Thursday, November 21, 2019

An Examen of Lovingkindness {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #21

We have finally come to the last day of our Self-compassion series! And for this day, I am going to teach you "An Examen of Lovingkindness".  In Ignatian spirituality, an 'examen' is simply an opportunity to reflect on the day - to purposefully look for the ways God revealed Himself in events and happenings and showed His lovingkindness towards you.  While this is an ancient practice, this specific 'examen' was something that the Spirit dropped in my heart as I was taking a class on Compassion Focused Therapy...what I am going to give you is a 'twist' on the mindfulness practice called "lovingkindness meditation", a practice taught in CFT (Compassion Focused Therapy). This twist, this examen,  brings lovingkindness meditation back under the umbrella of God's character and faithfulness for the Christian who can really benefit from rediscovering this ancient practice!
During lovingkindness practice, the practitioner extends good wishes to a variety of people. This generally begins with the self: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” The good wishes are then extended to a loved one, an acquaintance (or stranger), a difficult person, and then to all beings everywhere: “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.” (1)

Lovingkindness meditation is a way of developing more compassion and cultivating more love. It is about developing care, concern, tenderness, loving-kindness, and friendship–for oneself and others​​​​​​​.  It 'softens' or breaks down the barriers - both unconscious and conscious - to loving and accepting both ourselves and others. Research has already shown that practicing lovingkindness is useful in the management of social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving and enhances the activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy to boost a sense of positivity and reduce negativity.​​​​​​​(2) Research also suggests that practicing lovingkindness can lead to forgiveness and can help us let go of ruminating thoughts.

Lovingkindness isn't a concept created by modern meditation practitioners, but is an ancient word, found in the Old Testament of the Bible.

The Hebrew word most often translated “lovingkindness” is checed, which literally means “covenant loyalty.” Most newer English translations of the Bible substitute more common English words such as faithfulness, unfailing love, mercy, or good favor. All of these are viable substitutions, but, as with many Hebrew words, checed has no exact match in English.
While lovingkindness can describe one person’s actions toward another (Genesis 20:1321:23Joshua 2:12), it is most often used to describe the character of the Lord. Many places in Scripture speak of the lovingkindness of the Lord (Exodus 20:634:6–7Deuteronomy 7:122 Chronicles 1:8Psalm 31:16). Lovingkindness is part of who God is; He delights in showing lovingkindness (Micah 7:18), and we praise Him for it (Psalm 138:2), but this specific word seems to imply a slightly different character trait than His basic goodness and compassion for all His creation (Psalm 145:9).  (3)

God exercises lovingkindness towards His creation regardless of whether they "deserve"  His love and blessings or not. Lovingkindness is unconditional, meaning there are no requirements that must be met for the goodwill to be extended. Those of us who can become self-critical and self-shaming have a hard time understanding, opening up to, and receiving God's lovingkindness or (any unconditional love from any source, including our own hearts)! But, there is a Biblical practice that we can begin to do that complements the work of the Holy Spirit within and helps us develop the ability to receive God's lovingkindness. In fact, this practice is supported by modern neuroscience research!

What is this practice? Simply intentionally engaging in the process outlined in Philippians 4:8! What I mean is one must do more than read this list of things to think about, one must actually exercise their mind to find the events or things in their everyday life that fulfill the characteristics listed. When a person actually searches - at least mentally - for these areas, the neuro pathways of the brain are re-wired from focusing on the negative to looking for the good and beautiful. By intentionally practicing this passage, we can reframe the same exact day as positive - a  gift from God - instead of something that was horribly devoid of any redeeming qualities. Another benefit is that the practice forces the brain, hardwired to look for danger (even when there is none), to focus on the blessings. Finally, the lovingkindness meditation format of pronouncing well being on self, others, and finally, those we are in conflict with is definitely one worth intentionally following.

I am suggesting the following pattern for you to use. There are five total steps, with number 3 being the 'heart' of the practice:

1. Place yourself in God's presence. Breathe. Acknowledge His presence, even if you don't 'feel' it, because His word says He is with you.

2. Pray for the ability to see and understand how God is acting in your life.

3. Review your day, using this list based on Philippians 4:8 (sourced from different translations in order to cover the full spectrum of each area.) Recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.​​​​​​​ Jot the feeling along with the event or happening.

