Monday, January 28, 2013

Self-Compassion Project - Interview with Dr. Barbara Markway

This comes from Alice Boyes, Ph.D. in her In Practice blog at Psychology Today. Dr. Boyes interviews fellow psychologist Barbara Markway.

Self-Compassion Project - Interview with Dr. Barbara Markway

Psychologist Barbara Markway did a 1 year self-compassion project

Published on January 25, 2013 by Alice Boyes, Ph.D. in In Practice

Dr Barbara Markway

Meet Dr Barbara Markway! She's a psychologist who did a 1 year self-compassion project.

Please tell us about your self-compassion project.

I loved Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and I thought the idea of focusing on one thing for an entire year made a lot of sense. I chose self-compassion because I was anything but self-compassionate! I was way too hard on myself. I was perfectionistic. I equated my worth with what I accomplished. And I was battling chronic pain after neck and back surgeries that didn’t work. Trying to motivate myself with the force of a whip just wasn’t working any more.

What did you learn?

The thing that surprised me the most is how quickly I was able to become more compassionate toward myself. I looked back over my notes, and in just a month’s time, my scores on a self-compassion test had improved considerably.

Tuning in to my inner self-talk and focusing on changing what I was saying to myself really helped. I heard Dr. Kristen Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion, speak at a workshop and she said her research showed that informal self-compassion practices were turning out to be just as helpful as the formal practices, such as meditation. I think that can give people hope—even if your self-criticism is deeply ingrained over time, you can still change, and it doesn’t have to take years.

What effects has increasing self-compassion had on your behavior, relationships etc?

I have always tended to be a big worrier, and I’ve found that I’m worrying a lot less. I’m not sure how that ties in with self-compassion, but it’s definitely something I’ve noticed. I also feel like I’m more in touch with how I’m not alone—that even when I’m going through a rough patch and it feels like I’m the only one who has ever experienced this—well, that thought goes away more quickly and transforms into a tenderness for myself and for others who may be going through a similar situation.

What's your favorite way to explain what giving yourself self-compassion is/isn't? My therapy clients often struggle to distinguish self-compassion from trying to boost their self-esteem, denying any flaws/weaknesses/mistakes or justifying/permitting poor choices.

My favorite way to explain giving yourself compassion is the analogy of how you would treat a small child. Let’s say your child is learning to walk. After a few wobbly steps, do you criticize him or her and say, “Look at you. You’re so clumsy. What’s wrong with you that you can’t walk yet.”? Of course not. You offer encouragement. You’re excited! You might even clap your hands in delight.

Now let’s say your child wants to eat candy for dinner. You set limits and say, “no” because only eating candy will likely make your child feel sick and it simply isn’t healthy. People mistakenly think that self-compassion always means saying “yes” to yourself. Sometimes it means saying “no”--but doing so with kindness. It’s important to remember that self-compassion involves nurturing and limit-setting.

What are three self-compassion techniques you plan to keep using?
1. One technique I use daily is a gentle touch on my skin (maybe touch my forearm with my other hand) while I say something reassuring to myself. The touch actually releases oxytocin and sets off a calming response in the body. I discretely do this at work when I’m stressed (at home I may give myself a big hug!) 
2. I often combine the self-compassionate touch with a phrase or self-compassion mantra, such as: “This is a moment of suffering; suffering is a part of life; may I be kind to myself and give myself what I need.” I have tried meditating and do it sometimes. I’m not very consistent, but I’m going to keep trying. 
3. I do a lot of informal mindfulness practice. I never used to take breaks—it was always work, work, work. Now I go outside and simply appreciate the beauty around me. This helps me connect with a greater good, and I end up feeling softer and gentler with myself. I have really gotten into bird watching!
Oh, and one other technique I use is to write myself little “love notes” to keep in my purse. It’s usually just a few quick sentences I want to remember during the day to stay focused on self-compassion.

For someone who wants to try self-compassion, is there something easy you can suggest starting with?

I’m a big self-help book junkie, so if you can, I’d read Kristin Neff’s book on self-compassion. She also has a lot of information on her website ( you can read and listen to for free. I’d also suggest starting by keeping a log of the things you say to yourself. Then ask yourself, “Is this how you would talk to a friend?” Remember that even subtle changes can make a big difference.

About the interviewee

Barbara Markway, Ph.D. is a psychologist and fellow blogger at Psychology Today. Her personal blog is The Self-Compassion Project. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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