We all know the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This is preached to us as children and we are reminded of this rule throughout our adult lives as well. It is usually meant to direct us toward being nice, respectful and compassionate towards others. But, guess what? IT GOES BOTH WAYS, MY FRIENDS!
Life is full of wonderful experiences, but it has it’s difficulties as well. When someone you care about is in pain, be it physically or mentally, you naturally have compassion. Compassion is concern for the pains or misfortunes of others and it’s in our nature to feel compassion. If your child falls and hurts himself, you naturally want him to be out of pain. If you hear that a friend is in the hospital, unemployed, or going through a divorce, you probably feel for her and hope that everything will be alright. Compassion is an important part of the neural and psychological systems that have evolved in humans to nurture children, mate, and hold together the interdependent societies we create for ourselves. It’s easy to have compassion towards others. We’re hard-wired for it. It is not however, so easy to exercise this same compassion towards ourselves. The problem here is that it is just as important to be compassionate towards ourselves as it is to be towards others, if not more important!
I’ll explain why it may be more important to exercise compassion towards ourselves a bit later. Hang with me for now though … because we need to be crystal clear about something here: self-compassion is NOT self-pitty.
Compassion means you’re simply recognizing that “gee, this is a tough situation I am in” or “the way this set of circumstances is playing out really makes me sad (or mad, frustrated etc.) and I have every right to feel that way.” I cannot tell you how important the second part of that statement is. You must validate your feelings, and not just the pretty ones either … all feelings! Validate though, don’t ruminate. Validating simply means acknowledging the feeling is there, real and justified. Ruminating involved really focusing on your distress to the point where you cannot think of much else. Validate, don’t get stuck ruminating.
Validating: Everyone feels sad, mad, angry, frustrated and scared sometimes. You might be thinking “not me” but let me tell you that the term “everyone” includes you too! We often learn that we shouldn’t feel certain emotions or that it’s not safe to feel them but in reality, every feeling we have is legitimate and denying them doesn’t make them go away. They stay inside and fester. Ew. Fester. Doesn’t sound pretty, and it’s not.
If you are having a hard time, or experiencing a difficult or uncomfortable emotion, give yourself the same warmhearted wish for pain to lessen that you would give to others! As long as you combine compassion with action and don’t get stuck ruminating, I promise this will not lead to wallowing in self-pitty all day long as you may be fearing it will. It sounds a bit paradoxical, but acknowledging, validating, and having a little self-compassion actually helps us move through difficult feelings and situations, draw our attention away from discomfort and gets us along with the rest of our day.
Leary and Neff (2009) found that self-compassion has many benefits including:
– Reduction of self-criticism.
– Lowering of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream.
– Increased ability to self-soothe and provide oneself with encouragement and motivation.
Self-compassion also helps heal any shortages of caring from others that may have occurred in early childhood and increases overall resilience. This increase in resilience is important for busy parents because it can help you be more tolerant of your children’s actions and reactions that may leave you feeling depleted or frustrated (yes, those are very normal feelings and no, you are not “bad” parents!) Studies have also shown that self-compassion comes easier later in life to adults who had a particularly well-nurtured childhood. Be there for yourself so that you can be there for your children. I cannot say this enough times. Be there for yourself so that you can be there for your children. This is why I argue that self-compassion may be more important than our compassion for others. We can’t have the later without the former. If we can’t be compassionate with ourselves it actually trumps our ability to be present for, and emotionally available to those around us.
Now that we’ve established that a little self-compassion can go a long way, how do we practice this? Self-compassion comes naturally for some people, but it can be a difficult thing to cultivate, particularly for those who are self-driven, overly forbearing, or hold the belief that it is self-indulgent to be compassionate towards oneself. Here are some steps you can take to cultivate a little self-compassion inside your heart:
– Acknowledge your difficulties and challenges. This does NOT make you weak or whiny. It actually means you are quite courageous and strong because you are doing the difficult thing, which is acknowledging uncomfortable emotions. Bravo to you!
– Think about how you would talk to a friend in your shoes. What would you tell them? Chances are if you struggle with being compassionate towards yourself what you tell yourself inside that mind of yours is not that same thing you would tell your dear friend who was having a tough time. Treat others the way your would like them to treat you AND treat yourself the way you would like to be treated as well!
– Bring to mind your difficulty and speak to yourself the same way you would speak to this friend of yours. If you have to imagine that you are talking to them and not yourself, that’s OK. If it feels better to imagine this the other way around, picture your friend expressing care and compassion for you. Is that a good feeling? Maybe, maybe not? Just notice how it feels and try not to judge your experience. This is counter-productive! This is your process, and your journey. Let it be what it is. With some patience and an open mind you will figure out what works for you.
– Once you have figured out which visualization techniques work for you, extend the same sense of compassion you extend or wish to extend to others toward yourself. Say to yourself: May this pain pass. May things improve for me. May I feel less upset over time. Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties, some wish for things to get better. Feel this compassion sinking into you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you! Doing this is not over-indulgent.
As long as you’re combining compassion with action, you’re not ruminating and you will not get stuck on this negative emotion. You are human, just like the rest of us. We all go through difficult times and we all feel sad, mad, angry etc. One of the best ways to help build resilience is to acknowledge difficulties when they arise and have some compassion toward yourself. This will help you move through the situation and all the feelings that come with in. In the end you will actually feel better more quickly! Give it a try and make sure you use the three times rule. Try something three times before you decide it’s useless, lame, whatever. If you really but into this idea and practice being compassionate towards yourself, it will help you feel better within a few times of practicing.
Lots of warmth and good vibes to everyone today!