For yourself - what in your day was:
  1. What was beautiful? (A sight, a word, a happening, a thing, a person, a feeling, a thought)
  2. What was something true? (Something from within that you knew you needed to bring to light, to unhide, an exposure of something formerly dark. This could also be 'speaking the truth in love' to yourself or to someone else.)
  3. What was something honorable? (something done or refrained from doing that showed you are a person of honor and respect?)
  4. What was something right? (something you did or refrained from doing because of your relationship to Jesus?)
  5. What was something pure? (something that showed growth in spiritual maturity, a move away from carnal - fleshly, worldy, immature - desires.)
  6. What was something lovely? (The Greek word here is prosphilḗs - to be friendly towards. What was something you did, thought, or felt that was friendly towards yourself?)
  7. What was something good? (This would be something spoken in a kindly spirit, with good-will to others, including self.)
  8. What was something excellent? (Something that demonstrated a virtue, a virtuous course of thought, feeling and action)
  9. Was there any thing worthy of praise? (Some thought, word or deed that was commendable, worthy of singling out as unique and something to be rightly proud of.)

For someone else - what in their day was:
  1. What was beautiful? (A sight, a word, a happening, a thing, a person, a feeling, a thought)
  2. What was something true? (Something from within that you observed them bringing to light, to unhide, an exposure of something formerly dark. This could also be 'speaking the truth in love' to themself or to someone else.)
  3. What was something honorable? (something done or refrained from doing that showed that person is a person of honor and respect?)
  4. What was something right? (something they did or refrained from doing because of their relationship to Jesus?)
  5. What was something pure? (something that showed growth in spiritual maturity, a move away from carnal - fleshly, worldy, immature - desires.)
  6. What was something lovely? (The Greek word here is prosphilḗs - to be friendly towards. What was something you observed them doing, thinking, or feeling that was friendly towards themself?)
  7. What was something good? (This would be something spoken in a kindly spirit, with good-will to others, including self.)
  8. What was something excellent? (Something that demonstrated a virtue, a virtuous course of thought, feeling and action)
  9. Was there any thing worthy of praise? (Some thought, word or deed that was commendable, worthy of singling out as unique and something to be rightly proud of.)
Would it be appropriate to share your observations with that person to encourage him/her?

And finally, for someone you are in conflict with, ask the same questions as above.

4. Spend some time in listening prayer, listening for the Holy Spirit's words to you.

5. Finish by thanking God for the ways He was with you and with others today.

There may not be something to enter in each category, but try to find three categories that you can write something for. Also, you may only have time to do the Examen for one person. If you are someone who struggles with self-criticism, then prioritize the Examen for yourself. Add in the other two levels of examen on a day when you have more time, or consider rotating through the levels once you have reached a place of stable positive self-regard.

I've included different translations of Philippians 4:8 below as a fun addition - I always enjoy reading the same passage out of several different translations as I am studying it to give myself more perspectives and data to consider as I am leaning in to what the Spirit is saying to me. Each of these versions are found on the BibleGateway site.  Enjoy!

Philippians 4:8 The Voice 
Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy.

Philippians 4:8-9 The Message (MSG)
8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8 English Standard Version (ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is [a]lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, [b]dwell on these things.

Philippians 4:8 King James Version (KJV)
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8-9 J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
8-9 Here is a last piece of advice. If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God, fix your minds on the things which are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good. Model your conduct on what you have learned from me, on what I have told you and shown you, and you will find the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8 Expanded Bible (EXB)
[L Finally; In conclusion; or Now then] Brothers and sisters, ·think about [focus your thoughts on; fill your minds with] things that are true and honorable and ·right [just] and pure and ·beautiful [lovely] and ·respected [commendable]. If there is anything that is ·good [morally excellent] and worthy of praise, ·think about [focus your thoughts on; fill your minds with] these things.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Compassionate Self Meets the Inner Critic - A Healing Art Exercise - {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #20

In the world of Compassion Focused Therapy, there is a technique in which the therapist has the client find his or her "Compassionate Self".  Therapists employ this technique when their client is dealing with a particularly harsh inner critical voice and the client is stuck within the grip of this inner bully...the critical self-attacks take up all (or most of) the inner emotional and mental space, leaving little room for the brain's soothing system to function.

