ACT Reflections: Mindfulness Self-Compassion Exercise

I’ve been a part of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) at my outpatient treatment center for about a year now. We always open and close with a mindfulness exercise, and this afternoon we revisited one we did quite some time ago. I like it when we repeat ACT groups I’ve already practiced before, because I almost always see growth from the time I last had the same guidance.

Today we focused on self-compassion. I teared up the first time we went through this exercise, and I did again today, just a little. We answered some questions that have been well-researched, and I scored “low” on a “self-compassion” scale—but last time I scored “very low,” so I’ve made some progress—and going through the questions, I see that they stuck with me and I have been working on the items with diligence. I am making strides forward.

Here I’ll walk through and reflect on today’s closing mindfulness exercise.

Allow your eyes to gently close, letting yourself connect with the breath. Noticing the inflow and outflow of breath, like an old friend that’s always there, inviting you to sit with them here and now.

At The Refuge—A Healing Place this summer, I learned that I am a “reverse breather,” meaning that I breathe expanding my chest first and then my stomach, while healthy, grounded breathing happens in the opposite direction. Reverse breathing, I was told by my “breath work” counselor (more on breath work in a future post), is especially common in those with PTSD, and also in those with eating disorders. The why for eating disorders makes more sense to me—I was constantly holding in my stomach, so self-conscious was I. The why for PTSD, as it turns out, is because part of the physiological fear response includes shallow breathing.

Since I learned this, I have been working on expanding first my stomach, and then my lungs on my in-breath, although this does not feel natural or come easily to me at all. Here, as we open the meditation, I focus on breathing correctly. I feel grounded. I feel okay, maybe.

Imagine that you can stretch you awareness back in time, through your life, to the earliest time you can remember experiencing struggles in your life.  Maybe from there you find there’s a thread that stretches back further to a more innocent time where you couldn’t see the ways your life would take shape.  It is almost as if the you that is here, now, could stand alongside the you there, then. Take a moment to notice the expression on their face, their clothes, and their posture. Notice the pain and challenges and discomforts that this younger you will have to go through to get to where you are today. There is nothing you can do to save that younger you from having to go through that. Stand by that younger you as you would a good friend and say, “I know…”

Here I connect with how very sad this meditation made me feel many months ago, perhaps even a year ago, the first time I did this activity. I see a little girl with messy curls dressed in a too-big tie dye t-shirt and jeans, with poor posture, who smiles only rarely. She is strange, different from the other kids. She has a speech impediment, and the other kids mimic her voice. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels her to perform rituals that frustrate her, yet she must. She is morose, obsessed with death. She is in the third grade. She has selective mutism—that is, she speaks at home, but refuses to in school.

And it is hard for me to like that little child of eight.

She is being exposed to horrors at her family’s mortuary. She is experiencing abuse—emotional, verbal, physical. She is visibly troubled. When she and her big sister are adults, her sister will tell her that she was clearly in need of help, professional help, even then. She won’t receive that help until she turns eighteen and seeks it out herself at her prestigious college.

She is already in pain, she is already fearful, already lonely, already hurt and mute. But there will be so much more.

She attempts suicide around the age of nine, a juvenile impulse. Had she gone through with that, she would have saved herself so very much future pain, years and decades of it. But, she would have missed beauty, too.

She will see her family torn apart. Her mother will cut up the only portrait of all seven siblings in pieces when she is a sophomore in high school. She will lose her grandmother, her teacher, her stepfather. And she will grieve each of these losses deeply. She will become anorexic; she will become alcoholic; she will survive two more suicide attempts that successively become more severe. She will be asked to model runway shortly after one of these attempts, but her scars will be too severe to accept the offer—her body too flawed, and she will feel ruined. She will be sexually abused for nearly seven years by a sadist of a boyfriend; she will be raped on a date; she will be trapped by a man in a London hostel basement. She will fall in love, only to have her heart broken. She will go to rehab one, two, three times. She will be locked in a psych ward. She will be force-fed. She will continue to know the depression she has always known. Her anxiety will skyrocket. She will despair that perhaps life never will be worth it.

She will become an excellent student. She will practice falconry and study photography. She will win California state science competitions. She will travel the world. She will volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, in an aquarium classroom, and at wild bird rehabs. She will move to New York City. She will have a successful career as an editor in publishing, and then launch a second career, this time in science journalism. She will be a manager. She will be a favorite auntie. She will see her family forgive, come back together, and love again. She will become an endurance athlete, running two triathlons, twelve half marathons, and five full marathons. She will have a loyal dog as a companion. She will have deep compassion and empathy and hurt when the world hurts, and celebrate when the world celebrates.

In this moment, I stand by her, and I say, I know.

And connect with the fact that this younger you has within them the same thoughts, emotions, urges, that you are working on today. Perhaps seeing that younger self, almost as if you were a camera watching from the outside.

Allow yourself to hear the voice of that younger you saying the thoughts you may have told yourself so many times before. Knowing that younger you is doing the best they could. Seeing if you lean in close to that younger self and whisper into their ear, I know what that is to have that. And almost as if your consciousness was like water that you could pour into your younger self, and experience what it is to hear the acknowledgement that someone knows what you experience, how hard that can be.

That child of eight, that curly-haired girl, felt so, so alone. None of her peers knew death the way she did. If they were abused, they did not talk about it. They were better communicators than she was. They had more friends than just the one she had.

But she always did her best. She was always kind and tender-hearted; perhaps too sensitive, but deeply caring. Her best enabled her to survive. Even her self-destructive coping mechanisms did, too.

I know what she felt like. I take her hand, and I say, I know.

And, allow that image to dissolve. Imagine you can stretch your awareness forward in time to see an older, wiser you. A you that is living the life you deeply want to be living.  Notice the expression on the face of this older self, their posture. And looking into the eyes of this older self, maybe you let yourself tell them your fears and worries about moving forward. And, in return, hearing that older, wiser you look back with kindness and say, I know what it is to have that.

My wiser self is older than I am now, although what age, I cannot say. She’s had some promotions by now and is no longer a junior journalist. She has a relationship and maybe even a little girl, whom she protects fiercely and helps her grow with all the support she needs. My future, wiser self doesn’t care what her family thinks about her sexuality. She is financially secure. She travels and immerses herself in other cultures. She is still learning and will never stop learning. She loves her friends, and she loves her family. She keeps a garden. She is content, maybe even happy.

I want to tell her that I am still afraid. That my past has not been worth living, but I want my future to be one worth living, one with more joy than pain, one free from self-destructive behaviors. I want to know freedom. I want recovery from mental illness. I’m not sure if that is possible, but I want that, I so want that.

And she tells me, I know.

Let that image dissolve and return your awareness to the breath. That old friend that is always there inviting you to sit with them. The same breath your younger self felt, and the same breath your older, wiser self will feel. Noticing your position amongst the other people here. Perhaps taking a moment to see we are all on this journey. Perhaps offering a kindness to each other in this moment, knowing each of us has looked at the fear that comes with change and the pain of difficult histories. Perhaps offering out a sense of, I know what it is to have that. And, allowing your eyes to gently open, settling back into the room.

Here, now, I almost feel that maybe things are going to turn out okay.

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