My Psychedelic Journey to Self-Compassion
A few months ago I had a transformative psychedelic experience that set me off on a journey. I went into it with the intention to gain insight to the source of my ‘self-doubt’, something I’ve suffered from for many years.
Several minutes in, I was giggling and laughing uncontrollably. I was secured on a rollercoaster looking over the first plunge.
Then I closed my eyes and started seeing traditional wooden door carvings from Iran.
Then I saw street signs and flowers, followed by symmetrical ceiling art.
I sobbed at the realisation that I had been denying the Iranian part of me. Out of the desperation to fit in–when we moved to London at age 10–I’d been downplaying my Iranian heritage. I’d been criticising Iranian culture and the people for a long time. But seeing the nostalgic elements of Iran–the parts I’ve always admired despite my criticisms–reminded me that I am Iranian. I can’t deny that, and like anything else, there are both beautiful and dark parts to it. In that moment I was able to let go of some of the shame I’d been carrying over the years. I was also struck by the impact being a young immigrant had had on me. I’d been so grateful that I’d overlooked the pain I’d endured – the price I had paid.
Throughout the journey, I kept pendulating between laughing hysterically and crying my eyes (and guts) out. I lost the usual positive and negative associations with laughing and crying. It just felt like a good release. I saw various people in my life and I felt a tremendous amount of love and compassion.
However, there was an undercurrent of a feeling that followed me throughout.
I tried to ignore it until it became front and centre. It hit me like an asteroid. I felt…viscerally in fact, that I didn’t like myself. It was a total shock. It both upset me and confused me. It was a brand new feeling. How could I have been blind to this my whole life? How long has it been buried in my psyche? Then it dawned on me that this must be the source of my self-doubt.
A couple hours went by and I got hungry. I went to get some food and I saw that ‘past-me’, ‘sober-me’, had left me a sandwich in case I got hungry. I felt a surge of emotions coming down on me and my heart began to shatter into pieces. I sat down on the kitchen floor sobbing. I felt loved and cared for by ‘past-me’, and for the first time during the trip, I began to see that loving myself was possible. If past-me, had loved me, the current me, then maybe I could love myself in the present too. Once I saw, really saw, that I didn’t love myself I was able to see how my behaviour, such as my constant pursuit for personal development, was driven by that fact. And when I saw that, I was able to see the behaviours of others that were driven by their lack of self-love.
I’m also noticing that the search for self-love is a global phenomenon. This is part of the reason why we see an increased interest in meditation, psychedelics, breathwork, yoga, trauma, mental health, crying (#sobsquad) etc. We are reaching a tipping point where we need tools to let us handle our heightened feelings of inadequacy. As Tara Brach points out in her book Radical Self-Acceptance, “there is a constant gap between who we are and who we think we should be, which makes us feel terrible about ourselves.”
After being confronted by how I truly felt about myself and later observing it in others, I went on a self-compassion deep-dive. I wanted to learn everything I could.
The Difference Between Self-Compassion and Self-Love
Self-compassion and self-love are related but discrete concepts. The way I think of it is, during my psychedelic experience I saw many people in my life, some were close family and friends while others were people I have crossed paths with at some point in the past. I felt a deep sense of compassion for every single person I saw – I had the same level of compassion for my parents as I did for near strangers. However, the depth of love of course was varied. Similarly, in real life, you could feel compassion for a stranger who is suffering, but it doesn’t mean you love them.
So in a way, I think of self-compassion as a prerequisite for self-love, since it’s easier to intentionally evoke compassion than love. In this post, my main focus is on self-compassion. I believe that through self-compassion, self-love can emerge over time.
What is Self-Compassion
According to Kristin Neff a prominent researcher in the field, “self-compassion means acknowledging that we are imperfect human beings doing the best we can and trying to be kind to ourselves in the process.” It’s about not judging ourselves when we fail and dealing with our inadequacies with kindness.
When I look back at my own experiences, I see that my default response to my shortcomings is frustration and shame. I think there is a part of me that fears if I respond with kindness, then it will make me lazy, complacent, and stunt my growth. Reading Kristin Neff’s research, it turns out this is a widespread belief –“we believe we need our self-criticism to motivate us…but the research shows just the opposite, self-criticism undermines our motivation.”
“When we criticise ourselves we are tapping into our threat defence system, the reptilian brain which releases adrenaline and cortisol and prepares us for the fight or flight response. Though the system evolved for threats to our actual bodily self, in modern times typically, the threat is not to our actual selves but to our self-concept. So when we think a thought about ourselves that we don’t like, that’s some imperfection, we feel threatened and so we attack the problem, meaning we attack ourselves. If you’re a constant self-critic, you have constantly high levels of stress (cortisol), and eventually the body, to protect itself, will shut itself down and become depressed in order to deal with all the stress. And as we know, depression is not the best motivational mindset.”
