It's been a year of challenges, and many of us are beating ourselves up for not getting enough done. Why?
- Many of us fall into self-blame and shame. We expect ourselves to be super-human.
- A number of brain regions are associated with shame and guilt.
- People are generally more successful when they are self-compassionate.
- "Kindfulness" can strengthen immune function, improve sleep, increase cognitive flexibility, increase empathy, and lighten mood.
It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During these 12 months, our world has experienced a virtually unprecedented period of stress and turmoil. In the United States, we’ve seen more than 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths (more than 2.5 million worldwide), not to mention grappled with the ongoing realities of racial injustice, navigated tumultuous political waters, and reeled from disasters including massive power outages in Texas and wildfires on the West Coast. It’s a wonder anyone has had the will to get out of bed in the morning.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend about her particular difficulties during the most recent months of the pandemic. She was facing a long list of challenges, including a possible layoff, facilitating her children’s online schooling, coordinating care for her aging father, coping with the loss of a friend to COVID, and simultaneously trying to do freelance writing on the side. When I asked how she was doing with all this, she said, “I just feel so scattered. I should be getting more done. There must be something wrong with me.” I was struck by the degree to which was attacking herself for reacting in a completely normal way to a chaotic and difficult situation. I wanted to hug her and say, “You’re doing the best you can. You can’t blame yourself.”
According to psychologist Shauna Shapiro, author of Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy, my friend isn’t alone. Self-kindness is in surprisingly short supply these days, and so many of us easily fall into self-blame and even shame. We seem to expect ourselves to be super-human, even though we’re all merely human.
During a recent interview on KPFA Radio’s About Health, Shapiro shared with me a piece of wisdom she learned from a Buddhist monk: “What you practice grows stronger.” Unfortunately, many of us spend much of our time practicing self-blame.
Although the monk wasn’t specifically referring to neuroscience, his observation generally accords with the research. “We know this now with neuroplasticity,” Shapiro told me. “Our repeated thoughts, behaviors, emotions, they shape our brain.” For instance, a recent review of 21 brain-imaging studies found that a number of brain regions were associated with experiences of shame and guilt. Another study showed that, in people with a history of depression, some of these regions may remain particularly sensitive to shame even after the depression has lifted. When participants with remitted depression were asked to read statements describing potentially “shameful” (socially discordant) actions while their brain activity was being monitored via fMRI, they displayed greater activation of the right amygdala and posterior insula than those without a history of depression. Although not conclusive, these findings are at least consistent with the notion that repeated self-blame and shame shape our brains’ neural pathways.
And many of us shame ourselves a lot. We criticize ourselves for not doing enough and for doing too much, for taking too long to decide and for making rash decisions, for not working hard enough, and for working too hard. Many people believe that, by engaging in such self-criticism, they’re helping themselves improve or accomplish their goals. But, research shows just the opposite: People are generally more successful when they’re able to be self-compassionate.
For Shapiro, self-compassion has the practice of mindfulness at its core. Most people think mindfulness is about deep breathing and paying attention to the present moment. Although this is true to some extent, Shapiro believes that this description is missing an important dimension: “It’s about how you pay attention: your attitude,” she told me. “It’s an attitude of kindness.”
In fact, Buddhist monk and teacher Ajahn Brahm sometimes calls mindfulness by an alternative name: “kindfulness.” According to research, mindfulness can strengthen our immune functioning, improve sleep quality, increase cognitive flexibility, grow our empathy for others, and lighten our mood. And, most importantly, it may enable us to cut ourselves a break.
Although there are many different mindfulness practices, most of us are familiar with only one. We may think that, in order to be mindful (or, perhaps we should say “kindful”), we must sit in the lotus position, close our eyes, and focus on our breathing for 20 minutes. Such formal practices can be useful for many people, of course. But, for other people, they can be a real turn-off. Luckily, this isn’t the only way of cultivating mindfulness and self-compassion. In fact, a deceptively simple practice is captured in the very name of Shapiro’s book, Good Morning, I Love You.
“I was going through a very difficult divorce,” she shared with me. “And my teacher suggested I start practicing pathways of self-kindness. She wanted me to say, ‘I love you Shauna,’ every day. But, she saw my hesitation and suggested, ‘How about just saying good morning when you wake up?’ The next morning I woke up and tried it, and it felt kind of nice. Instead of this avalanche of shame and judgment, there was a flash of kindness. I continued to practice for many days and weeks. And then, I remember so clearly, it was my birthday. I woke up, and I put my hand on my heart and this image of my grandmother came to me, and before I knew it, I said ‘Good morning, I love you Shauna, happy birthday.’ And it was as if the dam around my heart burst.”
It’s a practice anyone can do in about 30 seconds. But, despite Shapiro’s dramatic results, she cautions not to expect miracles. Instead, it’s about slowly strengthening the brain pathways associated with kindness rather than self-judgment.
“I wish I could tell everyone that it has been this blissful life of love ever since. And, of course, that’s not true,” she admitted. “But, what is true is that this pathway of kindness toward myself was established. And I’ve continued to practice every day since then. Some days it feels raw and vulnerable and uncomfortable. Some days I feel this profound self-love. And no matter what happens, I keep practicing. Because, as we know, what we practice becomes stronger.”
As we enter our second year of living with COVID-19, such intentional practices may help all of us strengthen our commitment to kindness and self-compassion. In a world filled with difficulties, wouldn’t it be nice to take self-blame off our personal list of challenges?