I'm pretty humbled sometimes by the success of Taming the Polar Bears. I suppose it's because almost everyone has some sort of "bear" (AKA inner demons) to "tame".
While the page views run into the tens of thousands, the "likes" and "plusses" into the thousands, I can have no real idea how many people really read my posts and get value from them (probably I've put no small number of people to sleep with the length of some of them) but I do get a fair amount of direct feedback and occasional emails or private messages. And such was the case this evening, from someone I know to be a regular reader.
Regarding the post on Spirituality and Compassion, a question:
Would you please add some examples on exactly how to
practice self-compassion? How to catch yourself being too
harsh on yourself and then replace the self destructive
thoughts with more compassionate ones??!
Thank you :))
Actually, it didn't start off with "dear Brad" but I thought it'd be fun to give it a "dear Abby" tone. Maybe that should be a regular thing.
Anyway, this of course is a great question (two actually).
I talk to and have talked to a lot of people about "all this". Plus, in various online forums and communities I belong to or have belonged to, I have followed the personal stories of probably at least a hundred people. And I can tell you that for the great majority of the people whose story I've come to know and are suffering mental health problems in some way, that self-hate, self destructive thoughts and beating oneself up inner dialogue is distressingly common. Turning these things around and learning to practice self-compassion and better inner dialogue can be tremendously difficult.
I think most people just become okay with self-destructive inner language and mindsets. There will be times when it feels things in life are going better and one is feeling better that it will go away or diminish. Then something will go wrong - one of many possible triggers - and it will come flooding back; the fury with oneself, the self-blame, guilt, remorse, intense feelings of stupidity and inadequacy hit like a hammer blow then all the familiar beating oneself up dialog sets in and they will beat themselves up in every way about their appearance, their intelligence, their abilities, about their very being and place in this world, you name it. And what this will almost invariably create is this powerful vacuum that sucks us down into this dangerously dark depressive place we are all too familiar with.
The fury of this tires out after while, it slowly ebbs away and for a while we may feel "okay" again. One can actually feel "better" after getting this all out of their system. The inner voice is still negative and unrelenting, we feel dark and down but it's "okay", it's tolerable. It just becomes part of the furniture or a kind of background noise, the darkness a part of our "reality", something we sort of learn to accept. Some may sort of learn to tune the inner nagging out or try to ignore it.
Until the next trigger and go around, of course.
That's the normal pattern.
For me it was somewhat different.
I don't want to get into the details of my story again, but for me it was extremely simple; change - or die. I mean that very literally and seriously. I know many people have or experience "suicidal thoughts", but a bipolar mind - and especially a male bipolar mind - unleashes these with a terrifying fury and power, will and drive to do something about it that is quite different from the vast majority of the population (this is all quite well documented in regards to the difference between bipolar and unipolar "depression"). (1)
For a variety of reasons, I knew I could not allow this to happen. Yet it kept happening. And with a violent suddenness and fury that was ... terrifying, once it passed and I looked back on it.
When I started studying the brain and the power of thoughts, beliefs and mental states and the neurobiology of them and how they change the very make up and "programming" of our very neurons and then how our thoughts could - in the very literal sense of the word - be toxic, I knew I had to change how my mind works.
It was either die a long slow death or a quick one.
So for me there was never any choice. It was change - or die.
Not many people have that same motivation.
The other side of the equation was in all the studying I did, I found that it was simply not possible or reasonable to blame myself for everything my mind did or what I had become and the things I had done to become so angry with myself. Brains do a lot of weird - and wrong - things for all kinds of reasons that lie below our conscious control. That's why I write at length about all that. That's how I learned to forgive myself (though NOT forsake responsibility) and be more compassionate towards myself.
But that's not what the reader asked - to hear more of my story or for more blah-blah-blah science explanations.
So let's try a different angle.