Instead, we need to opt for compassion rather than criticism, “we can tap into the mammalian caregiving system. What’s unique about mammals is they are born very immature, which means the system evolved in which the infant would want to stay close to the mother and stay safe. This means our bodies are programmed to respond to warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalisation. So when we give ourselves compassion, the research shows that we actually reduce our cortisol levels, and release oxytocin and opiates. And when we feel safe and comforted, we are in the optimal mindstate to do our best.”
Because the relationship we have with ourselves is in large parts the source of our experiences in life. How we deal with our inadequacies and failings, largely determines whether we get what we want or not. “Students come to me with complex problems…yet when we begin to investigate, they discover that the deepest pain is in how they are feeling about themselves—how they are condemning themselves for their cravings, their anger, their inadequacy at work or in relationships.” – Tara Brach, True Refuge.
And all that self-criticism is a burden on our mental health. Kristin Neff says, “for the past decade or so I’ve been conducting research on self-compassion and have found that people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed and are much more likely to be happy, resilient and optimistic about their future. In short, they have better mental health.”
Why We Are Self-Critical
I have thought about this a lot and I think there are 3 key components involved in self-criticism and why we deal with our inadequacies negatively:
However, this is based on my personal experience and not every aspect might apply to everyone. Here is the cycle of self-criticism, which I suspect is not unique to me:
Underneath the feeling of inadequacy is shame. Underneath that shame is a fear of not belonging. And the failure to belong creates loss of self-trust which leads to self-criticism. And the cycle repeats.
Belonging is a strong human desire. “Unlike other species, humans receive most of what they need from their social group rather than directly from their natural environment, suggesting that the human strategy for survival depends on belonging (Tyler F. Stillman & Roy F. Baumeister, 2009). In my own experience, I have found much of my behaviour to be driven by the pursuit for belonging. During my self-compassion deep-dive, I made a list of all the areas in which I am prone to self-criticism. I then reflected on why I tended to criticise myself in those areas. What I found was that the underlying reason was almost always a threat to belonging. When I recalled the groups in which I had belonged the least, I realised that was where I also accepted myself the least. Berne Brown describes this beautifully in the book Braving the Wilderness, “because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic and perfect self to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than the level of self-acceptance.”
Ultimately, if belonging is required for survival, every inadequacy poses a threat and deserves scrutiny. At least that’s how the mind sees it.
Shame is an evolutionary tool for belonging, “when shame is healthy, it spurs us to change our behaviour in a positive way or to make amends so that we are part of the group again…and our shame recedes. But shame turns toxic when it says there’s something wrong with me, I can’t belong as I am. Then it’s no longer a passing emotion and becomes identified as a bad or deficient self. Cultures are organised around stories of good/bad, right/wrong, superior/inferior and they invoke shame to varying degrees in all of us. These stories target the way we treat each other, how much we earn, what we consume, the shape of our body, how we express creativity, spiritual or religious beliefs, gender and the colour of our skin. Keep in mind that embedded in the message that something is wrong with you, there’s often a societal story that is invisible, shaming and toxic.” – Tara Brach, Radical Compassion
In order to fully love, we need trust. When we have shame that we are not good enough to belong, we fail to instil trust in ourselves. So we look outwards. Instead of reflecting within to reason through the shame, we seek advice and guidance from people who we assume ‘belong’. And the more we rely on external sources, the less we trust ourselves. We perpetuate the reputation we have with ourselves as someone who has repeatedly failed to belong.
I am constantly amazed that I have far more answers in me than I assume. But due to this reputation of not belonging, I am not who I turn to for guidance. This is not to say that we should never turn to others for direction. But it’s like when you ask a close friend for help, they may not be a therapist, but they know you well and often know what you need. Developing trust in ourselves is the same, it’s about relying on ourselves for guidance while acknowledging that we have blindspots.
If we don’t trust ourselves, we can’t truly love ourselves. Love in the absence of trust, is inundated with fear.
Gender Differences in Self-Criticism
Over the years, I have witnessed a stark difference between the levels of self-criticism in men and women. A behaviour I’ve observed in myself, a woman, is the overuse of the word “sorry”. I noticed I often prefix sentences with “sorry”, or apologise unncessarily. And research shows this behaviour is more common in women. “Men apologise less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.” This means women are more prone to self-criticism, given that they consider more of their actions as ‘wrong’. To make matters worse, women also ruminate more, which doubles their risk for depression.
Ultimately, needlessly apologising stems from the need to not be disliked. It’s a signal to say that I am aware I may be causing an inconvenience, but if I’ve said sorry, then you’re less likely to think badly of me. But I’ve come to realise it has the opposite effect. By saying sorry, I’ve primed them to expect an inconvenience, so they’re more likely to feel bothered. While men self-identify as having significantly higher levels of self-compassion, they are less likely to seek help for mental health concerns, leading them to suffer in silence.
Overall, self-awareness is one of the best tools. In the case of apologising needlessly, I’ve found the mere act of continually noticing the behaviour in myself and others, has made me less apologetic.
