saru mo ki kara ochiru or ‘even monkeys fall out of trees’ is a Japanese Proverb which means something like ‘nobody is perfect, even experts make mistakes.’ I first heard this from one of my first martial arts teachers, and it’s a message I’ve always loved (not least because I also really love monkeys!) and, I’d like to think, is one of the core messages I have tried to take forward into my life. It’s also probably no surprise that it’s also really relevant to my therapy, coaching and teaching practices.
As I’ve mentioned before, I do quite like memorable quotes and proverbs, because they often allow me to summarise large and difficult concepts in a quick and easy to absorb way. It helps me remember and hopefully use that lesson at the time when I need it. So then, what is the gist of ‘even monkeys fall out of trees’? I’d say that it’s a call to each of us to show compassion. Compassion for others of course, but also for ourselves.
And it is this latter issue – showing self-compassion, that can be very difficult. Anyone with a highly chatty and critical inner voice will know how difficult this is. I am one of those too. I hear that voice all the time telling me:
‘You’re not good enough’,
‘You’re going to f*ck this up’,
‘You should have got further than this’.
I’ve learnt over the years, and through quite a lot of practice, to manage that annoying voice, to acknowledge and accept him, to turn him down a bit when necessary, but sometimes he still shouts quite loudly! Many of the forms of cognitive defusion, mindfulness or ‘noticing’ skills that we teach for example, are there to help us deal with those intrusive, persistent, sticky thoughts, that often turn up as self-criticism.
Self-compassion is a part of many of the cognitive behavioural therapies. I’d say its very prevalent in third-wave therapies such as mindfulness and ACT but turns up in other places too – for example when we look to develop and practice our assertiveness, we are telling the world that our opinion and choices are as valid as anyone else’s, and we have the right to say or act on them. But so does the other person of course, and we explored this previously when we looked at the Gestalt prayer (‘I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine’). If we look at cognitive therapies like REBT, one of the key things we often do is to examine inflexible demands and thinking errors that often come up as things we strongly feel we ‘should’ and ‘must’ do (sometimes called “mustabation”). Helping clients to understand that, most of the time, things they feel they ‘must’ do are frequently not mandatory or essential at all, is helping to guide them towards self-compassion.
So why did I write about this today? Well last night I had a pretty crappy night’s sleep. I’ve had ongoing sleep issues in the past, but I now generally manage this stuff quite well. I’ve had specific training in insomnia and sleep issues, as well as mindfulness and stress management. Actually, the experience has helped me to better work with clients who are also experiencing stress and sleep issues as well. But every now and again, I still have a bad night.
Over the last few weeks’, I have been upping my physical training back to pre-lockdown levels – this can also mean I need a touch more sleep and a bit more food. Yesterday I messed up – I trained hard in the morning and inadvertently probably didn’t eat enough in the evening to recover. Anyone who’s ever tried a strict diet, or has felt very stressed, will probably recognise the familiar jolt awake at around 4.30 am, which is when the stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol start to kick in and there’s also a change in brain activity at this time of day. I’ve noticed over the years that when I’m well fed, I will ride this out without noticing as most of us usually do, as these hormones are just on the usual daily rhythm to get us up for the day. But if I’m not, I can wake up with a start and getting back to sleep can be challenging.
And then of course, once you’re awake, the internal chatter also starts…
‘I’ve got a busy day tomorrow’,
‘I’m only going to get 4 hours sleep now’,
‘You idiot, you should have known better’,
‘You shouldn’t still be dealing with this by now’.
And then anger turns up - anger with yourself. Then you get more aroused because you’re angry and then you’re on a vicious cycle of being up and annoyed until dawn. Before I started my hypnotherapy and resilience training – this happened to me a lot.
Except last night it didn’t. But I’m not going to tell you I drifted straight back off to sleep though either. I didn’t. The internal chatter definitely started. But I noticed those thoughts coming in:
‘Oh ok – here’s my chatty mind doing his thing again’,
‘And now here’s frustration turning up’.
Through a bit of distancing, I was able to remember that everyone makes mistakes, and there was no vicious cycle.
One night’s bad sleep doesn’t make me an insomniac, and it doesn't have to ruin the next day. Its undesirable sure, but it’s rarely catastrophic. I made a mistake yesterday evening, but I can have a good sleep tonight. It was early and the sun was just coming up, so I decided to get up early anyway. No lying-in bed getting annoyed with myself. It’s actually been a good day. Nobody’s perfect. Even monkeys fall out of trees.