Are you allergic to honey?

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

The following blog post was originally published at

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ~ Dalai Lama

When things don’t go as planned, is your go-to explanation that it’s because you did something wrong, or because there’s something wrong with you? For many people, self-compassion is a real challenge.

Most of us want to be kinder to ourselves, but our self-critical, perfectionistic patterns are often well-established, and it’s hard to know how to interrupt them. When I was in graduate school, I was driving home one evening when I noticed that my car was overheating. Just as I arrived in front of my building, the engine stalled completely.

It was 5pm on a Friday, I was blocking the bike lane, and traffic was backed up behind me. Two cars sped past beeping their horns, and then a cyclist turned and waved his fist as he rode around me. I flipped on my hazard lights.

As I dialed Triple A, the self-critical thoughts and stories started to spin: “Why didn’t I notice earlier that the car was overheating? I should have had it serviced. If I had been more on top of things, this wouldn’t be happening.”

I heard more car horns beeping as the woman at Triple A promised that a tow truck would be there within 30 minutes. After I thanked her and hung up, the self-critical stories resumed: “I’m in the way; inconveniencing everyone around me. I’m taking up too much space.”

I was startled by a knock at the passenger window. A guy with a goatee and a beanie stood next to my car, and I suspected that he was going to give me a hard time for being double-parked. Reluctantly, I lowered the window.

“Hey,” he said. “I work at the cafe right here — do you want a latte or a chai or something?”

I stared at him, speechless, blinking through the beginnings of tears.

“We’ve also got hot chocolate and tea,” he said.

He actually meant it.

“Oh,” I said. “Wow. Thank you. I’d love some chamomile tea.”

“You got it,” he said and headed back to the cafe.

I sat there, stunned. This experience did not fit into the story my inner critic had been telling. All of my self-criticism had been completely silenced by this stranger’s spontaneous impulse of kindness.

Suddenly none of this was my fault; it was just something that was happening, and I could allow it. All the stories had been just that: stories. A few moments later he reappeared with the chamomile tea and handed it to me.

“Here you go,” he said.

“Thanks.” I pulled a couple of bills from my wallet.

“Oh, no, don’t worry about it,” he said.


“Yeah,” he said.

I looked at him and took the tea.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Hey, I’ve been there.”

He tapped the passenger door twice as a goodbye. I put the window back up. The tea was too hot to drink, so I held the paper cup as it warmed my hands.

I let it register some more: This wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t evidence of me having done something wrong. It was just something that was happening, and it could just be that.

And what was so wrong about taking up space, anyway?

I was startled again by another knock. He was back. I lowered the window.

“Hey, are you allergic to honey?” he said.

“Huh? Mmm, no.”

“Oh, good. I put honey in it. I didn’t think to ask if you were allergic. If you are, I can make another one.”

“Oh, no. I love honey. Thank you,” I said.

“No worries, then.” And back to the coffee shop he went.

I smiled and blinked through a few more tears. He had put honey in my tea without me even asking? This baffled my inner critic even more; it had nothing to say.

I thought about how the self-critical stories had flared up as soon as I found myself in a challenging situation, how automatic it was for me to think that the coffee shop guy was there to criticize me, and how immediately the trance of self-judgment was broken by his act of kindness.

In five minutes, he had given me a life-altering lesson in how compassion alchemizes criticism. He had no ulterior motive: he was simply being kind and generous, and he inspired me to be more kind and generous with myself.

If you struggle with self-judgment, I invite you to tuck this simple phrase into your back pocket.

The next time you notice that critical thoughts are present, experiment with asking your inner judge, “Hey, are you allergic to honey?” It just might help you interrupt those all-to-familiar patterns, and start creating new, self-compassionate ones.

"I am not my ______________ ."

by Lea Seigen Shiinraku

I recently read a Huffington Post article about photographer Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project. Since 2010, Rosenfield has invited subjects to write words on their face and/or body that relate to their deepest insecurities. He then photographs them, looking directly at the camera, and titles their portraits with their insecurity included in the phrase, “I am not my __________________________ .” Rosenfield describes his Project as “a social experiment turned into, what is now, a global movement about honesty and empowerment.” And, I would add, self-compassion.

On the What I Be Project website, the tagline is: “building security through insecurities.” This perspective is at the heart of self-compassion ~ the sense that we can find security by bringing awareness to our insecurities, recognizing them as part of what makes us human, and meeting them with kindness.

