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  • MBC’s Summer of Self-Compassion: A Therapist’s Perspective

    MBC’s Summer of Self-Compassion: A Therapist’s Perspective

    One of the lesser-known benefits of being a therapist at a large group practice in the heart of Chicago’s Loop is feeling remarkably connected to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. It is easy to notice the patterns that form when many of our clients are navigating similar challenges. Some of these patterns are seasonal: winter depression, spring fever, autumnal melancholy. This summer the monster that rears its snarling head is a many-headed hydra of body shame, FOMO, family holiday event-related stress, triggering firework explosions, and street harassment and violence.

    Chicago is fully open for tourism and the city is plastered with ads for #SummertimeChi events. Our office is across the street from Millennium Park and the sidewalks bustle with flocks of visitors from out of town. There’s a tremendous sense of pressure right now to get back to normal, to make up for lost time, to have the ultimate Hot Girl Summer and do All the Things. Yet many of us are still reeling from over a year of intense fear, worry, and loss. Many of us experienced unwanted changes in our body shapes, sizes, or abilities. We all spent so long indoors and alone that it’s somewhere between awkward and terrifying to be around new people. We might find ourselves so uncertain to be around our friends and coworkers again that our inner critic launches itself into hyperdrive. You gained so much weight. Everyone is looking at your arms, your belly, your legs. That was such a stupid thing to say. You’re so hairy and gross. You’re a failure. Stop overreacting to everything. The mental hamster runs on its squeaky wheel. The shame just spirals on and on. You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad. 

    Oof! I feel such a heaviness in my chest even writing these words. What can we do when we find ourselves caught in this whirlwind of relentless self-criticism, the experience that contemplative psychologist Tara Brach refers to as “the trance of unworthiness?”

    The antidote to shame is compassion. Human beings crave compassion and understanding. Despite their simplicity, it can be a life-changing experience to finally hear the words, “I hear that you are having a really hard time right now.”

    Dr. Brach developed a practice called the “RAIN of self-compassion,” a practice based on traditional Buddhist teachings, to guide us gently through the process of interrupting the shame spiral by taking a moment to listen deeply to what’s really going on and then offering ourselves compassion.

    Recognize what is going on.

    Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. 

    Investigate with interest and care.

    Nourish with self-compassion. 

    The first step to breaking out of the shame spiral is to realize that we’re in it. Oh, wow, I am really picking on myself for gaining some weight during the lockdown. I’m so paranoid and anxious and filled with self-hate. The second step is a little harder- allow the feeling to be there, the way it is. That doesn’t mean we are surrendering to it or admitting that the terrible things we are saying about ourselves are true. It can be scary to let ourselves fully feel our feelings. Sometimes we might worry that we’ll get stuck there forever. But by giving ourselves permission to be human, to feel worry, fear, disappointment, and even shame, by ceasing to fight ourselves, we can see that all feelings eventually change. It just hurts so much to be me right now. I feel so worried that everyone is looking at my arms. My face is hot with shame and my chest feels tight and I feel lonely and embarrassed. 

    What does it mean to investigate with interest and care? Master teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we cradle our difficult emotions like a parent comforting a crying child. Perhaps we might place our hand on our chest, right over the achy spot in our heart. We might squeeze a stuffed animal or hug a pet. We can offer ourselves the same tender patience and interest we would give to a small child who is in our care. What is this feeling trying to tell us? Where did this criticism actually come from- who said this hurtful thing to us first? Could there be another explanation for the story we are telling ourselves? Tara Brach invites us at this point to consider the possibility that the narrative our shame is telling us is real but not true. What powerful words! The first time I read those words- real but not true- I felt as if I had been struck by a bolt of lightning. How liberating to be able to accept the painful experience I am having without allowing it to mean that something is inherently wrong with me. What a gift, to offer ourselves the space to feel bad without believing that we are bad.

    The final step is another one that sounds simple but takes real practice to master. How do we nourish ourselves with self-compassion? Both Dr. Brach and Thich Nhat Hanh suggest connecting to the idea that our experiences are part of what makes us human. Shame and self-doubt are universal human experiences. This was a tough year. I bet a lot of people are struggling with their weight right now. It’s so hard to be in a body. I am doing the best I can. We might call upon spiritual resources- a higher power, the memories of beloved family members or childhood teachers, even our future selves. We can call upon love to guide us by picturing the receptive, nourishing presence of someone who has loved us and accepted us in the past, or by sending love to the other hundreds of thousands of humans on this planet who might be going through something similar to us. Therapist Jean Fain, author of The Self-Compassion Diet, noted that clients who practiced sending thoughts of loving-kindness and acceptance to a loved one or friend who had a similar body shape were able to develop self-compassion towards their own bodies.

    Another way to practice self-compassion is by understanding our triggers and planning ahead. Maybe you know that going to the family cookout next weekend means being bombarded by fat-shaming comments by family members and you’re worried you’ll end up eating too much to punish yourself for feeling ashamed. How can you call upon love? One way might be by scheduling a phone call to check in with a close friend halfway through the event so you can vent about what you’re experiencing. Or you might call upon love for yourself and set a boundary with family members by saying, “I will no longer be responding to comments about my body or eating habits. I haven’t commented on your body, so please don’t comment on mine.” If there are any family members you can call upon as allies, perhaps they might be willing to speak up on your behalf- enlist their help in advance. You might create a playlist of relaxing music and duck out for a quick walk around the block or offer to take out the trash. At the end of the event, practice extra kindness to yourself to reward yourself for getting through it. You might go home and take a long, hot shower or spend some time stretching and gently caring for your body. Have a dance party with the cat, or rewatch your favorite tv show, or get in bed early under a weighted blanket and let yourself rest.

    The last year and a half have brought so much suffering to the world. The pressure to reopen and get things back to normal when we are all still reeling from the collective trauma just makes everything seem harder. Only by giving ourselves the grace to be imperfect and human can we let go of shame and embrace self-compassion.

    Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Acupuncturist, Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW. Sue has a Master’s degree in Traditional East Asian Medicine from Pacific College of Health and Science and a Master’s in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. They have been in practice as an acupuncturist for the last eight years and recently became a licensed social worker. Their approach as a therapist has been heavily influenced by their work in Traditional East Asian Medicine and they offer client-centered compassion-based therapy that incorporates methods such as CBT, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and narrative therapy. 

    Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.


    •  Brach, T. The RAIN of self-compassion: A simple practice for clients and clinicians. In Loizzo, J. E., Neale, M. E., & Wolf, E. J. (2017). Advances in contemplative psychotherapy: Accelerating healing and transformation. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
    •  Brach (2017, p 151). See also
    •  Hạnh, N. (1999). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy & liberation: The four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, and other basic Buddhist teachings. Harmony.
    •  Fain, J. (2011). The self-compassion diet: A step-by-step program to lose weight with loving-kindness. Sounds True.

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