Wisdom of Women, Pt 3: On self-compassion + best letter of 2016?

***ANNOUNCEMENT: I’ll be conducting a LIVE WORKSHOP in San Francisco on Monday October 3 called How to Be a Compelling Speaker: The Art, Science & Practice of Charisma. Whether you’re asking for a raise, presenting in front of a big client, getting a seed round going, defending a PhD or asking someone on a date, there will be turning points in your life when your fate hinges upon the quality of the pitch you make. Do you know what to do to make that pitch great every time? Or are you leaving those crucial turning points to chance? In this live talk/workshop, we will teach you some of the main principles behind being compelling so those presentations go better and better every time you make them. Tickets here.***

I get a lot of letters from readers. There are common themes to these letters: Why do I behave this way? Why does he do that? Can I trust men? Is a long-term committed relationship even possible? How do I overcome my upbringing and/or religion to find true connection?

But rarely does a letter hit all of those themes at the same time. Martha, a very thoughtful 30yr old graduate student from Oregon sent me this letter recently. I’m publishing this on the blog not because it has concrete answers to challenges women encounter in their love lives, but because it raises a lot of questions that women commonly ask themselves. Let’s read the letter together (edited for clarity), followed by my comments:

“Dear Dr Ali — I’m at a stage of serious introspection in life and obsessed about discovering the roots of every decision we make, the unconscious mind. But I tend to come up with philosophical and existential questions that make everything harder. This expands to different areas in life, specifically relationships. Learning that I belong to the anxiously attached category helped me understand the painful break-ups and self-destructive patterns of thinking that followed. Was this just a result of my caretakers’ actions or more than that? I notice the numerous ways we helplessly cling on to different means to feel secure when we don’t have the internal resources to know we will be OK if things go sour. In my life these external resources have been: feeling loved and wanted, and clinging to religious practices.

Like many others, I didn’t have a great childhood and grew up in a male-dominant family, where submissive qualities were part of being a woman. Along with that, I was exposed to continuous fights over parental infidelity, leading me to lose trust in men.

In real life, I have never been cheated on but because of my limiting beliefs, my unconscious mind has created this scenario over and over again to protect me in this potential “life-threatening” situation. It’s the one thing that has countless times made me feel powerless and not good enough. No matter how much I learn, my brain doesn’t sync up with today’s reality and let go of the survival mechanism it has produced years ago. I believed that no matter how good you are, you are only one woman and if men need variety, then you’re never good enough on your own.

Since I was also criticized a lot, I always wanted to be more, which served me well but also with the downside of never being happy with who I was. I also wonder if I lack determination in my decision-making or reactions. I wanted to break the taboo of dating someone from a different socioeconomic status, which is why I started dating my boyfriend Bradley about a year ago.

I often find myself analyzing everything my partner says, looking for its origin in order to discover the real him:

  • He says a lot of men have extramarital sex that men because they’re evolutionarily wired to reproduce, therefore able to detach emotionally and have sex with someone they don’t love. To me, making love is sacred; it’s where you connect with the one you love at every level and that’s why I can’t be okay with how men feel about it (if this is true).
  • Or the fact that even though he truly loves me, thinks the world of me and would do anything for me, he believes that any relationship will become routine. Whereas I believe that maybe most of us get married for the wrong reasons, and we simply mistakenly label different emotions as love, and so we inevitably would end up not content with our marriage and choose to leave or cheat. I’d like to think that they’re missing real intimacy in life and they use affairs as an outlet to compensate for it. Conclusion: maybe/hopefully loyalty is possible.

These conversations alarm me and rev up my sympathetic nervous system to withdraw from trusting him in the long run. But then I’m relieved when I occasionally remember that maybe there are others that could love me and want me for life. But then again, I realize that this is still giving authority to external circumstances to keep me content.

I never fear being left because someone smarter or kinder may come along. I fear being left for a more attractive girl, or simply a different kind of beauty. This may be due to my belief in men’s susceptibility to visual stimulus, or the belief that men need variety when it comes to appearance. To this day, I haven’t figured out if this statement is true or not, or if it is legitimate to expect men to be monogamous and happy at the same time.

I worry about getting old and losing physical beauty, but at the same time I realize that being a goddess is not a requirement to keep a man loyal. Many men cheat even when they have a goddess at home. What puzzles me is that even though I consider my mother a very beautiful woman (though lacked in other areas) and know that it did not stop my father from cheating, I take physical comments to heart and I worry about losing the field to younger girls. I don’t understand the I tend not to believe in that men can be loyal but yet let them discredit me with the value system I don’t approve of. I also understand that you don’t own the one you love but the fear of being defeated after investing years of trust makes me feel beaten in the contest. I hate being the possessive girl that scares guys away but despite my efforts in hiding this insecurity; it’s been clearly sensed by my partner through non-verbal communication. I wonder if I have unconsciously always gone for the wrong guys to prove myself that men are not trustworthy. I want to be OK on my own, even if no man is ever going to be loyal to me for eternity. I want to stop worrying and being loved to be happy. All my best, Martha”

Before I comment on the content of this letter, I’d like to observe that the issues that she mentions are extremely common. Heck, it’s exactly the kind of stuff I’ve been hearing since I started doing this stuff. And yet, there is an undertone of self-recrmination to the whole thing, a sense of “What’s wrong with me?!?”

