This is my first blog post, in which I talk about how practising mindfulness and self-compassion helped me to work with the shame I struggled with before the reason for my poor health was diagnosed – as hypersensitivity syndrome of the sensory nerves.
When you live with a rare, poorly understood, and progressive health condition, there are a number of difficulties you are faced with. For example, no one can clearly tell you what you should do to successfully manage your condition, and there’s no clear advice in relation to what you can do to stop the progression of your condition. Another difficulty, is that before your condition is diagnosed, there is significant emotional suffering associated with shame – at least this was my experience. I found living without a reason for my poor health a lonely place; trying to explain why I, a young man who didn’t look unwell, struggled with the basics of everyday life, left me floundering with intense feelings of shame which meant I wanted to hide from the world for over 15 years.
The times when shame would strike most intensely would be when other people would innocently ask me how I was, or what I had been doing since we last met (or when meeting new people, what I did for a living). These questions are a normal part of everyday conversation, but I remember how they caused overwhelming feelings of shame; they reminded me that I was unable to manage the ‘normal activities’ of everyday life such as successfully manage a job, support myself, form long-lasting romantic relationships, or do the simple tasks of daily life. When answering, I would feel I had to hide who I was. An honest answer would have involved revealing how I spent most of my time exhausted from a painful and productive cough, fighting recurrent chest infections, lying down to manage eating-related chest and stomach pain, unable to sleep… the list goes on; I believed that if I told people this truth, without a ‘real’ explanation for why, other people would see me as worthless. Wikipedia describes shame as, ‘a painful, social emotion … which stems from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social standard’. I would often try to hide how far I believed I’d fallen below this ideal social standard by displaying a nonchalant outward demeanour when others asked how I was, or what I’d been doing recently, offering trite phrases and truisms such as ‘oh, I’m ok, I’m carrying on with the usual’ and ‘you know how it is, I’m getting on with this and that’. This would be followed by a quick change of subject. Taking on this persona, for a number of years at least, stopped others asking too many follow-up questions which I felt unable to answer.
When I experienced shame, the underlying belief that drove much of my experience was that my poor health was somehow my fault. I don’t really know where this belief came from, and although clearly not true, it give rise to a very harsh inner-critic – a stream of internal chatter and self-focused attitudes that would tell me everything I did wasn’t good enough, and that I was a bad person. My inner-critic exercised significant power over me, and triggered not only intense feelings of shame, but also other difficult feelings and emotions such as anxiety, worry, and low mood; and painful physical reactions consisting of stinging, burning constriction in my chest, followed by the same experience in my stomach and upper gut (these are physical reactions I still experience). To avoid becoming overwhelmed by these difficulties, I would try to suppress awareness of my inner-critic; I didn’t want to contend with the extra pain caused by my inner-critic while I was trying to manage the physical consequences of my poor health. At a deeper subconscious level, I think I tried to suppress my inner-critic because I didn’t want to face the possibility that my poor health was somehow my fault. Whatever the reason, by trying to suppress parts of my internal experience, I only made my internal world more painful.
One particularly unhelpful way of trying to suppress my inner-critic involved becoming intensely frustrated, and even angry. I think I developed this unhelpful habit because in the short-term at least, feeling intensely frustrated would block awareness of my inner-critic, and would mean I didn’t have to feel shame so acutely. This emotional defense mechanism first took root after I finished university, when my poor health meant I was unable to move on with my life as my friends and family were; my poor health continuously thwarted my attempts to live what I considered a ‘normal’ life. Unfortunately, dealing with my difficult feelings and thoughts in this way meant my emotional understanding and growth was restricted, and I succumbed with increasing regularity to episodes of unexpected frustration, and even anger, with those who cared about me; in addition, I developed an emotional vulnerability to other people’s reactions and behaviours, regularly interpreting them in a way that reaffirmed my underlying belief that it I was my fault I was ill, and because of this I must be worthless and unlovable. During this period, I had good friends, and a strong family, but I felt very alone; my frustration and anger would continually restrict any real emotional understanding of my situation, and as a consequence, I never felt able to talk coherently with anyone about what was I was experiencing. I was supposed to be a man in his prime, but I couldn’t make sense of my situation.
