I have a “thing” for monkeys. This fascination (some may call it a mild obsession), began in childhood with a menagerie of stuffed toys and dozens of Curious George books, grew into assorted baubles, key chains, tees and ultimately culminated with a trip to Southeast Asia. While there, I visited the breathtaking Uluwatu Temple, one of six Balinese monasteries perched on towering cliffs overlooking the Indian Ocean…and home to hundreds of monkeys.
Teachable moments come in all shapes and forms – like monkeys. As I watched these clever, curious, and resilient animals at play, I marvelled at their physical prowess, their seemingly flawless coordination as they moved through the trees with effortless agility, strength, and speed. Yet, despite their natural born tree-climbing abilities, many of the monkeys would slip and fall, repeatedly. Undeterred, they would scramble back up the trees and within minutes resume swinging from the branches. The whole spectacle literally brought to life for me the Japanese saying, Saru-mo ki-kara ochiru – “Even monkeys fall from trees,” or nobody’s perfect.
We all stumble and fall. We all make mistakes. We all have some form of shortcoming or failing. For many of us (myself included), the toughest part is forgiving ourselves, even when others have forgiven us. More often than not, we know what to say or to do to comfort family, friends, and even strangers, but when it comes to self-forgiveness or self-acceptance, well, it’s another story.
How do we tame that inner critical voice? That nagging, hurtful voice that says, “You screwed up.” You’re a failure. You’re not good enough.”
The journey of self-acceptance, as I’ve learned from my own personal experience, begins with being a loving, compassionate friend to our inner critic. Being angry, judgemental, and plain nasty with ourselves only makes a bad situation worse. Believe me. Would we treat a loved one or a friend who is suffering in this manner? Not likely!
How do we practice self-compassion? Self-compassion, as defined by researcher, author, and teacher, Dr. Kristen Neff, requires a combination of three core elements.
First, it requires mindfulness, “a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” Mindfulness is the all-important starting point for noticing the moment our self-critical voice (no matter now subtle) arises and the emotional stress associated with it. When we’re aware of what’s happening, we can begin to reframe negative responses into positive ones.
Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, that we’re all imperfect, that we all suffer and that this common human experience connects us to others rather than isolates us.
Third, self-compassion requires self-kindness, that we treat ourselves with gentleness and understanding rather than harsh criticism and judgement. Self-kindness is acknowledging our suffering and offering comfort with soothing words, gentle self-caresses, or hugs. Research shows that physical touch triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone, which reduces stress and anxiety and promotes feelings of calm and trust.
The next time you notice your inner self-critic surfacing, that you’re feeling stress, or emotional discomfort, try practicing what Neff calls the Self-Compassion Break, a simple exercise, which I personally found meaningful and powerful.
Even monkeys fall from trees. Are you ready to befriend your inner critic?
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher K. Germer, PhD.
Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, PhD.
The Self-Acceptance Project, Tami Simon, Editor