It takes some practice, but it’s relatively easy to be compassionate to others. Unfortunately, developing compassion for the self can be far more difficult.
Compassion for others is second nature to me. I understand how much it means to to be listened to deeply and cared about with loving-kindness, and it’s something I offer to others freely. But I’ve had to learn that showing myself compassion is just as important as offering it to others. Self-compassion is what allows us to truly show others compassion.
Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.
During February’s Writing for Resilience workshop I mentioned that I’ve slowly been getting better at self-compassion. One of the participants, my friend, web designer and marketing specialist Susan Preston asked this great question:
How do you make space for self-compassion?
I didn’t have an immediate answer, but here’s what I‘ve come up with after thinking it over for a few weeks.
1. Notice the Need
This happened during a tough spell in my mid-forties:
My father died suddenly, sending me into a time of grief and mourning. I took a week off, but after that was back at work, flying across the country to take care of a major event that I was responsible for.
Six months later my stepmother got hurt in a serious car accident, and I dropped everything to get to her bedside. Piled on top a lifetime of a driven, always busy, and other-focused way of being, this was too much. So what happened?
I developed a long-lasting episode of debilitating back pain. It forced me to slow down and dedicate time and attention (and money) to healing.
New questions came up for me during this time, because, like it or not, I had cleared enough time to make it possible to think of them: Why had I been pushing myself for so hard for so long? I wouldn’t treat someone else that way. Why had I done it to myself?
While considering these questions, I was taking regular yoga classes, absorbing the teachers’ messages, all very different from past messages I’d learned and believed unquestioningly. These new messages were about self-love and self-care, and connecting that to loving and caring others and the world around me.
I saw that treating myself as worthy of attention, kindness and generosity was going to be the key to regaining my health.
These realizations began opening the space for self-compassion, but even with this new awareness, it’s been a slowly evolving process.
2. Notice Your Inner Voice
You shouldn’t talk to yourself like that!
A co-worker gently said that to me some years back, when she overheard me saying out loud something that was very unkindly self-critical. I was shocked to realize I’d said something out loud that was part of a fairly constant stream of negative commentary, courtesy of my inner critic.
Most of us are familiar with our inner critic. It seems to be born of Internalized messages we’ve lived with all our lives. These messages from family, society, media, and institutions influence our beliefs and actions in powerful ways that we often aren’t conscious of.
Wherever it comes from, what I can do to make room for self-compassion is to shift my attention away from that critical voice, and turn toward the voice of my inner encourager. She doesn’t let me off the hook. She holds me accountable, and at the same time accepts and loves me, reminding me that I am whole, that I am enough, and that I continually seek to be my best self.
She celebrates my successes and achievements, shines a light on my strengths and talents, and holds a positive vision of who I am and who I can become.
3. Use Affirmations
Affirmations help talk to ourselves in ways that set up a host of positive responses in our minds and bodies. They remind me of my strengths, and help me create a vision of myself as the person I want to be.
Self-compassionate affirmations focus my attention on how it feels to be that person. They are written in the present tense, using positive language describing what I want to be like, feel or do.
I used these simple, yet powerful affirmations recently:
- I am whole and strong.
- I give help and I receive help.
- I give love, and I am loved.
They also describe my current successes and capabilities.
- You make a difference for others.
- You successfully and kindly declined a volunteer request that would hav been overly stressful.
- You exercised every day this week.
How All This Makes a Difference
I notice myself sleeping better, feeling stronger and more confident, and getting a little better at handling the things that trigger strong negative feelings. Small changes can make a big difference. While these might seem like small steps, I experience them as making quite a difference!
How do you make space for self-compassion?