When I lead workshops about self-compassion or speak with clients about it, I’m often reminded that kindness has an infinite number of forms. In one moment, kindness might be stepping forward and taking a risk to be vulnerable and seen. At another time, kindness might be sitting silently with your feelings and bringing curiosity to them so that you have a clearer understanding of what they are. In Rosenfield’s Project, I see profound kindness in the way that each subject is meeting themselves by acknowledging their insecurity publicly and at the same time dis-identifying with it. In this way, they are coming into a more empowering relationship with something that has been a painful aspect of their lives.

At the same time, none of these people seem to be disowning their deepest insecurity. Each subject acknowledges the truth of their experience yet also unequivocally states that it doesn’t define them. It’s as if each person has asked themselves the perennial question, “Who am I?” And instead of defining themselves by their insecurity, or by anything else, they leave the question open. They tell us what they are not. In this way, they claim their birthright ~ the knowledge that no trait or aspect can define the mystery of who we are. They seem to be saying, “Yes, this has been my experience. And No, it doesn’t define who I am. Nothing can.”

As I looked at image after image, all titled with the words, “I am not my____________”, I felt deeply moved by the depth of vulnerability I saw. Over one thousand people have participated in this Project – each one naming their deepest insecurity; the thing that they usually would be very vigilant about hiding, the thing that they might never speak about openly with anyone. Rather than showing the mask that they may usually wear, these people have put their insecurity front and center, offering it to whoever looks, and embodying the power of vulnerability.

I found the Project to be deeply moving, and I decided to write about it here so that others might find nourishment, inspiration, and a sense of human solidarity in it. Self-criticism feeds on isolation and secrecy. Self-compassion disarms it by bringing awareness to experience, meeting it with kindness, and recognizing that we are not alone in it.

I realized, too, that the What I Be Project offers all of us a fresh way to experiment with meeting the inner critic. I invite you to check it out. And I offer you this tool: the next time you notice a familiar voice inside judging you for _______________, see what happens if you internally respond, “I am not my ________________ .”

Connect With What You Love

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Together with awareness and self-kindness, a sense of interconnectedness is one of the core components of self-compassion. At a recent meeting of the Self-Compassion Circle, we talked about the ways that acknowledging what we love can lead us to a deeper sense of interconnection, common humanity, and community.

As a way to focus our discussion, we reflected on this quote:

Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” ~ Rumi

When you read these words, they probably impact you in a unique, personal way. When I read them, I’m struck by how Rumi points to the way that the self-compassionate act of acknowledging and letting our lives be guided by what we love connects us to a sense of belonging and interconnection; of what it means to be a member of the human community. I also believe that he offers tools and instructions for deepening our sense of connection. From that perspective, let’s look at Rumi’s lines more closely:

Let yourself

To “let yourself” means to meet this moment as fully as you can; to give yourself permission to be aware of what’s true right now, acknowledge it, and allow it to register. You can close your eyes and focus on a felt sense of what’s true, or you might name this truth to yourself internally, or on paper. This can just be your best guess about what’s true. Your truth, or your understanding of it, may change or become more refined or specific, so you don’t have to be rigid about this. It can be so easy to get caught up in “getting it right” which then often leads to feeling paralyzed and unable to let your experience register because you don’t have certainty. Give yourself space to experiment and continue to check in about what’s deeply true.

be silently drawn

Being silently drawn involves deep listening and attuning to yourself and what’s true. Maybe you’re used to attuning to other people ~ your partner, child, family, friends, colleagues, customers, clients. If that’s true for you, perhaps you notice that you tend to lose touch with yourself. See if you can focus on what’s deeply drawing your attention right now. You might turn your attention to your heart. Underneath the words that you might be trying to apply to this situation, what else is there? Notice what comes up when you rest your attention on your heart and your experience.

by the strange pull

When you attune to yourself and notice what the “strange pull” seems to be, you may also notice that it does not make sense rationally. If it did, it wouldn’t seem so strange. At the same time, listening to the strange pull is probably not the first thing you think of when you’re at a major or minor crossroads. When faced with a big decision, many of us try to think our way to the “right” choice. Maybe we make lists of Pros and Cons, or we look at the numbers, the different scenarios of how things could go – searching for the air-tight answer that will ensure that we won’t make a mistake or fail. But even with the best planning, there are no guarantees. And while facts and figures are useful, they can only take us so far.