In talking to people who have a lot of self-destructive thoughts, I can't help but notice that many of them are full of anger, hate and blame in general. Things are wrong in this world and their lives and somebody has to be to blame for this. People, I've found, can be astonishingly vicious towards others.
As anyone who's been paying attention can attest, this is all too common. What I've found with those suffering mental health problems, however, is how this can turn inwards. When this pattern of blame and anger turns in towards oneself is where we see what we looked at above.
Violent emotions will be the root of any vicious and hurtful language. This I also learned (in my blah-blah-blah science way). I also learned this in the (pretty excellent) group therapy sessions I attended in the winter of 2014.
So I knew I had to work on my emotions not only about what went wrong in my life but as well about the world around us before I could work more on self-compassion or else the violent inner outbursts would never truly go away.
It has to start there then, I'm afraid to say. We can train ourselves to speak to ourselves in a kinder language, and that is essential too of course, but without taming our "emotional polar bears" in general, we will always be prone to ambush from our own very thoughts.
Most of my work on my emotions I did with the daily sessions I created for myself for Mindfulness Meditation CBT, in which I learned to question my emotions.
"Is this <insert source of the anger> really worth getting this angry about? What difference does getting angry and upset about this make?" And many questions along these lines. And if I came up with "reasons" - which were really just rationalizations - I questioned those too.
And when I questioned myself enough and taught myself not to accept lame reasons or rationalizations for the basis of my negative emotions, I realized there wasn't a single good reason for getting angry or that it was ridiculous to think that getting angry would change any of the things in the world, or within my world, that were really outside of my control. I realized - and this is a universal truth that can be found in millenia old philosophies - that all I could really control was my own mind and my reactions to life around me and within me.
Then I would remind myself of another very real core truth - that feelings of anger and bitter hate were literally killing me from the inside. And then this saying (2) would sear into my consciousness -
Because it really is like that. Trust me. This can be explained in excruciating neuroscientific and body biology detail and it ain't pretty. As it just so happens, when brushing this piece up recently I came across this brief introduction and handy infographic that outlines this. This is exactly what I mean when I say that our reactions plus the thoughts and language we use for them are literally toxic and making us sick.
In the mindfulness CBT sessions, we also examine and work on our core values. So the question you have to ask yourself is this: "Is this really how I want to be? Is this <insert negative emotional state and its source> really what I want as a core value for myself?"
And when we really put it to ourselves like that, it sounds ridiculous. Nobody wants an angry, bitter, hateful person with venomous language to be our core self, for that to be part of our core values. I'd also bet dimes to doughnuts that there will be times when people have flashes of recognition about this and beat themselves up about this too.
So what would we like to be in place of that?
Personally, I think having as a core value being a kinder, more compassionate and gentler person in general would be awesome.
But I know what you're thinking - that's "wimpy".
And that, my friends - and pardon the language - is bullshit. Complete and utter hogwash. Nonsense.
For what I have also discovered is that emotional responses filled with hate and anger and bitterness are what's actually wimpy. These are the hallmarks of weak people.
True strength lies in kindness and compassion - towards others, and our selves.
So looking at becoming stronger through compassion and gentleness as becoming part of our core values begins to sound pretty awesome. We begin to look at it as growing into becoming a stronger person. We can look at it as building our "superpowers". For it is always better to build towards something than to just trying to leave something behind.
So first we begin by learning the process of chosing different emotional responses. We begin that by questioning the basis for our emotions and especially anger and bitter blaming of others and our selves. For in fact, blame changes nothing and only hurts one person and one person only - you.
Or it hurts those closest to us and that comes back to hurt us as well.
Once we begin and establish a beachhead by questioning and then building better emotional responses, we can then begin to retrain our inner thoughts and dialogues.
