and meditation teacher. The author offers time-honored practices and exercises with the potential to illuminate and transform the background chatter of our minds that determines so much of the course of our lives."--Samuel Shem, MD, author of The House of God

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781606233863
Publisher:
Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
04/28/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
306
Sales rank:
88,962
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions


By Christopher K. Germer

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2009 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60623-386-3



CHAPTER 1

being kind to yourself

The suffering itself is not so bad; it's the resentment against suffering that is the real pain.

—Allen Ginsberg, poet


"I'm afraid of what you're about to tell me, 'cause it probably won't work!" Michelle blurted out, fully expecting to be disappointed by what I had to say. Michelle had just finished telling me about her years of struggle with shyness, and I was taking a deep breath.

Michelle struck me as an exceptionally bright and conscientious person. She had read many books on overcoming shyness and tried therapy four times. She didn't want to be let down again. She'd recently received an MBA from a prestigious university and gotten a job as a consultant to large firms in the area. The main problem for Michelle was blushing. She believed it signaled to others that she wasn't competent and that they shouldn't trust what she had to say. The more she worried about blushing, the more she actually blushed in front of others. Her new job was an important career opportunity, and Michelle didn't want to blow it.

I assured Michelle that she was right: whatever I suggested wouldn't work. That's not because she was a lost cause—far from it—but rather because all well-intentioned strategies are destined to fail. It's not the fault of the techniques, nor is it the fault of the person who wants to feel better. The problem lies in our motivation and in a misunderstanding of how the mind works.

As Michelle knew only too well from her years of struggle, a lot of what we do to not feel bad is likely to make us feel worse. It's like that thought experiment: "Try not to think about pink elephants—the kind that are very large and very pink." Once an idea is planted in our minds, it's strengthened every time we try not to think about it. Sigmund Freud summed up the problem by saying there's "no negation" in the unconscious mind. Similarly, whatever we throw at our distress to make it go away—relaxation techniques, blocking our thoughts, positive affirmations—will ultimately disappoint, and we'll have no choice but to set off to find another option to feel better.

While we were discussing these matters, Michelle began to weep gently. I wasn't sure whether she was feeling more disheartened or in some way the truth of her experience was being articulated. She told me that even her prayers were going unanswered. We talked about two types of prayers: the kind where we want God to make bad things go away and the kind where we surrender—"Let go and let God." Michelle said it had never occurred to her to surrender her troubles to God. That wasn't her style.

Gradually we came around to what could be done for Michelle that might actually decrease her anxiety and blushing—not deep breathing, not pinching herself, not drinking cold water, not pretending to be unflappable. Since Michelle wasn't the kind of person to relax her efforts, she needed to find something entirely different. Michelle recognized that her anxiety decreased the more she accepted it, and it increased the less she accepted it. Hence, it made sense to Michelle to dedicate herself to a life of accepting anxiety and the fact that she was simply an anxious person. Our therapy was to be measured not by how often she blushed, but by how accepting she was of her blushing. That was a radical new idea for Michelle. She left our first session elated, if a bit perplexed.

She sent me an e-mail during the following week, happily announcing that "it worked." Since we hadn't discussed any new practices, I wasn't sure what Michelle meant. Later I learned that she had begun saying to herself "just scared, just scared" whenever she noticed she was anxious. Labeling her fear seemed to take Michelle's mind off how flushed her face felt, and she was able to chat briefly with colleagues in the lunchroom without incident, for example. She was relieved to feel more like "a scared person getting lunch" than like a "weak, overly sensitive, ridiculous person who didn't know what she was talking about." I marveled at how Michelle had taken the concept of "acceptance" and invented a useful technique in such a short time.

At our next meeting, however, Michelle was discouraged again. Her forays into the lunchroom once again became a battle against the blush. Her original wish to "stop looking anxious" reasserted itself. Acceptance had begun to "work" for Michelle, but she'd let go of her newfound commitment to cultivate acceptance. She mistakenly believed she'd found a clever bypass to her problem.

Unfortunately, we can't trick ourselves. There was a part of Michelle that was saying, "I'm practicing acceptance in order to reduce anxiety." But that's not acceptance. Within modern psychology, acceptance means to embrace whatever arises within us, moment to moment, just as it is. Sometimes it's a feeling we like; sometimes it's a bad feeling. We naturally want to continue the good feelings and stop the bad ones, but setting out with that goal doesn't work. The only answer to our problems is to first have our problems, fully and completely, whatever they may be. Michelle was hoping to skip that part.

This story has a happy ending, which was reached slowly over the course of 2 years. Michelle discovered how to live in accord with her sensitive nervous system. Relapses reliably occurred when Michelle tried not to blush, but she hardly blushed at all when she was ready to let blushing take its course. As Michelle made her peace with blushing, she found she could apply the same principles to other stress symptoms that inevitably arose during her day—tension in her chest, headaches, heart palpitations—and her life became much easier.

