I recently attended the Women’s Conference in Boston, MA. For one full day, thirteen thousand women—mostly from the corporate world—gathered to connect, learn, and share ideas with one another. Throughout the day, I was asked what I did for work. In response, I said, “I developed a program and training that aids women in finding a sense of well-being.” I quickly realized people understand well-being in a variety of ways! Many of the women I talked to understood it simply as healthy living. And, yes, eating right, exercising, and choosing self-care options like massage, working out, and walks in the woods are certainly a part of how we care for ourselves. But the pursuit of these activities (meant to make us feel better) is often half-cocked, because true well-being requires more than enaging in healthy activities. We need emotional resilience.
Emotional resilience is critical to consistently making healthy choices in our lives. Without it, we can feel guilty for prioritizing ourselves. We struggle to set appropriate boundaries, ask for what we need, and stop saying yes when we mean no. Without emotional resilience, we are ruled by our feelings of guilt, shame, and self judgement.
Similarly, social resilience is also dependent upon our emotional health. Many of the emotions we feel – both negative and positive – are activated in social interactions. The quality of our social relationships is directly related to emotional resilience and the capacity for self-compassion. If our actions are dominated by automatic emotional responses, we lose touch with what we truly need to be happy in life, and we can neither care for ourselves nor for others. Over time, an erosion of emotional and social well-being begins to contribute to negative health consequences, including chronic illness premature mortality.
Well-being by way of emotional and social resilience can be elusive, because unresolved emotional distress in childhood is a significant cause of emotional distress in adulthood—often without any conscious awareness of the connection. Even when connections to early adverse events can be made, self-compassion—a third crucial component to attaining well-being—can be difficult because we judge the emotional responses that arise when trying to care for ourselves. When we make choices to care for ourselves, but experience a backlash of self-judgment, our brains become locked in a stress-response feedback loop that, over time, can compromise our immune system and contribute to poor health.
Only when we understand that our physiological and emotional responses today are linked to neurobiological responses of long ago, can we find compassionate understanding for ourselves. This is the foundational principle of empathy, the final critical component to human well-being. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is not possible without self-compassion.
Here are some simple ways to start practicing compassionate understanding for your own well-being:
During a moment where you need to make a healthy choice for yourself, set a boundary, or have a difficult conversation with someone, pause and notice the sensations present in your body before you take any action.
Take 5-10 (or more) deep abdominal breaths, in and out.
Remind yourself that these sensations are a response to a preceding conscious or unconscious memory—they are a memory in your body which is misperceiving the current situation.
Before taking your next action, say to yourself, “These feelings are my body trying to protect me, and I can understand that.”
In these moments, it’s important to resist connecting your thoughts and feelings with a particular memory from your past. Thoughts and subsequent behaviors are informed by the sensations in your body—a body memory that can be formed well before your brain has developed the capacity to hold memory (around 2.5 to 3 years of age), or even before you were born! By practicing somatic awareness, pausing with breath, and understanding your responses with self-compassion, relationships in your life will be positively impacted and influenced.
I invite you to start the New Year committed to practicing empathy – for others, and within yourself. If we can care for ourselves without negative emotional fallout, we can begin to enjoy physical, mental, emotional, and social health. In other words, well-being.