The Mindful Way to Self-Compassion

A review of The Mindful Way Through Anxiety and True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness

Kelly McGonigal24 May 2011

The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free From Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life
By Susan M. Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer
The Guilford Press 2011; 307 pp., $16.95 (paper)

True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect With Others, and Cultivate Happiness
By Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine
New Harbinger 2011; 200 pp., $16.95 (paper)

A few years ago, I was walking home from the grocery store when a woman called my name. I turned around to see a student from yoga class waving and running toward me. I didn’t know her well; she typically kept to herself in the back of class. I expected to exchange a simple “Hello! How are you?” and go on my way. But when the woman reached me, she broke into tears. Startled, I gave her a hug and asked her if she was okay. “I’m just so lonely,” she said. It was a stunning act of courage, transgressing the usual rule of smiling in public and suffering in private. Then she said something that broke my heart a little. “And you always seem so happy. I don’t know how you do it.”

This student only saw me in one context—teaching yoga. It’s a highlight of my day. And I know better than to roll out my stickiest worries along with my sticky mat, or rattle off my insecurities in between downward-facing dogs. But just like her, I know what loneliness feels like. And just like her, I’ve cried because I wanted to be happier but didn’t know how. And—just like her—sometimes I’ve looked at others and wondered why they didn’t seem to be suffering in the same way.

In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, psychologists Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer see this as a fundamental confusion we humans face. “We often judge our insides, which we know intimately, by other people’s outsides, because that is all we can see. Often we are surprised and taken aback to find a coworker is struggling with suicidal thoughts, a neighbor has a drinking problem, or the lovely couple down the road engages in domestic violence. When you ride with people on the elevator or exchange pleasantries in the line at the grocery store, they may appear calm and in control. Outward appearances do not always reflect the struggles within.” Because of this, we start to see others as fundamentally “not like me,” and ourselves as broken human beings. We look out at the world and conclude that we are alone in our suffering.

It is this misperception that both The Mindful Way Through Anxiety and True Belonging address. While one book aims to help readers with anxiety, and the other to relieve loneliness, they both point to mindfulness and self-compassion as the path to healing. These qualities of mind are not offered as a cure for difficult thoughts and feelings, but as pointers to the comfort of common humanity. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Brantley and his co-author Wendy Millstine make this promise in the introduction of True Belonging, when they tempt the reader with the possibility of “the undeniable realization—in an instant, at the deepest levels of your being—of your profound similarity and commonality with even one single other living thing: a wondrous, insightful ‘they are like me, I am like them’ moment.”

But can the insight of common humanity really be achieved by reading a book? Perhaps – especially if the reader happens to pick up both of these books. In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety Orsillo and Roemer painstakingly lay out the habits of mind that contribute to our suffering. They also provide a compelling, evidence-based argument for bringing mindfulness and self-compassion to these habits. The authors illustrate each point with creative metaphors and clear, relatable case studies that help the reader recognize that their suffering is not so different from others’. The authors also anticipate and address common questions, misconceptions, and reservations in Q&A format throughout the book. The emphasis here is on insight, not formal practice; the reader is encouraged to take the ideas, and the approach of self-compassionate mindfulness, into everyday life.

Brantley and Millstine aim more for the heart, using evocative, almost poetic language to describe a new way of relating to oneself and others. They skip the science and in-depth theory in favor of reflections and meditation practices designed to inspire mindfulness and connection with others. Whereas The Mindful Way Through Anxiety primarily illuminates the habits of mind that reinforce the experience of anxiety and depression, True Belonging guides the body, mind, and heart toward a felt sense of connection and acceptance. For example, the “we-ness” reflection invites readers to go out into a public space when they are feeling lonely, and contemplate the following:

While you hold tender space for your loneliness, take a look around you and notice other people who are nearby. Imagine at times that these people feel alone, afraid, and disconnected. Imagine that they too want to feel a sense of belonging and oneness as much as you do. There is a “we.” You and those people that surround you are included in this “we.” We are in it together. We belong to the same humanity; we share the same emotions and desire to connect. We have much more in common than we often acknowledge.

Take this moment to offer a blessing to others: May you know that we are not alone. May you know that we are linked in powerful emotional ways. May you feel the “we” in this silent moment with me. May we feel it together.

While this practice may be the last thing in the world a lonely person is inclined to do, we can imagine that they would be uplifted by such a compassionate meditation.

Other formal practices focus on gratitude, listening to others, reconnecting with nature, mindful eating, and being of service. In this way, the two books complement each other well, feeding not only the intellect, but also the desire for daily inspiration.

It’s worth noting that both books are grounded not just in traditional mindfulness practices, but also in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a relatively new approach to psychotherapy. ACT teaches clients how to accept inner experiences—including anxiety and loneliness—without necessarily buying into them or acting on them. Through mindfulness practices and self-compassion, clients learn to open to their experiences instead of trying to get rid of every upsetting thought or feeling. Clients also identify important values and commit to actions that are in line with those values. For example, the woman who is terrified of parties commits to attending her brother s wedding because she values family—even though she knows anxiety will be part of the experience. The man who is afraid of talking in meetings makes a plan to speak up at least once in each weekly team review. He values making a contribution through his work, and accepts that discomfort in meetings is part of that process. In ACT, this is referred to as “willingness.” As Orsillo and Roemer put it, “You do not need to be fearless to live; you need only be courageous.”

There are numerous studies showing that participating in ACT—as well as Mindfulness-Based Therapy, or Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction groups—can assist in the recovery from anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. But in both one- on-one psychotherapy and group programs, there is ample room for asking questions, sharing observations, and experiencing human connection. What happens when these ideas and practices are delivered through words on the page? When readers are asked to greet their own suffering under the guidance of—well, mostly themselves, and the very same mind they are investigating?

In most Buddhist traditions, sangha, or supportive community, is considered necessary for practice; in psychology, the therapeutic relationship between psychologist and client is considered a key element in any positive outcome. And there is no comparable scientific evidence for the power of self-help and practicing alone. However, this lack of evidence does not demand cynicism or skepticism toward the self-help approach. In fact, self-help may be particularly well suited for anxiety and loneliness. As anyone knows who has ever suffered from either of them, the bar to picking up a book can be far lower than the self-imposed barriers to joining a group or seeking therapy.

As the authors of these books point out again and again, it is self-compassion that gives us the strength to face the most difficult thoughts and emotions. It is not a coincidence that both books use the language “befriending” to describe the process of mindfully meeting anxiety and loneliness. To reconnect to common humanity and re-engage with life, we may not need anything more than wise instruction on how to be good friends to ourselves. And through the ideas and practices these books provide, there is hope that we might realize: when we sit with our own suffering, we are never sitting alone.