This is a book about how we can benefit by turning toward our emotional pain. That's a tall order. Any thinking person is likely to ask, "Why would I want to do that?" In this chapter, you'll see why it's often the best thing to do. The rest of the book will show you how to accomplish this improbable task. First you'll learn how to bring mindful awareness to what's bothering you. Then you'll discover how to bring kindness to yourself, especially when you're feeling really bad. That combination—mindfulness and self-compassion—can transform even the worst times of our lives.


TURNING TOWARD THE PAIN

From the moment of our birth, we're on a quest for happiness. It may take no more than mother's milk to satisfy us in the first days of our lives, but our needs and desires multiply as we age. By adulthood, most of us don't expect to be happy unless we have a nice family, a good job, excellent health, lots of money, and the love and admiration of others.

But pain still strikes even under the best of circumstances. Billionaire Howard Hughes found himself desperate and alone at the moment of his death. And our circumstances inevitably change; one person's marriage may fall apart, another may have a child with a developmental disability, and yet another may lose everything in a flood. People differ from one another in the a mount of suffering they endure over a lifetime, or in the type of suffering, but none of us gets off without any. Pain and suffering are common threads that unite all of humanity.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we'd like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. For example, if a car accident lands someone in a wheelchair for life, the first year is usually the toughest. As we learn to adapt, we typically return to our former level of happiness. We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.

Most of us believe that our happiness depends on the external circumstances of our lives. Therefore, we spend our lives on a treadmill, continually arranging to have pleasure and avoid pain. When we experience pleasure, we grasp for more of it. When we experience pain, we avoid it. Both of these reactions are instinctive, but they're not successful strategies for emotional well-being. The problem with pleasure seeking is that the pleasure will end at some point and we'll become disappointed: we fall out of love, our bellies become full, our friends go home. The problem with avoiding pain is that it's just not possible to do, and it often gets worse with our increased efforts to try. For example, eating to reduce stress can cause obesity, and working excessively to overcome low self-esteem can land you in the grave.

It's possible to be completely controlled by the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. I know a man, Stewart, who took great pleasure in drinking alcohol when he was younger. He started drinking when he was 14 years old. By the time Stewart was 20, he routinely drank a case of beer (24 cans) per night. One evening he had a panic attack while he was drunk, and it so frightened him that he never drank again. Beer, the source of so much pleasure, had become terrifying overnight because he associated it with his panic attack. Stewart then stopped going anywhere or doing anything that could possibly trigger a panic attack, including other things he used to enjoy, such as driving his truck around town and going to baseball games. First the pleasure of alcohol dominated his life, then the fear of a panic attack did. Stuart was a hostage to these short-term states of mind: pleasure and pain.

A new approach is to change our relationship to pain and pleasure. We can step back and learn to be calm in the midst of pain; we can let pleasure naturally come and go. That's serenity. We can even learn to embrace pain as well as pleasure, and every nuance in between, thereby living each moment to the fullest. That's joy. Learning how to spend some time with pain is essential to achieving personal happiness. It may sound paradoxical, but in order to be happy we must embrace un happiness.


WHAT WE RESIST PERSISTS

There's a simple formula that captures our instinctive response to pain:

Pain × Resistance = Suffering

"Pain" refers to unavoidable discomfort that comes into our lives, such as an accident, an illness, or the death of someone we love. "Resistance" refers to any effort to ward off pain, such as tensing the body or ruminating about how to make pain go away. "Suffering" is what results when we resist pain. Suffering is the physical and emotional tension that we add to our pain, layer upon layer.

In this formula, how we relate to pain determines how much we'll suffer. As our resistance to pain is reduced to zero, so is our suffering. Pain times zero equals zero. Hard to believe? The pain of life is there, but we don't unnecessarily elaborate on it. We don't carry it with us everywhere we go.

An example of suffering is spending hours and hours thinking about how we should have sold our stocks before the market collapsed or worrying that we might get sick before a big upcoming event. Some amount of reflection is necessary to anticipate and prevent problems, but we often get stuck regretting the past or worrying about the future.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. It seems that the more intense our emotional pain is, the more we suffer by obsessing, blaming ourselves, and feeling defective. The good news is that since most of the pain in our lives is really suffering—the result of fighting the experience of pain—we can actually do something about it. Let's take a look at four common problems—lower back pain, insomnia, anxiety about public speaking, and relational conflict—and start to consider how they can be alleviated by acceptance and letting go.


Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain is a debilitating ailment. Unfortunately, it's very common in the United States, affecting at least five million people at any given time: 60–70% of Americans get lower back pain sometime in their lives. Surprisingly, two-thirds of people without chronic back pain have the same structural back problems as those who experience pain. So what's going on in the bodies and minds of those suffering from chronic pain? Resistance. Let's consider the case of Mira.

Mira is a 49-year-old yoga enthusiast with a successful business career. She is not the kind of person you'd expect to have back pain, except that she pursues all her activities with uncommon zeal. During a particularly strenuous yoga session, Mira felt a twinge while doing a forward bend. She then felt her sciatic nerve tingle right down to her calves. Almost any position except standing straight up or lying flat gave her back pain. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) diagnosed her with a herniated disk, a painful condition where the bones of the spine squeeze the disk out against a nerve.

Mira stopped doing yoga and saw a physical therapist who taught her to lift objects in such a way that her back stayed straight and didn't give her any pain. But over time, her back hurt more and more. She was also deeply unhappy that she couldn't exercise vigorously, her primary way of relieving work stress. She envisioned a lifetime without mountain climbing, bicycle riding, or yoga. Mira also blamed herself for causing her disk to herniate in the first place. The combination of worry, self-criticism, mounting tension from inactivity, and increasing back pain convinced Mira to turn to surgery.

Prior to her operation, Mira did some research and learned that the long-term success rate of back surgery for herniated disks was no better than having no surgery at all. She also read Ronald Siegel's book Back Sense, which explains that for most sufferers the most valuable treatment for a herniated disk is to reduce anxiety about the pain and resume normal activities as soon as possible. That meant lifting objects in roughly the same manner as always so that the back muscles don't atrophy from inactivity. Mira found out that persistent muscle tension, not structural abnormalities, causes most chronic back pain. And muscle tension increases both when the muscles are not used and when we worry. On top of this, worry amplifies pain signals, further adding to our experience of pain.

Mira took these messages to heart. She got massage therapy for her sore muscles, used a heating pad every evening, and began exercising in moderation. Her anxiety decreased as her pain subsided, and her back pain diminished by 50% in less than 2 weeks.

Most people who suffer from chronic back pain will say that Mira was just lucky, an exception. Actually, she's the rule. Ironically the prevalence of chronic back pain is lowest in developing countries, where people do more backbreaking work than in industrialized countries. An injury is usually the trigger for a back problem, but injury isn't what sustained Mira's back pain. Her resistance to the pain, especially fearing that she wouldn't be able to continue her vigorous lifestyle, pulled Mira deeper and deeper down into her health crisis. Acceptance of physical pain, and working with it, returned Mira to her normal life.


Insomnia

Most of us have suffered from insomnia at some point in our lives. Up to half of the adult population in the United States reports having insomnia in any given year. The physical causes are numerous and include trying to sleep beside a snoring partner, consuming caffeine before bedtime, napping too often, exercising too little, taking medications like cold tablets, and having sleep apnea. Regardless of the causes, many of us find we make matters worse by trying too hard to fall asleep. How does this happen?

Try to remember the last time you had an important meeting scheduled early the next morning and you found yourself lying awake late into the night. Perhaps it was a job interview, or perhaps you had to make a presentation at work. As you lay there, you couldn't stop thinking that every hour of wakefulness would be translated into a more distracted and sluggish mind. You became increasingly annoyed with yourself with each passing hour, perhaps concluding that you had entirely lost the ability to sleep normally. And every time you looked at the clock, you felt an annoying surge of adrenaline in your chest or the pit of your stomach.

The source of this problem is that the nervous system moves into "fight-or-flight" mode when you battle to fall asleep. It's a vicious cycle: trying to sleep stresses the body into wakefulness. We need to break the cycle by abandoning the fight. There are a number of ways that people try to accomplish this:

1. Remember how well you actually function on less sleep; most people do. This may soften the feeling of urgency.

2. Notice that lying peacefully in bed is a form of valuable rest in itself, whether or not you fall asleep.

3. Remember that the body will demand sleep when it really needs it, which isn't in this moment.

4. Dedicate 30 minutes to being fully awake, which might be enough time for the mind to shut off and begin to sleep.

5. Reinforce your intention to accept sleeplessness by emphatically saying "I don't care!" whenever you discover that you're still awake.

6. Count your breaths.


However, as any insomniac will tell you, even these tricks don't work much of the time. Why? Because you can't fool the mind—it knows that you're doing these things to fall asleep. There's a big difference, for example, between "counting your breaths" and "counting your breaths to fall asleep." At a subtle level, when your agenda is to fall asleep, you can't help getting upset with yourself when you realize you're still awake. Every passing hour makes you feel more desperate and confused. To solve the problem, your relationship to sleeplessness has to shift. Once you begin to truly, genuinely accept not sleeping, your body will finally get a chance to rest.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher K. Germer. Copyright © 2009 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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