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Simple 3-step method for dealing with anguish

11 May 2017 • Compassion, Mindfulness, Stress


I know, I know, I talk about my dog Sophie a lot. She is very important to me.
But not just that, she’s also a great teacher.
Dogs are not complicated. They don’t do one thing while meaning something else. When she’s happy, you’ll know. When she’s mad, she doesn’t hold back.

Our challenge with Soph is that she’s a very anxious little thing. Probably traumatized in her country of origin; she doesn’t really trust the world. Her fight/flight/freeze response is very easily triggered, and she’ll almost always choose fighting over fleeing, which is an embarrassment, to put it mildly. She has scared, barked at and bitten countless people and dogs and won’t allow anyone she doesn’t count as a pack member (which is: almost nobody) to enter the house.

Sounds bad, I know.

But it is totally possible to become her pal. And once you are, she’ll be absolutely mad about you.

Yesterday, on my lunchtime walk with her, I was pondering on what it takes to become her tried and true friend. And really it’s quite simple (but not necessarily easy). The people she loves 1. are not scared of her and will not turn away from her, 2. they are calm, confident and friendly even when Sophie isn’t, and 3. they give her lots of treats.

Fear and anger are ALWAYS counterproductive, as those emotions resonate with her own fear and aggression and only make things worse.
And here is the crux. For how do you stay calm and friendly when you really are mightily frightened of those bared teeth and fiery eyes? Because you’ve been bitten before? When the ferocious yapping hurts your ears and chills yours bones and just wants to make you run?

This week, I’ve started teaching the 9-week program of the Mindful Self-compassion training. Quite paradoxically, it teaches participants to be kind and understanding in the face of hardship, difficult emotions and physical and mental pain. Extensive research proves the correlation between self-compassion and decrease in depression, stress and anxiety, and increased emotional resilience, social connection, happiness and life satisfaction.
The trick is to rise above the automatic fight/flight/freeze response of the reptile brain, and tap in to the mammalian care system. You need awareness (mindfulness) and some courage and faith to be able to do that.

Sophie is like an externalized stress response. She acts it out before my very eyes. It’s primitive, fear-based, survival-driven and it can’t be reasoned with.
All I can do, is practise compassion. I’ll admit I don’t always succeed. Especially when I feel ashamed and apologetic towards a victim, I’ll snap. But it’s pointless. My yelling and pulling on her leash are completely counterproductive. Calm presence, reassurance and understanding will calm her down.

How often are you impatient, ashamed, angry, dismissive or in denial about your own stress and suffering?
And how is that working for you?
How about giving the three steps to befriending Sophie a try. Turn towards it, be present with it, calmly, friendly, trustingly.
Ask it what it needs.
Practise self-compassion.

p.s. The theory and practice of self-compassion will be one of the ingredients of my Wise Women Retreat in the South of France in October. Read all about it here, and if it resonates, sign up for a chat and we’ll find out if it’s right for you. 

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