That’s when it’s time to give attention to the strange pull ~ the inner compass that’s not necessarily rational. It springs from embodied experience, intuition, and a willingness to experiment with trusting your best guess. I see cultivating self-compassion as a way of becoming more skilled at hearing and heeding the strange pull. When you pay attention to your experience, you become more accustomed to asking before you act: What actually feels most deeply true right now, and what is the appropriate response?

of what you really love.

What do you really love? It can be hard to acknowledge this aspect of what’s true. For some of us, there’s a fear that naming what we love exposes our vulnerability, and that can make us feel unsafe. There may also be anxiety that stems from a belief that when we identify what we love, it can be more easily taken from us. At the same time, knowing what we love can give us crucial information about our values, and whether they are reflected in the choices we’re making in our lives. 

In the Self-Compassion Circle last month, we did an exercise that helped people to connect with what they really love. I asked everyone to find a partner and to decide who would speak and who would listen. Then, each speaker said, “I really love __________ .” Every time the speaker named something she loved, the listener said, “Thank you.” And then the speaker named something else that she loved. This continued for five minutes, and then speaker and listener switched roles. Sharing in this way seemed to help each person feel more connected to herself, and to others in the group. In particular, this practice seemed to support the group in connecting to a feeling of gratitude for the love in their lives.

If you’d like to experiment with this practice, you can ask someone you know to try it with you. You can also try it on your own. Simply write “I really love…” in a notebook or blank document and see what comes out. Then do it again and again. Try filling a whole page by just writing continuously.

It will not lead you astray.

When Rumi says that recognizing the truth of what you really love and letting it guide you will not lead you astray, he doesn’t say that your path will be pain-free and smooth. You will probably experience deep joy and satisfaction. And you will probably also find yourself in difficult situations for which there is no map or blueprint, unsure about how to proceed or whether you’re capable of meeting the challenge. These are the times that may make you doubt your choices and wonder if you’ve made a mistake. When you find yourself doubting, know that this experience is both deeply human and deeply heroic. Anyone who has attempted something outside of their comfort zone has experienced this. It’s part of what you meet when you set out on your unique path.

It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” ~ Joseph Campbell 

Letting yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love will not lead you astray. It will show you what it is to be human ~ the ease, the joy, the challenge and the grief. And with that knowing, your capacity for compassion – both for yourself and for others – deepens and expands. This is how knowing what you love can give you a deep sense of community, interconnectedness and common humanity.

Bringing Self-Compassion to Work

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

At a recent Self-Compassion Circle, we focused on the group’s challenges with self-criticism at work. I wanted to talk about this topic because I had noticed that a lot of people have intense self-judgment in this area of their life. Whether they work at home or out in the world, are self-employed, in a supervisory role, or not, many seem to struggle with:

  • self-critical thoughts/perfectionism
  • self-doubt/believing they’re not enough or not good enough
  • comparing themselves to others/resentment/envy
  • people-pleasing/over-working/difficulty setting boundaries and meeting conflict adaptively
  • stress/overwhelm/burn out

As I thought more about self-criticism at work, I wondered about why it’s so prevalent. For many of us, this habit runs so deep, that it can be difficult to discern what’s driving it. While we’re all unique, I think that one reason why most people criticize themselves at work (and in other aspects of their lives) is that they think that they have to be harsh to stay motivated. If they don’t correct themselves constantly and strive to be better, they worry that they will stagnate, be lazy, and fall short of their goals.

At the same time, most of us count on bringing home a paycheck. What if your boss decides that you’re not doing your job very well? Or, if you’re self-employed: What if you disappoint a major client? What if you don’t meet your goals this month? When you believe that your financial survival is at risk, the stakes are incredibly high.

So, many people experience work as a place where they need to criticize themselves to do better, and they feel that their very survival depends on them doing better. No wonder self-criticism can feel so intense!

However, when I looked into this more deeply, I discovered that what I had found with my clients, friends, colleagues and myself has also been validated by research: Self-criticism is not an effective motivator.

In her Huffington Post blog, self-compassion pioneer Kristen Neff wrote, “Research shows that self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed — not exactly get-up-and-go mindsets. They also have lower self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., self-confidence in their abilities), which undermines their potential for success. The habit of self-criticism engenders fear of failure, meaning that self-critics often don’t even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable.” Instead of motivating you, self-criticism actually seems to handicap you and make it harder for you to make wise, responsive choices.

Research also indicates that self-compassion is a much more effective motivator, according to Neff and a UC Berkeley study that focused on self-compassion and self-improvement motivation.

