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: Hey folks, Aimee here, just popping in real quick to remind you that we are amidst our podcourse and this is a special little replay of a bit of like a three part series on self-compassion. We're putting this into our podcourse because when we want to make changes in our life, self-compassion is an essential element to keep front of mind, to be a primary fuel for change. So, um, this is the third of the self compassion set of three. Maybe you want to go back two episodes if you haven't, but feel free to stay right here. You can go back later.
And then in the next episode, we're going to get back into our sort of lifestyle medicine, talking about movement later on, talking about nutrition and food. So again, self-compassion, anchor that before we move into those practices. So enjoy.
Henry: Hello. I'm Henry Emmons.
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. Welcome to Joy Lab, where we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on our elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life. The element we're digging into today is compassion. Specifically self-compassion. And we're working on that third and final aspect of self-compassion noted by self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, which is common humanity versus isolation. We discussed the first and second aspects in the last two episodes. So you can head back there now or after this one to listen to those.
Henry: Well, I really like the progression of these three lessons on self-compassion. They all deal with thinking, which, as we've said, is often seen as the root cause of emotional pain. But each lesson looks at thinking from a different level of specificity. Let me just say what I mean by that. So the first lesson, podcast number 26, is about how we over-identify with our thoughts, how we believe them. And it deals very broadly with, really with how we relate to our thinking. And the lesson is that we need to separate ourselves more from our thoughts. Basically, we need to learn not to believe everything we think. The second lesson narrows down the focus to a really common problem that we all seem to share, which is that harsh judging voice we have that we repeatedly are thinking negative things about ourselves.
So the lesson here is that we need to learn to cut ourselves a little more slack when we mess up. Now this third lesson, I think goes after a much more specific thought. It is that thought where we don't think we belong. That we somehow feel as if we are left out of that circle of belonging. lesson in a nutshell is that we do, in fact, already belong. We simply have to realize that and accept the truth of it.
Aimee: Yeah, I love that insight. This progression you're noting. Each is so powerful. And I think you can enter into self-compassion from any of these aspects as well, which is kind of unique or helpful. So I love that you noted those differences, Henry. With this aspect, common humanity versus isolation, it's not so obvious on the surface.
You noted it pretty succinctly Henry, the belief that we don't belong, that's the essence. But let's unpack it just a bit more. Here's how Dr. Neff describes it: " 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."
I really love this aspect of self-compassion because it doesn't seem so obvious when we think of self-compassion, but once we get into it, it just rings so true. You know, those ruts that we dig ourselves into with those thoughts of isolation: "Nobody gets it." "Nobody has it as bad as me." "Nobody understands my pain."
Those are really sticky thoughts. And it's so interesting because we believe these things when we're really suffering, when we're at the bottom, so to speak, and those thoughts just snag us like a web and keep us trapped in that suffering. It's like treating a burn with fire.
Henry: Yeah, we actually made reference to this lesson last week. And if you remember, I talked about the two things that I have observed in those people who are able to break free from long-term depression. One was last week's topic, practicing self-kindness and self-acceptance the other is today's topic.
Which is breaking this cycle of isolation. Both of them are so essential to our wellbeing. And I've actually come to believe that today's topic, joining the circle of belonging, might be the single most helpful thing any of us can do for our mental and emotional health. I think there's two important elements to breaking out of isolation.
First, we have to acknowledge there are really external circumstances in our lives, which we have a little bit of control over, but not total control. And then secondly, there are these internal experiences we have about our lives, which translates into self isolation, because this is something we are basically doing to ourselves.
And I think that this is where Dr. Neff is pointing us. And it's where we're gonna keep our focus today. So I won't say that we have total control over this inner world either because frankly it gets pretty gnarly in there. But you know, we do have leverage here. We got a lot more leverage here than we do with our external circumstances.
And it is possible to reclaim some of this inner territory that we've basically given away or ceded to our unconscious, thinking mind.
Aimee: Yeah, it does get gnarly in our heads. It's a perfect way of putting it. Really gnarly. Uh, I like as well, thinking about reclaiming. And gaining some leverage, like you said, Henry. I like that language because it's not combative or militaristic. You know, I'm not gonna defeat my depression. That might be why I like self-compassion so much, and all our elements of joy. They're invitations to stop fighting with our depression or our anxiety or any other label we've been given. And no matter what, we can infuse these life giving inner states It feels good to try something different. And for me, it's what made all the difference. Truly, these elements. So I like how Thich Nhat Hanh describes this experience.
He says, "It's like a mother. When the baby is crying, she picks up the baby and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. Your pain, your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself to recognize the suffering in you. Embrace the suffering, then you get relief."
So it's hard to accept that approach though, when we might be feeling so unloved or so unworthy or so disconnected, it takes a lot of continuous gentle practice.