Now about those emotional responses. It is not reasonable or realistic - or even desirable - to expect us not to at times go through powerful negative emotions emotional experiences. Negative emotions like anger are a natural part of us, a natural reaction to what we feel is unjust (speaking very generally). We're not going to stop feeling it or having it triggered and while learning to stop beating ourselves up and learning better internal language are critical, what we also need to learn is how to better channel negative emotions when we do feel them. This is a whole different conversation for a different post but another strategy is learning ways to channel powerful emotions - AKA our "passions" - into something more positive and constructive. People sometimes ask me how I can take on such a big project as everything that goes into this blog and put so much into it. That's the answer - I took all the powerful feelings I had about all the wrongs and injustice I found in the world of mental illness plus the enormous empathetic pain I felt for everyone and I channeled it (and continue to) into all the research, writing and work I do.
I don't recommend taking on a project this big (though nor do I discourage it) but you too can find positive constructive ways to channel your passions and sense of injustice.
These things like any habit change, we start with a larger goal - a want, in this case becoming an awesome kinder, gentler more compassionate strong superpower person and finding ways to channel our energies. Then each time we catch ourselves with beating ourselves up language we practice "won't" - stopping it. Then we replace with a better "will" choice. (I have a more detailed post for retraining our "inner critic" coming soon, I hope)
We learn to do that with others, then ourselves - or ourselves, then others. It all has to work together.
Another trick I taught myself for cutting off negative thoughts and dialogue at their roots was that I set up all kinds of "police - do not cross" tape in my mind. I just took all kinds of really shitty stuff that was sure to bring feelings of pain, remorse, guilt, shame, humiliation and so on and put it all behind those "do not cross" barriers. I trained myself every time that shitty stuff came up in my mind to say to myself - "do not go there", and I literally visualized it behind that police tape. I put all the crap in territories of my mind that were strictly "off-limits". This really helps in preventing oneself from dredging up painful shitty stuff from the past. (I would later find this to be quite a common strategy)
I also worked hard daily to create things to feel good about. I tried daily to do positive, productive things and tell myself - "atta boy!". Seriously. This is how it works. This is how we slowly retrain our minds and thoughts and dialogue.
It's hard to train our minds to think and talk to ourselves differently without "mentors" or examples. You have to seek what gentler language sounds like. You have to seek and read and hear and soak up examples. This also probably means cutting out half the crap you read and listen to (something I am getting to in more detail in a coming Positive Difference Making Fundamentals post on changing "data input").
It helps to practice daily - that's what I created my Brain Training Exercises for.
The road to learning true self-compassion and changing our inner dialogue and thoughts is not perfect nor will you be perfect. It's a daily thing. We just try each day to be a little better at it. Some days will not go well. When you've had a bad day - and these invariably will be when we're tired and worn down and our "willpower" to resist natural urges depleted - we just let that go and try get a good night's sleep and try again the next day. Rinse, repeat.
And slowly it will change.
So to start, ask yourself - look ahead a year, two years, three years, five years. Do you really want to still be like this then? Think and imagine hard on that. I know you all have very vivid imaginations for things like this. If you do this right, it should hurt. Really hurt.
Good. Now imagine that pain again and again year after year and waking up five years from now and being even more bitter and angry and full of self hatred - and very likely more physically ill.
Then understand that the only alternative to that is to be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate - and truly strong - person.
Can you do it? Goddamn right you can.
But as with thoughts and inner dialogue, we need examples and mentors. So find some. What does compassion look like? Sound like? Model that.
The reader asked what I did - that's what I do.
Then - then! - even more powerful - be a mentor and model for others. That, my friend, is when this will really begin to take root.
That's how you tame the polar bears of destructive self language and learn self-compassion.
(1) My entire understanding of the mental states I went through and continue to deal with has changed radically since being diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encethalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that arises out of a history of early to mid life concussions. Many of the symptoms mirror those which could be found in bipolar. I'm still sorting through it all, as I literally have to "rewrite" the book of the mind phenomenon I experienced and suffered through for the past decade plus.
(2) though popularly attributed to Buddha, this is actually not so - it holds up, nonetheless