Compassion beats stuckness

We all feel ineffective at times, I’m sure. In fact, I suspect New Year’s Resolutions are about tackling things where we have previously felt unable to move forward. But did you know that compassion and appreciation for ourselves can be powerful tools for getting unstuck? That’s because compassion, curiousity, and appreciation unlock the parts of the brain where we are able to be creative, spontaneous, present, resourceful and aware of choices and possibilities.

This is why I am starting to provide Compassion It. bracelets to my counselling clients and colleagues – because I firmly believe that compassion is the secret sauce in our personal capacity for positive change (both in ourselves, and in our organizations and communities). The bracelet isn’t magic, but it is a great reminder to practice compassion with ourselves and others.

Here’s what I did recently to help someone who was feeling stuck:

Step 1 Name and acknowledge the problem. I worked with a young woman who felt stuck around finishing a paper for school, which was already overdue. She was mired in self-criticism around this situation, and although this seemed to increase her sense of urgency, it did little for her ability to actually write the thing and hand it in. If anything, the urgency to solve the problem seemed to make the stuckness … more stuckier. She was sure she would fail the course and have to take it again the following year. She was very upset that this would delay her graduation and disappoint her parents and maybe even prevent her from going to University. Heavy stuff.

So we hit the pause button on the catastrophic predictions, in order to give her stuckness a name. It’s name is “Pete the Paper Problem.” We explored when Pete is most likely to pay a visit, and discovered that he tends to show up when she feels overwhelmed by too many commitments, and especially toward the end of a semester. We considered whether Pete is trying to help her in any way, and we decided that he might want to help her say no to some things and also to get more sleep. We also took a moment to remember that she’s actually an Honour Role student, an accomplished athlete, a volunteer, a good friend, and has very proud and supportive parents.

By taking this approach, my client was able to: 1) Acknowledge the problem, 2) Decrease her self-blame by externalizing it, which felt a little better, 3) Be curious and 4) Find evidence to contradict her fears of failure. All of these things were significant changes from what she has tried in the past.

Step 2We explored (without judgment) the thoughts and feelings she had about Pete, and how she was responding to them. This takes a little presence and mindfulness. We found that Pete makes her shoulders crawl upwards around her ears. We practiced sitting with that feeling and breathing into it with compassion, and then consciously softening and relaxing the muscles involved so she could feel some relief. Then we listened for messages. Some of the words she used to describe Pete were “Pressure” and “Expectation” and “Not Smart Enough.”

Well, no wonder she was freaking out. We discussed the in-born need that humans have around feeling good enough to be accepted by those who care for us, and how acceptance and validation are part of both our survival needs as well as how we grow up to be confident, secure adults. In other words, the feelings make sense from the perspective of how human beings are put together – but the feelings match a story she’s making up, rather than the facts of the situation. New facts = new feelings.

Step 3 – We noticed that she was indeed feeling different than at the start of the exercise – more calm, a bit looser in her body, a bit more comfortable. So because she had shifted into a mindset where problem-solving was more likely, we attempted a little wild brainstorming (just spitballing any potential options that might have any value to the situation whatsoever). And then she watched with amazement as her own brain generated a full and colourful whiteboard of ideas. She could take one less class next term. She could schedule blocks of time for writing and find ways to make it fun. She could choose topics that are of interest to her, to make the process easier What about using that mindfulness app at the start of a writing session to help Pete chill out?

Pete hasn’t left the building, but he’s become more of a friend to my client. And yes, she did finish the paper and she did pass the class. More importantly, she has a toolbox that will help her navigate through similar situations in the future.