Henry: Well you, you might have noticed that I am more familiar with some of our Joy Lab topics than others. And that's because I've learned from wrestling with things personally, with some of, some things are just more challenging for me than others. And this is, this is one of them.
Henry: Every once in a while, I get this kind of vague feeling that I don't quite belong. That somehow I'm left out of the circle. I think most people experience this, at least once in a while. And you know, it can be really uncomfortable, um, this feeling. Now I've gotten a lot, lot better with this over the years. But it will still crop up once in a while. I think that's because the thoughts that feed this particular belief are so tricky.
They're so insidious. You know, it's so easy to find evidence that they are true, even though they're not. But that's what the mind does. It goes looking for evidence and you'll find something. And as we've said before, don't believe it, cuz it's just another distortion. But I'll give you a recent example.
Just over the labor day weekend, this fall, my wife and I were coming home into our cul-de-sac, and as we drove into it, we could see that there was a neighborhood picnic that was happening. It was right around dinner time. And we couldn't miss it because we drove right through it. They were on the street, and so they had to kinda move to get out of our way as we drove in. Now we have lived at the end of this cul-de-sac for more than 25 years. And for most of those years, in fact, our neighborhood has had this picnic on labor day weekend. In fact, we used to help organize it. It's it's just a tradition.
Henry: Only this time we hadn't heard about it. We weren't invited or if we were, we didn't realize it. Now, honestly, this is not a big deal. And it did not bother me much, but it did bother me a little. I gotta admit, you know, it felt weird driving through this group of neighbors and not being part of it. And, you know, I could feel that slight tightening around my chest or belly.
It's just an old, familiar feeling of being left out. And it was mild, but it was unmistakably there.
Aimee: I can totally relate and I can totally feel it, Henry. That, that visceral pain. Um, I can feel that same physical response as you describe it. I think it's so fascinating actually, how that experience, what researchers might call 'social pain.' We often use those words, "I was heartbroken."
"It felt like a punch in the gut." Some really interesting research here, mainly with something called brain overlap theory and social pain theory. But, um, the idea here that, social pain, that feeling of being left out, how it shares the same pain circuitry as physical pain.
So that means when we're feeling isolated, when we feel left out, we not only experience some of those same feelings as if we had a physical injury, but we are also more likely to report more physical pain compared to someone who isn't feeling left out. So Henry, for example, after seeing your neighbors at the party without you, if you had then stubbed your toe, going back into the house, you'd probably report more pain than if one of your neighbors was at that party and they their toe. I-
Henry: see Yeah.
Aimee: Yeah. Not the most helpful thing to say after hearing your story. It can get worse, stub your toe. Um, but what I'm trying to say is that when we're feeling supported, our interpretation of pain will likely be reduced. That's a big deal. So there's an, there's an opportunity there. We'll talk about that some more.
But also this doesn't have to be some injury, so just think about a headache. After a stressful day, these types of daily pain experiences, these stress symptoms are impacted by whether or not we're feeling connected.
Henry: You know, it's- yeah. And it's, it's interesting too, that most of us are just so familiar with the fight or flight response, you know, the stress reaction, stress hormones, we all know about the autonomic nervous system. We, we actually know a lot about the science of stress. But what's interesting is that, I don't think we know nearly as much, most of us, about the
neuroscience of the tend and befriend response. So stress response? Yeah, we're good with that. Tend and befriend response? What's that? So, you know, it is really important of course, that we do some things to tamp down the stress hormones. Calming our mind, that's a really important skill. But that is not the only way to deal with the problem
so many of us have of being overactivated these days by fear and stress. So what about the skills of soothing? Comforting? You know, reassuring ourselves that in fact, we live in a safe and loving world. Might not seem that way, but I think it's true. Now, our bodies are made for this. We have these wonderful neurotransmitters, these things like endorphins and oxytocin and they go beyond just toning down the stress response.
They help us feel good, safe, secure, comforted. Their receptors, while concentrated in the brain, they're found throughout the body. Which I think is really interesting. Being soothed is a full body experience.
Aimee: Noting too, Henry, just like you said, um, reassuring ourselves that we actually live in a safe and loving world. We can also create that. And that's what I love about the tend and befriend response , That, we are wired to create a safe and loving world. That's how we thrive, obviously. But this is what gets overlooked.
I think when only men were allowed to be scientists and they spent their days studying the stress responses of abused lab animals. That's my broad gender brush stroke there, but there's some truth there. So backing up a bit here, as Henry said, there is the usual fight, flight, bite, or freeze language for stress response.
So with fight, we go at them physically or verbally, also ourselves. These are not always outwardly responses. With flight, we literally run. But more commonly, we'll isolate ourselves. A lot of research here is on social withdrawal uh, and self-medicating, trying to get your mind out of the stress temporarily.
With the bite response, a more sort of recent addition to I think, Walter Cannon's work, um, from 1918, right? This has been in the literature for a while. So we're adding bite to the original two. Everything just stops. Uh, we freeze physically, mentally. We just let the stress boil within us as we do nothing.
