Being a Hungarian, I love winter, with its long, cold nights as everything in nature slows down and takes a break. Unfortunately, cold winter weather is not one of the perks of living in Mississippi. Therefore, I didn’t hesitate long when given the opportunity to head to Boston one year. Walking around in Cambridge in the snow was just as much motivation for the trip as my “official” reason: learning more about IFS and Self-Compassion Mindfulness at a training sponsored by Harvard Medical School.
Integrating IFS and Mindful Self-Compassion
I have had the opportunity to receive advanced (level 3) training in Internal Family Systems from its founder, Dr. Dick Schwartz. I have loved using this model ever since.
The training in Boston, “Integrating IFS and Mindful Self-Compassion,” piqued my curiosity. It promises to teach clinical skills for fostering clients’ greater self-awareness and bringing compassion to self. I looked forward to learning from the leading experts in this field and glean knowledge just as much for my own use as for helping my clients.
I must confess that a part of me was hesitant and wondered about the legitimacy of the concept of “self-compassion.” How I was going to incorporate it into my view of looking at the world and people in it? I realized that this was going to be just as much of a journey of self-discovery and as well as an excellent mental exercise to understand and interpret cutting edge science.
What exactly is mindfulness?
The term “mindfulness” in psychology is often used to express both explicit and implicit awareness, attention and remembering.
- Awareness of the present moment
- Attention to what is happening in one’s inside
- Remembering to be aware and pay attention
Dr. Chris Germer, psychologist and co-developer of Self-Compassion Mindfulness calls it “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” As we practice these skills, we begin to relate to ourselves and to people around us in a different way. Our brain deepens its capacity to focus the mind in the present moment. We unfold our thoughts and feelings without distraction from what is happening to us.
How We Avoid the Present
We all have had the experience of a day that “went wrong”—an unexpected event, an unpleasant interaction with a colleague or a friend, disappointing news, or embarrassing exposure and public humiliation. Regardless of how deep these events cut inside, we have a tendency to distract ourselves from the discomfort they cause. “I wish I could just disappear right now,” or “I wish I could just grow wings and fly away,” we say to ourselves. “This is unbearable, I can’t deal with this.”
As we develop mindfulness skills, we notice that the thoughts or emotions that we tend to resist also persist. We try escaping the awareness of the pain by indulging in mindless activities, over-emphasizing the importance of pleasure, work, or relationships. We develop skillfully constructed webs of frivolous diversions such as addictions or obsessions.
“The suffering itself is not so bad; it is the resentment against suffering that is the real pain” —Allen Ginsberg
Learning and practicing Mindfulness Self-Compassion (MSC) can open one up to accept a wider range of experience. What I find so fascinating about it is that the concept of leaning into one’s present experience, instead of resisting it, works across the board regardless of one’s world view or cultural orientation because we all share the same neurobiological make-up as human beings. From the moment of our birth, we are all on a quest for happiness. Our ideas about what happiness means is shaped by myriads of factors including our families, communities and society in general. By the time we hit early adulthood, we don’t expect to be happy unless we have the right relationships, schools, careers, looks, cars, money and stuff. For most of us, suffering is a real surprise—something we just don’t believe will happen to us. While the amount of emotional and physical pain varies person to person, no one gets away with a pain-free ride in life.
To test your own level of happiness, close your eyes for a minute and imagine all the things that you want but don’t have. The gap between what you long for and what you have in the present moment is your level of unhappiness. Then take a minute and observe some of your thoughts and feelings that surface as you are identifying this gap. Are you disappointed? Are you frustrated? Are you embarrassed? Are you driven to win and close in on the gap? Whatever your response may be, your level of distress will depend on your relationship to pain and pleasure and to what degree the fear or the love of them dominate your life.
Dr. Chris Germer writes in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: “When we’re caught up in our pain, we also go to war against ourselves. The body protects itself against danger through fight, flight, or freeze (staying frozen in place), but when we’re challenged emotionally” these reactions change into “self-criticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption.” Dr. Germer continues: “A healing alternative is to cultivate a new relationship to ourselves described by research psychologist Kristin Neff as self-kindness, a sense of connection with the rest of humanity, and balanced awareness”(page 33).
When I take a step back and focus my lenses on these words from an ontological perspective, I see God’s original design for man shining through, in that God made man in His Image, with the capacity to be loved and express love. Reformed theologians have argued that even physically, man reflects what God is morally, spiritually, invisibly. If this is true, can we practice living as His created analogies even in the way we relate to ourselves? Being created in His likeness also expresses limitations; and we are not identical to God in any way, but the doctrine of the image of God informs the Christian’s understanding of himself or herself as well as his or her response to it.
While Dr. Germer, a Buddhist psychologist, would not share this view of ontology, I have still learned a lot from him regarding developing the inner strength of self-compassion. MSC techniques are an effective ways to practice concentration, being present in the moment and connecting with the body. It has been researched and proven to work effectively in treating a variety of problems such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, trauma reactions and working with what we can’t control.
If you’d like to learn more about Mindfulness Self-Compassion or Internal Family Systems, call Marti Witherow or email her for an appointment.
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