Mindfulness Can Help You Stop Rushing and Feel Like You Have More Time

The first book on meditation that I ever read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book had lots of practical tips that served me well when I started a meditation practice in earnest, but the text wasn’t quite as plain as it claimed to be. Gunaratana kept talking about how meditation can help you create space between you and your thoughts. I understood this as a concept but I had no clue what it meant in practice. In fact, the idea itself seemed counterintuitive, since my initial experience with meditation felt like being smothered by my thoughts, instead of creating space around them.

Even so, I pressed on because my mind had been running for so long that it felt like a relief even to take a brief pause just to watch the wheels spin. By the time I worked my way up to 10 minutes of meditation a day, I noticed a variety of space emerge in my life that I had never set out to find: I stopped rushing so much. In particular, I noticed my tendency to rush regardless of whether I was dealing with real time constraints.

For example, I used to be in a big hurry every time I went to the grocery store, racing around and grabbing items as if I were on a game show. Rather than prizes, this habit had usually only given me frustration when I had to stand in line or got caught behind someone walking too slowly. Soon after I started meditating, however, a magical voice from nowhere said “What’s your rush?” as I was briskly walking past the gliding doors. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old so time to myself—even running errands—was a rare and precious thing. I slowed down, strolling through the store with ease, gazing with interest at the lovely produce, and even chatting at check out with the clerk. I came home in a good mood, rather than a bad one.

Now, this isn’t to say that my tendency to rush doesn’t come back. It comes back to me all of the time. On one meditation retreat, I realized that I was rushing even in my meditation because I would force myself back to focusing on the breath the second I noticed my thinking. In addition to making me laugh heartily at myself, this also helped me realize that giving myself the time to see what thoughts had emerged would let me have the insights that vipassana (aka “insight meditation”) was supposed to produce.

Not only can rushing make us less aware of our lives, it can also cause us to behave less ethically. This was demonstrated by a famous study of seminary students who were told that they had to give a lecture across campus on, of all things, the Good Samaritan story from the Bible. Some of the students were told that they were late and others that they had plenty of time to get to their talk. The students were set up to pass a victim in need of assistance and, by a wide margin, the students with time to spare stopped more often to help. The conclusion from this is clear: time constraints—even pretend ones—can cause us to forget our higher ideals (and perhaps be totally oblivious to irony too).

This truth of this study is borne out by my life experience. In my small grocery store example, one of the other things that happened was that a petite woman asked me (I’m 5’11’’) to grab a product off a high shelf for her. Do you think she would have felt comfortable doing so if I looked stressed out and grumpy? Probably not. In that case, the absence of rushing on my part freed me up not just to feel better myself but also help someone else. This happened to me in more significant ways as my practice evolved. I was more likely to ask how other people were doing, to check in on friends I hadn’t seen in a while, or to plan ahead so that I had the ability to work fun and meaningful events with friends and family into my schedule. Over time, the reduction in my rushing made me feel less like I had no time, so I realized that, in fact, I had the time to do things I enjoyed, such as writing, or cooking or going to meditation retreats, even while practicing law and raising a family.

Now, if you are a litigator like me, you may think that rushing is somewhat predestined by the aggressive and deadline-ridden nature of our law practice. But, even here, I have found that being mindful of rushing is beneficial too. I try not to delay responding to emails to keep cases moving, but I give myself time if I need to craft a response. I definitely give myself time if the email is at all aggressive and irritating, as emails from lawyers can sometimes be. I also take the time to be sure clients are on board with case management and that they feel supported and like their voice is being heard in the process. In addition, because I am more aware of how stressful time constraints can be, I am more proactive about managing cases and deadlines with clear communications so that the work gets done with as little human misery as possible. Sometimes there is no way around a hard deadline and you just have to work like hell to get the project done, but that only makes it all the more necessary to develop a habit of paying attention so that you don’t fall into the all too human habit of treating all deadlines that way.

In the years since I started meditating, I have experienced the space that Gunaratana promised in numerous different ways. Though it seemed to have little to do with my copious thoughts, reducing my tendency to rush may have been one of the most important. It provided me with the space that only time can provide to notice how I was living my life, and I was shocked to see that a small adjustment in how I behaved could produce such a significant change in my law practice, personal happiness, and relationships.

If, like me, you are someone who tends to rush, the first step is to notice when it arises. Notice what it feels like in your body when you rush. Notice the thoughts that emerge. Over time, you will see patterns and then the next step is to start to ask yourself whether the perceived time constraints are real. If they are, you can learn to take a deep breath and offer yourself compassion as you face the task. If they are not, take several deep breaths and offer yourself care by slowing down. Then simply repeat these steps over and over again for the rest of your life, congratulating yourself for crises averted and forgiving yourself for any mistakes. We cannot control how much space or time life gives us, but we have some control over how we perceive it. Meditation can help us remember this and that is one way it can make us free.