Well, if some of what Martha brought up resonated with you, raise your hand. See? Lots of raised hands out there. Which brings me to the topic I want to talk about today: self-compassion. Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin is the pioneering researcher of self-compassion. Here’s her definition: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. After all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” She says it comprises three elements, which I quote from Dr Neff’s excellent, resource-rich website:

  1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment. “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
  2. Common humanity vs isolation. “Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.”
  3. Mindfulness vs over-identification. “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

Now let’s see how we can apply each of these concepts to the challenges the letter brings up.

The most obvious one is recognizing our common humanity. Right now, as you’re sitting there, you’re probably thinking, “Well, nobody has the kind of problems I have.” Heck, you may even take pride that your problems are unique — no one else could be having them! And you would be wrong. Out there in Oregon, writing these thoughts to me, Martha is probably pretty sure that she is the only person in the world that has this constellation of challenges. And yet, you the reader can probably identify with a bunch of them: trust, loyalty, partnership, sexuality, feeling enough, gender differences.

Once you realize the rest of the world is also having these issues, it somehow becomes much easier to bear. Reminds me of that line from The Police’s “Message in a Bottle”:

Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

That brings us to Principle #1, Self-kindness. Hey, if it’s happening to everyone else, too, might as well go easy on myself. Some folks — especially perfectionists — have somehow internalized that there is virtue in ripping into yourself. Well, there isn’t, so stop it already. Besides, which part of you is ripping into which part of you? Are you slapping yourself in the face with your own hand, or elbowing yourself in the stomach? Do you have any idea how weird that sounds? Stop that now before I call in the shrinks.

And that brings us to Principle #3, Mindfulness. Look, you’re feeling something. Just go ahead and feel it fully, without letting it be your whole existence and identity. When you allow them to express fully, feelings fade over time. But if you resist them, they persist. So let them be, then let them go.

Mindfulness is also about being fully present in the moment. This happens to be the antidote to overthinking or rumination, which is what this letter is doing a lot of. Like many of you, Martha is a smart, highly-educated woman. And like many of you, she thinks a lot about things that have never happened and may never happen. Some of these thoughts may turn into worries, which may become anxieties looming large enough to alter your daily behavior.

For example, Martha talked about infidelity: “In real life, I have never been cheated on but because of my limiting beliefs, my unconscious mind has created this scenario over and over again to protect me in this potential “life-threatening” situation. It’s the one thing that has countless times made me feel powerless and not good enough.”

Even though she has never been cheated on, there’s this gremlin lurking in the shadows all the time, which diminishes the quality of her life.

The solution? It’s easy for me to say “stop doing that”, but not terribly effective. What works is to do something else instead. What’s the thing? Gratitude. It’s impossible for anyone to feel sorry for herself and grateful at the same time.

If you’ve been habitually ruminating and overthinking for, say, your whole life, now is a really good time to change that behavior. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Stop thinking, and solve all your problems.” Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Use the rubber-band technique. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Any time you start to worry, ruminate or overthink, snap yourself so it stings a little. Your brain will very rapidly learn to stop doing the behavior that leads to the snap. You can kick habits like this in less than a week — sometimes in as little as two days. This also works for other habits like complaining, gossiping or eating brownies.
  2. Get yourself a Pavlok. If a rubber band is not fancy enough for you, I recommend this behavioral modification wristband called a Pavlok (combination of “Pavlovian” + “shock”). Instead of just a snap, the Pavlok delivers an actual electric shock to your skin, I kid thee not. It’s a supremely versatile device that can be programmed to buzz, ring or flash, depending on what kind of behavior you want to diminish or reinforce. You can program it to help you get up on time, quit smoking, exercise more, stop biting your nails, or kick a social media habit. The mild shock is definitely unpleasant, so if you’re willing to shock yourself whenever you ruminate or overthink, you’ll be done with that habit in a hurry. It’s about the same price as a single therapy session, but with potentially lifelong utility.
  1. Meditate. I get on this hobbyhorse at least once per post, so might as well tell you again: meditation is a life-changing practice. It not only solves all the problems you have right now, but also all the ones you’ll have in the future. But you won’t even know it, because they won’t be problems any more! I’m only exaggerating a little, folks. Get the Headspace app on your smartphone to get started, or check out one of the dozens posts I’ve written on the topic. Meditation is the ultimate antidote to rumination.

There’s a lot more we could discuss from this very rich letter, but the points I wanted to make today  were:

  • Your challenges are common. You are not alone. Join the club!
  • Many of those challenges can be overcome through practices like mindfulness, gratitude, self-compassion, and meditation.

If the letter resonated with you, share your thoughts in the comments.

All the best, Dr Ali

PS: For those of you who are in the Bay Area on Mon Oct 3, would love to see you at my live workshop. Please drop by and say hi! And use code “FF” to get the discount for my readers.

PPS: For those who missed the “How to Connect Deeply” teleclass with Christine Mason on her new book Indivisible, here’s the replay and download link for you:


Categories: Dating for Women

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