Published Dec 8, 2017 on Lyra Blog
By Dennis Tirch, PhD
We live in an age in which anxiety problems are at their highest recorded levels. Social fears and shame-related problems are among the most common issues people report. Jerry Seinfeld told a famous joke about this, saying that the number one fear expressed by Americans was a fear of public speaking, and that number two was the fear of death—so if you were giving a eulogy at a funeral, there’s a good chance you’d rather be in the coffin than behind the microphone.
Why should our fears about how we’re perceived in the minds of others be such a huge problem for us? Consider this: when you look back over your life and recall some of your most intensely anxious moments or emotional challenges, don’t these often revolve around relationships, and whether you would be acceptable or lovable to others?
In evolutionary psychology we have a saying about how important cooperation and connectedness is to humans and other primates: a lone monkey is a dead monkey. This reminds us that humans survive because we’ve learned to cooperate, connect, and take care of one another. We don’t fare very well in the wild alone, and deep in our brains, a part of us knows that. As a result, our highly sensitive system for detecting threats sets us up to experience social anxiety and attendant self-evaluation, to ensure we aren’t going to be “voted off the island.”
We evolved physically to live in small, highly cooperative groups, foraging for food together on the plains and coastlines of Africa. Over the last 50,000 years, technological evolution has moved a lot faster than physical evolution. As a result, we now live in a wildly competitive society, and are flooded with images at a rate that our brains were never designed to handle. If you live in the developed world and interact with a smartphone, computer, and television, you’re going to be exposed to more images of threat, sex, and competition in one week than generations of your ancestors might have witnessed over a hundred years.
Funnily enough, our brains don’t fully comprehend that not all of these images are real. When we see photographs, read stories, or are exposed to symbols that stimulate our brain’s threat detection system, our bodies and behaviors respond unconsciously, as if they were real. It’s similar to when you imagine your favorite food, or see an episode of a cooking show where the host is preparing a delicious lasagna; your stomach begins to release gastric juices, and you get hungry. It doesn’t matter that real food isn’t present; you’re ready for lunch.
We can use this capacity to respond so intensely to imaginary things to our advantage by cultivating new strengths, like self-compassion. Self-compassion means extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or suffering.
Research has shown that from the day we’re born until the day we die, the compassion and kindness we experience have a huge impact on how our brains mature, our physical health, and on our general well-being. Shame and social anxiety are also affected by our experience of compassion. It turns out that when we use imagery and meditation to train our brains in self-compassion, we’re able to overcome the tyranny of social fears, and we’re better able to approach life with courage, curiosity, and a capacity for joy.
The path of cultivating self-compassion takes time and involves deliberate practice. However, you can start by following three simple steps.
1. Know that it’s not your fault.
We know we didn’t choose our place in the genetic lottery. We didn’t choose to have a tricky human brain that is set up with a hair-trigger threat detection system and confusing loops of thought. We didn’t choose our parents, our childhood, or the myriad social circumstances in our lives. By realizing that much of what we suffer with is simply not our fault, we can begin to activate compassion for ourselves and others.
When we take a perspective of self-compassion, we remember how much of the pain and suffering in life is not of our choosing, and is therefore not our fault. We practice the wisdom of no-blame, which means that taking responsibility for the direction we choose in life is essential, while languishing in shame, social fears, and self-blame seldom leads to effective action.
2. Hold yourself and others in warmth and kindness.
When we are in the presence of warmth, acceptance, and affiliative emotions, we are likely to be our most flexible, empathic, and responsive. When we practice compassion for ourselves, we slow our breathing, adopt a warm and caring facial expression and tone of voice, and cultivate an open and centered body posture. We also use images that evoke compassion to bring us into contact with our compassionate mind.
In this link, you’ll find a few introductory examples of guided practices and exercises that can give you a taste of what this work is about.
3. Practice compassion as a flow.
We all can feel distressed when we repeatedly encounter the suffering of others or frequently suffer ourselves. Practicing deliberate, consistent compassion for ourselves and others builds an inner architecture of compassionate strength, and can help prevent burnout.
When you find yourself feeling that your reservoir of empathy, wisdom, and warmth is slightly drained, deliberately breathe in compassionate intentions for yourself. As you breathe in, silently affirm to yourself that your suffering will cease and be replaced by peace and happiness. As you breathe out, you can wish for others’ suffering to cease also, and wish them well-being and an end to needless struggles. You can do this as you’re going about your day or as part of a meditation practice.
When this simple practice becomes a habit, you can quickly activate your compassionate mind to better face the challenges in your life, and to greatly reduce feelings of shame and social anxiety.