If you need a quick reminder to help you watch the rushing, check out our quick mini video here:

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How My First Residential Meditation Retreat Freed Me from Self-Doubt

Full disclosure: this title is a bit of a lie. It’s mostly true. My first residential retreat forced me to turn and face my self-doubt, when I had previously run, hid, and thus, found myself controlled by it, for most of my life. That created an opening in my awareness and the result was a whole lot of freedom to expand. But it didn’t set me “free” from doubt in the sense that it made it go away. In truth, I am not sure that anything can. It’s a pattern of the mind that is so engrained that I suspect nothing short of enlightenment (which doesn’t seem to be happening for me any time soon) is going to dislodge it. So what do you do when you can’t beat something? You join it. That’s what the retreat made me do. It made me meet the doubt half-way and the freedom came in when I realized I didn’t have to make it go away at all.  

I didn’t go to the retreat with the specific aim of taking down my self-doubt complex. I had been meditating long enough by that point to know that isn’t really how this works. I knew that I couldn’t control—and shouldn’t try to control—the retreat experience by setting any goals. The point was to take what comes and work with it because that’s what I’d have to do in my life when the retreat was over. Fortunately for me, however, the retreat went exactly according to my non-plan.

I had thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. I had been meditating for about 5 years, I had done some 1-day intensives before, so I was not without skills. At least that’s what I’d told myself. The first night was pretty easy. The silence didn’t start until after dinner and the talk and sit were pleasant. The retreat was at a Catholic facility well out of town, so the only noise was the crickets singing me lullabies. Nevertheless, I could not sleep because I always struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places. Though I avoided a total melt down, it was much too late when I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The morning gave me hope that the day wouldn’t be a total loss because I didn’t feel too bad. I started with a sit before breakfast. It was hazy and uninspiring but not awful. Breakfast, coffee, and a walk outside helped immensely, so the next sit was better and I enjoyed the talk from the teacher leading the retreat. I started to think I might be okay, but by the third sit everything started to change. The weather turned to rain. In a silent retreat, where you can’t talk, engage with other retreatants, or—gasp—even look at your phone, there are precious few distractions. Food is one and walking meditation periods when you tend to basic needs or just move is the other. When the weather is nice, you can get a change of scenery and enjoy the air. When it’s not nice, you have no choice but to find a spot indoors and awkwardly try to avoid running into the path of the other yogis doing walking meditation, who always look so much more focused, devout, and serene than you.

After lunch, things got worse. The coffee had worn off and the meal told my body that it was time to take a nap. Having done several retreats since then, I now know that on retreats my body just wants to sleep from the hours of 2-4 PM. On that retreat, though, I hadn’t learned this yet. I spent the sits fighting off sleep and the suspicion that I was a hopeless failure at meditation. I had also totally failed to appreciate the physical toll that lots of extra meditation would have on my body. At the time, I meditated only about 20 minutes each day. By Saturday afternoon, I had already done about 4 times that, sitting on a cushion with no back support. Everything hurt, so meditation was just sitting with one source of physical pain after another. Even walking meditation wasn’t much help since I was so tired. Feeling defeated, I headed to the kitchen for a snack, hoping maybe a boost in blood sugar might help raise my spirits. I brightened when I saw apples and peanut butter, one of my favorite after school snacks, and sat in near solitude to eat them.

My doubt voice, however, took this opportunity to enter stage right like a diva for its big aria. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing walking meditation right now?”, it asked. I ignored it and sliced my apple. “Did you really come here to eat? You could have had an apple at home.” I smeared some peanut butter, rolled my eyes at myself, and sat. The voice didn’t like being ignored so it turned up the volume. “Why do you have to do stuff like this? Can’t you just be like everyone else?” This was harder to hear. I might have cried but for another yogi standing across the room. I held it together but then the really low bows started, “You could have spent this weekend with your children and you chose to spend it here navel-gazing.” Ouch. I was sinking fast. But then the voice got arrogant, and made a mistake when it tried to land the finishing blow.

When it said “This is a waste of your time,” I suddenly thought “Wait, what?” I might doubt myself but I knew my meditation practice had been good for me. I knew the studies demonstrating its benefits. I had seen my life change consistently for the better since I started meditating and had relied on it countless times to pull myself off so many mental ledges. Thus, when the doubt voice started to attack my practice, my bullshit detector went off like an alarm clock to wake me up. But I didn’t respond with anger. I didn’t punch back at the doubt voice like Rocky after being battered on the ropes. Instead, I laughed (at least internally). I laughed because I suddenly realized that I had been the object of a life-long prank. In a flash. I saw how many times I had listened to that voice and ended up feeling lost, or stuck, or weak. I had tried for years to push the doubt away, puff myself up with feigned confidence, or take the path of least resistance and none of those strategies had worked. So instead, like pulling the mask off a friend at a costume party, I said to the doubt voice in my head “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show up. Take a seat. We’ll be here for a while.” It did just that and let me finish my snack in peace.

That little exchange also helped me see that I had been beating myself up physically too. I accepted that I was tired and hurting, so I made the rebellious decision to skip the last sit before dinner so I could do some light yoga in my room and shower to prepare to sleep as soon as the evening sit was done. It helped me a lot and my outlook was better at dinner than it had been all day. The evening sit was wonderful and included a guided loving-kindness practice that helped me connect to my daughters and community, even though I wasn’t physically with them. As soon as it ended, I got up, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.