Remember, as we have learned in the neurobiology section of Days #17 and #18, these thoughts of shame and judgement keep a person in threat response even when there is no real threat present. Simply put, the perceived 'danger' is imaginary, yet it feels very real.

If our imaginations can hi-jack us with worry, judgement and blame, it is possible to use our God given imagination to redirect these thoughts to ones that reflect more compassion.  By intentionally harnessing our imaginations in this way, we actually do train our brains to develop a strong, soothing connection in the neural pathways, re-enforcing pathways that release oxytocin and endorphins, building our compassion "muscle" so that compassion becomes the habitual response instead of self-attack.

We do this with a type of externalization exercise, much like in the EBB technique. However, for this technique we will be "personifying" the voice of the inner critic; meaning that we will relate to the voice as if it is a separate person.

Supplies Needed:
Time to do this exercise: about an hour
Art Journal or paper
Magazines & glue if you are doing a collage
OR - Pencil, paint, colored markers, short, your favorite art making supplies, because this is art 'work' and you may want to work in a medium that you love...

Step 1: Here are some questions to help define your inner critic; to help externalize and personify it:

  • What does he/she look like?
  • About how old is he/she?
  • What does he/she say to you?
Also, define your response to the inner critic:
  • How does what he/she says to you make you feel?
  • What is your inner critic trying to do to (or for) you?
Art prompt: You can collage, draw, or paint your insights on a page in your journal. Title it "Inner Critic".

Step 2: Next, you will do the same thing for your compassionate self, to externalize and personify it. Here are some questions to help define your compassionate voice:

  • What doe he/she look like?
  • About how old is he/she?
  • What does he/she say to you?
Record your response to your compassionate self:
  • How does what he/she says to you make you feel?
  • What is your compassionate self trying to do to (or for) you?
Art prompt: You can collage, draw, or paint your insights on a page in your journal. Title it "Compassionate Self".

Step 3:  Start a journal page in which you place an image that represents your inner critic and one that represents your compassionate self. Make the images sit so that they are facing each other, yet have a little distance between them. This is a way of externalizing both voices at the same time and prepares the page for the final step.

Take the perspective of your compassionate self and look towards the inner critic. As your compassionate self, look "behind" the inner critic and consider these questions:
  • What is your inner critic afraid of?
  • How is your inner critic hurting?
  • What is your inner critic worried about?
  • What does your inner critic need to hear from your compassionate self in order to relax?
  • What does your compassionate self want to say to your inner critic (remember the EBB practice from Day #19)?
  • What does your compassionate self want to do for your inner critic to give it comfort?
Art prompt: Consider how to represent the insights you have gained in the picture of your inner critic and compassionate self. How can you represent your compassionate self caring for your inner critic? Once you have added this to your image, reflect on what you have learned, and how this might affect your life as you move forward in this new understanding. Journal a few lines so that you can remember what happened.

Note: Please don't approach this exercise with the thought or idea that you are going to 'fix' your inner critic, get rid of it, or somehow change it...that all has its roots in the emotional drive system, and will simply end up fueling more threat response! Instead, practice simply being 'with' the pain that the inner critic is stuck in, and therefore throwing it on to you...let the presence of compassion - of simply loving the critic in the midst of all the shame, blame, judgement, etc. - be the focus of this exercise.

In a month, come back to this page and review this compassion exercise. Have there been any changes in your emotional life, in your thought life, in your physical life? Take some time to celebrate living with more compassion!

This post first appeared on 12 Tribes Ministries, November 2019. Copyright Cindy J. Fort.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

What do You do With Difficult Emotions? The Compassionate Practice of EBB and CALM - {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #19

Over the course of this series we have looked at the need for self-care, the way our nervous systems have been designed that support the use of soothing self-compassion, identifying our emotions and many examples of the Lord's compassion that provide a path which we can follow when exercising compassion for others as well as ourselves.