How did mindfulness and self-compassion practice help?
Mindfulness is a practice that helps you to stay in the present moment. Many mindfulness teachers describe mindfulness practice as a way of becoming aware of your present moment experience in a way that is free from judgemental thoughts and personal preferences. The quality of awareness engendered by mindfulness practice is different to the quality of awareness engendered by our hectic modern-day way of life, where we don’t tend to be very mindful, and without realising it, our awareness becomes very reactive as we regularly buy into, and believe, judgemental thoughts and personal preferences, which take us away from the present moment.
I had initially turned to mindfulness because I was experiencing prolonged periods of low mood and depression, and I didn’t want to see another doctor (I had become fatigued of seeing doctors); I wanted to try something on my own first. So in April 2012, I bought and listened to a mindfulness audiobook, and decided to try the self-help program it set out. I remember being nervous when I first tried mindfulness practice: I was nervous of what other people might think if they knew I had turned to meditation. To give you a sense of the nerves I experienced when I first tried mindfulness meditation, I remember sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, in my small, bare, white-walled, box-like, no-frills kitchen, in a smallish new-build home which I was renting with two house mates (who were away at the time), and although it was the middle of the day, I had the blinds drawn. This was the only way I felt safe enough to try meditation. I sat there and listened to a 10-minute guided mindfulness of breathing audio track that came with the audio book I was listening to. I remember during the meditation thinking nothing much was happening; my mind seemed as agitated as it usually did, what was trying to pay attention to my breathing actually doing for me? However, I remember that when I opened my eyes at the end of the meditation practice, my sense of curiosity had piqued: the internal chatter of my mind had quieted a little, my body had relaxed a little, and even my post-nasal drip at the time had slowed! This was the first taste of physical and psychological relief I had experienced, and provided the motivation to carry on practicing mindfulness.
Over the following years, as I continued to practice mindfulness, I learned that the best way to stay in the present moment was to re-engage with my body. Many mindfulness teachers reinforce this message; it is your body, not your thoughts, judgements, or beliefs, that stays in the present moment. As I learned how to re-engage with my world through my body and my senses – through paying attention to sensations of touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell – I gradually realised the choice I had when it came to where I placed my attention. This choice offered a sense of stability; by choosing where I placed my attention I didn’t have to become overwhelmed by what my inner-critic was saying, and I could see my inner-critic for what it was: a series of thoughts and feelings, and not reality. I would still experience thoughts and feelings that would tell me I was a failure, unloveable, and that being ill was my fault, but there was now space around my inner-critic, and it no longer absorbed the whole of my attention.
After a few years of regularly practising mindfulness, I came across the practice of self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion offered a way to both soothe the emotional sting of my incessant self-attacking, and also reduce the frequency of self-attacking I engaged in. The best way to describe self-compassion practice is as a way of being, where you maintain a balanced non-judgemental awareness of difficult experiences, and maintain a deep desire to alleviate the difficulties you experience, whilst recognising it is a perfectly normal part of being human to experience the difficulties you do. To engage in this way of being requires complementing the practice of mindfulness with the practices of self-kindness (as opposed to self-judgement) and common humanity (as opposed to isolation). An analogy which I find helps to explain the roles of self-kindness and common humanity in helping to ease, and lessen, self-attacking, is if practising mindfulness works like a sticking plaster that stops you from itching at an emotional sore caused by self-attacking, practising self-kindness acts like a soothing ointment that helps you to soothe the emotional pain caused by self-attacking, and practising common humanity acts like a preventative medicine that over time helps you to reduce the frequency of self-attacking you engage in.