I awoke the next morning to sunshine, a clear head, and a lighter spirit. As I did the first sit, the truth of what happened the day before was distilled for me in this flash of insight: “Doubt feels a lot like truth.” When you are in it, doubt feels like the real truth. Truth with a capital “T”. It feels like all the lived experience before that was the illusion and the doubting construction of the facts is what is real. But it isn’t and the struggle is seeing that. The doubt had also caused me to be withholding of care for myself at a time when I needed it most. I had been physically in pain for hours before I finally accepted that I needed to do something about it. When I let go of the doubt that backed me into the corner of trying to look like a perfect yogi, I cut myself slack and took care of my body. This is when my mind and heart relaxed and opened enough for me to see clearly.

After leaving that retreat, my doubt did not ride off into the sunset and my tendency to be harsh with myself did not fade into oblivion. They come back to me frequently and sometimes catch me off-guard and knock me down. More often than not, however, I see them in time before they can do much damage. I see them now because I look for them. Before that retreat, I had not wanted to look for my doubt voice because I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to feel strong, confident, and capable, not weak, and scared and unsure. So, when doubt cropped up, I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t see what it looked like and too often mistook it as a sign of my own frailty. In reality, doubt is just a part of my personality that wants me to be good, to do things well, and to follow the right path. For too long, doubt had let me wander only on a narrow and constricting path, but in a world full of hubris and recklessness a tendency to check myself and check again isn’t entirely bad. The retreat helped me see that doubt was not truth, but only a flavor of it. It helped me see that I could love that doubting part of myself and bring it along with me as I moved forward into the unclear future.

There are lots of stories that people share about how they prevailed over doubt. I don’t quarrel with any of those. For some, the “do it scared” approach works. For others, fake it until you make it may convince even self-doubters of their own abilities. But for me, doing nothing was the only way that I could have made peace with my self-doubt. I had to stop fighting it, stop ignoring it, and stop trying to control it. When I did, I could get a look at it. To my surprise, I found that it wasn’t that scary or ugly after all and I could just let it hang out with me when it chose to show up every so often. The retreat therefore didn’t make my doubt go away, but it changed my relationship with it and that’s what set me free.

Want the condensed version of this story? Here’s a reenactment of the retreat experience. We promise no mommies, meditators, or little doubt voices were harmed in the making of this film.

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Why Lawyers Should Prioritize Joy and Practices to Help Them Start

I admit it. The word “joy” used to make me cringe a little bit inside. For a while, it was plastered on the walls of so many homes along with signs reading “Live. Laugh. Love.” and showed up in the titles of countless self-help books. The frequency with which I saw that term used, often inaccurately, gave me the distinct and bizarre impression that “joy” was somehow omnipresent, yet also mythical and unattainable. After all, how could conflict, unhappiness, and social problems be so prevalent when everyone seemed hellbent on praising joy?

More recently, though, I have come around to the “joy” camp. The transition had nothing to do with all those signs and books. Instead, it happened when I started to study suffering and the response to it. When I learned about compassion practices and saw their impact in my life, I realized something I had previously overlooked: joy is powerful. The overuse of the word had made joy seem frivolous and meaningless, but when I feel it—especially in response to suffering—it is nothing short of magic. Joy has a potential to connect us in good times and to bind us, to ourselves and others, in hard times.

Many of us may think that joy is an emotion that simply arises without warning and lasts only a moment. This is true but also incomplete. We can cultivate joy and in so doing, cultivate compassion and a greater sense of well-being. For many of us, joy may seem like a temporary and elusive state because we aren’t accustomed to staying present with the experience of strong emotions. Regardless of the type, emotions are sensory experiences in the body. Even positive emotions like joy can feel uncomfortable, if not overwhelming, so we may unconsciously register them as stress that induces a mental flight reaction. For this reason, many of us may need to learn to sit with and savor even positive emotions. This is just one of the reasons why meditation practice can be so powerful, because it may provide a rare opportunity to experience emotions in the body.

Whether in meditation or otherwise, sensing emotions as they are cultivates a capacity to accept the true and full experience of life. This can mean greater courage to accept the hard parts of life, as well as welcoming in those joyful emotions that provide a respite from our struggles and energize us to keep going. As a result, savoring the good aspects of life and taking the time to celebrate can be some of the most powerful things that lawyers can do to improve our mental health for the long-term.

Despite this, many lawyers and other professionals may worry that savoring victories and positive experiences may lead to resting on one’s laurels, apathy, or cause a reduction in drive. Leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has found that, while this is a common fear, it isn’t true. Self-compassion is not an impediment to a good work ethic; it is positively correlated with attainment of goals. Far from causing people to lack ambition, self-compassion practices, including savoring joy, result in higher motivation, more courage in taking risks, and increased stamina to persist through difficulty.

Some simple ways to savor joy in life are to remind yourself to mentally “check in” during a good time. Notice what you hear, feel, taste, smell, and see and notice what that experience causes you to feel in your body. For instance, if you are playing with your kids, hear them laugh, see them smile, and notice what reaction those things elicit in you. You can also be on the lookout for joy in your daily activities. One of my favorite savoring activities is to watch the kids run to the parents at daycare pickup time. Watching their love and excitement turns what might have been wasted time into a joy break for myself and it prepares me to greet my own kids with love.