Still, even with all our newfound understanding and skills, we can find it difficult to allow certain emotions into our conscious awareness. We aren't comfortable with our emotions. We may have been taught that it is 'wrong' to have feelings of anger, hate, deep sadness or anxiety, let alone express those feelings (appropriately, of course!). We may have learned to repress, suppress and deny any feelings that we believed were not 'safe' to express at home. We may recognize that we have a harsh inner critic, but the the inner dialogue of shame is so entrenched that we cannot imagine a life without the negative messages. Intense sadness, strong feelings of injustice, fear that borders close to a panic attack, and self-hate - all can feel too strong to actually feel, especially when our pattern of dealing with them has been to push them away.

We may even think it is "unspiritual" or "unChristian" to acknowledge such feelings. We believe they are indicators of our sinful nature, or are part of a past that has no place in our new life with Christ. Those in the church whom we are looking to for mentoring and guidance may even re-enforce those ideas by what is known as 'spiritual bypassing'. This chart illustrates what that looks like:


Alison Cook, PhD, the author of this chart, goes on to say:
In life and work, getting to the heart of vulnerability is holy ground. Jesus is never closer than when you get really honest with yourself about what you’re really feeling. You can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. You can’t transform what you’ve pretended doesn’t exist.

I love the thought of the hard work of working through difficult emotions is "Holy Ground"! The idea of holy ground places the work squarely in the center of our relationship with Jesus. Reclaiming our entire emotional self, healing the wounds that difficult emotions are a symptom of, is part of redemption!

Remember that Jesus looks with compassion on the multitudes that hurt or have lost their way, calling them sheep without a shepherd. He wants to shepherd our difficult emotions, and He wants us to join Him in the work.

PRACTICE - Diffusing Difficult Thoughts and Emotions with EBB (Externalize, Be (with), Bless)

This practice is especially useful in two instances: the first is when a person has "bought into" the shame statements they are telling themselves. This is the area of 'fusion', found in the 'Freeze' response turned inward, and where I begin to believe the negative thoughts I have had about myself. These thoughts might even form parts of their identity, and thus are considered unchangeable.

The second area this practice helps in is when a person needs to acknowledge an emotion that they believe is too intense to bear. There is fear that the emotion will overwhelm and take over the person, that the emotion may never ebb away, and/or that the individual may do something rash while experiencing the emotion, so there is resistance to even allowing it to come into consciousness.The process is the same, no matter which difficulty a person is having.

If you are worried about experiencing something unsettling, I encourage you to find a counselor or trusted friend to sit with you while you access your thoughts/emotions. Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness writes:
To understand true self...we need both the interior intimacy that comes with solitude and the otherness that comes with community. Together they make us whole, like breathing in and breathing out.
In this practice we are NOT seeking to change the thought or emotion, to somehow get rid of it or exile it, but to simply observe it. The idea is to examine all aspects of the difficult thoughts and emotions a person is having.  We do this by 1) externalizing the thought or emotion, 2) 'sitting' with it compassionately,  3) thanking the mind for doing what it was designed to do, and 4) then releasing it!

Now, often there is a swirl of thoughts and emotions that someone is experiencing, but we can only process one at a time! So, to proceed through the exercise, focus on one thought OR one emotion. It will be you see the positive benefit of this practice, you can continue to practice these steps whenever you have the need!

E - Externalization. To externalize our inner thoughts and emotions means to take a 'third person perspective' of them. We examine the thought or emotion as if it belongs to someone else. We can do this in several ways. To help, here are some questions to consider:
  • If it were a person, what would it look like?
  • If it were a color, what color would it be?
  • If it were an animal, what animal would it be?
  • If it were a song, what type of song would it be? What would the name of the song be?
  • If it were a motto, what would the motto be?
Gaining this personal 'distance' from the thought or emotion immediately reduces its volatility to us! Once we have externalized it, we can ask what function it is serving:
  • Is it trying to help me stay safe?
  • is it helping me in daily life?
  • Is it helping me achieve my own goals?
  • What is it here to tell me?
These are just suggestions to give you an idea of what to look for. You may definitely have different functions - by externalizing, you get to find out what that function is!

B - Be with.  This is simply allowing the thought or emotion to be there. You acknowledge that it is a part of you. That in itself sanctifies the thought or emotion, just as we are sanctified by virtue of being "in Christ" while yet still imperfect and maturing! In 'being with' this part of yourself, you are embracing the limits of your humanity with the love that also rests there. 
The human soul doesn't want to be fixed, it simply wants to be seen and heard. The soul is like a wild animal - tough, resilient and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself (3).
Remember, that allowing the thought or emotion and experiencing its original intensity as well as the subsequent ebbing away, you learn that they do not truly have control of you. By embracing this part of your humanity, much like it was a wayward child in need of some attention and direction, you help to diffuse its power over you.

