Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Aimee: Well, hello, everyone. I'm Aimee, and welcome to Joy Lab. Henry is going to join me here in a moment, in the episode. But we're working on our podcourse for a while, as you probably know, and as I noted last episode, we wanted to bring in a really essential element that is necessary if you want to create lasting changes in your life and support your mental and physical health.
And that element is self-compassion. Seriously. It just so happens as well to be this time of year in Joy Lab that we focus on compassion. So the timing is perfect. Now self-compassion is also sort of the perfect companion to Henry's earlier conversation on the science of hope. Pair self-compassion with hope and you have like the behavior change dream team.
And that's because when we initiate change from a place of compassion, from self-compassion, rather than guilt or shame or desperation, we are far more likely to succeed. Hard stop. The evidence is very clear on that. And we'll talk about that in this episode. So in this episode and the next two following, we're actually replaying our episodes on self-compassion, episodes 26, 27, and 28, which focus on the three aspects of self-compassion that Dr. Kristin Neff notes. She's one of the pioneers of self-compassion research. And in these episodes, we'll also hit on a few concepts or ideas that you'll hear later on in the podcourse. So it's a really nice way to kind of ease into these concepts. And then in the later lessons, Henry will get into these concepts a little bit deeper, like the first and second arrows and a few other ideas that are really powerful when it comes to working with our body, mind, and heart to move beyond just our baseline into joy and flourishing. So we'll highlight these ideas, these concepts, a few different ways. A few different times. And I think that's a really good way to kind of anchor them into our system.
So enjoy these next several episodes. They'll also set us up perfectly to move into movement, exercise, nutrition, food, eating, in such a way that we can be more kind to ourselves, we can approach those areas in a way that's also going to make change more likely.
So the element we're digging into today is compassion. And we thought we'd focus on compassion for ourselves.
Or self-compassion. Because well, many of us are just total jackasses to ourselves. So, it is due time for self-compassion. For this episode and our next several actually, we'll lean on the work of Dr. Kristen Neff. She's a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research. So I just wanna start with a really accessible definition of self-compassion that she offers from her website, which is SelfCompassion.org.
She writes: " 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 said you were supposed to be perfect?" She continues:
"You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals.
This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality, instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life."
So I love how this description highlights this mindful awareness. We notice what is happening, we acknowledge how we're feeling, and we may try to make changes, but those changes happen because, we're not disgusted with ourselves, but instead we care about ourselves.
Henry: Yeah, that's such a great description. And Dr. Neff's work I think has really helped bring this topic right into the heart of psychotherapy.
To me, it seems as though the idea of self-compassion really expands and enriches some older theories in psychology that were also really good in their time.
Like the concept of having a strong sense of self or healthy self-esteem or just self-acceptance. We actually talked about self-acceptance and the power of that in a recent podcast episode. But I think self-compassion takes those ideas even further. And it, it even helps to counter some of the, you know, the common stereotypes from the world of pop psychology or self-help, which can easily get skewed I think.
So, Aimee, you might not be old enough to remember Stuart Smalley, uh, the character that Al Franken played on Saturday Night Live. I have a feeling you might be a fan of SNL. So anyway, Stuart was a neurotic character, I think it's fair to say who struggled with low self-esteem. And he must have had some sort of therapy or maybe did a self-help program,
cause he'd learned to say these phrases that he'd used to make himself feel better. So his classic line was, " I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me." And he'd say it kinda loud as though he was really trying to convince himself that it's true, but you still suspect that he didn't quite believe it.
It was pretty funny. Uh, but I did wonder if it might have been poking fun at people's real pain, you know. Or maybe reinforcing that idea that positive self-talk is somehow fake or shallow, or you're just being self-indulgent in some way. But to me self-compassion is really a deeper and richer concept. And it's pretty hard to argue against its value. How could it be but good to treat yourself with the same kind of kindness and compassion that you try to treat others with? You know, most of us spend so much time being hard on ourselves, even if we're not aware of it, we're doing it. And so we really need something like self-compassion to counteract that.
Aimee: Yeah. To the last thing you said, a big amen to that. We need self-compassion to counter how hard we are on ourselves. I think that's self-care 101, really. So we'll get into more of that today. Second, thank you for bringing up one of my favorite unlicensed, mental health mentors, Stuart Smalley. Who I think, um, in the beginning, when they introduce him on the show, they say he's a member of dozens of anonymous and self-care groups or something.
So, he is well versed in the pop psychology literature. And it's so interesting that you felt it poked fun at folks pain, Henry. I totally get that. But because, um, I'm totally serious here, whenever I watched it, I just completely resonated with Stuart. Like in a weird, good way.
