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Practicing self-compassion

In last week’s blog I asked us to reflect back on challenges in our lives and identify what strengths carried us though those times. My intent this week was to write in more detail about the topic of character strengths. As the saying goes—“The only constant in life is change”—and with that in mind I’ve decided instead to focus on self-kindness and compassion.

Chances are you set some intentions or goals for yourself and your family as you began this process of sheltering in place; now as we’ve been doing this for over a month things may not be going quite as well as you envisioned. There were days your “to do” list didn’t have one completed task, you missed a deadline for work, you were short tempered and irritable with your kids or spouse, at home schooling is falling short, healthy cooking led way to a few too many PB&J sandwiches or a few too many glasses of wine while cooking, your exercise routine fell to the bottom of the list each day as you miss the structure of classes at the gym or maybe you’re just tired of all this. (I don’t have kids at home and I had high hopes of doing some projects that have been on my wish list for awhile…I’ve done a few, but the rest are still on the list!)

At this point it’s easy to start down the defeating path of negative self-talk and criticism, in other words, beating yourself up. On some level many of us believe that chastising ourselves, cracking the whip, is the best way to get back on track.  

Yet what would it feel like to stop the self-criticism and offer yourself permission to be human? I’m not suggesting giving you permission to let yourself off the hook; rather I’m offering an alternate to self-criticism by suggesting you give yourself some kindness, support and understanding…in other words, self-compassion.

Many of us can easily elicit feelings of compassion for others. Our compassion arises when we recognize another’s suffering and being moved by this suffering we open our hearts, feeling warmth and caring towards them. Essentially, we want to help.

We express our compassion with kindness, tenderness, benevolence, empathy and mercy. We offer others support and understanding when they face personal challenges. We listen as they describe their feelings of disappointment in themselves for not living up to their expectations.

Sadly, what we direct inward is all too often a very different story. We tend to hold back on the kindness we need, viewing self-compassion as self-absorption, self-indulgence, self-centeredness or simply just plain selfishness. We mistakenly think self-compassion is another word for complacency and weakness…an excuse for our shortcomings.

Actually, just the opposite is true. In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristen Neff PhD writes, “self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”

It may help to take a look at where compassion originates. When we feel compassion for others we realize that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience. Cultivating self-compassion allows us to experience self-acceptance, putting ourselves within the circle of that shared human experience.

Having self-compassion means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things don’t always go as planned, you make mistakes and fall short of your ideals. This is our human condition and it is true for all of us.

When we practice self-acceptance we allow ourselves to work towards self-improvement and away from perfectionism. We are more mindful of our connectedness, feeling less alone and isolated in our pursuits. We recognize that we may hit roadblocks or stray along the way AND that’s okay.

Compassion wants health and well-being for others. Isn’t that what we also want for ourselves…vibrant health, feelings of well-being and acceptance of all that makes us who we are…embracing our perfect imperfections. During this uncertain time of health and fear of Coronavirus this is needed now more than ever.

Self-criticism asks, “Am I good enough?” Self-compassion asks, “What’s good for me?”

So please be kind to yourself. Remind yourself to strive towards practice not perfection, offer support rather than judgment, allow room for mistakes, recognize that all growth is a process. If things don’t go as planned, in other words since the process isn’t perfect, we are still okay and we have the choice to try again. Seeing ourselves clearly as vulnerable, fallible beings trying our best gives us the freedom to try, to take chances, to be brave around change and the unknown. This sheltering in place and isolation is new and we are learning to adjust.

As humans we are complicated and messy and wonderful: we have our inner light and we have our darkness. If we are willing, we can learn from our mistakes and setbacks, using that knowledge as the foundation for moving forward.

So when you slip a bit, don’t ask yourself “What is wrong with me?” instead ask “How can I support myself now?”

I’ll end with a favorite quote from Kristen Neff…

“Self-compassion steps in precisely when we fall down, allowing us to get up and try again.”

Good luck this week, be gentle to yourself and thankfully tomorrow is a new day.