I was a thumb sucker. I needed soothing right from the start.
As a small child I would rub my thumbs and fingers together, back and forth, incessantly. It drove my family and friends crazy, yet no matter how much they asked me to stop, I couldn’t. I didn’t understand my behavior, and I certainly didn’t know how to manage it. All I knew was that I couldn’t stop, no matter how much I wanted to.
As I grew older, this particular behavior dissipated, but the feelings didn’t. Instead, they turned into continuous, overwhelming, and negative self-talk. Without realizing it, I had turned on myself and become my own worst enemy.
Control became my modus operandi, continuously striving for perfection. The slightest deviation from my plan could throw me off kilter, bringing with it debilitating feelings. I replayed the situation over and over. These obsessive thoughts were overwhelming, and I would become paralyzed with fear. My mind jumped on the hamster wheel and there was no getting off.
I lived this way until I was 41 when my doctor finally identified my anxiety. Medication helped reign in the physical symptoms but dealing with my emotions was something that had to be learned. So, I enlisted a counselor, an open mind, and the desire to get past it.
What I Learned About Anxiety
Research has determined there are three different emotion regulation systems:
- Threat system: The ability to detect and respond to danger.
- Drive system: Doing and acquiring.
- Soothing system: Cultivating an inner calmness, a sense of well-being.
Those living with anxiety have an overly developed threat system; we’re really good at detecting danger. In my case, the drive system was also heightened. If I could keep danger at bay, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel safe when you are living in constant overdrive. The soothing system balances the other two, which is key in cultivating self-compassion. My soothing system was broken.
Compassion is being aware of others’ distress and having the desire to alleviate it. Self-compassion means not judging, but accepting yourself, especially in difficult circumstances. When you’re hard on yourself, you expect others to be critical of you as well. When you accept yourself, this fear of being judged declines. Self-compassion can be tricky, especially when entertaining harsh mental chatter.
Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the researchers who helped bring self-compassion into academia says:
“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, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
Logically, I understand all of this, but changing emotional behavior is not easy for me—my reactions are immediate.
If you'd like to hear Kristen Neff speak on self-compassion, you can listen here.
Enter, Emotional Intelligence
IQ is the ability to process information to make solid decisions, whereas EQ (emotional quotient) is the ability to process emotions. It’s being aware of your emotions and then being able to control and express them. It’s about approaching life empathetically, not just with others, but with yourself. Fortunately, EQ isn’t just an inherent trait, the abilities can be fostered.
Emotionally intelligent people have emotional literacy and management skills, such as awareness of their emotions, the ability to focus them toward problem-solving, and the ability to manage feelings. Emotional fitness is being highly conscious of your own emotional state, including negativity, frustration, or sadness. It also means being tuned in to other people’s emotions. Harnessing these abilities goes a long way toward developing self-compassion.
Related reading: "What Is Emotional Intelligence?"
The Three Elements of Self-Compassion
Dr. Neff breaks self-compassion down into three elements: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification. It means bringing a balanced approach to negative emotions, neither suppressing or exaggerating them. It’s treating ourselves with care, and not becoming overwhelmed, regardless of the feeling. And, it’s the ability to relate your personal experiences with others; to know that to be human is to be imperfect.
Catching myself when I start to go down the negative, self-depreciating road is paramount to managing my anxiety.Recently, I submitted an article with a small typo. My first instinct was fear. A feeling of panic ran straight through my body and threw my heart into a frenzy. For a brief second, I felt like I could pass out. Sometimes I even shake. It was a gripping anxiety that I had made a mistake, no matter how minor. I’ve learned to recognize when my threat system kicks in, and for lack of a better word, self-arrest.
Now I know to stop and try to identify the source of my fear. In this case, my anxiety was fueled by not wanting to look inept. And then I acknowledged the emotion. I realized that it’s understandable to feel this way, but in the larger scheme of things, it was a problem so small it probably wasn’t more than a brief thought for my client. Yet, there I was, dwelling on it.
In his book, “Solve for Happy,” Mo Gawdat writes, “Our brains tend to criticize, judge and complain more often than not.”
Gawdat also points out, “In this very moment there is absolutely nothing wrong at all.” I tell myself this often.
Moving through these feelings requires me to stop and think rationally. Does the problem warrant this reaction? Generally, the answer is “no,” often, the answer is, “emphatically, no.”
Self-compassion means not judging your self-worth. It helps you be less afraid of failure and better able to acknowledge uncomfortable emotions. It gives you the ability to be open to constructive feedback and to learn from it. When you treat yourself kindly, you begin to feel safe and connected with others instead of alone and isolated.
Accepting my vulnerability has afforded me a huge freedom.
I’m seven years into this journey of re-booting my reactions. I follow recommendations such as eating healthy, resting, and getting exercise. I am mindful of how I talk to myself, and I try to remember that we are all in this together; I wouldn’t judge others the way I judge myself. I am learning to be gentle with myself.
The other day I found myself standing alone in absolute stillness. It had been a whirlwind month of wrapping up school and professional projects. The kids had just walked out the door for camp, and my husband took off on a business trip. The summer ahead was already booked with back-to-back adventures and the work in between. The house needed to be cleaned, laundry done, and the yard put into place. But in this one moment, this brief quiet between the storms, all I wanted to do was take a nap.
So I did.
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