In the work setting, one simple way to savor experiences is to acknowledge a win and congratulate your team. When the praise is directed to you, you could practice savoring joy by learning to simply say “thank you” when you receive a compliment and allowing the warm feelings just wash over you, instead of deflecting or talking to hide your embarrassment. If you struggle with paying or giving compliments, a simpler place is to establish a habit of internally congratulating yourself for a job well done. For example, after a difficult deposition, you might reflect on how you handled yourself and appreciate the discipline, organization, and restraint you showed in hard circumstances. These practices generally don’t take much time, but research suggests that the cumulative effect over time can yield major benefits for your motivation, outlook, stamina, and capacity to handle difficult moments. 

So, does this mean that I am telling you to go put a big “joy” sign on your wall? Not quite, unless hanging a sign like that reminds you to cultivate joy in your own life. The object here isn’t the performance of joy or convincing others that you feel joyful. Instead, the power of joy comes in when we fully experience it and prioritize it in our lives. Because when we open to joy, in all its overwhelming glory, we’ll find courage, energy, and strength care for our families and ourselves, serve clients, and make more joy for the rest of the world. So, I don’t care if you put a big “joy” sign on your wall, as a long as you make space for it in your heart.

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Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later. 

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Litigating a Big Case Terrified Me, but Left Me Feeling Like a Badass

Every so often, there are cases that come along that test your limits as an attorney. Maybe they are high profile. Maybe they come from an area of law that is outside of your comfort zone. Or maybe the result in the case could have huge consequences for your client or community. Earlier this year, I had a case that included all these things and it scared me to death. This was a problem because I was lead counsel and it was my job not only to develop a strategy to manage the litigation, but also look confident enough for my client to have faith in my abilities.

For days after the case was filed, I was in a nasty mood. I was tensed up like a spring that had been held back and might burst open at any moment. I found it difficult to do small tasks on the case and focus, dig in, and do the work. While I had support from colleagues and friends, I kept feeling like I was lost in an unknown land with no idea how to get home. When I interacted with my client, I gave directives, identified risks and strategies, and offered consolation for their nerves. But as I did, I knew I was in ‘fake it until you make it’ mode.

I knew I had to get my head right to litigate the case well. I had critical and complex briefs to write and I had to quickly prepare to put on and attack proof in a hearing. How was I going to shake my fears and get my head in the game? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept doing what I always did. Fortunately, for me, that included meditation.

I am adamant about reminding people that meditation isn’t magic but it is a practice that has helped me over the years and gotten me out of many mental jams in the past. Honestly, the fear and loathing I was feeling about the case made me reluctant to sit. In times when I am really struggling, meditation is the last thing I want to do because I know it will force me to confront things I’d rather not feel. Even so, I knew I needed to manage my stress and that I needed a lifeline to keep me steady. I made myself sit even though I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it.  

I didn’t do any special practice or guided meditation and I barely focused on my breath. Instead, I just sat in the dark of my mind and let the thoughts swirl around. The thoughts were so intense and mixed up with my emotions that it took me a few days to get my bearings. Something in me must have recognized that I just needed to give it time. My meditation on the first night was a dark haze with little focus and minimal relief. I forgave myself and tried again the next night. I was surprised to find that my mind was less scattered and I was even able to do some loving-kindness practice for myself. That seemed to unlock a door because the third night was when I broke through.

As I sat, I found my mind settling on its own and connecting to my body like a final puzzle piece falling into place. Even as thoughts surfaced about the case, I was calm without effort and could just see them arise. This let me look at—examine—my fear. I could see it as a vision in my mind in addition to feeling it in my body. I saw the vision of me losing the case, making a mistake, and having to deal with the consequences. As I watched, my favorite phrase from my loving-kindness practice– “may I greet my life with joy”—sprang to mind. I selected this phrase for myself because embedded in it is the idea that life isn’t always a joy, but I can still choose to bring it in when I respond to situations in my life. This recollection made me break down in tears for a moment.

When I recovered, my mind collected itself and, in a kind, wise voice from nowhere, said: “Claire you can’t control what happens in this case. But you can control two things: how hard you fight and how kind you are to yourself as you fight.” And that was it. I didn’t conquer my fear at all. I acknowledged it. It was big, and drawn out, and overwhelming. It went right to my ego and shook it to its core. It took me 3 days before I was ready, but I stared that fear right in the eye and saw the truth: that I couldn’t make the fear go away but I could care for myself as I felt it.

Remembering this set me free. I slept better that night than I had in a week. I got up the next day and found it easier to focus. I wrote one of the best briefs I have ever written, with force, clarity, and solid legal analysis. I orchestrated a defense and showed confidence and compassion in preparing my client to testify. The litigation was stressful and worrisome to be sure, but I remained focused and steady throughout. Despite all my fears, the results for my client were much better than I had expected, and I was proud of the job my team and I had done. The funny thing is, though, that the results were not what made me most proud. I had started the case focused on the result and it made me feel alone, vulnerable, scared, and even a little like a fraud about to be revealed. I ended it feeling like a badass because I let the results go.

