compassion or indulgence???
As I type this I wonder if my life would have been just a bit easier if I had been a bit more compassionate to myself, would I have been less stressed? Would I have been able to manage life’s challenges and demands with less of an emotional strain on myself? I do not suppose I will ever know the answer to that however, I am able to see if going forward if by being more compassionate to myself am I able to rewire these aspects of my life which are problematic. I used to think I ‘did not have time’ to be compassionate to myself. Being kind did not equate to my view of the world. I had a demanding job – they were not kind to me why would I be kind to me? It was all about performance and delivery 24/7. At the same time I was trying to be the best mum I could and that did not leave room for me to be kind to myself, we were building a house and trying to create our home (courtesy of the vision in my head that was something like all the best bits of Gardeners World and Grand Designs). I regraded self-compassion as something that would arrive another day in the future, certainly not then as I simply did not have time. Looking back, it was simply madness … an illusion. If I am being really honest, I also regarded being compassionate to myself as an indulgence, the furthest I permitted myself to go was watching 1 hour of Grey’s Anatomy every week. That was my act of kindness to myself (it lost its drive when Dr Dreamy died).
There are so many quotes on self-kindness, we can all choose which one resonates with us the best. Mine – well it has to be Audre Lorde “I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent … Caring for myself is an act of survival’. Whatever definition you choose it has to mean something that helps you value yourself more.
Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most to become our own inner ally rather than enemy. Typically we do not treat ourselves as we would treat others or our family. We must all have heard the rule ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Imagine if that saying went ‘Do unto others as you do unto yourself’ – ouch – does that make you feel a little uncomfortable – don’t worry if it did because there are millions of others in the same boat.
Imagine your child or a friend speaks to you after college saying they did not get the grade they hoped they would. Just take a second to imagine what you would say and write it down. I suspect it would say something like – don’t worry, these things happen, I know it’s important to you, how can I help to make sure it does not happen again as I know you need the grades to get your qualification’ … Now change the person who has failed – this time it is you - what would you say to yourself? ‘Really, seriously how useless are you if you had tried harder you would have got a better mark. You are a waste of space … you do not deserve a place at college’, so often we are our own inner critic instead of our ally. Being self-compassionate does not mean being indulgent … ‘I am going to sit here all day eat Ben and Jerries and watch TV, because I deserve that day after day’. The motivation for self-compassion arises from love while the motivation of self-criticism comes from fear. Being self-compassionate is about challenging that inner critic and using the understanding that love is greater than fear.
If you are reading this then it is possible you are at a point whereby you are wondering if your approach and attitude could benefit from a change because you may not be persuaded your old ways of doing things are of value to you now. Edith Eger in her brilliant book ‘choices’ makes this point so elegantly. Her life was quite simply a living nightmare very few of us can ever really comprehend. She was a young Jewish girl who, during the second world war was sent to a concentration camp. He father and mother were murdered within hours of arriving at the camp. Edith and her sister survived this ordeal whilst so many others perished. Edith came out of this experience to become a world renowned psychotherapist whose words and reflections are inspirational. I suspect her greatest achievement has been to learn to be compassionate to herself, to look to the here and now not her past, learn to live in the moment and to not be defined by the past - wow. If you have not read the book then GRAB A COPY, don’t expect to find a ripping yarn, but do expect to be profoundly challenged and changed by her messages. Even my dad has been silenced reading it !
I have always wondered why we criticise ourselves and say things to ourselves the majority of us would NEVER EVER think of saying to another. Neurologically we know a couple of things about self-criticism. Firstly, it is rooted in our threat defence system so at some level, bizarrely, our inner critic is trying to change us to keep us safe. It’s just its methods are a bit doggy! Our inner critic is constantly trying to ward off dangers that could cause us harm – so its intentions are good. So when you beat yourself up for procrastinating on that important task we are doing that so we avoid failing as if we fail we might lose our job, be homeless, starve etc etc. The voice can be on little things like ‘I am not good at this, so let’s avoid it to being downright toxic’ ‘You are useless’.
There are also occasions whereby our inner voice does not have our best interests at heart as it has become in the internalised voice of someone from our past who was in some way abusive to us and when I say abusive I mean the whole range emotionally, verbally, physically, sexually in fact any behaviour that when reflected upon was not undertaken in our best interests. Their voice becomes the voice that maintains our fear and cycle of self-criticism.
Finally the inner critic can often fall into a cognitive (thinking) distortion such as catastrophizing (I will be seriously injured if I do that) or blaming (it’s my fault I can’t do that).
