How do you relate to someone who is in pain? With empathy and warmth, right? Strangely, this is not usually how we relate to ourselves when we are struggling and this often serves to worsen our predicament. There are very consistent findings in psychological research that indicate that self-criticism and feelings of shame are major predictors for anxiety and depression. Conversely, the research shows that people who are more compassionate towards themselves, accepting reality without judgment and with an open heart, experience improved self-worth, increased feelings of joy, and decreased levels of anxiety. Additionally, research shows that reduced stress, improved emotional regulation, and improved physical health are all benefits of practicing mindfulness. With these powerful facts in mind, let's think about how you can use both mindfulness and self-compassion to nurture your wounds after a breakup.
When we are in pain our minds often get caught in a loop of negative thoughts that repeat themselves over and over, like a broken record. This process, referred to as rumination, causes us to either dwell on negative experiences from the past (which leads to feelings of depression) or worry about negative events that might happen in the future (which causes feelings of anxiety). This process gets us nowhere fast. Using mindfulness and self-compassion can help us break free from this prison in our mind.
Practicing mindfulness is really about the art of noticing our thoughts and emotions as if they were museum exhibits. We do not judge or become entangled. We observe. When a negative thought arises, name it as just that -- a thought. Although we may experience it as very real, a thought is not a fact, it's just a thought. When we engage with our mind in this way we can approach each experience that arises with more equanimity because the thought is noticed, rather than believed to be true. When a negative thought arises practice putting the statement "I notice I'm having the thought that" before it. This allows us to become the observer of what happens in our mind, rather than the victim of it.
In addition to our thoughts, we must notice our feelings. Not getting entangled in our emotions is not the same as resisting them. When we try to avoid or push away what is arising for us, we increase its grip on us. What we resist, persists. Luckily, painful feelings are by nature temporary. Much like a wave in the ocean, if you resist it you might get caught in the swell, but if you allow it to the wave will carry you out to shore. Mindfulness is about both noticing and allowing, without getting caught up and weighed down with what is happening.
Once we've noticed the uncomfortable thoughts or emotions that arise in our bodies we can also help to heal them with compassion. While it may feel foreign, it is essential to deliver the same compassionate words to ourselves that we would say to someone else in pain. Take a moment right now to ask yourself what you might say to a friend who is experiencing heartbreak. Perhaps you would say "I am so sorry you are having this painful experience right now," "I know this is a very difficult time for you," "I am here for you," and "you will get through this." While it may seem silly to say such things to yourself, it is essential that you relate to yourself with kindness if you want to move on. Additionally, the research validates that people who relate to themselves with self-compassion have more psychological resilience and heal more quickly than those who are hard on themselves.
In addition to channeling the kind words that you might offer to a friend in pain, Kristen Neff, leading self-compassion researcher, suggests that you develop a personal self-compassion mantra that you can lean on when you find yourself buried in self-criticism or flooded with painful emotions. In her book Self-Compassion, she suggests constructing a mantra based on these three components: 1) acknowledging your pain, 2) recognizing that suffering is a part of the human experience that we all must endure, and 3) offering words of kindness to yourself. An example might be "This is really painful right now, but I realize that I am not alone in my suffering. May I be loving towards myself and accept myself just the way I am." Be sure to make it something that is easily memorized so you can easily call it up in even the most difficult of moments.
So remember, when painful thoughts or emotions arise, notice them without judgment, allow them to be present, and send love and kindness to yourself.
For a helpful guided meditation on tolerating difficult emotions with compassion please click here.