My meditation practice helped me get out of the mindset of treating the case like a test of my worth as an attorney or a person. It helped me stop punishing myself for all of the things in the case I couldn’t control so I could focus solely on the things I could. In the end, the case didn’t test my limits as a lawyer, but rather expanded them. I had believed unconsciously that a scared lawyer wasn’t a good lawyer. I now know that a scared lawyer can be a great lawyer. I didn’t have to conquer all of my fears to do great work for my client. Instead, I needed to let myself expand to hold the fear with kindness so that it could transform to compassion and courage.

If you are dealing with anxiety relating to a case, you aren’t alone. We have a guided meditation for you. It uses visualization and loving-kindness practice to help you take care of yourself as you serve your clients.

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Just Learning to Say “This Is Hard” Can Change Your Life

My favorite unintended side effect of my mindfulness practice is that it gives me all kinds of opportunities to laugh at myself. I don’t mean mock myself in a cold or cutting way. Rather, I mean laugh out loud at how silly this thing I call my self can be. To be sure, there are times when my practice has called on me to go and find my inner child curled up on the floor in the dark recesses of my mind and stroke its hair and tell it that it’s beautiful and things will be alright. But some of the time, the only logical response to myself is to just say “Girl, I love you, but you are a goofy” and laugh.

My journey to learn to say “this is hard” is one of those things. Yes, you got it right. I’m not talking about enlightenment here or some vision quest type situation. I am telling you that I struggled for years (read: decades) to learn to (a) observe a difficult personal experience; and (b) acknowledge in the present moment that the experience was difficult. We are talking very basic stuff right here. But hallelujah when I finally learned to do this it was like I had worked a miracle.

Like most lawyers I’ve struggled with perfectionism most of my life. I’ve been the “smart” girl in school and the “good” girl in my family. And somewhere along the way, that got confused with the idea that I had to be innately good at anything I ever did. When I started practicing law and raising kids, I really struggled because—newsflash—those things are hard. As a new mom and lawyer, I was still in the mode of pretending like things were “fine” and that I was “on top of things” and, through gritted teeth, that it was all a “piece of cake.” How did that work out for me? Terribly. I totally fell apart and that’s when I turned to meditation to put myself back together.

Meditation is sometimes presented like magic but it’s actually much more like those times when you are running out the door looking frantically for your car keys and your spouse or child says “you are holding them.” Learning to say “this is hard” is a car key situation for me. It was right there all along and I was too busy trying to look like I knew what I was doing to see it. By learning to sit in silence, I saw my thoughts, I felt my body, and let my emotions have a voice. I suddenly started to see that—holy crap!—all kinds of hard stuff happened to me all the time. I would struggle to focus, I would have nasty voices in my head saying mean things, my foot would fall asleep, my knee would hurt, and my ego would be bruised and battered because I wasn’t the stoic meditator I had set out to be.

Do you know what all of this taught me? That just saying “this is hard” really, really helped. When I acknowledged the hard stuff, I was able to stop struggling against it. I could stop pretending it wasn’t there. I could stop putting on a brave face. By just letting go of that, I saved so much energy and opened up so much space. That extra energy and space left room to just experience the situation. Many times I would see that the situation passed on its own and that I didn’t have to do anything. On other occasions, I saw clearly what I needed to do to care for myself. For example, if my foot fell asleep, maybe I might just wiggle my toes or move my leg. In the case of an attack of the nasty voice in my head, I might just focus more on my breath or hold my own hand as I watched it rage in my mind like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor.

After I practiced this enough in meditation, I noticed it started to happen on its own in my life. When I notice my own struggle during a workout, admitting that my situation is hard helps my inner cheerleader come out and say “you got this!” When my daughter throws a real live tantrum on the floor, it helps just to take a breath in and internally say “ouch.” These moments of recognition are often enough to steady me so that I can respond with some semblance of calm. In my law practice, acknowledging when things are hard helps me manage my schedule to make my days easier or ask for help from a colleague on a tricky problem or when dealing with difficult opposing counsel. In other words, letting myself admit that things are sometimes hard was the necessary first step for managing my life and law practice more effectively.

This is why I have to laugh at myself because the thing I was running from my whole life is what I needed all along. It was so simple and so small that I kept overlooking it, so the only way I could see it was to stop everything, sit down for a while, and do nothing. When I did, I finally let the truth of life come raining down: that life is hard and pretending it’s not makes it harder. So, when life is hard, just admit it if you can because saying “this is hard” is the first step of self-compassion. But, if even that is hard for you, laughing at yourself is always an option too.

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Self-Compassion Is the Path Out of Mom Guilt and Into a Better World

“Am I a bad mom . . . ”

I cannot tell you how many times I have sent texts starting with this phrase to friends when life feels like a mess. I’ve seen countless posts in Facebook moms groups that start this way too. These questions about one’s quality as a mother may finish with anything from missing a child’s school event because of work, to forgetting a child’s lunch when rushing out the door, or even for far less dire things like bringing store bought treats to the bake sale. When I ask the question myself, I usually couch it as a joke, though I am seeking some level of real-world affirmation or at least sympathy from my friends. So, when I see other moms ask this question, my answer is always “no” and I’m usually part of a chorus of other moms who, in unison, proclaim “hell no!”