So, how can you shift the way you relate to this part of your life? How can you bring more awareness, a deeper sense of interconnectedness and greater self-kindness ~ more self-compassion ~ to your work experience?

Try this three-step practice:

First: Bring awareness to your particular struggle with self-judgment at work. This may seem obvious, yet becoming more consciously aware of your challenges in a matter-of-fact way can help significantly. That’s because as soon as you do that, you are no longer 100% in the trance of self-judgment. There’s at least some part of you that’s observing and witnessing what’s happening, rather than being caught up in it. Part of bringing awareness can be naming your experience. Look at the list of struggles above. Maybe some or all of them feel familiar to you. Check in with yourself ~ do you struggle with perfectionism? self-doubt? comparing yourself to others? stress? people-pleasing? Get as specific as you can. Maybe a particular word, image or symbol comes to mind when you think about self-criticism at work. In the way that feels right to you, identify your work challenges.

Next, recognize that you are not alone. Whatever your situation is, you belong; your experience of your situation belongs. Whatever apparent mistakes you believe you are making, there is wisdom in them. Likely it’s a wisdom that you don’t yet know or understand. See if you can allow yourself to consider this possibility: that you’re not alone, and that there’s an inherent wisdom in this habitual response/struggle you’re noticing, and that many other people relate to their lives and themselves in this way, too.

Third, ask yourself: What is the most deeply kind way that I can relate to myself right now? If a friend was feeling this way, what would I tell him/her? If someone who loves me, or someone who I perceive as deeply compassionate, was here, what do I imagine they would say or do? There’s no right answer to this question. Every person is different; and every situation is different. See if you can let yourself experiment with just your best guess about the most deeply kind way to relate to yourself right now. That’s all it has to be: your best guess in this moment.

The most deeply kind response might be taking a break to walk around the block. It could be bringing genuine, compassionate curiosity to your habit of self-criticism. It might be closing your web browser and focusing on a particular task for a set period of time. It may be initiating a potentially difficult conversation with someone you work with; a conversation you’ve been avoiding. Or, it might be a long-overdue reckoning with yourself about your true values and whether you are living them in your actions.

One of self-compassion’s most powerful gifts is that it can put you back in touch with your conscious choices. Rather than allowing your habits of mind to determine how you relate to a situation at work, you can become more skilled at recognizing your patterns, and decide to respond in new ways. By doing that, you can connect with a sense of agency, wisdom and creativity, and come into a more flexible, compassionate and generative relationship with your work life, and with yourself.

Keep Your Feet on the Ground, and Keep Reaching for the Stars

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Did you grow up with Casey Kasem‘s weekly Top 40 radio show? It was a Saturday morning staple for me, and I always waited for his catch-phrase at the end of every show: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” While Casey’s words might sound trite, they’re relevant to setting inclusive intentions ~ a key aspect of cultivating self-compassion. 

Self-compassion means that you “keep your feet on the ground” by acknowledging how you’re feeling at any given moment ~ (whether it’s critical, sad, tired, joyful, open, discouraged, inspired, etc.). Rather than turning away from your feelings, or becoming overwhelmed by them, you choose to stay kindly present with them, recognizing that what you’re feeling is part of being human.

Relating to yourself with self-compassion also means that you “keep reaching for the stars” by acknowledging where you aspire to be. Perhaps that means you’d like to feel more content, accepting, loving, compassionate, confident, or expansive. An inclusive intention has room for your fullest understanding of yourself: who you’ve been, who you are and who you’re becoming; it honors all of you: past, present and future.

Intention-setting is a powerful way to remind you of your priorities when you notice that you’ve gotten off track. At the same time, there’s an important difference between an inclusive intention and a resolution. With most resolutions, it’s very easy to get caught up in the fantasy of who you can become, while abandoning who you are right now. Self-improvement projects and ideas of who you’re supposed to be can make you lose sight of the dignity and wisdom in who you are right now, as is. When you forget your value as you are in this very moment, you become ungrounded and disconnected from yourself. Inclusive intentions honor the dignity of who you are right now, while also recognizing that you aspire to grow in a more compassionate direction.

How to Set an Inclusive Intention

Would you like to set an inclusive intention to be more self-compassionate?
Try these three steps:

1. Recognize and acknowledge how you feel right now, and that it’s challenging. For example: “I feel discouraged by how harshly I criticize myself, and that’s really challenging.” or “It’s painful to feel powerless over my self-judgment.”

