Awakening Self-Compassion

Self-Compassion— Easing the Path of Change

There's been so much out there on the internet this past year about compassion— not just for others, but also for ourselves. Why do we need to be compassionate towards ourselves? When is this necessary? And how can self-compassion help us ease the potential for failure when we take new risks to change the way we work and live our lives?

In general, I feel that many people I've met in my life tend to be much kinder and more supportive of others on a regular basis than of themselves. There are reasons for this in our upbringing. Many of us were taught at home to be kind and to consider the feelings of others. But how many of us were brought up to be gentle and considerate of ourselves when we've made mistakes or had a hard time at school, work, or in a close relationship? Many high-achieving people I know were more often taught to get up and go at it again, without learning to acknowledge that we're allowed to make mistakes and be less than perfect— and still be caring and effective people.

In an interview on the radio show, Wise Counsel, Kristen Neff, PhD.— author of the book, Compassion-- The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and co-creator with Christoffer Germer of the highly regarded Mindful Self-Compassion training program— she states that "probably the number one reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they confuse it with self-indulgence. They really think that they need self-criticism to motivate themselves, and that if they were kind to themselves, they would basically let themselves get away with anything."

Neff adds, "It's almost easier to give yourself compassion if you're thinking of yourself as someone else." If a friend were upset, for example, that she didn't do well with a job interview, you would be very unlikely to take her to task, tell her how she's always so unprepared or unfortunate— those things you're so much more willing to tell yourself. Does batting yourself on the head over and over help motivate you to try again, perhaps in a new ways using some different skills? Probably not!

So as a professional who helps people make career and other life transitions, I'm grateful to Neff and others who are actively researching the role of self-compassion in working and living our lives fully. A key finding is that it's much more motivating to treat yourself humanely, with kindness and understanding, than endlessly criticizing yourself for wrong turns, lapses, and errors of judgement.

I'm glad to be reminded of this, since one thing I know well from my clients' journeys and my own is that making changes and taking risks— even to manifest the dreams and goals you really want— can be very challenging at times. The bigger the changes you go for, the more unknown the territory, the greater is the likelihood of missteps and big mistakes.

That's why in the form, "What I Ask of You," that I give to all new clients, I repeat the message about self-compassion during the process of making changes several times in different ways:

- Just do your best. There is no “perfect” way to do things.

- Remember that change-- even change that we choose for ourselves-- is reliably uncomfortable at times.

- Accept both your successes and your failures along the way. Every step you take is good learning that can help you create your vision for yourself.

- Be compassionate towards yourself.

In my exploration of other research projects on how being compassionate to ourselves can positively affect our ability to make positive changes in our lives and in the world, I was also intrigued by this insight from Jean Fain, psychotherapist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book, The Self-Compassion Diet— A Step-by-Step Program to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness: “Self-compassion is the missing ingredient in every diet and weight-loss plan. Most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.”

So in your quest for achievement-- with your new eating habits, your work, or your relationships-- remember that you, like everyone, will screw up or just plain fail in certain ways, at certain times, in the journeying. You are not alone. You do not have to punish yourself in order to make positive changes in how you work, live, and are within yourself. This is what it is to be human. We are fallible, AND we can learn from our mistakes and hold the light for ourselves, as well. As poet Mary Oliver writes:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

So the next time you feel you're off-track, stop, take a few deep breaths, rest your hand on your heart with loving understanding for your discomfort, know you can learn from your mistakes, get up off your knees, re-calibrate your course with caring and compassion.

Awakening Your Heart-- Transforming the Nature of Your Work and Your Life

When I was thirty-three and in the middle of a spiritual transition that deeply affected the way I began to look at my work life and my relationships, I woke up from a dream with the words, “My heart, which is alive and awake and aware,” resonating in my body.  At the time, I knew little consciously in the way of spirit, but I felt that I had a new foundation on which to grow the new direction of my life-- whatever the shape of that would be.

As I wrote in my book, Success with Soul: “Dreams with impact don’t have to be elaborate, technicolor affairs in order to bring home how you need to re-connect with your passion, energy,  and inner direction.”  They arrive like a gift.  If they capture your attention, be with them.  Even if your mind doesn’t understand them, your heart will open to them and invest your life with a greater knowing of what it is to be alive and aware.

It took a few years for my dream to gestate, but eventually I redesigned my career path so thatthe work I did was based on the aliveness and awareness of my heart.  As a somatic therapist, and then a life coach, the nature of my work was firmly rooted in the process of helping people transform their relationship to their careers and their whole lives by paying attention to whatever awakened their hearts and stimulated their energy.