Like thank you, Stuart. I get you. You know, he wants to believe these things. That he says in the mirror, he really does. And his dialogue happens in the mirror, so we see it. But it's that common internal dialogue, I think that we can all kind of resonate with.
And you're right, Henry, I do know this skit. It came from his experience with Alanon. So it comes from this culture of recovery. So there's a lot of truth in it, but certainly it's SNL. Um, but what Stuart I think was really demonstrating are some of the key issues discussed with self-esteem in the literature that it can be built on a mirror, so to speak. You know, on someone's outside perspective of us or our accomplishments rather than a sense of real self-worth.
And so we can kind of puff up with self-esteem based on our outside circumstances. But when those crumble, then we crumble. Our self-esteem crumbles. And that's when that cycle of self-destructive talk comes in. We'll get into this more in the next few episodes. But again, because you brought it up Henry, I feel like it can take a bit more with Stuart Smalley.
So there's a skit with Stuart and Macaulay Culkin, so he is still a kid, this is home alone era. Uh, and Stuart is talking all of this pop psychology stuff and Macaulay just dismisses it, not really interested. And Stuart gets mad. And you can see him kind of lose himself in the emotion and just as quickly, he falls into this pit of regret. And you see his expression, his affect change.
And then he says: " I'm sorry, I'm a bad person. I don't know what I'm doing. They're going to cancel the show. I'm going to die homeless and penniless and 20 pounds overweight and no one's gonna ever love me." And that's like, that's it. That's the downward spiral of emotions and negative self talk that I think we can all experience.
I mean, just wild things come through the, thoughts and then Stuart in this skit was looking to Macaulay, you know, this child, I think he's the nephew in this scenario. He's like begging for him for some help to get out of this pit and for him to tell him, "No Stuart, I love you. You're great." And that's the typical cycle of our emotions and self-talk when self-compassion is lacking. You know, we may have moments of self-esteem, which is what Stuart was demonstrating. Built up on sort of shaky structures or ideas, and then they get toppled over and we spiral down. And then we need someone to pull us out because without self-compassion we just continue to dig ourselves deeper.
So, like you said, Henry, we need that deeper sense of self-worth beyond self-esteem we need self-compassion. So let's get into it. Um, we're going to break our conversation into the three parts of self-compassion noted by Dr. Kristen Neff. And these are mindfulness versus over-identification, self-kindness versus self-judgment, and common humanity versus isolation.
So we'll talk about mindfulness versus over-identification in this episode, and follow up with two more for the others. And we talk a lot about mindfulness here, I know. That non-judgmental, present-moment awareness. I think the really helpful piece to focus on today is this obstacle of over-identification that Neff notes. Our experiments, in the Joy Lab program, can really help us move beyond this obstacle,
but even just naming it like we're gonna do here on the podcast, becoming aware of this obstacle is super helpful. So we'll also lay out a really key strategy today to help reduce the impact of this obstacle and that supports mindfulness and self-compassion. Quick definition. Here's what we mean by over-identification.
Over identification essentially means that we're stuck in, absorbed by, swept up in our thoughts. And these are generally the thoughts that have to do with what's wrong.
Henry: So yeah, it's this over-identification with thoughts. That we believe them is the basic problem. And you know, this is such an important concept that it's really worth taking a little time with. There are several schools of psychology, like cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, mindfulness-based therapies,
and we, really base a lot of our Joy Lab work on those, those three schools of thought. And they all see this over-identification with thought as being our central problem. Identifying too much with our thoughts, they say, is the primary source of human suffering. So we've all heard, you know, the famous line by the French philosopher Descartes, who said, "I think, therefore I am." Well, you might as well just say, "I think, therefore I am unhappy."
Because it's, there's a direct kind of correlation with it. So there are three different aspects to this that I want to try to talk a little bit about. And remember, we all do this. This isn't like something that just some of us are prone to. This is something we all do. So the three things are: One, we think. I think we can all agree on that.
Two, we don't know that we're thinking. A lot of the time, we just aren't aware of it. And then third, we believe our thoughts are true. So the first that we are thinkers, we all know that. But I'm not sure any of us realize how much of our waking time we are doing it. There's so much thinking that's just going on in the background.
It's kind of like background noise in our minds when we're doing something else. You know, like the classic example of taking a shower and you, you're thinking all these things you gotta do during the day or whatever. but we're not paying attention to it. It's just happening without our awareness. And I think we'd also be very surprised to find out how many
thoughts we repeat and over again every day. And what percent our thoughts are actually negative. So the second part of the problem, besides the fact that we think, we are thinkers, the second part is also related to a lack of awareness. We have negative thoughts, sometimes we even carry on these long dialogues with ourselves, like Stuart did out loud. But we don't realize that we're doing it.
