A field guide to self-compassion
Four words changed the trajectory of my life. No, those four words were not “will you marry me?”
I had just finished my weekly Pilates class and we were chit-chatting and gathering up our belongings. Somebody said, in response to someone else, “I am practising self-compassion”. At that moment, a bright, beam-like light turned on in my brain.
I had never considered self-compassion — there was no link in my brain between the words “self” and “compassion” — and it sounded so indulgent like a day at the spa. Nonetheless, I made a mental note and filed it away for future reference, on my “100 places to see or things to do before I die” list.
I have since learned that self-compassion is an easy concept to explain, but challenging to implement. It involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time. Our culture emphasizes being kind to friends, family members and those who are struggling — but it does not emphasize being kind to ourselves.
We have hectic lives
Like many of you, my life was GO, GO, GO with lots of pressure that I thought I thrived on. My name could have been Adrenaline for all I knew. Daily success involved finishing my to-do list, that I updated over and over again in a spiral notebook. I filled many notebooks documenting the progress of my life.
I was an entrepreneur working 80+ hours a week in a start-up that eventually grew. I worried 24/7 about expanding the business, making it more successful, maintaining the jobs I had created, and about all the small details I thought made a big difference because that is what entrepreneurs do.
At the same time, I had two children to mother. Being a parent is a transformative experience, but it also brings a lifetime of thinking about their health, behaviour, grades, friends, etc.
But nothing prepared me for my beautiful son’s depression as a teenager and now as an adult, a crushing and unrelenting illness. Parents with children struggling with a mental illness know the concern, worry, and stress, not to mention the guilt and self-blame that we feel. Did I miss a sign? Was it because I had a demanding job? Was what I did somehow not enough? I was heartbroken because no love or healthy meal could fix or help or solve his situation, despite all the resources available.
Then my father died. He was the person I spoke to every day — someone I looked up to and admired for his courage, determination and optimism. I helped care for him during his last few months, travelling weekly at the end of his life to the city where he lived. Grief is a slippery thing. One day you are okay and the next day you are submerged by feelings of sadness and regret that you didn’t get a chance to ask the question to which you now wish you had an answer.
I will spare you more details about the pressures of my life because I know you get the picture; I feel you understand.
The “just do it” society
We all have an inner voice, maybe you call it self-talk or an alter ego. My inner voice kept saying “just do it” and don’t think about anything else. I confronted life’s challenges by being in a perpetual problem-solving mode.
For some our inner voice is a harsh inner critic driving us to be tough on ourselves, beat ourselves up, think we are the only one to have failed, and keeps us trying to do better — to “just do it”.
Others may be living with a spouse or partner with a difficult illness or health challenge. Perhaps you are in a caregiving profession. We can try to block out the effects of caring for someone who is in pain or suffering and “just do it” day after day, but the constant frontline battle can be draining and burnout is real.
You could be struggling with a demanding and unsupportive boss that makes your work life a nightmare. Perhaps you are living the roller coaster of serious financial challenges and stressing because you can never get on top of the situation.
Whatever your situation is, most of us are living a “just do it” reality and struggling forward with our lives.
Our coping mechanisms
I accepted the pressures of my job and my caregiver role for a long while because I was raised with the expectation that I should work hard and help others and “just do it”. Period.
My self-care included eating healthily, exercising moderately, relying on supportive friends and family, and at the end of every day a glass or two of wine. The wine softened the hard edges of the day but eventually contributed to my insomnia and affected my health.
Insomnia had become a huge problem and I knew to start sleeping and get my health back, I had to cut down on my wine habit. Sounds easy, but it was hard with no shortage of online advice for me to try.
Once I finally did cut down — and the brain fog subsided, and I started sleeping and feeling better — I came face to face with my “just do it” life and the conditioning to work hard and take care of others.
It took a long time, but the moment arrived and those four words that I had heard many months before, and sounded so comforting, came back to me and I knew, reluctantly at first, this is where I had to go: Self-Compassion.
On the road to a place called self-compassion
Getting here has been a long road that I have travelled along for over 6 months. In my case, slowly I realized that we cannot take care of others, let alone the suffering world, if our empathy and love for others are not grounded in self-compassion. I have also learned that the tough “just do it” voice does not provide a sustainable path to achievement and personal happiness.
Whatever your own story is, research-based evidence indicates that the benevolent inner voice of self-compassion works to shift your mindset to a more positive place. It provides you with more confidence, resilience and belief in your abilities. It lowers levels of depression and anxiety. For me, it provided the space I needed. It takes practice, being a little kinder to yourself is not easy, but like any skill the more you practice the better you get.
While my journey has just begun, I have been particularly helped by two trip advisors.
Dr Kirsten Neff is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research and started conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion over 15 years ago. She has at least two books on self-compassion -you can learn more here and assess how self-compassionate you are here.
I have re-entered the world in a new place. It’s interesting but unfamiliar terrain, and I am still looking around — but so far, I like what I see. If your journey is similar or difficult, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to self-compassion, and I wish you a happy stay.