Psychologist, Author, Teacher of Mindfulness and Compassion

Warm Mindfulness

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Warm Mindfulness

Ten Percent Weekly
May 30, 2021


by Dr. Susan Pollak

"I've tried everything, and I mean everything, to stop smoking. And it hasn't worked. I just can't stop," Michael told me, looking ashamed. "I feel like such a failure."

Many people turn to mindfulness to change harmful behaviors, such as drinking, smoking and unhealthy eating. And it does work. At the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School, we are finding that mindfulness interventions can reduce binge eating and smoking, as well as help patients manage chronic health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

But mindfulness alone is not effective if it's accompanied by self-judgment. Researchers are finding that "warm mindfulness," which explicitly brings in self-compassion, helps interventions last.

What is sometimes called the "cool" approach to mindfulness cultivates an attitude of acceptance toward unpleasant sensations. For example, one popular mindfulness practice for someone trying to give up smoking is to learn to notice the sensations of craving nicotine, and to experience them without getting hijacked by the urge and reaching for a cigarette.

But this method doesn't work for everyone. Some people who have difficulty regulating their emotional state, or have unresolved trauma, can find the "cool" approach difficult. In fact, focusing on unpleasant symptoms (such as the sensations of craving a cigarette) can create resistance and a negative reaction to meditation.

So what is this "warm mindfulness?" It is responding to yourself with a kind attitude, the same that you would extend to a good friend. This cultivation of inner compassion may help with behavioral changes, especially for people who experience shame and self-criticism.

This can be especially helpful now, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and reduce behaviors that may have been helpful coping mechanisms—eating or drinking or smoking more than we had, for example. How can you cultivate "warm mindfulness" in this context?

Let me tell you what helped with Michael and others who have responded to this new approach. I've found this three-step process to be very effective.

First, ask yourself: how Would You Talk to a Friend?

Research shows us that most of us are kinder to friends than we are to ourselves. We would never speak to them as harshly as we do to ourselves. Michael tried putting this into practice. He said, "I started telling myself, with some warmth in my voice, 'It's OK, you're doing it, one step at a time. It's a process. It's not easy. You've been smoking all your life. I'm with you." He found this way of speaking made him feel much less alone.

Second, check-in with Your Inner Critic.

As Michael  realized that he was constantly berating himself, he became interested in the inner critical voices that kept yelling at him. He told me, "I kept feeling that I was a loser, an idiot. That I couldn't do anything right." He worked with getting his critic to step back and give him some space. Our critics have often been in place since childhood and can have the voice of a demanding parent. However, they are rarely helpful, and usually they're demoralizing. James tried being playful with his inner critic, imagining that it was dressed in an uptight three-piece suit with a red bow tie and an affected professorial voice. Once he could laugh at the pretentious voice it didn't have such power over him.

Finally, create Your Own Loving-Kindness Phrase.

Working with Michael, I asked him what he needed to hear that would help him with his struggle to stop smoking. He experimented with a few different phrases until he founded one that "landed," that helped him feel both motivated and hopeful. So, whenever he found himself craving a cigarette, he would say: "James, you're a good man. Your health matters. Care for yourself and care for your kids."

Spend some time finding Loving-Kindness Phrases that speak to you. What do you need to hear that helps you feel loved, supported and empowered? Bring these phrases into your day and if you like, into your meditation practice.

These three methods—talk to yourself as if you were talking to a friend, recognize and even mock your inner critic, and recite your own lovingkindness phrase—can help make your mindfulness "warmer," and thus more effective. They will also help cultivate a kinder heart, which will benefit yourself and everyone around you.