Now it’s early spring in northern California.  Some winter rain has finally penetrated the drought of the past year, and the fragrance of the plum tree blossoms wafts through the moistened air.  It’s a time when I remember the coming of the English spring in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful book of heart awakenings, The Secret Garden, when the dead-looking rose vines come alive, and the green thrusting leaves of daffodils and snowdrops poke up above the gradually warming earth.

The re-emergence of life is what Mary, the unhappy ten-year-old orphan in The Secret Garden (whose life is transformed by digging in the earth in the company of a life-affirming local Yorkshire lad), celebrates as “the Magic.”  “The Magic” is what brings things to life-- whether they are the neglected garden of this story or the neglected children.

“The Magic” is being touched by a growing desire to change and the compassionate attention of others directed towards us as we change.  To paraphrase therapist Brené Brown, spirituality is awareness of the inextricable connection among all living things , which “is grounded in love and compassion.”

“The Magic” is what touches the life flow at our core that animates and vitalizes us.

And what is vitality?  Vitality is our energy and passion to live fully, to discover our purpose, to awaken to the gifts we have to offer and not just get by-- on the job, in our relationships with others, in every activity we undertake-- in the short amount of time we have on this planet.

Let this Valentine’s Day be a special one for you!  Ask yourself, “How will I awaken my heart today?”  Remember that fifty years ago today, The Beatles first began to play--  “All you need is love”--  to touch your awakening heart.

Be Your Own Leader-- Career Fulfillment and Body-Energy Wisdom

Recently, I participated in a dynamic presentation, “Body, Brain and Behavior,” with Amanda Blake, founder, Embright (, author, Your Body Is Your Brain, at a meeting of the ICF San Francisco Bay Area Coaches.  Being there in the warm camaraderie of my coaching colleagues, I was also coming back to my somatic therapy roots where body sensing and knowing takes center stage as the lens from which to view our professional and personal development.

I was particularly interested in something Amanda said: “Embodied leadership requires accessing the primal power of body energy.”  With her, we practiced body posture and stances conveying the emotional state of uncertainty and low self-esteem.  We then stepped into postures reflecting a memory of a time when we felt very confident about something we had done.

As you can imagine, the way we felt and looked to each other when we felt confident was so much more open and present to the situation at hand, more comfortable in our minds and bodies, and more connected energetically to cues from others.

In my work what I’ve noticed is that if you want to be your own leader in transforming the way you work, relate, and create in the world, it’s vital to be able to check in and feel your body’s cues.  The way you’re holding yourself in your body matters, as well as what you sense about your energy level whenever you’re at critical choice points.  Which choice makes you feel alive and fulfilled?  Which choice makes you feel low energy and not interested?   As the leader of your own life, what is your intuitive sense as to which direction to step into now?

I’m wondering if the excerpt below from my new ebook, Success with Soul-- Loving Your Livelihood, Living in Balance, from the chapter, “Using the Wisdom-Energy of Your Body,” sounds familiar to you:

I remember distinctly a photo a colleague took of me while I was hard at work in our non-profit office many years ago.  Now, after my training in somatics (body awareness), I can clearly see my head and neck pressing forward, the tightness of the muscles around my eyes and neck, and the rigidity of my back.  I can feel the strain of working like that, my body leaning tensely forward over my desk, locked into itself. I can sense again the tightness of my shallow breathing as I strained all my awareness into the work at hand.  No wonder I used to get so many tension headaches back then!

Over many years of giving stress-management classes, I’ve seen that type of body posture often in professionals from non-profits, tech corporations, schools, and businesses.  The message so clearly embodied is:  “Work is hard and demanding.  It takes all my energy and leaves none for breathing and feeling.  I will myself to focus only on my work and not my well-being, unless maybe there’s time for that later (and there probably won’t be).”

Recognize yourself?  When did you last stop to check in with yourself at work or at other times during your day, inhale and exhale slowly and deeply, and actually feel the sensations in your body?  For it is in this way that your body speaks to you, through sensations-- warmth, cold, tension, openness, flexibility, depletion.

This is how you can learn to access the energy and aliveness you need to find fulfillment in what you do and how you are in the world.  Otherwise, though your career choices, for example, may look good on your resume, they may feel unsatisfying and disconnected from a sense of purpose and vitality in your life.