It's kind of like there is this drama going on inside of us. Like we're having a performance, with us playing every part. But since we're not aware of it, we don't even question whether or not it's true. And that brings us to the third part of this problem. We tend to believe most of our thoughts are true without challenging them at all. So we've created a story. We have the story about ourselves that we tend to tell over and over in different ways. And it's usually a tragic story. It's a sad story, that since we don't know we created it, we think it's real. And since these negative stories tend to create negative emotions, we think those emotions are real too.
Henry: And we think that we don't have any real power to change them.
Aimee: I think even on top of that, we often don't stop them because we've been trained to believe that those kind of, uh, harsh internal dialogues are helpful in some way as well. So I'm thinking mostly now about negative self-talk and trying to, make lifestyle changes. Just think about what your brain is like during new year's resolutions, is it, it helpful?
What's the language to support that behavior change? so we're still sort of hanging onto these false beliefs that harsh discipline, like really bullying is the only way to get ourselves to change. Maybe we were parented like that. The truth is it doesn't work, rarely. We'll talk more about that in the next episode.
There's so many cliff hangers this episode. Uh, God, I can't wait for the next one. On top of those false beliefs, there's uh, you know, the idea that only self-criticism can get us to change, we often lay over these impossible expectations of perfection. Expectations we'd likely, never hold anyone else to.
Dr. Neff and self-compassion field talks a lot about this. She she notes that a primary resistance to self-compassion is that people think that they'll just become lazy narcissists or something with self-compassion. And it's just not true. In fact, it's the opposite. Self-compassion leads to more sustainable behavior changes.
You know, you wanna quit smoking, be kinder to yourself. It's not the only variable, but it's a huge predictor of success. And then, fill in smoking with any healthy behavior that you're trying to integrate into your life. So I like John Steinbeck's, uh, wisdom here: "And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
Henry: Ooh, I that. Well, Aimee, I revealed in previous episodes that I might tend just a little bit toward perfectionism myself or at least I have.
Aimee: I think listening are in your Henry. That's why we're part of Joy Lab.
Henry: So this, this was a really important, insight for me and something that we used to use in our resilience training program, which we called the 51% rule. You know, over years of doing that program, I saw so many people get kind of, um, well stressed out about all the different things that we were suggesting they could do to feel better, to feel less depressed.
There's so many ways to go about that. And, you know, you could just tell some people felt that they had to do 'em all and that just added more and more pressure. So we came up with this 51% rule. And that is that you don't have to do everything right. You don't always have to eat the right food or do the right kind of exercise or whatever it is.
However, you wanna do it most of the time. And if, our theory here is that, if you just do it a little more than half the time, let's say 51% of the time, you're gonna be okay. You're gonna move towards greater health, a greater sense of wellbeing. If we can just make the healthier choice most of the time we're gonna be in good shape.
Now, I also really like to draw on the work of a psychiatrist named Dan Siegel, Dr. Dan Siegel, who a lot of people are familiar with. He's such a great writer and speaker. But he, he has this, uh, this way of thinking about human behavior on this spectrum from chaos to rigidity. So chaos to rigidity.
If you think about our behaviors especially that kind of land on this spectrum. Now he's really referring to our inner state, you know, our thoughts and emotions. And there are some people who just tend to feel sort of tight and inflexible. Their thinking becomes rigid. Their emotions are kind of restrained and sort of at the far end of the spectrum, behaviors can become pretty compulsive. And then there's others on the opposite end of the spectrum whose inner life just feels chaotic. Their thoughts are all over the place. Their emotions just feel really unstable.
And their behaviors, instead of being rigid, they can be sort of erratic or impulsive. Now, those are two ends of the spectrum. And, and most of us just kind of go a little bit, one direction or the other. Sometimes, we can go both, directions. But, you know, when we're stressed, we tend to go, more often than not, in one direction.
So for me, little bit towards that more rigid end when I, when I get more stressed. And I used to think, at least that being just a little perfectionistic was a good thing. Like you want your doctor to be a little careful about this and that. And so least I'd told myself that. But if I become
a little bit too rigid, if I box myself in, let's say by having to do things a certain way, I know for a fact I'm gonna feel less happy. And, you know, likewise, you don't want to go the other direction too far and become really erratic with no rules or no rituals to keep yourself grounded. And you know, when you think about it, virtually all human traits exist on a spectrum of one sort or another.
