I spent some of my weekend writing about the three emotional system model, based in the Compassion Focussed Therapy work of Prof. Paul Gilbert. According to this model there are three emotional systems, threat, drive and soothe and they tend to be out of balance for most of us, due to our evolved brain, our upbringing and our culture.
I have found my threat system has been particularly activated this year, due to the added uncertainty of the pandemic. I expect many of you are feeling the same. Many of us are trying to navigate Christmas plans at the moment, balancing the need for social distancing with the risk of seeing and of not disappointing our loved ones. This can be complicated to navigate, especially if we are a people pleaser. The approach of Christmas can be stressful in any year, especially for those of us who take responsibility for the preparations, on top of busy jobs and family lives. Christmas preparation is not so much of an issue for me this year, but it has been in the past.
The activation of the threat system can lead to emotions of anger and anxiety. I tend towards anxiety and have noticed this emotion underlying my experience most of the time this year. It isn’t surprising and I don’t blame myself for it. It’s not my fault. I didn’t choose this evolved brain, which is evolved and has been conditioned throughout my life to be sensitive to imagined threats. So, have learned to let myself off the hook of blame and simply be with the feelings. I have got to know fear very well over the years and can tolerate it a lot more easily than I used to. This is especially true when I recognise the transience of anxious thoughts and feelings and that the solid reality of them only manifests if I buy into the stories that come with the thoughts. I can remind myself that nothing is wrong and that there is nothing wrong with me. It’s just the human condition and it’s messy. I can give myself some compassion and become a compassionate mess.
I have always been driven. Driven to look good in other people’s minds. This has led to a deep-seated habit of perfectionism, that drives me to strive. This is fine and has led me to do achieve quite a lot in life. Often, I find it energising. Sometimes I find it exhausting. The flip side of this drive system is a fear of failure, which drops me back into the threat system. Over the years I have countered this with daily reminders to embrace failure and to fail epically. The fear of failure is exhausting and what helps me is to check in to my motivation – is it egocentrically driven (to look good in the minds of others, to not be seen as a failure) or is it altruistically driven (in accordance with my values, beneficial to myself and others). Although I sometimes find it quite difficult to distinguish between the two types of motivation.
Again, I did not choose such an over-developed drive system. It is hard wired into my brain and it has been socially conditioned throughout my life. So, again I can let myself off the hook and be with the feelings, like embarrassment or shame. I know them well now and don’t have to buy into stories of how I am not good enough. This story only becomes solid if I buy into it and I don’t buy into that story so much any more. Instead, I tell a different story, a story that is closer to the reality, of ‘nothing wrong’, a story of the imperfection of the human condition and I practice unconditional self-acceptance. I can give myself some compassion and become a compassionate mess.
I have developed many skills to stimulate my soothing system. I have practiced self-acceptance and self-compassion consistently for over a decade now and am gradually overcoming the evolutionary (it turns out not so) hard wired tendency to solidify and buy into imagined threats. I actually quite like myself these days. More importantly, I take care of myself these days. Most of the time I provide unconditional love for the parts of me that struggle with threat and drive. And if I am not able to do this straight away, I can do it later. I trust myself more, have more self-confidence and I feel safer than ever before.
A big part of this is a recognition of the fundamental, unshakable, awakened heart of compassion and clarity that I glimpse sometimes in my practice and in my life. If I can rest here, the stories don’t trouble me and I know what to do without thinking about it.
This isn’t where I expected this blog to end up when I started at the top of the page. However, this is where I have ended up, by setting an intention to stimulate the soothing system, so as to balance the threat and drive systems. By practicing self-acceptance and self-compassion and being curious about how my mind actually works in theory and through hours and hours of watching it in practice. This is where I have got to by following the path of mindfulness, compassion and insight. If it feels difficult at the moment, just keep going. Embrace difficulty, along with failure. It is an opportunity to learn.
Heather will be leading a practice day on 27 December and on 24 January if you would like to join her in some practice.