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  • Nicole Vykoukal, LCSW

Self-Compassion for My Limbic System: A Lesson Learned from My Dog

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I was in my mid-twenties and in graduate school. On a breezy spring morning, my dog, Lucy, and I were out for our usual morning walk when we came across a white, plastic bag caught on some vines and billowing in the wind.

Instantly, Lucy went on alert. Her ears perked up, her nose twitched in the breeze, and she focused intently on this foreign object. When the bag began to rustle in the breeze, the hair on Lucy’s back stood up and she began barking. I attempted to keep walking with her, but she was frozen in place.

My first thought was, “Oh come on, silly girl, it’s just a plastic bag and I’ve got to get to class, let’s go.”

Suddenly, empathy swept over me. I reminded myself that Lucy doesn’t know what a plastic grocery bag is used for. Plus, she is a herding dog, intelligent, with a sense of protection deep in her blood. She is alert and a little high strung. These qualities are not faults in herding dogs, they are strengths.

I felt compassion for Lucy’s fearful reaction as I put myself in her “shoes.” I would feel scared too if I saw an alien object inflated and dancing in the distance. I understood she wasn’t trying to be stubborn. A danger alarm had gone off in her brain. I gently and slowly coaxed Lucy, giving her treats as we approached the bag, and her fear began to dissipate. Soon, she realized everything was okay and we were on our merry way.

Later that day, I had an insight. I was pretty sure that Lucy did not spend the rest of the day judging herself for acting on a false alarm. It was an aha moment to realize I was loving and compassionate toward Lucy’s primal, instinctual fear, but not so compassionate when it came to my own primal, instinctual, limbic system responses such as fear, anger, jealously, or sadness. In humans, we call these limbic responses “emotions.”

Although people’s brains differ from dogs’ brains, there are also many similarities. Dogs and humans both have a limbic system that regulates emotions such as fear, rage, anxiety, and grief. These emotions are a means to survival, your body’s way of alerting you to possible danger or threat.

There is so much emphasis on being logical and not too emotional, that we often become vigilant about suppressing our emotions. We smile and pretend everything is fine. We internalize the belief that we cannot trust our primal instincts and use the thinking part of our brain (frontal cortex) to judge ourselves for having mid-brain activity such as emotions.

Although we don’t want our behaviors to be ruled by emotions or use emotions to justify destructive actions, it is important to pause and note what an emotion may be signaling.

Consider jealousy. Although you don’t necessarily want to act out of jealousy, it could be arising because on a primal level you sense an important resource is at risk (finances, love, companionship, your co-parent etc.). Even if you think about it and conclude your limbic system (emotions) may have sent a false alarm, you can still thank your limbic system and emotions for having your survival in mind. You can apply this type of self-compassion to any emotion.

Approaching emotions in a curious manner and recognizing hidden wisdom in an emotion, can help you resolve inner conflict. This compassionate approach to your complex emotions can help you feel more whole and live in way that is congurent to your true needs and desires.

Going forward, see if you can stay curious regarding your level of self-compassion and understanding of emotions. Think of emotions you have experienced at certain times and what the emotion may have been trying to tell you. Try treating yourself with the same compassion and understanding that you have for your companion animal and best friend.

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