With tend and befriend, the idea is that in response to stress, we tend to others. We care for them, support them. And we affiliate, we interact and form or deepen relationships. And also with ourselves, right? So just like fight flight or bite, we're wired to this tend and befriend response. Maybe back to that gender comment I made earlier, women are more likely to demonstrate this tend and befriend response.
Interestingly, some researchers believe that's why females also tend to live longer than males. Um, what's super interesting here though, is that this response, tend and befriend, has very little to do with sex. You know, whether you're female or male, the neurocircuitry that monitors this is not more efficient in females.
Uh, the real difference is socially constructed. Women versus men. It's a gender thing. Women are expected to act more in this way, either tending or befriending or biting. Keeping their mouth shut through stress, but men are absolutely not. Men can fight maybe flee, but they get called names when they tend and befriend.
And I think overall actually, tend and befriend has been ignored as an effective stress response and considered more of a womanly trait, which has directly and negatively impacted all of us. That this is a healthy stress response. And all of them have their place. The other thing, Interesting thing to remember here, is that tend and befriend has to happen within as well. Just as I alluded to a bit earlier, and like Thich Nhat Hanh described with anxiety.
This tending and befriending has to be expressed within. That's self-compassion. Tending to your wounds, seeing them, your pain, like you would a loved child. Befriending yourself, not fighting yourself and responding in this more compassionate way, so you can heal. Doesn't that sound better than always fleeing, fighting, or biting? Tending and befriending?
Like we all need these types of soothing responses.
Henry: We, we always like to try to offer some really practical, accessible ways to do the things we're talking about. And so a lot of folks might have heard about some of the self-soothing techniques that have been used with success to help kids with autism, to calm themselves down. So it might involve something really simple, like lightly brushing the skin or maybe wrapping yourself tightly in a blanket.
Um, or even applying a deep, but gentle pressure to the hand or the arm. This kind of thing works because our bodies are designed for it to work. And of course it's not just kids with autism, but all of us, have this mechanism built in, uh, within us. So just try it for yourself. Sometime when you're feeling upset, try, for example, just placing your hand on your belly or over your heart, and just feel that really soft, gentle warmth of your hand. Or cup your hands lightly over your face. Or, gently squeeze your hand, that thick part of your hand, right between the thumb and the, the first finger. And then just notice. And try to have some curiosity about noticing this. What happens to your feelings of being upset when you do this?
Aimee: Yeah, most of my, problems can be solved by a weighted blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. I feel like. Truly. Um, yeah. I love those self soothing techniques. There's so many, there's no, um, right or wrong. We're all a little different. So we can find something that works for us. No matter our history.
And we innately give them to others when we notice they need them. A hand on the shoulder, a hug. A cup of hot chocolate. We have to give that to ourselves as well. So we've worked a bit through these three aspects of self-compassion over the last three episodes, mindfulness versus over-identification, self-kindness versus self-judgment, and today common humanity versus isolation.
There might be one that you resonate more with. One that makes you feel like, yeah, I want more of that. And I think what's cool here is that any of these aspects are good starting points, sort of touched on this at the top. There's a study actually that looked at practices for these three different aspects and how they impacted overall self-compassion,
but also if there were any impacts on the other aspects. So the good news is that working on one aspect, for example, self-kindness, boosts the others, mindfulness and common humanity. Uh, they work together. So enter into self-compassion through whichever of those aspects might resonate more with you, at this point, and you'll get triple the benefit without even trying. Before we close, I wanna share something from Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers. I just adore him. And see him as a model for compassion and self-compassion. It was really the foundation of his teaching, really. So he took a few years off from his show in the late seventies and then returned. But before returning, he wrote this letter to himself that I wanna read, I'll link to it in the show notes.
"Am I kidding myself that I'm able to write a script again? Am I really just whistling Dixie? I wonder, why don't I trust myself? Really that's what it's all about. That, and not wanting to go through the agony of creation after all these years, it's just as bad as ever. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damn trying to create. Get to it, Fred! But don't let anybody ever tell anybody else that it was easy. It wasn't."
So even Mr. Rogers, yeah, struggled with this harsh inner-critic. We all experience this. I love that little letter. He actually wrote a follow up to this a few years later, noting that he'd been working hard and folks were being helped. He wrote, "remember this." It was like that little reminder that when things get hard, that he wanted to remember that he has others around him, that he can help.
And that can help him. And that his efforts mattered. So I wanna end with a bit more from Mr. Rogers. This is from a commencement speech that he gave. I think it really hits on all the aspects of self-compassion we've discussed in these last three episodes. So here it is,
"We don't always succeed in what we try. Certainly, not by the world's standards. But I think you'll find, it's the willingness to keep trying that matters most. It's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life, which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff."
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