In spite of our deepest values about the importance of being kind to ourselves and others, consistently adapting a loving and kind stance toward ourselves, others, and the World can be difficult. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are not very nice to ourselves or others. A mild example is something like an inner voice that harshly admonishes a driver who cuts us off in traffic. Many of us might not even notice that reflex, or we might even consider it normal. A more serious example could be something like shouting, name calling, or picking on a family member for arriving late to an event. In either case, they each hostile examples of a reflexive response to negative emotion. Not necessarily kind or loving, right? Think of the implications of similar reflexes in other areas of your life.
I frequently reflect on an idea that is something like: "Almost anyone can be kind on a good day...What about on a lesser day?" The variance of circumstance seems to be the real test here. On a "good" day, kindness and loving attitudes toward self and others is easy for most of us. Typically, this changes as our patience runs thin, our tank of love runs dry, or we are withered. This diminished capacity for kindness becomes a reality, especially when the internal emotional weather becomes somewhat stormy, gloomy, hopeless, or despondent.
Why does this happen? We are inherently sensitive to negative emotion, and we are also not necessarily oriented toward self-examination (introspection). In our sensitivity to negative feeling, we often learn to avoid, deny, or repress those feelings which are most troubling to us--and this can be a very deep and personal difficulty. Our emotional struggles come to us as we contend with reality, experience the various emotions (disappointment, sadness, shame, anger, etc) that arise from the experience, and are faced with no apparent way of easing or eliminating those feelings. Sometimes our previous experiences have taught us, either directly or indirectly, some "rules" about feelings. These rules are in the form of things like: 1. Which feelings are acceptable; 2. What we are supposed to do when we feel a certain way; 3. Where certain feelings come from; 4. What certain feelings mean about ourselves as a person, others, the world, or even God.; 5. What the likely consequences of given emotions might be. With some imagination, you might be able to understand how these rules can have an impact over time.
Adding to the impact of various "emotional rules" from our history, we are also affected by our "autobiographical memory". This is something like a video store where strong memories are filed. While like a video store, the memories are not always well-cataloged, labelled, or easy to watch. Sometimes we cannot watch these memories, but rather we feel them. Sometimes the memories are very subtle, and almost always the recovery of these memories is reflexive, knee-jerk response. Unfortunately, when a reflex is activated, there is little warning, and there is sometimes little apparent control. If these feelings are quite overwhelming or strong and out of awareness, sometimes they can affect our behavior in unfavorable ways. The latter circumstances are very frequently those that contribute to mistakes in judgement, impacting our circumstances and relationships. In essence, we could behave out-of-character in relation to our preferred self.
The main problem with behaving out of character or not in a manner consistent with our own values is that we are left with a mess to clean up. Sometimes there is damage control to be done in relationships, or we experience shame and guilt for our actions. We might have to ask for or receive forgiveness, which is a process that takes both time and effort. At other times, we may see more terminal consequences, such as the loss of a relationship as a result of our reflexive responses. Below, I have identified a couple of really useful ways to begin a meaningful self-examination. This sort of examination can be continued to maintain a constant state of awareness of one's self and one's self in relation to the others and the world.
Mindful awareness (A practiced stance of: monitoring, noticing, openness, curiosity, and acceptance of our emotions and related patterns) can really improve our ability to behave less reflexively and more within our core values, even when things get difficult. Especially when difficult. Specific practices related to mindfulness are numerous, but I really see benefit for a lot of people who begin to practice diaphragmatic breathing and body scan meditation.
Some great, free examples of guided meditations can be found on YouTube. Here is a link to one
Body Scan Meditation produced by Florence Meleo-Meyer of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W31vHDjyng&t=2210s
Diaphragmatic Breathing is an exceptional way to begin to focus on breathing in a manner consistent with our body's most effective way to metabolize stress. A great video that covers the essential components can be found here, produced by Megan Riehl of Michigan University Medicine:
Loving-Kindness Meditation can be a very helpful exercise toward counteracting the toxic impact of stress, anxiety, or reflexive negative responses from an unfavorable past experience in our relationships and attitudes toward life. This is a very special form of meditation, which is not unlike a focused prayer. There are a few different versions but here is a description of my own version:
First, you will think of the faces of a sequence of several people or groups:
1. You (present)
2. Your younger self
3. A loved one
4. Someone you have seen, but may not know
5. Someone with whom you may have some conflict
6. Someone who you have lost or are missing
7. A public figure who you think of occasionally
8. The World (people, everywhere)
9. You (present)
Next, in the same sequence as you imagine/picture each of these individuals or groups, think to yourself the following: I wish for you health...I wish for you to experience joy and happiness...I wish for you safety...and I wish for you well-being (or contentedness)
Take your time with each figure in the sequence, scanning your body and mind to notice different feelings and sensations you have as you encounter each individual in your mind. Try to stretch or challenge yourself to focus energy toward being kind and loving where not thought possible before. Give yourself praise for a job well-done, whether that be for overcoming reluctance to acknowledge a relationship, expressing kindness toward self, or for offering forgiveness where resentment once dominated. Repeat as you feel appropriate. Feel free to combine this with other meditation and prayer practices. You might be surprised at what you may learn to recognize about your emotions and your relationships with others. May this meditation bring you greater well-being!
The notion of being kind or loving is often not that hard to apply toward others, yet puzzling for some to apply inwardly, to either their current or past self. Putting daily effort toward being kind toward yourself and others could be a very important part of removing the default negative attitudes, reactions, and ideas that affect us.
My inspiration for this article is to inspire self-exploration and improve awareness toward personal growth. Understand that you may initially experience some unfamiliar emotions. Please reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or qualified therapist if you feel overwhelmed with your experiences. I hope the ideas will help in some way, and that you find greater comfort in yourself and with others!
Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. His private practice is in Lawrence, KS. In addition to his therapy experience, he is an experienced lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. He has life experiences that have given him insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery. At home he has three children, some pets, and a very patient wife.
The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.