I’m glad these supports are out there. I appreciate it when my loved ones come to my aid when I get down on myself. But I hate seeing so much evidence that wonderful women are seriously considering whether they are good mothers every time life happens. I’ve struggled with this myself in the past and occasionally still do. In fact, mom guilt is why I started meditating in the first place. I had it so bad when my first daughter was born that I developed post-partum depression and it took years to work out of my self-judgmental tendencies. How did I do it? Self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the way out of mom-guilt. Am I saying it is the only way? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that moms, and parents for that matter, are doing far more on their own than they have ever done before. Our modern culture has lost many of the supports for parents we enjoyed in more traditional times. Unfortunately, legal and social networks in the United States have not progressed to fill in the gap with things like paid family leave and corporate cultures that really walk the walk in terms of respecting the demands of working caregivers. As a society, we’ve got to do better for moms and caregivers overall.

But self-compassion isn’t at odds with that. Self-compassion is what we can do right now to care for ourselves in the imperfect world in which we live. It’s not a vague platitude to “make time for self-care”. Rather, it’s a practice that you can bring into your life to care for yourself even when you have no time. More importantly, the practices are based on traits we all have as humans, so we can all cultivate them with subtle shifts in mindset and practice.

So what is self-compassion? It’s the same compassion you offer to everyone else in your life. The only difference is that you offer it to yourself. Compassion is nothing more than presence with suffering and the willingness to help. Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. breaks down the elements as (1) awareness/mindfulness; (2) kindness; and (3) common humanity. If anyone understands compassion, it’s moms. For cultural reasons and maybe because our time and energy are often so short, the hard part is factoring ourselves in.

How can moms bring in self-compassion to reduce mom guilt? They just need to remember one rule: self-compassion is always the answer. By that, I don’t mean the only answer but it’s always the first response. I bet this sets off all sorts of alarm bells and “buts” and “what ifs” in your mind. So let me break it down.

First, let’s start with the easy one: a situation where you feel guilty or bad about your performance as a mom, but your better angels (and maybe loved ones) are telling you that you didn’t do anything wrong. As an example, maybe you were tickling your child and they fell back and hurt themselves. It’s totally normal to get down on yourself about this situation but it’s not really something morally bad, is it? I mean, it’s actually good that you were playing with your child, right? So why the bad feelings? Because our brains are trained to react to bad things and assign blame. If there’s no one else around, we are the only targets. So we blame and attack ourselves. The problem is, of course, that our kids being hurt causes pain for us too. We may comfort our kids in that situation, but who’s comforting us?

That’s where self-compassion comes in. We can use awareness to recognize that we hurt too. We can offer ourselves care just by experiencing the pain and reminding ourselves that all we can do is our best. And we can remember the common humanity: how many parents across time and the world have done the same thing? We aren’t alone in this struggle. It’s a human struggle. We aren’t bad at life; life is hard. Going through this process feels a lot better than guilt and it keeps the mind rooted in the present so it doesn’t go down the path of blame, shame, and rumination about the past.

Now, you are probably thinking: “Hold your horses on all of this self-compassion business. If I did something wrong, I deserve a kick in the ass.” Yeah, I struggled with this one too. It’s true that even us moms screw up sometimes. We lose our cool. We make bad choices. We say and do hurtful things to people we love. You know why that is? Because we are not superheroes, or saints, or martyrs, or TV moms with a makeup artist just outside of camera view. We are humans. And humans make mistakes.

Guess what? When we humans make mistakes, we get a kick in the ass in the form of consequences and bad feelings. As an expert at losing my cool with my kids, I can tell you I always get payback. They react to my anger with anger and bad conduct that I have to eventually control. And then I get treated to a nice tepid bath of shame and regret. In those situations, I don’t really need to pile on by kicking myself while I am down. Instead, what I really need is to restore calm, forgive myself, recognize what caused the problem, make amends, and move forward.

Will nasty internal comments help me do that? Hell no. So I have learned to recognize instead that parenting is hard, that I do a lot, that my limits get tested and pushed every day, and that me breaking sometimes is what most other moms and parents around the world experience too. Then I remember how good I am, how much I love my kids, tell myself I can do better, and go apologize. In the process, I remind myself that I deserve forgiveness and teach my kids that, instead of hiding from our mistakes, we own them and fix them.

And what if it’s more complicated? What if the causal chain of your screw up is mish-mashed up with someone else’s or that of society at large? I’d argue that this category comprises the vast majority of the incidents that may trigger your feelings of guilt. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a complex social system and are subject to all the restrictions and mores and whims that entails. How on earth could we possibly distill our role in a situation, with the aim of doing better next time, if we don’t employ clear vision and a relatively friendly attitude towards ourselves? We can’t.

This complexity, of course, leads to something even bigger:  the reality that self-compassion isn’t even just about us and isn’t something we necessarily have (or ought) to do alone. It isn’t about coddling ourselves or giving ourselves a pass on our nonsense. Rather, it’s about adding a baseline level of comfort so that we can face the cold hard facts about ourselves and the world in which we are living. When we can do that, we are more likely to foster and rely on relationships that can support us through hard times. Through this process, we become stronger, healthier, happier, and we can offer our kids, teams, and communities so much more. Because when we learn to pick ourselves up when we fall, forgive our own mistakes, and take care of our own pain, we find new courage to reach higher, take risks, and face the pain of others and the world.

