In my last article I discussed how the way we were parented as children affects our parenting of our own children. I mentioned how as a parent, one might feel as if they are on autopilot. This feeling of being on autopilot in the presence of conflict or adversity, is not unique to parents. We all revert to habitual patterns that serve to protect us from stress and overwhelm in the heat of the moment.

But, what if we’re not happy with the results we’re getting from being on autopilot?  What if reacting to our child’s temper tantrum is like throwing fuel on a raging fire, or, snapping at people in the workplace is keeping us unemployed?  How can we step out of autopilot mode and handle the challenging events of our life with grace and composure?

According to Dr. Kristen Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the most effective ways of coping through challenges is by practicing self-compassion. Neff’s research indicates that self-compassion actually triggers the release of the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin creates a calming effect and soothes our nervous system. It is the same hormone released when a baby nurses, or we are in love. Oxytocin is also known as “the love hormone”.

The word compassion literally means, to suffer with. When we have compassion for another we are moved by the difficulty they are experiencing. We are able to notice their suffering while extending understanding and kindness, as opposed to shame and blame. Self-compassion involves the same understanding and kindness expressed to one’s SELF.

When something doesn’t go as we expected, we tend to resort to self criticism. “Why did I do that?”, “I’m so stupid!”, “I’ll never get it right.” These are just a few of the mantras that we might repeat when things go awry. As a result, we are keeping our stress response activated, rather than soothing it. If we can develop the understanding that failure, mistakes, and challenges are simply just a part of being human we can change that inner dialog, soothe ourselves out of fight or flight mode, and begin to respond to challenges rather than react to them.

The next time you are faced with a tantrum thrown by your child, an insult from your co-worker, a flat tire or an overheated transmission, try these tips:

1. Pause. Viktor Frankl put it best when he said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Acknowledge the choice you are making to PAUSE.

2. Be your own friend. After you pause, ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend in my  position right now?”  Say those things to yourself.

3. Give yourself a reminder. Challenges have come and gone in the past. You’ve faced so many challenges, so many tantrums, insults, flat tires and overheated transmissions that you’ve probably forgotten more of them than you remember. You’ve made it through every one of them. This challenge will be no different.

Overcoming challenges with Self-compassion