For me, it took a change of profession (into my own businesses of somatic therapy and coaching), plus yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation, to learn that I could stay present with both my work and conscious opening in my body.  In fact, when I stay pliable and open by breathing and moving with awareness during working hours, I notice that my mind focuses more easily, my interactions with people flow, and I feel better, physically and emotionally, at the end of the day.

It is my deepest wish that what I offer in these emailings to you and in my book may be of support to you in making the heart-centered personal and professional changes you most desire now.  If I can offer further assistance, please let me know.

“Being a Contribution” -- and How to Jump Start Your Life!

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that no matter how much you did you simply couldn’t enhance or change the outcome so that you felt alive and purposeful? As a coach, I’ve heard this from people who are very able and successful in their careers, for example, but feel stuck in the quality of their whole lives.

So here’s a question for you-- What challenge can you give yourself that will move you out of a dead end into a place where your energy can move again?

Ben Zander-- co-author of The Art of Possibility and concert conductor-- gives his music conservatory students the following challenge to jolt them out of their attachment as to whether or not they’re playing well enough:  Each week they are to “notice how they are a contribution . . . and to cast themselves as a contribution into the week ahead. . . and imagine that everything they do sends ripples out beyond the horizon.”

So what does this mean in practical terms? Have you noticed how easy it is to get mired in your own expectations, pinning your happiness on your plans and accomplishments?  For example, “This has to be a wonderful trip” or “This relationship will be the one” or “I must do well in this profession-- I’ve invested so much in getting this degree.”

It’s so easy to forget the value of just being who we are and who we like to be--and sharing that with others.  And yet, holding the attitude of “I am a contribution to others and to this planet” can literally redirect your talents and your energy into areas with real potential for expanding and lighting up your life!

I inadvertently played the “I am a contribution” game some years ago when traveling for a while through England with a friend.  When my friend left and I was on my own, it was like I lost my inner compass and didn’t know what to do next, even though I had plans.  I felt absolutely stuck, and I had a number of weeks to go before returning home.

As I sat in my hotel room unable to decide what to do, I suddenly thought of the owner of the hotel-- a pleasant woman who’d talked with me in a friendly way about my trip, but with a look of sadness in her face.  I wrenched myself out of my own preoccupation and thought, “I wonder if there’s some way I could help her be happier.”  This thought moved me out of my room and onto the street where I saw a flower vendor.

On the spot, I bought a small bouquet of fragrant, though not exotic, flowers and presented them to the hotel owner.  I still remember how her face lit up with pleasure as she lifted them to her face to take in the scent of the out-of-doors.  Suddenly, I felt my heart open and a delight in life come back to me.  This small act of “being a contribution” freed me from my limited mindset to an expansive place of spirit, which turned out to be the unsuspected door to the possibilities of my own

As one of Ben Zander’s students wrote about “being a contribution”-- “I know now that music is not about fingers or bows or strings, but rather a connective vibration flowing throughout all human beings, like a heartbeat.”

Building Life-Enhancing Relationships-- “Giving Each Other an A”!

[Note:  My blog post this week is one I wrote last fall.  Since I’m planning to give a presentation on the book, The Art of Possibility, on Sun., July 31st, at Books Inc in Berkeley, I’d like to share with you again the excitement I felt when I first discovered it.

Since I always enjoy the insights in The Art of Possibility whenever I open its pages, I hope that if you’re re-reading this blog post, you, too, will continue to feel the sparkle and engagement of connecting with the possibilities in others that can expand your own life, as well.  My appreciation, too, to Leslie Williams Schwerdt for her scintillating photo of our friend, Joel Stratte-McClure, exploring his own jazzy, pre-birthday possibilities.]

This past week, I was really charged up with the combination of participating in my Stanford University alumni reunion and reading the book, The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander.

One aspect of this book that struck me at my reunion was the part the authors call “Giving an A.”  By this they mean allowing people and experiences to be what they are and could be-- not limited by your own expectations.  Most people I met at my reunion said that this one was the best ever, and I agree.  My feeling is that every successive five years when we come together, we allow more of ourselves to be seen-- not just the parts of us that appear to be successful in the world.  At this reunion, there was definitely a sense of trust that who we are-- and what we’re doing that’s opening us to who we are-- was of interest to others. In the context of having graduated from a very competitive university, this more open way of interacting with each other constitutes major personal growth!

At earlier reunions, more people interacted from the “measurement” perspective of “what grade did you get?” that was the norm during college and “how well are you doing?” that was prevalent as people were starting to activate their careers.  A number of years later, my classmates and I have grown into the “possibilities” perspective that sees people as whole and evolving.  There’s so much more energy and authentic connection when you relate in this way! We’re not limited by others’ expectations of how we should write or take exams, how many trips we’ve taken or how much we make a year.  We care more about how fulfilled and expansive each other’s lives have become-- and are becoming.

