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Self-compassion and back pain

Back pain is a big deal. An estimated 80% of the population will suffer from back pain at some point1, and in Australia, 1 in 6 people have chronic back pain.2
Self-compassion can help.

Six months ago, I couldn’t walk.

I was stuck in bed with acute lower back pain. Even standing in the kitchen to make tea was too painful. I’d somehow triggered an old condition of sciatica that gradually got worse and worse.

This condition had previously flared up from time to time, but nothing so dramatic for years. This time however, my approach was more accepting, less resistant. I “surrendered” into the experience.

“Well, if that’s what my body is saying right now, I better listen!”

It didn’t decrease the pain, but it sure felt softer, kinder and eased my tendency to tense up and brace against the discomfort.

As well as following medical advice, I tackled the emotional and mental side of back pain with self-compassion. Every day I practised Affectionate Breathing, Loving Kindness or Giving and Receiving Compassion, specifically for my back.

I religiously asked myself, “What do I need?” and asked friends, family and colleagues for more help. I felt so grateful to them, and this felt new and unusual to my proud, independent self. I gave that self some kindness and forgiveness.

Although I’m speaking about back pain here, as this was my personal experience, the evidence suggests that self-compassion can help with all kinds of chronic and acute pain.³

Mindfulness helped me discern between when I needed rest and when I was just avoiding exercise. I did gentle physio exercises every day. The inflammation died down with medication, and soon I returned to walking and swimming. I was listening to my body’s needs with more sensitivity than ever. Dancing slowly around my living room one night felt so good, answering a heartfelt wish and feeling the joy of moving again.

After a lovely, long Loving Kindness practice one day, I felt like exploring any unmet needs around my back pain. Something that “pinged” for me emotionally was sometimes feeling unsupported in life. So I called a counsellor and started exploring any life events that felt related. This was helpful; a great complement to practising self-compassion.

Five Tips for Working With Pain

  1. Give yourself a break! 
  • Acknowledging we are suffering and bringing loving awareness to the pain can help decrease our resistance to the pain.
  • Asking, “What do I need?” Maybe it’s rest, maybe movement.
  • Lowering your expectations of what you can do.
  • Adding rest and self-care breaks into the day.
  • Dropping work or activities that feel too exhausting. Say no, if you can!

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The business case for compassion

Now for the good news!

Happier, healthier workplaces are more productive and innovative, and mindfulness and compassion-based training can help.

This isn’t just some unorthodox, fringe movement. Google, Tata and Nordstrom have all joined the so-called Conscious Capitalist movement and used business trainings like Project Oxygen to leverage the benefits of compassion for the good of their organisation and their employees.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner told audiences at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference that he is on a personal mission to “expand the world’s collective wisdom and compassion,” and that he has made the practice of compassionate management a core value at the company.

Wouldn’t we all like a nicer, kinder working environment?

Here are the top five workplace benefits of compassion training:

Teamwork compassionate workplace hug

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The courageous, active aspects of self-compassion

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Compassion is not just cosy, gentle and receptive; it can be fierce and protective. In this sense, it has both masculine and feminine aspects. Like yin and yang, we need both in order to maintain balance.

Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says that the yin is its comforting, soothing form, where we validate our pain and acknowledge our difficulties. The yang is the more motivating form of self-compassion, where we protect ourselves or provide for others—generating feelings of fierceness and strength.

“Courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Compassion without courage is not genuine. You may have a compassionate thought or impulse, but if you don’t do or say anything, it’s not real compassion.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

Think of the fire-fighters who dive into burning buildings out of compassion for others. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to sit back and watch and think, “Poor them!”

Think of a mother lion with her cubs. One moment she’s tending to them, nursing them and showing them care. Yet if the lives of those cubs are threatened, she’ll stand up and fight. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to feel pity for the hungry attacker.

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Misgivings about self-compassion

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Many people find that they are much kinder to others than they are to themselves. One of the obstacles to developing self-compassion is doubting its efficacy. These doubts are often founded on well-intended fears about being selfish or indulgent —and it’s useful to discern for ourselves whether we are choosing to be hard on ourselves for some useful purpose or whether we’re actually caught up in a habitual pattern of self-criticism.

Here are some of the common misgivings:

—Self-compassion is a pity-party

Self-compassion doesn’t mean we over-exaggerate our suffering and dissolve into a woeful mess. Mindfulness —the ability to let go of thinking and shift our attention to something present like the breath, physical sensations or the world around us— is a key component of self-compassion. Research shows that self-compassionate people are more likely to entertain a variety of perspectives rather than focus on their own distress (1) and are less likely to ruminate (2).

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The three components of self-compassion

1_OxPMWDQ1SXUdGG-EXgDBBQ.pngWhen things go wrong, how do we treat ourselves? What comes to your mind?

—Perhaps some self-criticism, being hard on ourselves?

—Feeling isolated or avoiding others for fear of shame?

—Ignoring our own painful feelings and distracting ourselves with entertainment, food, drink?

If, in recalling and reading this, we find we’re feeling a bit down about ourselves, we could place a hand on our heart or give our arm a reassuring rub. We could tell ourselves it’s okay, we’re all hard on ourselves at times. And we could perhaps encourage ourselves with some self-talk like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” Taking a moment to really feel that warmth and reassurance.

Here, we just practised all three components of self-compassion.

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