Sinking in Sadness, Swimming in Self-Compassion

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You’ve most likely heard of a P.D.A. (public display of affection) but have you heard of a P.D.S.? I found myself experiencing one last week unexpectedly at a YMCA during an aquafit class. P-D-S: Public Display of Sadness. There I was in the middle of a pool with happy, chatting, splashing Seniors when a huge wave of sadness washed over me about an impending loss of a loved one in our family.

Out of nowhere the grief appeared, I felt it creep up my body, and sit heavy in my chest and throat. With it came the accompanying thoughts of ‘how can this be happening to us? How are we going to be okay without him in our lives? I can’t believe we are losing him! Etc etc’ and then the tears began to well.

I looked around, initially feeling embarrassed and hoping none of these fellow exercisers would notice me. Then I looked for the nearest pool stairs in case I couldn’t pull it together and needed to quickly make an exit mid-class. Next came my strategies to redirect my thoughts and use my mindfulness techniques to bring me back to the ‘here and now’.

Mindfulness is well known in therapy circles as an effective emotional regulation strategy because it actually works.  Watching the water shimmer as my arms moved through it, focusing on the movement of my body, the voice of the instructor, the passing cars out the pool windows, was, in fact, very effective at bringing me back and redirecting myself to ‘calmer waters’ (so to speak).

This kept the tears at bay and reigned in the big emotion enough for me to continue my class but it didn’t result in a happy carefree state like my fellow aquafitters. Mindfulness can’t erase our reality, nor allow us to live a life without sadness, grief, anger, fear, shame, vulnerability…RATS! No, not even the ancient wisdom of mindfulness gets us off the hook here.

What is required in those situations, like the one I encountered in the pool, is acceptance. Making room for the fact that we are in pain, loss is hard, impermanence is inevitable and sadness is part of living. By making room for and witnessing our disappointment, our losses, our longings we acknowledge the universality of suffering. This act in itself can be incredibly healing.

In the Deeper Cravings Path™ I teach my clients who are struggling with the pain of food & body image issues a wonderful self-compassion practice modified from the one developed by Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert in the field of self-compassion.

I say to my clients that if they find themselves in the middle of a compulsive eating binge and hear themselves hurling shaming insults at themselves for doing it to instead make room for kindness. This practice helps remind us that we aren’t alone, we aren’t the ‘worst’ one nor the ‘only’ one and that although the moment is hard it is also impermanent…just a moment, always changing.

When they witness themselves locked in self-criticism they are instructed to find a calming self-soothing touch like putting their hands to their heart and say to themselves in their mind:

-          ‘This is a hard moment’

-          ‘Hard moments are part of living’

-          ‘May I be kind to myself in this moment’

I truly believe that sustained change in the realm of eating behavior can ONLY occur within a space of self-compassion, kindness and love…shaming ourselves may work for a while but it doesn’t result in authentic motivation, nor authentic living.

That day in the pool, what helped me more than anything was simply allowing myself to be sad; acknowledging that I was facing a huge loss and realizing that there is no way around grief.  Grief demands it be grieved. It also helped me to connect with the fact that every single one of those fellow exercisers knew my pain in one form or another. We all lose and we all suffer. Suffering is part of living.

Well, here I am at the end of my blog thinking ‘that’s a depressing way to end a blog!’ but alas that is a perfect example of what we all do…turn away from pain, wipe it away, gloss it over, clean it up, eat it up.

So I am going to resist the urge to do that and instead reflect that until we can make room for our sadness, make room for the (yes depressing) fact that suffering is inevitable, we also cannot birth fully authentic living…so the next time you find yourself experiencing a PDS allow yourself to 1) breathe, 2) allow and 3) know that you are on your beautiful path to aligning with that authentic Self within.