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Ask the Expert: Russell Kolts on self-compassion, mindfulness, and managing difficult emotions

It’s completely normal to feel heightened emotions like anger or anxiety when we’re frustrated or nervous. Rather than letting those feelings take over, there are a few simple coping methods we can all use to stay calm and prevent situations from escalating. Russell Kolts, PhD, joined our Ask the Expert webchat today to explain these techniques and answer user questions about mindfulness, self-compassion, and controlling our emotions. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University, where he has taught for the past eighteen years. Kolts has authored or coauthored numerous books and scholarly articles, including The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger, and has pioneered the application of compassion-focused therapy (CFT) to the treatment of problematic anger. An internationally recognized expert in CFT, he regularly conducts trainings and workshops on compassion and CFT, and has appeared in his own TEDx Talk.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Russell. For our French users, we ran a similar webchat with leadership development specialist, Geneviève Desautels, which you can access here. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous and confidential.

Silencing our inner critics

QUESTION — “I talk negatively to myself a lot. It’s usually related to the quality of my work or my intelligence. I’ve been this way since I was very young. How do I counteract it?”

Russell Kolts — “Thanks for this question. This is a problem that many of us have. There are lots of ways that we can learn these negative things about ourselves; often it’s because we’ve been criticized by others and have internalized their voices. When this happens, we can continue to have these self-critical thoughts and take them to be ‘truth,’ or feel like they are coming from us, forgetting that they are an echo of a previous experience that has nothing to do with the current moment.

The tricky bit is that once we’ve got that critical version of ourselves in there, there’s no easy way to get rid of it. But the good news is that we don’t have to get rid of it. We just need to change our relationship to the self-critic by learning to recognize when it is chiming in, and trying not to take what it’s saying so seriously…. sort of how we might relate to a well-meaning but fairly daft friend who gives us bad advice!

While we can’t drive away the self-critic, one thing we can do is work to cultivate an alternative, compassionate inner voice. Here are some tips for doing that:

  • Imagine, ‘What would someone who really accepted, loved, and wanted to help me say to me right now? How might they validate, support, and encourage me?’
  • Imagine, ‘How might I validate, support, and encourage someone else who was in the same situation?’ And then try to offer that same support to yourself.
  • Remind yourself that this critical voice isn’t helpful; there’s no need to cling to it. And try to imagine what would be helpful in assisting you to meet the challenges of this situation.

The key is not to drive out the critical thoughts (fighting them only makes them stronger) but to notice them, try to release them, and cultivate more compassionate ways of relating to yourself.”

Finding effective affirmations

QUESTION — “What are your thoughts on listening to positive affirmations for self-confidence? Are there any specific ones that you would recommend?”

Russell Kolts — “Great question. I just saw a study on this the other day! Positive affirmations can be helpful, but only if we believe them, or experience them as helpful. If not, they can slide right off of us (feeling trite, or silly, or ooey-gooey with no substance). At worst, they can prompt self-criticism as we think, ‘but I’m not really like that…’

So my advice in seeking helpful affirmations would be to consider that version of you that struggles, that feels threatened, a lack of confidence, or whatever, and consider, ‘What would that version of me need to feel encouraged? What would be helpful for them to hear? What sort of encouragement would feel real and helpful?’ The answer to those questions should give a clue to what sort of affirmations would help.

For me, affirmations that feel real are those linked to my positive intentions (‘You really are trying to do your best to be helpful.’) and which are soothing (‘It makes sense that you would struggle with this. Don’t beat yourself up.’) and which direct me toward helpful action (‘What might be helpful in working with this?’). So the idea is to find things that feel real and helpful to you, as this will likely be different for everyone.”

Learning to love work, despite the stress

QUESTION — “Could you give us some advice on how we can be happier with our jobs — particularly, in moments when we are under stress? Thanks!”

Russell Kolts — “Great question! A few tips:

  • First, in moments of stress, try to shift away from the racing thoughts that are likely fueling your sense of stress, and take a few minutes to slow down your breath (4-5 seconds on the in breath, and then 5-6 seconds on the out breath). This will slow down your body, which will help slow down the mind. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of breath work.
  • Secondly, see if you can find ways to connect your work with your values. Even if we don’t enjoy many of the duties in our job, we can find ways to bring our values – the things that are important to us – alive in terms of how we do the job. Doing even something we don’t like with the motivation to be helpful to others that matter to us can help.
  • Thirdly, see if it’s possible to talk to yourself in these moments in the same way that you would address a dear friend who you wanted to help. Consider how you might support, validate, and encourage them if they were facing a similar struggle. Then see if you might offer that same support to yourself. Remember to use a kind mental ‘tone of voice!’
  • Finally, we’re much more able to weather stress within a job when we have a happy, healthy lifestyle outside of the job. So I’d encourage you to put some thought into how you can create experiences in your outside life that are fun, involve warm connections with others, help you feel safe and centered, and that you find fulfilling and meaningful.”

Don’t miss our next Ask the Expert session!

If you weren’t able to catch our webchat with Russell Kolts, you can always sign into your LifeSpeak account to read the transcript. And be sure to log in July 17 at noon EST to chat with Joshua Coleman, who will discuss overcoming common relationship challenges. If you don’t have a LifeSpeak account, please have your HR team reach out to us about your company subscribing.

What is Ask the Expert?

Our Ask the Expert sessions allow our users to have regular access to our experts in real time, which allows them to have their pressing questions answered. This opportunity provides our users with practical and easily implemented tips to help them make real changes in their lives. To learn more, don’t hesitate to book a demo.