Self-compassion is therefore not just the way out of mom guilt. It is one of the steps we can each take to make a better world. Imagine what might happen if, all of a sudden, 90% of moms didn’t feel guilty but instead knew that they were good, kind, loving, strong, and resilient? Rather than asking whether they are good or bad, those moms would ask two much better questions over and over again: “what do I need?” and “how can I help?”

For more resources on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s work which is linked above or our Guided Meditation for Caregivers.

For more discussion on the topic of mom guilt and self-compassion, check out the Instagram Live I did with Mom Life and Law podcast host and lawyer, Megan Whiteside.

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Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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What Dry January Taught Me about Alcohol, Mindfulness, and Shame

I successfully did Dry January this year but it taught me a surprising lesson about shame. No, I have not been living under a rock. I know about Brene Brown. I watched the Netflix special. Yes, it was amazing. I’ve read many of her books. I know that the research says that shame can steal our power and keep us in a box. But it’s one thing to read or hear about a concept and another to live it, feel it, and understand it as you do.

I had experienced shame before this year, so it was not necessarily a new thing for me. But in general, the feeling was so intense and unmistakable that I could not ignore it. The shame I learned about after doing Dry January, however, was different. It was subtle. It was like a ghost in a haunted house that left signs of its presence but would disappear into the ether when you looked for it. It was not a big, bold feeling for me, but instead the faintest of senses that told me that I shouldn’t think too deeply (or even at all) about my drinking. It is for this reason that I had to try Dry January before I could properly diagnose my own condition: I had been ashamed that my use of alcohol had become so habitual.

For months before January, 2021 rolled around, I had been bored with alcohol. Literally bored. Still, I kept finding myself going to the fridge to grab a beer at the end of the day as if by compulsion. Like most people, I had come to associate alcohol with fun and relaxation. Those things being in short supply during the pandemic, my consumption of alcohol increased to fill this gap. Since I hardly ever needed to drive, there were usually very few reasons to say no either. So my habit became regular and stayed regular even after I started to be concerned about it.

But to be “concerned” about one’s own consumption of alcohol raises all kinds of issues, doesn’t it? If one is “concerned” about one’s use of alcohol, then it raises the question about whether one needs to stop. And we know that if one needs to stop, then they have a ”problem” with alcohol and they must stop totally and forever, full stop. Right? Furthermore, if I—a meditation teacher who espouses the values of mindfulness at every turn—could not control my own use of alcohol, what kind of teacher would I be? And don’t even get me started about what kind of lawyer I might be if I can’t even control myself.

As it turns out, I am just the human kind. Despite eight years of meditation, I’m not enlightened yet and I have cravings just like everyone else. My meditation practice certainly helped me maintain stability during the pandemic but I don’t think anything could make living through a pandemic easy for any of us. Ultimately, though, it was my meditation practice that helped me get out of this mess.

Though shame and anxiety about alcohol kept making my mind force concerns about it to the side, basic awareness helped me wake up. I love beer, but I started to notice that it didn’t seem to taste as good. That helped me to see that I wasn’t really getting the enjoyment I was seeking when I went to grab one from the fridge. I also noticed that many days I would make a secret goal not to get a beer, but find myself walking to the fridge anyway. This helped me see that I was not a terrible out of control mess, but rather just someone who developed less than ideal habits while stuck at home social distancing.

When I started to examine my beer drinking nonjudgmentally as a habit, rather than an inherent character flaw, it made me curious. Rather than worry about having to quit for all time and what that might imply about me, I instead started to wonder whether I could just change what I was doing. I had never tried Dry January before, but found myself in a Dry January Facebook group in December. Reading the posts and stories of other members helped normalize what I had experienced and it actually made me excited to try. As it happened, I had already signed up for a virtual meditation retreat for the weekend of New Years Eve. Having done this retreat before, I knew that I would refrain from drinking during the retreat. That was an ideal time to start, since the first few days of any new habit program are always the hardest.

To my surprise, when I returned from the retreat, it was easier than I had expected to just not drink. I had helped myself out on this by removing all the beer from the fridge because I knew I would be very unlikely to be so desperate that I drank a warm beer. Even so, I only occasionally had thoughts about drinking and I was able to avoid it by just doing something else, like playing with my kids, meditating, or working out. I also found other tasty things to drink, like hot tea with honey or seltzer water to satiate my hankering for bubbles. In other words, I learned that I wasn’t totally out of control when it came to alcohol. Rather, I had just needed to disrupt my habit of not exerting any control when it came to alcohol. Dry January gave me the chance to experiment with that and see what happened when I just gave myself a reason to say “no” for a while.

Did this experience drastically change my life? Not really, but it improved it. The most significant change was that I slept better. Sleeping better, in turn, helped me get up earlier, focus better, have more energy, and get more done. I liked that so much that, before the end of January, I committed to 300/65 – which means that I would only consume alcohol on 65 days for the rest of the year. In short, while I had been previously afraid to put restrictions on my use of alcohol before, because I didn’t want to think about that might mean, the reality was that the restrictions supported me and improved my life.

