Even after improving my sleep hygiene, learning how to disengage from worry and anxiety, developing more positive and realistic beliefs about sleep, and getting in the habit of letting myself feel my feelings, I still had trouble sleeping. At this point, I felt like a colossal failure. Here I was, personal and professional development coach and insomnia expert, and I still sometimes had trouble falling and staying asleep. I didn’t panic about it as much as I had in the past, but I still felt like I was missing an important piece of the sleeping puzzle. As it turned out, I was.
I got my first clue to solving the puzzle when I began to notice that sleep was more difficult on days when I had pushed myself hard. Stress is often listed as a cause of sleeplessness, but I found that what affected my sleep was not so much how much I had to do, but how hard I pushed myself to do it. If I worked diligently but still listened to my needs and took my time, took breaks, and made time to have some fun, then I slept fine. If, on the other hand, I pushed myself to be productive in every possible moment, running over and over the to do list in my head obsessively and not letting myself rest until I’d finished every last item on it, then sleep was rather difficult.
Similarly, I found that when I let myself feel good about what I had gotten done, I slept better. When I was hard on myself and felt like I hadn’t done enough, not so much.
My next clue came when I noticed that I was having a harder time sleeping when my Inner Critic was active. When I was plagued by a vague sense of guilt about something I thought I should have done for someone, or when I was hearing tapes in my head about what I’d done wrong, or what I should have done better, I often couldn’t get back to sleep.
The explanation for why I still had trouble sleeping occurred to me one night during a week of particularly poor sleep when I had a sudden insight: I had been treating myself like an abusive college basketball coach. The realization was so sudden and so clear that I immediately began to feel some compassion for myself. Poor thing, having to put up with someone like me! I began to revisit the things I had been hard on myself about and realized that the problem wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong but rather that my expectations were too high. My Inner Perfectionist had grown bold and begun to run amuck. As I got some distance from the ramblings of my Perfectionist, the tension in my belly relaxed. I sank into the truth of the fact that I didn’t have to be perfect and was doing just fine. As I did so, I began to feel a warmth spread through my chest and the unmistakable conviction that all was well in the world took hold. And within a few minutes, I had fallen right asleep.
Self compassion, it seemed, was the final key to sleeping well.
I experimented with this application of self compassion over the next few days and nights, and with amazing consistency, I found that actively practicing self compassion helped me sleep much better. When I took my time and stopped to take care of my needs throughout the day instead of driving myself with an unceasing whip, sleep came easily. When I remembered to pay attention to my Inner Perfectionist and translate its demands into sympathetic and purposeful expectations, I relaxed with ease. And when I took the time to give myself some empathy for what I was going through and any challenges that felt difficult, I would effortlessly drift off to sleep.
My experience was corroborated by my clients who had trouble sleeping. One of my clients, for example, had trouble sleeping most nights. She worked so nonstop that pausing to take a break during the work day often felt like an insurmountable challenge. She found that when she was finally able to slow down and make more time to do the things that she enjoyed, her sleep got better. Showing herself a little compassion went a long way.
We’re taught that problem-solving is best done by the brain. When something goes wrong, we go to our heads to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and solve. While this can be helpful, it’s also incomplete, and there are some problems it will never solve. Sleeping is one of them. We have to enlist our hearts and our bodies to get to the truth of what’s keeping us awake and find ways of being that encourage relaxation and sleep. Paying attention to head, heart, and body, we naturally discover ways to sleep easily and rest deeply.
Read the final post in this series to find out why not sleeping may be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.
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