B - Bless. In this step we acknowledge the function that the thought or emotion has served for us (even if it was far from the ideal). We do this by thanking the thought/emotion for how it served us as if it were a separate person. While we didn't know any better, it was what we needed. Now that we have learned more, we don't berate ourselves for needing to grow, we are thankful for the work that these difficult areas of our being did to help us get this far in life.

We are fulfilling this scripture in a new way that helps us grow in compassion:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
                                                                                            ~  1 Timothy 4:4-5

You can use these words:

"Thank you Jesus, for creating me in such a way that my mind tries to 
keep me safe and for emotions that help cue me about what is happening in my life. 
Teach me how to have Your compassion for these places 
that were working before I knew You. 
Show me how You want to minister to 
(name the thought or emotion you are working through). 

By practicing EBB, we recognize and acknowledge our emotions, our negative thoughts, and our limiting beliefs and replace them with a loving mindset...

I call this a CALMing Practice - "Compassionately Adopting Loving Mindsets"!

(1) "Alison Cook, PhD." The Danger of Bypassing Your Emotions. 03 September 2019.
(3) "Parker J. Palmer." Wind and Fly LTD, 2019. 24 November 2019.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Developing Resiliency and the Neurobiology of Our Inner Critics - Part 2 {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #18


Now that we understand how the instinctive threat response acts when turned inward, we can begin to understand how to develop interventions that REVERSE the threat response. Another useful diagram, developed out of Dr. Paul Gilbert's work helps to simplify and understand the three systems we all use to manage our emotions - think of it as "The Neuroscience of Emotions":

(Our Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Appease responses that we just learned about) belong to the red threat system.)

Here is a brief explanation of these three systems:
Threat System:  When balanced with the two other systems, the threat system helps alert us to potential threats and obstacles, and helps to help keep our lives moving in desired directions. However, because it is one of the brain’s most powerful system (remember: it’s all about survival!) it is easy for this system to take up more than its fair share of mental and physical energy. Due to our brain’s ability to imagine and ruminate, it is possible to keep this system running even in the absence of any actual external threat. This means that if we spend lots of time living unnecessarily in a state of ‘threat’ our worlds will be experienced as a potentially stressful, anxiety-provoking, exhausting, or overwhelming place to be. 
Drive System: When in balance with the other two systems, the drive system can help keep us activated in the pursuit of important life goals. However, at the extreme, Drive can lead to addictive and compulsive behaviors (e.g., chasing unrequited love or the ‘high’ associated with drugs, or compulsive actions people engage in order to avoid anxiety). The Drive System can also lead people to pursue achievement in unrelenting ways – it can lead to stress, perfectionism, burnout, and depression.
Soothing System: This system allows us to soothe ourselves and also to soothe others – It is linked with experiences of giving/receiving affection, eliciting and receiving care from others, acceptance, kindness, warmth, encouragement, support and affiliation. We now know from the research that these behaviors can weaken the toxic effects of the Threat and Drive Systems and that the Soothing System can bring us a sense of calm, safeness, and peace (4). 

This is how it works (or doesn't work well) together:

Both the threat and the drive systems operate from the parasympathetic system of the brain - the threat system 'activates' or arouses the flight, flight, and freeze responses and the drive system 'deactivates' it.  This diagram can help us recognize that when we use the drive system to try to regulate the threat system, we can get stuck in a 'performance trap', a trap in which we cycle between the drive and threat systems continuously, never moving to soothing.  We feel stress and then engage in 'drive' oriented behavior to 'fix' the stress trigger. The drive system rewards behavior that reduces stress with dopamine, the "feel good" chemical, which re-enforces 'working hard' to reduce the stress. We cycle between "drive" and "threat" endlessly.

At some point, when stress is ongoing or several high stress events occur very close together,  the drive system cannot produce enough dopamine to reduce the incoming stress. When the drive system gets depleted or overwhelmed, that is when clinical depressions occur. We find ourselves MORE stressed, anxious, and hopeless!