I was so surprised by this that I found myself doing something else entirely surprising: I wrote about my experience with Dry January on social media. Not only were people not judgmental; they were supportive and curious. In response to this, one contact reached out and told me to read Quit Like a Woman. I started it soon after and it helped me better understand my own experience. In the book, the author traced her own struggles with drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and how she used a gradual approach coupled with self-care practices, including yoga, meditation, and therapy to eventually lead a sober life.

I was not surprised in the least that meditation was among the author’s toolkit, but I had never heard anyone before suggest that one could adopt a reducetarian approach to alcohol. Everything I had ever heard about sobriety before was that you either were or you weren’t and there was no in between. In the same way, I had never consciously considered the possibility that a life without (or with less) alcohol might be better. As the author argued, I saw that I perhaps had been unwittingly affected by the negative and one-sided portrayals of recovery in TV and movies and the marketing efforts of the alcohol industry.

I did not think the book was perfect. I disagreed with the author often but it shared something about alcohol that I was finally ready to hear: a new way of thinking about it. Rather than considering whether alcohol and I just don’t mix, I learned that the better question was whether I was living my life the way I really wanted to live it? As it turns out, I already had everything I needed to make a change. Just like QLAW recommends, I got curious and let myself experiment and observe how alcohol affected me, I was open to a gradual approach, and I had already established a toolkit of self-care practices, including meditation, to help me deal with stress or cravings or bouts of self-doubt. In short, neither Dry January nor QLAW convinced me that I needed to entirely quit alcohol but they both made it clear that if I was going to examine my habits and build a better life I first had to quit shame.

To learn more about this subject, check out the IG Live I did with contributing author Loren VanDyke Wolff on the subject of alcohol, habits, mindfulness, and shame.

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Why You Should Add Self-Compassion to Your List of New Years Resolutions

This blog post was originally published for MothersEsquire in 2020. A year later it still resonates so I edited it slightly to update and have republished here.

I know you are ready to go. It’s a new year, and after a year like 2020, you are ready to make 2021 your year. Your resolutions are made. Your motivation is high. You’re going to achieve those goals come hell or high water.

Except, you’re a lawyer, right? You know that high water inevitably will come. The energy and momentum of January quickly fades into the gray doldrums of February. I don’t know if it’s Valentine’s day or what but that month just has a way of turning those resolutions made only weeks before into regrets. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here; I’m honestly not. I think it’s awesome that we humans want to improve and grow each year and I do not want to get in your way. I’m only suggesting, in the humblest of humble opinions, that perhaps it might be good to have a backup plan.

I’m not talking about lowering standards or even managing expectations. I want you to dream big and to go big in 2021. But, while high standards can lead us to great things, they can also send us pretty low if we don’t get the results we want. So, the question is this: how do you get the best of both worlds? Can you set high goals without setting yourself up for failure?

In my experience, you can as long as you use self-compassion. “Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Are you seriously telling me I just need to be nice to myself?” Yes. Yes, I am. You—yes you!—need to be nice to yourself. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now and I’m fine with that. But hear me out. Did you know that self-compassion has been studied? There is this awesome researcher named Kristin Neff. She’s super smart and has studied self-compassion for over a decade. You know what she’s found? She’s found that people who treat themselves with compassion are more likely to exhibit resilience in the face of challenges and, thus, more likely to achieve goals. One of the reasons this is true is that people who act with self-compassion tend to view a failure or a setback as a learning experience, rather than an indication of their personal worth. In short, self-compassion is a buffer that can help high-achieving people from taking goals (and themselves) too seriously.

It’s compelling stuff, but it leads to another question: how does one learn to respond with self-compassion? This is a fair question. After all, it is one of the easiest things in the world to get down on yourself when you don’t achieve a goal that’s important to you. Clearly, you would have achieved the goal if you were good enough, or worked hard enough, or were more committed, or wanted it more, etc., right??? Well, no, it’s not that clear. For us lawyer moms, life is rarely clear. We are trying to manage our lives, our families, our practices, and—on top of that—achieve new goals and grow. That’s not easy. It’s really hard.

So let’s make this simple. Here’s an easy test to help you determine if you are reacting with self-compassion. I call it the “best friend” test. All you do is think of your best friend. Imagine that your best friend comes to you with the exact same problem in which you find yourself. Now, think of how you would respond to your best friend. Let’s say your best friend wants to exercise at least 3 times a week but has struggled because she’s been dealing with family issues and a busy time at work. How would you respond to her? I bet you’ll find it is easy to be compassionate with her. Now, all you have to do is recognize that it’s you who deserves that love too. If you really struggle with this, just call your best friend and listen to what they have to say. When you have this kind of support, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever life wants to throw at you, even the gray doldrums of February.

In 2021, I hope you have some amazing goals for yourself and I hope you crush them. As you go about conquering the world, though, be nice to yourself. If you need any more help doing that, here are some resources that you might find useful:

  • For a quick overview of Neff’s research, check out this interview of her on the Ten Percent Happier podcast.
  • For research, tools, and free compassion guided meditations, check out Neff’s website.
  • For more in-depth discussion of Neff’s research on self-compassion, check out her book.

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