2. Clarify and name the way that you are growing; how you would like to be responding to your suffering. For example: “I am learning to relate to myself with more compassion.” or “I am experimenting with being more kind and curious with myself.” 

3. Set your intention by including both your acknowledgment of where you are and your aspiration for where you’d like to be. For example: “I feel discouraged by how harshly I criticize myself, and that’s really challenging. At the same time, I know that I’m learning to relate to myself with more compassion.” or “It’s painful to feel powerless over my self-judgment. And, I am experimenting with being more kind and curious with myself.”

Once you set your inclusive intention, you might write it down or type it into your phone or tablet, so you have a reminder near at hand. It’s natural to lapse into well-worn, self-critical habit patterns. Having the support of an inclusive intention can help you change the way you relate to your experience, without abandoning parts of yourself in the process.

Here’s a poem I wrote many summers ago that speaks to the importance of making room for different ways of growing as you cultivate self-compassion. I hope you find it supportive in setting inclusive intentions.

A tree knows how
by Lea Seigen Shinraku

I think I am air.
I think I am dirt.
When I am both.
When I am neither –
like a tree.

a tree knows how
to be solid trunk and
strong, flexible limbs.

To silently speak,
with thousands of tongues,
that reach for both sunlight and rain.

To be fed by roots
that thread between rocks
and find their place in the earth.
To grow in two directions at once.

To touch clouds
without floating in them.
To be grounded, not buried.
To never know what a tree is.

To simply be one.

Bouncing Back from an Unforced Error: Recognize, Relax, Refocus

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

If you’re human, you’ve probably made an unforced error. An unforced error is a sports term that refers to a missed shot or lost point (as in tennis or volleyball) that’s entirely a result of the player’s own error and not because of the opponent’s skill or effort. In other words, it’s the shot you “should” have made. You’ve made shots like that hundreds, maybe thousands of times, yet for some reason, you missed it this time. 

I learned the term “unforced error” recently, on a day when my inner critic was very vocal about a blunder I made with an airline reservation. I had made the reservation for a flight to Austin two weeks before. When I happened to check the reservation (two weeks after I had booked it), I realized that I had reversed the airports. Rather than a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Austin, I had purchased a round-trip ticket from Austin to San Francisco.

I called the airline, and the agent said that while the price of the ticket was the same, I would have to pay a $150 change fee (this was more than half the price of the ticket itself). No matter how sincerely I made my case, the agent and her manager would not budge. Because it was more than 24 hours after I made the reservation, I would have to pay the fee. 

After the call ended, my inner critic had a lot to say: “How could this happen?” “Why didn’t you check the confirmation email?” and (my favorite) “You’re really letting things slide: What if this is evidence of early-onset dementia?”

My inner critic was intent on convincing me that I had made a big mistake, and I felt a level of anxiety which I recognized was out of proportion to the situation. I knew that I needed to get a broader perspective. So, I texted my partner about it. He empathized and kindly observed, “You really have a hard time with unforced errors.” I immediately Googled the term and felt relief ~ both because I felt understood, and because it was such an apt and helpful phrase.

However human it is to make mistakes, the inner critic is typically unconvinced of this truth. Instead, it sees an unforced error as something that “wasn’t supposed to happen.” The inner critic often tries to use an unforced error as evidence of your incompetence or unreliability. It’s as if it’s constantly looking for evidence to support its case that there’s something wrong with you. There are many ways to understand why the inner critic does this ~ it’s often a strategy we develop as young children when we don’t know how to understand our suffering. We create and believe the story that when we feel “bad”, it must be because we are “bad.”

So, when your inner critic is interrogating you about an unforced error, how can you re-write this story? What you need most in those moments is self-compassion. Sports psychology recommends a three-step approach for athletes who make an unforced error: recognize, relax, refocus. This recommendation feels aligned with the three components of self-compassion: awareness, interconnectedness, and kindness. For athletes, and the rest of us, it’s important that we bounce back from unforced errors, because if we become preoccupied with them, we won’t be present and available for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives.

The next time you make an unforced error, try this:

Recognize: Bring awareness to the situation. Acknowledge that you did something you didn’t intend to do. Notice how you feel, and notice if your actions had an impact on anyone else.

Relax: Remember that you are human; and all humans are imperfect. Reach out to a friend or loved one if you need to be reminded of this, or think about all the other people in the world who have likely done the same thing that you just did. You’re not alone.