“When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves . . . This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.” (The Art of Possibility).  Isn’t this the essence of how to create and sustain life-enhancing relationships-- whether with your soul mate, the store clerk you see every week, a casual acquaintance on a subway, or even someone whose political views you don’t understand at all?  It’s also the essence of how to create value from any new experience you embrace.

Successful Transitions-- It’s Your Attitude That Counts!

Because I’m giving a presentation and a tele-class this month on career and life transitions, I’ve been particularly attuned to different aspects of how to go through the change process that I read about, see in films, and experience as a coach and in my own life.  This morning, I found a short article on the use of Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation classes for hard-core inmates of a maximum-security prison outside of Birmingham, Alabama-- and it made me consider again the role of attitude in creating successful transitions.

The William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is yet another “overcrowded” American prison “with a reputation for mayhem” that brings together groups of “convicted killers, robbers and rapists” who close their eyes and “sit silently with their thoughts and consciences.”  For most of these inmates, this is the only training that they have ever received in self-control, social skills, and how to shift their attitude of constant rage at others to one of greater awareness and serenity.

How important is this for people who may be spending the rest of their lives in jail?  For these people, learning to create a shift in their personal attitude towards their situation may well be their only way out of the despair of lives gone out of control.  One convicted murderer who “radiates calm” says that this meditation course and practice helped him “accept responsibility for his crime and find inner peace.”  He considers himself “the luckiest man in the world” to have ended up in a prison where he was given the opportunity to change his whole perspective on life and his role in it.

So how important is developing inner awareness for those of us fortunate enough to be out in the world with more freedom to make choices?  Often, a successful career or other life transition depends on your choosing a perspective to live with that gives light and meaning to your new direction.  You may possibly not get the job you most wanted, but staying open to the possibilities of another one that you do get can bring unexpected rewards, such as new learning and new directions you might not have dreamed of.  Or you may meet someone who helps change your life.  It is how you embrace every possible opening that allows you to work and live with the confidence that you are on the right path for you!

Claiming Your Voice for Successful Action!

“In the Hans Christian Anderson classic, The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her beautiful voice in exchange for legs . . . Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with change or variety or newness or with improving our condition.  The catch is when we are asked to give up our voice in order to move freely, when we are asked to silence what makes us unique in order to be successful.”   (Mark Nepo)

             I was reading this passage and thinking of clients of mine whose concerns around being professionally successful are really issues about the loss of their voice and of speaking their truths.  I wondered, do you really have to give up your voice (the ability to speak your truth) in order to have legs (success and mobility in the world)?  That’s an odd condition, I feel, that you would have to exchange one for the other, when, in fact, you need both to make changes that are fulfilling to you.

             I’m thinking of one of my clients, a woman in her 50’s who was in a transition from stay-at-home mom to becoming a professional.  Her goals in coaching with me were all about becoming successful in her career. 

             Then during one session I commented on the lack of inflection and expressiveness in her voice.  I knew she was enthused about her new career direction, so what was this about? I asked her.  From this question came a surge of responses from deep within herself that she hadn’t expected, mostly reflecting the way she used to give and do for her family, without questioning what was important to herself.  When her youngest child finished high school, she allowed herself to go for a meaningful career, but still found herself giving time and energy to relationships that gave little back to her. 

             She hadn’t recognized that while she was changing outwardly, she was also changing inwardly-- and that she needed to re-create the conditions of all of her life to move forward in her career path.  She needed to create boundaries in certain relationships and become more open in others.  She needed to use her voice to claim what mattered to her-- WHILE she used her legs to go forward professionally.  Now I can hear in her voice the enthusiasm and engagement she was experiencing in the work she has chosen.  She has brought her voice in alignment with her legs and her energy to living a full, rich life of her choice.

             In my upcoming, 2-part tele-class, “Coaching 101-- How to Make Career & Life Changes That Matter!” starting July 14th, I’ll be helping people like you begin to create the professional and personal changes you wish by claiming your voice and your energy to move forward.  If you’re interested, please click on this link--  If you have any questions, please contact me at

                       PLEASE SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES--

 1) What holds you back from asking for what you need and want?

 2) Is it necessary to give up speaking and living authentically in order to be successful?  Why?

 3) How have you created a fulfilling lifestyle by expressing your voice and using your legs?