Diana Winston on how to use the tools of mindfulness to work with negative patterns like shame, guilt, and self-criticism that stand in the way of caring for and liking yourself.
My nine-year-old had saved up her money for roller blades. When we were at the sporting goods store, I got inspired too and purchased a pair of old-school white roller skates with pink wheels.
I was thrilled to share this new pastime with her and we spent the afternoon in blissful mommy–daughter union. We were learning together, it was outdoors, and we were away from screens.
Don’t believe everything you think.
It was all great until the next day, when I caught my toe in a crack, fell, and torqued my knee in an awful direction. Alongside the excruciating knee pain, I was filled with equally painful self-recriminations.
What was I thinking, what a stupid idea, I can’t believe I screwed this up. Summer’s ruined! If I got hurt, what’s going to happen to her? I’m such a terrible mom. On and on it went.
Until I remembered to be mindful.
Then I saw I was caught in a painful cycle of self-blame, guilt, and judgment, all intensifying the physical pain and making me even more miserable. I paused and brought compassionate attention to my breath and body. Noticing the thoughts and emotions that were arising, I calmed myself down and found my center. I remembered I was human, definitely fallible, and I would get through this. And I did (although my knee still hasn’t fully recovered).
I, like everyone else, suffer from a challenging complex of thoughts and emotions that show up from time to time: self-judgment, self-criticism, guilt, shame. These emotions seem to be at epidemic levels in society today.
Because I’ve been meditating now for thirty years, I have tools at my disposal that I can deploy to work with these emotions and thoughts. When they pop up, as they did in my roller-skating misadventure, mindfulness tools are there for me. To help you work with your own painful thoughts and emotions when they arise, here is the approach I use when working with students, one that has kept me sane (most of the time) and self-compassionate for decades.
How to Get Off the Train of Thoughts
The simple mindfulness practice of returning our wandering mind to the present moment is the foundation. When we get submerged in shame, self-hatred, and guilt, we can train ourselves to come back to the present moment and find relief. It’s helpful to develop a regular, daily-ish meditation practice so that we have some understanding and experience with mindfulness in advance. Then we have the tools to apply it on the spot when the going gets rough.
The critical voices inside us take on a myriad of disguises, and mindfulness excels here. We learn to see those thoughts merely as thoughts—not to be taken as reality. One of my favorite bumper stickers is “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Thoughts, while potentially amazing, profound, and brilliant, are also the source of enormous suffering. We all have our top ten suffering thoughts—worry, judging, comparing, and for most of us, guilt, shame, and self-criticism. We can learn to bring a mindful approach to these thoughts.
I find a couple of analogies helpful.
Thoughts are like snowballs. We start out with a tiny bit of snow and if we’re not mindful, it can grow into a giant snowball that overwhelms us. It’s important to catch the thoughts when they’re tiny to not let them escalate.
Thoughts are like trains. We get on a train (I blew it today at work…) and it leaves the station. The next thing we know we’re twenty miles down the track—twenty minutes into disturbing, predictive, globalizing, or catastrophic ruminations (so I’ll probably be fired…).
With mindfulness we have some choices. When we realize we’re on the train, we can get off—it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been ruminating. Or we can never get on the train in the first place—a thought arises, we see it as a thought, and we stay on the platform while the train passes.
How do we do this? Sometimes simply the power of noticing our thoughts in the moment is enough to help relieve them. Often we harangue ourselves without really noticing we are doing it, so this recognition is key. One more analogy: You know those thought bubbles that cartoon characters have over their heads? Imagine your critical thought is in a thought bubble. Now you can take the pin of mindfulness and pop it. Ah, sweet relief.
When meditators catch a thought with their awareness, the thought may just dissolve in that moment—they’ve “popped it” or “got off the train.” This is wonderful when it happens, but it may be best case scenario. So I recommend that people also “note” thoughts: put soft mental labels on them like “self-criticism,” “judgment,” “worrying,” “blaming,” etc. Sometimes naming the thought can allow it to “pop.” This strategy is often called “name it to tame it.”
Now let’s say that just labeling thought doesn’t do much—we find ourselves still ruminating, acting like a dog with a bone. Then it’s time to bring our attention into our body to notice if there is an emotion fueling the repetitive thought pattern.
How to Mindfully Hold Challenging Emotions
Study after study shows the benefit of using mindfulness to regulate challenging emotions. We can be mindful of thoughts and emotions together, or we can focus on a strong emotion alone.
Mindfully holding our emotions starts with recognition—labeling and recognizing what has taken you down: fear, grief, shame, guilt, and so on. We can label emotions in the same way we label thoughts. Often just recognizing, naming, and letting them be there without trying to alter them may be enough.
Or we can shift to investigating the emotion in real time, in our body. What’s happening in this moment? My stomach is clenched, my jaw is tight, my chest feels constricted. We sit with these sensations and hold them as a compassionate witness, just as I try to do with my daughter.
When we get disidentification, so much freedom arises.
One skillful approach is not to force ourselves to stay solely with the emotion, especially when it feels big and painful. It’s helpful to have a pleasant or neutral part of our body that we can move our attention to, and then return to the challenging emotion/sensations in our body when we’re ready. (If you don’t have an easeful area in your body, you can imagine a nurturing time or place.) Moving our attention back and forth allows for a bit of rest, prevents us from getting overwhelmed, and helps to integrate the challenging emotion. It helps build up our mindfulness capacity to hold the difficult emotion.