When we use the inner critic or negative self talk, we are attempting to activate the drive system, but research shows that the body registers negative self-talk as further threat - it cannot differentiate between a true external threat and the 'threat' produced by shame, blame and judgment.

Negative self-talk is motivated by the belief that if we just did something better, different, again, repeatedly, tried harder, or changed somehow, that whatever perceived threat or struggle we are facing would improve or disappear. The motive is rooted in our deep need to be safe, to survive, yet, in the effort to do just that, we are triggering the threat system all over again, our body releases cortisol and adrenaline, sending the neural message that we are in danger instead of the "feel good" message that dopamine delivers and our body and mind increase their threat state!

All this is the reason why, when we criticize ourselves, we are actually undermining our ability to be motivated. When the threat cycle goes on too long, our body shuts down to compensate. We experience that effect by emotional numbness, we are emotionally drained, depressed, and burned out. This mindset actually prevents us from living to the best of our ability!

But what if people could replace this misguided method of motivation with a skill that is supported by both science and scripture?

That is what the soothing system is, the built in care-giving system that every human possesses. It would be like our loving Creator Father, to design us humans with the capability to calm the system that became the threat detection if He created the answer before we knew the problem, the need for the answer, existed! 


Humans are born with the physiological capacity to receive comfort: warmth, tender touch, and soft vocal tones cause the infant's brain to release oxytocin, endorphins and other opiates that calm the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the baby and making him or her feel safe. An infant needs a source outside of him- or her-self to stimulate the soothing system, but as the child grows, he/she can learn how to self-regulate. As each person grows into adulthood and beyond, the acts of warmth and kindness from others elicit the same soothing responses. The brain even responds to kindness and caring from our own self - self-compassion - releasing the same chemicals that actually calm down the threat system.
When we practice self-compassion, we are actually moving our sense of safety from the threat system to our own care-giving and attachment system...when we extend compassion to ourselves we feel safe, emotionally balanced, and soothed. This puts us on the best footing to not only be happy, but also to take risks, to grow, and to ultimately reach our goals (4)

It doesn't take a brain scientist to understand that words of compassion are exactly opposite of self-shame, criticism and blame! 

And if our body's systems are designed to favor compassion and kindness as a way to reverse the stress it encounters, then we can let go of the idea that self-care and being kind to ourselves is somehow selfish and self-serving. 

Self-compassion and kindness easily fall into the category of being good stewards of our bodies, and engaging in compassion focused interventions can be viewed as treating our body in a way that honors and glorifies God, just as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
"... do  you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."

Any scripture in which God calls us to compassion always includes the idea to be compassionate to ourselves as well (no scripture tells us to treat ourselves harshly!) Here are a few to read through:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
~ Colossians 3:12

Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. 
 ~ Isaiah 30:18

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles,so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 
                                                      ~  2 Corinthians 1:3-4                                                                    

The neurobiology of emotions points us to the inherent need we have for God's unconditional love and compassion. When we receive and internalize His compassion towards us, we learn how to give compassion to others as well as ourselves. And as we embrace compassion as an internal motivator instead of shame, we truly begin to walk in the peace, love and joy that characterize the Kingdom of God!

Because we have waded through a lot of science, let me leave with these words of hope and peace that reflect God's great love for us...

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Developing Resiliency and the Neurobiology of Our Inner Critics - {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #17

 - Unmasking the "Unholy Trinity" of Shame Responses and Why Compassion is the Antidote - {Compassion and Spirituality series} - Day #17

We all have that "inner critic", that inner voice that tries to keep us motivated and on track, but can turn harsh and judgmental at times. Those who consider themselves creative are well aware of that "inner critic voice" - the voice that can find the most miniscule of flaws and highlight it at the expense of an immense expanse of beautiful, spectacular work. At those times, when the voice becomes excessively critical, it is really more harmful than helpful, but we still register it as "trying to help". Yet, any kind of negative self-talk isn't helpful at all, and research has shown that it actually creates more stress in our lives(1).  To further complicate matters, we hesitate to give it up because we believe that without it, we would have no motivation at all. Would it surprise you to know that negative self-talk is a form of "shame"?

