These past few weeks I’ve reflected on the tools and resources that supported me through the challenges of 2020. All the stressors and obstacles of that year required me to change in ways I never thought possible, but always hoped for. Strangely, in this difficult time I’ve learned to take better care of my heart.
I’ve always valued the idea of “self-compassion,” but struggled to actually provide it for myself in moments where it would have made an impact. When the sun is shining and everything aligns with ease, my self-compassion flows. Yet, when I struggle, make mistakes, or flat out fail, my go-to response is to assume I’m the only nincompoop on the planet making messes and causing pain or hardship. My inner dialog shames me for being dense, taking risks, standing up for myself or even trying in the first place.
Logically, I know that I’m not alone in this downward spiral response, I watch many of my clients and friends use the same harsh voice with themselves. I also know that it’s a terribly unhelpful pattern that warrants breaking, mainly so that we can learn to be kinder to ourselves when we need it most. But that’s just it, it’s a subconscious pattern that we don’t even see happening, until we’re suffering the effects of it.
But what if we could consciously create a new pattern that allows us the space to feel terrible and to fail without the additional guilt and shame heaped on top? What if we could freely learn from our missteps and move forward with a smile and self-respect intact?
Kristen Neff, a leading researcher and writer in the field of self-compassion, describes it as a coming together of three things (and I’m paraphrasing here): (1) Non-judgement. (2) Feeling our feelings. (3) Knowing we’re not alone.
What if, in those moments we feel we’ve messed up, we can silence our inner judge and wade into the waters of compassion? Each one of us already has a deep basin of compassion and empathy inside us. Yes, even you. You may not know it because people typically use it to provide soothing and support for others. However, it can be used for yourself any time. Feel free to take a minute and let that sink in.
It takes practice and maybe even permission to begin the process of turning your love inward. It’s going to benefit you and it’s going to benefit those around you as you inspire them with your self-love. Show them how it’s done, eh?
For me, the upward spiral of self-compassion begins with noticing that I’m struggling in the first place. Begin by paying attention to tension in your body or negative thoughts that signal irritation, frustration, exhaustion, worry or any other stressful situation. When you notice yourself going to a dark place, remind yourself that part of our human experience is to feel big feelings: awesome joy and deep sorrow.
Despite what our (polished and edited) social media profiles and (literally airbrushed) advertising campaigns would have us believe, being human is raw, unpredictable and painful. When you feel the full brunt of life’s challenges, remind yourself that you are not alone.
Now that you’ve achieved your Certificate of Human Normalcy, the next step is tuning in to (instead of the more popular practice of tuning out) your feelings. This is where big change happens; where you listen to your feelings and learn about you and your needs.
Your desires do not automatically make you demanding or selfish. In fact quite the opposite; who would you be if you hid, disguised or bottled up what you needed for happiness and health? A liar? A people pleaser? A robot? No one wants to be any of these things, so, go ahead and be honest.
Once you’ve owned your true feelings, you can step in like a good friend and nurture yourself.
Hear your inner voice empathizing, “this feeling/situation is hard,” “I’m angry or sad because this person/project means so much to me” or maybe, “it’s okay not to be okay.”
Make a plan to care for yourself by taking a walk, talking to a friend, “brain dumping” into a notebook, watching cat videos, taking a bath, listening to music or my personal favorite: crying some good old fashioned tears.
Now, this whole thing from start to finish may seem difficult at first because you’re so busy blaming and shaming yourself but it becomes easier if you can remember two vital points: First, that you are a kind and generous friend to others — this means it’s possible to turn your listening and nurturing skills inward. Second, you deserve to give yourself kind words and actions on your path to healing.
In fact, you are the only person who truly knows what you want and need in times of challenge. It’s no one else’s job to give you what you need or mend your broken heart. They could try, but it’s likely that you would actually do a better job on the first try instead of them bustling around looking for the right fix and getting it wrong.
Reframing tough situations and the big emotions that follow takes deep awareness and some pretty serious effort. For me, it has been key to surviving this pandemic. Staying in my old blamey, shamey habits was rotten for myself and the people who had to live with me. I know now that the biggest gift I have given my partner and children, my students and clients has been to take responsibility in providing myself the compassion I deserve when I need it most. In turn, my heart is free and full of love so that I can give them the connection and care they are looking for.
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com.