Refocus: See if you can relate to yourself with kindness. Try writing a letter to yourself as if it was written by a caring friend; or write a letter to a friend as if they made the same unforced error that you did. If it seems too hard to be kind to yourself, try setting the intention to be kind, even though it feels impossible. You can also try being curious; open curiosity is a potent form of kindness. And, if your unforced error had a negative impact on someone else, acknowledging that impact and taking responsibility would likely be an expression of kindness, both to them and to yourself.

Compassion for Inconvenient Feelings

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Recently, I met a little dog named Cookie who reminded me of how easy it can be to misunderstand inconvenient feelings, as well as how hard it can be to have compassion for them.

I sat down beside Cookie at in the airport waiting area. He was in a pet carrier, and I heard him before I saw him; his barking and whining were loud and insistent. Cookie’s mom was talking with friends she had bumped into, and I heard her say that she had given him half a klonopin for his anxiety, but that it wasn’t working.

Cookie seemed terrified, and I had some sense of what it was probably like for him sitting in a strange environment with hundreds of unfamiliar people, sounds, and smells. My hunch is that Cookie is an HSD (highly sensitive dog). And, similar to HSPs (highly sensitive persons), overstimulation can be crippling.

Wanting to help, I caught the mom’s eye and smiled. That morning, a friend had shown me some YouTube videos about thunder shirts, which were originally made for dogs who become anxious during thunderstorms. These little coats hug a dog’s body and seem to instantly soothe and relax them. I asked the mom if she knew about thunder shirts, noting that I had just heard about them myself that morning. She hadn’t, but she immediately googled the term and seemed excited and grateful to have a possible solution to Cookie’s anxiety.

I felt for the mom. She, her daughter and Cookie seemed to be traveling to visit family. I could sense her stress and self-consciousness as Cookie continued to bark and whine, no matter what she did to soothe him. At the same time, I felt sad and disappointed when I heard her say to her husband on the phone, “Cookie’s already misbehaving.”

I thought to myself, “Gee, if I didn’t understand human language, and a family member stuck me in a ventilated nylon bag not much larger than my body, dosed me with half a klonopin, and brought me to a busy airport, I might react the same way.” I didn’t see it as misbehavior. Instead, it seemed fully understandable, given the situation.

And as I waited for boarding to start, I began to think about the connection between how the mom was characterizing Cookie, and the way that many people relate to the parts of themselves that “act out” in certain situations and don’t follow the “plan.”

For example, let’s say you’re going through a breakup or divorce, and while you’re in the middle of it, your best friend gets engaged. As much as you might want to celebrate with your friend, it’s likely going to feel difficult to be as effusive as you might wish to be. In addition to sympathetic joy, you could also feel anger, sadness and anxiety.

If you didn’t understand and accept the full range of your feelings as normal, you might harshly judge yourself for having these “bad” feelings: “What’s wrong with me that I’m not happy for them? Why am I being so selfish? Why can’t I put my feelings aside?” 

However, it’s completely human and understandable to have complex feelings, some of which may not match your ideas about how you’re “supposed to” feel. Just because your feelings don’t appear in a Hallmark card, doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them, or you.

Just because your feelings don’t appear in a Hallmark card, doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them, or you.”

Cookie continued to struggle during boarding, takeoff, and throughout the flight, barking and whining unless he was in his mom’s lap. I was seated in the row behind them, and I could sense her difficulty in navigating the cold stares of fellow passengers, as well as the flight attendant’s insistence that she put Cookie in his carrier.

At the same time, I again felt sad and frustrated when the plane touched down and I heard her say to her young daughter, “Cookie was very naughty today.” And her young daughter repeated it, “Yeah, Cookie was naughty.”

Of course, it would have been a more peaceful flight if Cookie hadn’t felt so scared, and if he hadn’t barked and whined. But Cookie wasn’t naughty; he was terrified.

I didn’t feel that it was the appropriate time to point this out to Cookie’s mom, because I could see that she was already very stressed and self-conscious. But maybe Cookie’s story can help you come into a different relationship with the parts of yourself that you perceive as naughty or inconvenient.

The next time you’re having feelings that seem like they don’t belong, see if you can take a step back and ask: What if these feelings are just part of being human? If you bring curiosity to them and experiment with the possibility that there’s nothing wrong with having complex feelings, you may find that they are innocent, and completely worthy of your compassion and understanding.

Self-Compassion for Healthier Relationships

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

It’s probably obvious that cultivating self-compassion will help you come into a healthier relationship with yourself. When you practice interrupting old patterns of self-criticism and relating to your experience with greater curiosity and less judgment, your internal climate becomes significantly friendlier.