Just mention the word shame, and you will notice the instant clenching in your body. We typically think of shame as something done to us, such as a parent or teacher pouring belittling words over us, telling us that we are stupid, lazy, won't amount to anything, and so on. Not everyone has had that experience, but everyone deals with the issue of shame. Dr. Brene Brown defines shame in this way(2):
“an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging... Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.”
This belief or feeling of being flawed or unworthy can be present even if we haven't experienced trauma or verbal abuse. Dr. Brown goes on to say:
You can feel shame about anything and everything.
And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging and religion (3)​​​​​​​.

As Christians, we know that shame entered into humanity's experience through the fall in the Garden of Eden. Since sin, shame and separation from God came through the fall, we somehow, mistakenly believe that all that and the effects upon our lives are automatically swept away when we take the step of making Jesus our Lord and Savior, asking Him into our hearts.

For a time, the elation of our new relationship masks the fact that some of the character constructs deep in our psyche are still there, seemingly untouched by the Savior's presence. Shame's message begins to whisper to our inmost being thoughts of doubt and despair (WARNING - possible trigger alert):

"You were never saved."
"You are too bad for Him to be with."
"You have done something else wrong, and now you are not worthy of being a Christian."
"You should have the 'joy of the Lord' - what's wrong with you?"
"You're such a failure."
"etc., etc., etc...."

Is your heart racing just reading those words?
Is your breathing becoming shallow?
Do you feel an the verge of panic?
Are you feeling like you need to run and hide?

These body sensations are our internal response to shame, whether it is self-shame or it is being heaped on us by another! In fact, these internal responses are EXACTLY THE SAME as when we are confronted with something truly dangerous and life-threatening! 


Our instinctive response to external threat is "Fight, Flight, or Freeze". Those responses originate in the limbic system of the brain - meaning that before we can register a thought about the validity of the threat, our brain is sending the signals to the body to 'get ready to do something'. In addition, researchers in the area of compassion and shame have found that our brains really don't differentiate between external threats and internal "threats" and negative self-talk - in the form of shaming statements, self-criticism, self-judgment and blame - trigger our limibic system to send the same signals as if we were facing a sabre-toothed tiger!

Researchers have coined the term "The Unholy Trinity" to describe what these three instinctive responses look like when they are turned inward:
The 'fight' and 'flight' areas are self-explanatory; 'freeze' may not be as readily recognizable. Rumination is when we rehearse our perceived flaws over and over, or a past event in which we didn't perform to our desired standard replays in our mind. Over-identification occurs when we somehow connect with the inner criticism as true, or when we turn our emotions into our identity, for example, "I am feeling bad at the moment therefore I AM bad."  Fusion refers to the degree that we respond to a mental event as if it were a real life danger - in fusion, our perception begins to narrow and/or the rumination can change topics and continue to new "perceived" threats.

We can have a 'preferred' threat response or we may move between these. Psychologists have also identified a 4th possible threat response when the threat system turns inward which they call "appease". This response occurs when we perceive that we must please another person.

These instinctive responses occur at a deep, subconscious level. We become aware of them when we pay attention to our what our bodies are telling us. It is when we become consciously aware of what is happening that we can effect change. And this is why our salvation experience SEEMINGLY doesn't change our emotional climate - the Lord desires for the unconscious to become conscious AND He desires that we become agents in our own healing, dismantling old habits so we can become co-creators with Him in developing the new!


1. First, we acknowledge that shame is just an emotion, and like all emotions, it will flow away if we let it, even the shame that we place on ourselves.

2. Recognize that our self-shame, criticism and judgments served us for a time, but now we recognize that they aren't serving us well, and that we are ready to use a new skill to deal with the emotion of shame.

3. We have learned different ways of connecting with the compassion of God, or with self-compassion (self-soothing) already in this series. Use one of these compassion exercises to begin replacing the shame messages we tell ourselves with words of compassion and kindness. Research shows that 'corrective emotional experiences' - replacing shame messages with care and belonging through compassion focused interventions - can retrain the brain to self-regulate.

Here is a quick link list of some of our past compassion exercises to use:

(Part Two of the Neurobiology of the Inner Critic will come tomorrow.)

  2. Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Building Your Resilience to Shame. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 20, 2019, from
  3. Brown writes in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power.
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