As we attend to our emotions mindfully, we track them as they ebb and flow, move and shift, and intensify or dissipate. There are very specific sensations we can attend to: pulsing, pounding, contracting, vibrating, tightness, and so on. Sometimes, mindfully being with them allows them to pass through, like weather patterns. Sometimes they don’t pass through, but we can hold them in our awareness and we are not disturbed by them. Sometimes they don’t pass, and we feel overwhelmed, but a little voice inside us knows we’re okay, even in the midst of strong, challenging feelings.
The key to the mindful approach is what’s typically called “disidentification.” This is the moment of recognition that we are not our thoughts or emotions. We go from “This is my thought or emotion that I’m entirely caught in,” to “This thought is moving through me.” “My thought” becomes “the thought.” “Being the thought” is now “being with the thought.”
This way we become disentangled from our painful thoughts and feelings, but we still have them. We’re not trying to use mindfulness to become mindful zombies with no affect. With disidentification we are present with and fully embodying our experience. Yet we have some space, some witnessing, and I daresay, some freedom.
When we get disidentification, so much freedom arises.
How to Enlist Your Wisdom Mind
Traditional Buddhist mindfulness approaches are pretty strict: mindfulness is not intended to explore our psychological material and we must avoid analyzing the content of our thoughts and emotions at all costs. However, my experience is that in practice it is much more nuanced than that. Using simple investigative processes that are rooted in mindfulness, we can explore the nature and history of our patterns, reactivity, and repetitive thoughts in helpful ways.
First of all, when we are mindful of a thought or emotion, psychological understanding and insight may emerge quite spontaneously. We are sitting with our grief and then a memory of our childhood arises. As we hold that memory in kindness and awareness, we realize that this may be why our present-day grief seems so enormous in comparison to the actual trigger.
We can be proactive too. When our mind is concentrated, stable, and aware, a well-placed question can help us find some ease and understanding. For example, with strong, repetitive emotions like shame or self-judgment, we might ask ourselves: “What might be the wisdom within this judgment? Can I separate out the wisdom from the reactivity?” Or, “Is there a deeper need I am trying to fulfil? Can I meet this need in other ways?”
Questioning in this way is very different from ruminating, analyzing, or trying to figure something out. It is also different from psychotherapy. Instead, it’s making space for our wisdom to emerge by dropping a question into our mind. It’s like dropping a pebble into a pond—we look for the reverberations.
When I’m caught in an anxiety avalanche about my daughter, I might ask myself, Is there a purpose this worry is serving? My wisdom mind might offer: I just want to protect her and keep her safe. Then I let myself feel the deep love connected to that desire. I hold that love in awareness, and sometimes tears come. As I feel the love and grief comingled with the worry, there is a loosening inside me, and the anxiety often subsides.
Other skillful uses of thinking in the midst of self-judgment include asking ourselves, Is this really true? What part of this is true, and what part is worst case scenario? Am I globalizing here? Catastrophizing? Also helpful are simple reminders: This too shall pass. I will get through this.
I call these practices “enlisting the wisdom mind.” Even in the midst of our neuroses, there is buried wisdom in us that we can learn to trust, listen to, and ultimately cultivate more fully, even when we’re utterly miserable.
I remember once being caught in a cycle of shame I couldn’t release. I was feeling like a terrible mommy and blaming myself for my inability to hold a boundary with my daughter. In my distorted thinking, I decided I had ruined her for life, that she was going to walk all over me and would end up being a rotten adult. I knew I was globalizing and catastrophizing, but I couldn’t shake the deep shame that kept arising.
As I sat with myself in the shame—and believe me, shame is awful to be mindful of—I held myself in awareness, felt the deep spikes and burning in my chest, and suddenly a thought emerged: It’s not your fault. Your neuroses were in perfect lockstep with her challenging behavior. If you could have done it differently you would have.
At that moment my mind let go. I began to cry with relief and the shame evaporated. All that was left was compassion—for me, for other moms who suffer in this way, and for the ongoing co-triggering dance of mother and child since beginningless time.
When you’re feeling horrible, a simple adaptation of Tibetan tonglen practice is to reflect on all of the people in the world who are feeling exactly the same way you are. As you take their suffering in a gentle way, you send out some compassion for all the people suffering like you are. You may feel the great relief of recognizing your common humanity, but stop if acknowledging all the suffering feels too overwhelming.
How to Use Your Mindfulness Toolbox
We can work with all of the mindfulness-based tools I have described, one by one, or in combination. Some of them will work for you at different times. Some you will feel more drawn to; some will feel less useful. You can use them in meditation, or on the spot in daily life. Together, they form a comprehensive approach to mindfully holding challenging emotions. But remember to be gentle and kind to yourself in the process.
Will these techniques free you entirely from self-criticism, shame, and guilt? Probably not, but sustained practice will give you significantly more freedom from them, especially when supplemented with self-compassion practices and a recognition of your inner goodness. Personally, I have found that much of my core suffering has been transformed over time. I have significantly less self-hatred than I used to. I attribute that to my mindfulness practice (and other modalities like therapy). And when shame, guilt, and judgment do arise, like in the roller-skating fiasco, when you cultivate mindfulness and wisdom, you will find your (yup, I’m going here) footing, stay stable in the midst of reactivity, and experience (sorry) way smoother skating!