What may be less apparent are the ways that self-compassion can help you have healthier relationships with everyone else in your life: from loved ones and colleagues with whom you may have ongoing interpersonal difficulties, to challenging people you encounter in your everyday life.In fact, studies have shown that people who are more self-compassionate have more satisfying romantic relationships and are more successful in navigating interpersonal conflict.

So, how can being kinder to yourself support you in cultivating healthier relationships? The short answer is that self-compassion helps you have more adaptive interpersonal boundaries. When a relationship is not working well, it is usually a boundary issue.

For example, if you are crossing someone else’s boundaries – perhaps by expecting/demanding something from them that they are not able to give, you will likely feel pain and anger. In 12-step programs, this habit pattern is sometimes called, “Going to the hardware store for groceries.” In other words, you are looking for something in a place where you will not find it, yet still insisting that it be there.

Or, if you are not aware of the porous nature of your boundaries, you may tend to “absorb” the feelings of others. You may find yourself depleted and burned out after spending time with loved ones who are challenging to you or struggling in some way.

The pain you feel in relationship usually comes from either feeling disconnected, or from feeling overwhelmed. Both are challenges that have to do with the space between yourself and others. Being aware of these two ways that relationship can by painful is an important initial step in relating to yourself with compassion. Accurately naming what hurts, itself, can be deeply relieving.

If you feel disconnected from a loved one, self-compassion can help you tap into your own caregiving impulse so that you can offer validation and kindness to yourself whenever you need it. Without access to that capacity within, you will habitually look for validation and soothing from others.

You may be able to get your needs met by others some of the time, or even most of the time, if you have people in your life who are emotionally available when you need them to be. However, at some point, those people are not going to be there in the way that you want them to be. It’s inevitable. Maybe your partner will have a hard day at work and just won’t have the bandwidth to comfort you after your hard day. Or, maybe a good friend whom you’ve counted on has a new relationship, or an ailing family member, and just can’t be there as they typically would.

When this happens, you will likely feel stuck and somewhat bereft. And, you may very likely feel angry (and perhaps ashamed about feeling angry) because the people you count on for support aren’t there. This is precisely when self-compassion can help. Self-compassion practice can help you to identify your anger, and it can also lead you to be curious about the softer feelings underneath, and the needs that are not being met. And it can help you to experiment with meeting those needs yourself.

If you are experiencing the other kind of relational pain ~ the pain of overwhelm, self-compassion can also be a powerful support. For example, if you spend time with a friend or loved one who is feeling depressed or anxious (or some combination), you may find yourself feeling drained and burned out afterward. When this happens, it’s often because you have “taken on” the pain of your loved one and maybe believe that it is your job to “fix” it. This will deplete you.

Instead, you can begin to recognize the impact and relate to yourself with compassion. Recognizing how drained you feel and relating to yourself with compassion reminds you that it is not your job to fix anyone else’s problems. There is a boundary between you and your loved one, and you can offer compassion to both yourself and them, without feeling compelled to solve their puzzles.

In both of these situations, a very powerful tool is the Self-Compassion Break. This straightforward practice was developed by Kristin Neff, and it is a series of nonjudgmental phrases that you can repeat silently to yourself whenever you are struggling in relationship. The basic phrases are:

This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is part of life.

May I be kind to myself.

May I give myself the compassion that I need right now.

You can tailor these phrases so that they feel right to you. Some people don’t like to use the word “suffering” and instead prefer “challenge.” If you are struggling in a particular relationship, you may modify the second line to something like: “Suffering is part of all relationships.” Feel free to experiment until you find the phrases that feel right to you. You can also click here to listen to a guided Self-Compassion Break meditation.

Self-Expression vs. Self-Improvement

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Each January, it’s tempting to start thinking about resolutions and creating plans for how we’re going to become new and improved versions of ourselves. The means may vary ~ a change in exercise frequency, eating habits, finances, career ~ but the underlying assumption is often the same: There’s something wrong with the way we are right now. While the impulse for growth is an essential part of being alive, when we pursue it in a way that’s disconnected from a respect for who we are, it can feel oppressive instead of liberating.

Often, self-improvement plans spring from an idea of what the “normal ideal” is, and how we need to shape up so we can be perceived as more worthy of others’ respect, admiration, love and maybe even envy. In other words, an idea that is not so self-compassionate.