How to Develop Self-Compassion
Since learning about my lack of self-compassion, I’ve noticed that every aspect of my life suffers. My relationships and friendships, my work, my hobbies, what opportunities I’m receptive to and which ones I seize. Ultimately if my relationship to myself is lacking, then everything downstream has to be impacted. Once again I’m finding awareness to be a wonderful tool. It sheds light on my patterns and how I criticise myself.
Here’s what I’ve learned about defusing self-criticism:
Other People’s Perception
Since so much of shame is centred around how we fear others perceive us, reminding myself that others think a whole lot less about me than I imagine, has helped a lot.
The other lesson I’ve learned about self-criticism has had a huge impact on me. Every time I remind myself of this, my self-criticism disappears. And that is:
Self-criticism is part self-indulgence.
Here’s why: by agonising about a given inadequacy, I am escaping the responsibility to either change or accept it.
Because the critic says, I’m the problem, not my regimen.
The problem with saying “I’m the problem” is, it’s too unspecific, so it hampers change. For instance, I often get down on myself at my rate of progress in climbing. But then I counted how many times I’d climbed in the last year and realised I’d climbed half as many times as I thought.
This was eye-opening. I just had to train more rather than lament over having plateaued. So now the moment I begin to get down myself, I am reminded that if I want a different output I will need to alter the input. I also realised there was a conflict of desires. On one hand, I wanted to be better at climbing but on the other hand I wasn’t prepared to significantly increase the frequency of my sessions. And once I saw this conflict of desires, I started seeing it in other areas of my life. Weirdly enough, this has had a huge impact on dampening the self-criticism. The key is in deciding which of the two conflicting desires I am to be swayed by. Once I know that, I can make peace with letting go of the other. Until my priorities change, at which point I can decide once again which desire is stronger. Rinse and repeat.
According to Kristin Neff, “one of the most important elements of self-compassion is the recognition of our shared humanity.” So much of the shame targeted at our inadequacies comes from the incorrect assumption that we are alone in that shortcoming. While we acknowledge that others have flaws, for each of our inadequacies we have someone masterful to compare ourselves to. We cherry pick evidence to support our case. But “when we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal.
How can I be so harsh with myself for things that are part of the human experience?
I’ve been reading Tara Brach’s book, Radical Compassion about self-compassion. In it, she describes a framework referred to as RAIN, in order to deal with self-criticism, guilt, blame, and other negative emotions, in particular (but not restricted to) emotions directed at oneself. The idea is to practice RAIN when you catch yourself feeling negative emotions.
These are the steps:
- Recognise: what is happening inside me?
- Allow: can I be with this?
- Investigate: what is really happening inside me?
- Nurture: can I be with this, with kindness?
Doing RAIN feels amazing. The ‘nurtur’ step is key in developing self-compassion. “Discover what best allows you to feel nurturing, what best allows the most vulnerable part of you to feel loved, seen and/or feel safe. Spend as much time as you need offering care inwardly and letting it be received.”
One of the first times RAIN clicked for me was one day after work when I was feeling shitty about not having known something; I was feeling bad about myself and going home to sulk, when I decided to see if RAIN could help. Needless to say, I couldn’t believe the shift in sentiment. I went from feeling deep despair to thinking “meh, it’s not a big deal”.
2. Eye Contact in the Mirror
I have unknowingly judged myself for many years, and I now realise that the judgment has created resentment towards myself. The judgment prohibits me from being vulnerable with myself. And the resentment causes me to feel underserving of compassion. The result of which makes making eye contact with myself deeply uncomfortable. However, I started practicing by looking into my eyes the way I would look into the eyes of someone I love. And practiced resisting the resistance. I was amazed to find that this quickly became easier. And slowly, I noticed every time I came away from doing this, I felt more confident in myself for some time. I still don’t like doing the exercise, but it’s a bit like doing push ups, the act is not fun but the benefits make it worthwhile.
3. The Supportive Touch
Kristin Neff recommends finding ways to tap into the mammalian caregiving system mentioned earlier, by finding a touch that works for you. You can try a range of touches such as putting both hands on your heart, stomach or cheeks, and seeing which one works. At first I thought this was ridiculous, some woo-woo new-age stuff I didn’t want to associate with. But the experience I’d had during the psychedelic trip was so visceral and bewildering, that I was open to trying anything to see what sticks. I also understood the relationship between touch and the release of oxytocin, so I knew there was at least some science to it. To my surprise meditating with both hands on my chest was immediately soothing.
Ultimately, developing self-compassion is a life long journey. The key is to build heightened awareness to slowly alter the default patterns that lead to a lack of love for the self. I now wholeheartedly believe that the relationship we have with ourselves is mirrored in our relationships with others.
The lack of belonging with others, is a symptom of a lack of acceptance in the self. The lack of connection, is the inability to be vulnerable, a symptom of an inability to be vulnerable with oneself. A continual judgement of others, is a symptom of judging oneself. And the list goes on.
I can’t think of anything having more positive downstream effects than learning to love ourselves.
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