Practising self-kindness is exactly how it sounds, relating to oneself with an attitude of kindness, paying attention to oneself with a sense of gentleness, softness, patience, and reassurance. When I first started practicing self-kindness, I found the experience a little strange at times. The method of practicing self-kindness I first used involved changing the tone of my internal voice so that it was soft, warm, and embracing, rather than harsh, and cold, as it tended to be. I would use my internal voice to say phrases to myself such as ‘it’s ok’ and ‘don’t worry’. Although this sounds fairly straight forward, when I first started to practice self-kindness I realised how I held underlying attitudes towards being kind. Most significantly, I realised that I didn’t feel able to offer myself kindness very often; I held the tacit assumption that kindness could only really be offered to others. On occasions when I felt able to offer myself kindness, it was completely conditional; I would only offer myself kindness when I was able to achieve certain tasks I believed were important, or I behaved in a way that I believed meant other people would like and see me as worthwhile – even then, the kindness I offered myself was minimal. This underlying attitude meant that I would often tell myself that I didn’t deserve kindness. I don’t know where this way of thinking regarding kindness came from, but it left me starved of kindness, an essential ingredient for emotional growth.
When I was able to offer myself unconditional kindness, I noticed the benefits very quickly: my mind was clearer, my body was more relaxed, and I was nicer to others. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, and there were often times when I would experience intense sadness and anger when self-kindness touched past emotional trauma. Experiences which I have since learned are part of the emotional healing process. Through regular practice though, I gradually learned how to offer myself kindness without conditions attached, and I could say to myself warm-heartedly, ‘don’t worry, this is hard, you’ll be ok’. I would still engage in self-attacking and self-blaming (and still do), but self-kindness became more and more of an established habit in my life.
Practicing Common Humanity
Although practising self-kindness and mindfulness helped to ease the emotional consequences of self-attacking, it wasn’t until I became firmly grounded in the practice of common humanity that I was able to reduce the frequency of self-attacking I engaged in. The practice of common humanity involves actively recognising how our experience is the same as others, rather than unique, of actively trying to recognise how our experience is part of the larger human condition. Because of my situation, I found practising common humanity hard to begin with; I didn’t know the reason for my poor health, and I didn’t know of anyone going through what I was going through. This made me a little cynical of this practice. However, by regularly trying to recognise my common humanity whenever I practiced self-compassion, a change in my perspective gradually occurred. I became more aware of others’ difficulties, and became aware that everyone is fighting a battle in life that we are not always aware of. By listening to, and empathising with, others more often, I began to realise that although everyone’s battle is different, we are all faced with the same tricky emotions; we all judge ourselves, and experience the same emotional pain associated with emotions such as shame, anxiety, sadness, anger, and depression.
As I continued to regularly practice self-compassion – practicing mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity in tandem – something happened that I wasn’t expecting. I began to realise that not only did I hold an underlying belief that my poor health was somehow my fault, but also that the emotions I experienced were somehow my fault as well. By regularly practicing self-compassion, I become aware of just how much I was judging myself for feeling anxious, worried, defeated, and vulnerable about my situation. Through continued reflection, I came to understand how this belief stemmed from an underlying assumption held by myself that it wasn’t OK for a man of my age to be experiencing, and struggling with, the feelings and emotions I was. Realising how pervasive and omnipresent this assumption was for me, shifted the way I viewed my world. By reminding myself that it was in fact normal for everyone to struggle with emotions as I did, meant that I judged myself far less, and my feelings and emotions became OK to experience. As a consequence, my internal world became a much more emotionally warm place, and I gradually began to see my inner-critic as more of a teacher than a foe, helping me to understand what I was actually worried about. I was also able to say to myself with genuine warm-heartedness ‘it’s not my fault I struggle as I do, this is a normal part of being human’. These experiences gradually allowed for a much clearer appraisal of my situation, and meant I was eventually able to tell myself without any judgement, or conditions attached, that ‘it wasn’t my fault I was ill’. Being able to hear and accept this opened up emotional space that allowed much of the shame I experienced to transform itself, and in the process undo the emotional vice I had been locked in for much of my life.
In my battle with shame, practising mindfulness and self-compassion has been incredibly healing. Even though the reason for my poor health has now been diagnosed, I still regularly experience shame for various reasons, if not always with the same intensity and frequency. I still also feel many other difficult emotions, but by practising mindfulness and self-compassion I am able to hold them in a warm embrace, and work with them in a much more transformative, and healing, manner 💗.