When I learned that David Bowie had died, just over a week into 2016, I was in New Orleans. This seemed somehow fitting. Bowie was an artist who was thoroughly unique, a being who did not try to fit in, but who consistently expressed his particular vision. During my visit to New Orleans, I saw that spirit, too. In everyday ways, and as people across the city got closer to being ready for the Mardi Gras parades, I saw a tolerance and friendliness that encouraged what might be labeled and scorned as “weird” in other places.

I felt very sad and moved to know that Bowie had died, and his passing also felt like an important reminder at that time of year. It can be tempting to get pulled into the idea of a resolution; the promise of a “new and improved” you. Perhaps there’s something uniquely American about this, too. Victor Frankl said, “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

Most advertising preys on our desire to comply with the command to be happy. The messaging typically goes something like “if only you have this new item, you will be a different person, and if you become a different person, then, finally, you will be happy.”

Of course, the reality is that this kind of happiness isn’t trustworthy, and happiness can’t actually be pursued. Doing so just keeps us hungry for another new item, or another new self-improvement program. And while David Bowie was known for reinvention, his reinvention wasn’t part of an effort to be what the mainstream media had held out as a “normal ideal.” Far from it.

Instead, Bowie’s reinvention seemed to come from an ability to discover and be true to who he was, some unchanging aspect of himself, and to find ever-evolving, ever-ripening ways of expressing it. Maybe that is our ongoing challenge, too.

Rilke wrote, “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” I often see this quote in early January, and I usually feel encouraged by it. However, this year it seems to be missing something.  Whatever new things might happen in 2016, they will be an expression of something more than just newness. It feels truer to say: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never and always been.” Both.

If you struggle with self-improvement vs. self-expression, you’re not alone. We’re all bombarded regularly with messages about how we’re not enough, and how we need to change in order to be worthy or lovable. None of this is true, but it can be so very hard to remember.

Perhaps it helps to be reminded of the temptation. And, to be reminded of those who seemed to find a way to be steadfastly themselves ~ even (and maybe especially) when that meant being other than what is expected, “normal” or idealized.

Being the Ocean: Being Human

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.” ~ Leonard Cohen (from the poem Good Advice for Someone Like Me)

I bet everyone has some experience of the seasickness that Leonard Cohen is talking about. Our minds have very strong opinions about the way things should be: for example, innocent people shouldn’t suffer; we ourselves should look, speak and be a particular way; our loved ones should do what we know is best for them. And when life doesn’t match up with how we think it’s supposed to be (innocent people suffer, we aren’t as articulate or successful as we think we should be, our loved ones do things that don’t make sense to us), we often feel this seasickness.

I shared Leonard Cohen’s quote with a meditation group recently, and we talked about it together. One question that came up was: What does it mean to “become the ocean”? I don’t think it’s actually a question of becoming, but more one of remembering our true nature. We each have the deep, vast and mysterious qualities of the ocean within us. The ocean within has a profound capacity for accepting what is, and by tapping into that capacity, we have an opportunity to meet our experience with a kind of flexible strength; a dose of inner Dramamine.

The group also talked about how “becoming the ocean” (or remembering the ocean that we are) doesn’t mean leaving behind our vulnerable humans selves. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of self-improvement, and the way that it can be driven by a desire to abandon our vulnerable human self. Of course, when we embark on a self-improvement project, all we’re trying to do is suffer less. So, the impulse comes from a very understandable place. We want to be less subject to the unpredictable and often seemingly unfair whims of this reality we live in. We want to give ourselves our best shot at being happy. Who doesn’t want that?

The trouble is that self-improvement doesn’t necessarily deliver on that promise. Even if we try to take away the vulnerability of our human self by losing 10 pounds, doubling our income, or finding the partner of our dreams, we’re still subject to the unstable and unpredictable nature of reality. Things change, and we don’t get to say when or how.

This is where “becoming the ocean” or remembering the ocean that we are can be really helpful. Rather than abandon or try to eliminate our vulnerability by escaping into the knowing that we have a place in us that’s as vast and powerful as the ocean, our expansiveness can give us a deeper ability to meet our vulnerable human experience with care and loving presence. I think that’s what Leonard Cohen was talking about in his poem, and what Philip Booth is talking about here:

First Lesson
by Philip Booth
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

When we can find a sense of the ocean that we are, we can meet our vulnerable, human self with a deep love. This is one of the most powerful aspects of self-compassion ~ to recognize that we are both: we are the vulnerable human and the ocean, at the same time, meeting.