I think most psychiatric disorders could be described as going too far toward one end of a spectrum or the other. And mindfulness practice provides a great solution to this. It's really based on this idea of finding the middle way.
Henry: And so, for me, you know, what seems to have changed over time,
I can still go in either direction a little bit, but just by working on mindfulness skills, I don't go as far as I used to. And because I'm able to observe more quickly, and more of the time, what's going on inside of me, I catch myself sooner. It's not like I don't go there, but I, I, but I'm aware that I'm going there a lot faster.
And so I, I can catch myself. I can take some measures to go back toward the center again. And then by adding self-compassion to this, that means that when I do inevitably go off center, I can just, you say, "oops" uh, and in a very gentle and forgiving way, do something to get myself back to center.
Aimee: Yeah. That's the power of mindfulness, that awareness. And then I love how you note on top of that comes the self-compassion. So, oops. just swapping those self-destructive sentences that would of followed with that simple word. We say "oopsadaisal" at our house. it's half of our kind of dog's name and oops with it.
Anyway. It's funny how some simple strategies like that can really help us to come back to our balanced selves. Let's dig into more of those actually, you know how to overcome this obstacle of over-identification. As I said, many of our Joy Lab program experiments address this, but one simple strategy that you can use at any moment to sort of shake out over-identification is to get out of your head and into your body. And preferably into your body outside.
So out in nature. Things like walking, biking, paddle boarding, hiking, if you're in a wheelchair being outside, moving through your neighborhood or down a tree lined path. There are a million ways to do this. The point is to just really feel your body, however you can, and to pay attention to it. So anything that gets your senses activated is key.
You could even cook something with your favorite smells and really pay attention to those scents, along with the motions of mixing, how your body moves to pour, stirring, and even the sounds, the sizzles and pops.
Henry: Yeah, anything that gets you out of thinking. I first learned about mindfulness myself, about two years after I had just finished all of my medical training and I was still recovering. Believe me. one of the revelations for me was how much the practice of mindfulness embraced the body. And after over-emphasizing my mind for so many years, it just felt so good to turn my attention back to my body.
I think it's just the most direct way get out of thinking mode. And it can work for both ends of that spectrum, chaos or rigidity. Either way, getting into your body in a healthy way, with awareness will help break that spiral. So if you feel chaotic inside, the body gives you a nice anchor. It helps you get grounded in the moment.
If you're caught up in rigidity, the body helps you to soften, to, to loosen the tightness of those thoughts. And I think a lot of us could use a little more self-compassion toward our bodies. Right? If you have some sort of limitation or maybe pain that you just feel like your body's your enemy, or maybe you have body image issues. Any of those things. Something changes when we make our body a friend rather than an enemy.
Aimee: Yeah, that's what actually drew me to mindfulness too. The way, as you noted Henry, that it embraces the body. I think we so often hear the same "mind over matter." I like to think it goes both ways to, you know, "matter over mind." The idea anyway, that we can embrace our body, nourish it, move it, care for it,
and it impacts, can shift, our mind, our thoughts. This is obvious on one hand, but it's so easy to ignore or dismiss when the storms hit. But what a simple invitation to offer some relief. So qigong, Tai Chi, yoga to help quiet our mind. Weightlifting, to enhance focus, to boost a feeling of dullness. A restful soak in a warm tub to kind of melt away the sharp edges of a bad day. A good night of sleep to shift a bit of perspective. A walk to create space and our thoughts.
All of these are opportunities for mindfulness. Um, I think all of them loosen up that over-identification, they draw us back into the present moment, into our body. And I love this aspect of self-compassion with mindfulness, we sort of clean house a bit. We clean up some of the mess of self nagging, the cycles of negative thoughts.
The mind can become more quiet and that's so powerful just that alone. But wait, there is more. What self-compassion tells us is that we can build on that spacious state and invite self-compassion just like you were alluding to, uh, Henry that shift. So Stuart Smalley though would tell us, at this point to look in the mirror, seal it up with: "I am good enough.
I'm smart enough and doggone it, people like me. And that is true. You are. We are. But I want us all to like really believe that, you know, not just say it in the mirror as a plea or feel dependent on someone else to tell us. We'll talk more about how to embrace that truth, the absolute fact that you are good enough, more than good enough in our next two episode.
And I wanna close our time though, with some wisdom from Dr. Neff, reminding us that mindfulness and self-compassion are essential to move through pain and struggle. She writes: "Painful feelings are by their very nature, temporary. They will weaken over time, as long as we don't prolong or amplify them through resistance or avoidance. The only way to eventually free ourselves from debilitating pain, therefore is to be with it as it is. The only way out is through."
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