There are so many ways to be kinder to yourself with some of the most meaningful jesters coming from your attitude rather than activities. There is a really important reason to try this because people who experience self-talk that is ruminating on their inadequacies were shown to have an increased likelihood of health problems (Kinderman P, Schwannauer M, Pontin E, Tai S. Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health) or depression (Fiske A, Wetherell JL, Gatz M. Depression in Older Adults)
Recently I embarked on a quest as to how go about doing this self-kindness thing that surely it must be more than having the odd bath every now and then (even if I plonk into the best bubble bath I can afford).
So I discovered to be self-kind can be applied in so many areas of my life, ones I had not really thought of.
New rule for living *1 … don’t beat yourself up
Thoughts - the internal bully. Are you allowing unhelpful thoughts to put yourself and your achievements down? Such a state of mind is not really in keeping with self-kindness because in refusing yourself any margin of error you make your life impossible to manage which sort of hinders self-kindness. So I have been trying a new revolutionary approach using less of an attacking internal voice and it is amazing what a difference it has on you, when you permit yourself to use a more compassionate voice. You may hear yourself saying “Sorry I made a mistake there, is there anything I can do to help sort it out”, or “I am not sure I agree with that, but you are entitled to your opinion”.
New rule for living *2 … Find that inner calm and peace
The second is calmness. Again a little confession I have always been a teeny weeny bit jealous of people who appear to have mastered calmness and peace. As I type this I am having a little inward sigh, I am out with a family member and had said I would be doing a little typing. ½ hour in and now they want to be gone, they are fidgeting in their seat ready to head off and the question springs into my mind “head off to what?” nothing is pressing. I am realising the part of me I have been working really hard on is actually taking root namely I am calmer and in being calmer I am being kinder to myself. My mind is more at ease and that means less stress on my little brain cells. I have developed the saying ‘let me know peace’ and I believe I am beginning to feel peace and calmness … and it is a bit of a surprise to see others who do not possess this skill and a horrifying realising I was like that myself. Rule two being calmer and more peaceful is being mindful to myself.
New rule for living *3 … make time for you
Self-kindness is also about little activities I can do that give me time for me. I have dedicated 1 hour a day, something I thought would never be possible, to me – just me. In this hour I do whatever I want to do, I read, I write my journal, I have a bath, I paint my toe nails (whilst I can still reach!), I wander in and tell HH things about him I like. This is my ‘me time’. Time for me to be kind to me. I have recently dragged out my sewing machine and am starting to explore its many different features, Ok so some of the stuff may not look exactly like the pattern but I enjoy it and so what if the arms of my new dress are a tad tighter than I would like. I am enjoying walking again without the pressure of 100’s of thoughts racing around my head as I walk. Through walking I am engaging with my surroundings. This week (yes I am in Spain so a bit different to the UK) I have seen a tortoise, precariously close to the road so I picked it up and relocated it up the hill, a family of mountain goats racing across the road in front of me and an owl sitting in the road as I returned back home. I share this place and it grounds me to think how small my place really is. So rule three only I can be kind to myself and to be honest I am a fairly important part of the circle I operate in and so being kind is an important thing as it spills into other areas of my life.
New rule for living *4 … replace the inner critic with a question ‘what do I need right now?’
This can seem like an impossible ask. My advice is start with small changes. Think about a behaviour that is really causing you some unhappiness but that is capable of being potentially changeable. A great example might be ‘I am impatient, I do not exercise enough’. Set yourself a challenge every time you want to do this behaviour and hear that inner critic ask the question what do I need right now and is the inner voice helping me achieve that?
Heres an example:
Behaviour - Ok 9 am time to have that walk I promised myself every day
Inner critic: Really, you want to walk now? It’s quite cold out there, there is a programme you taped last night you can watch’ you know how quickly the day flies by, just leave that walk until tomorrow – you can definitely fit it in then…
Reply: What do I need to know and is the inner voice helping me? Well really I need to go for my walk because I know it will make me feel better and although its cold I do have a coat I can stick on. If I walk, I will feel really proud of myself and I know if I do it for over four week’s I am more likely to keep at it. SO no the voice is not helping me and anything it is saying I can still do later AFTER my walk, in fact that TV programme will feel a real treat after my walk !
Recognising the inner voice is the first step in not listening to it. If you can realise it is coming with a crass attempt at keeping you safe or the voice of someone from your past you are really 90% of the way towards replacing it with a more compassionate voice.
I think tackling that inner voice is a really important action to be able to do so in my next blog I will look at the skills of identifying your critical voice and replacing it.