Out of My Mindfulness: Discovering the power of self-compassion during the pandemic

Editor’s note: Columnist Kristine Petterson updated a piece from a few years ago for this week’s Inland 360, revisiting one of her favorite topics: self-compassion. I’m grateful for her insight, given the challenges and, for many of us, resulting introspection the COVID-19 pandemic has brought. I hope you find comfort and the opportunity for growth in her words as well.

These past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the tools and resources that have supported me through the unique challenges of the past few years. Parenting in a global pandemic required me to change in ways I never thought possible, but always hoped for. Strangely, because of the stressors and obstacles I’ve learned to take better care of my heart.

Out of My Mindfulness: Discovering the power of self-compassion during the pandemic
Kristine Petterson

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: “Nice job, Kristine, you must be doing everything right.” Yet, when I make a mistake or find myself struggling, my inner dialogue shames me for being so dense, taking risks, standing up for myself or even trying in the first place.

Logically, I know 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 it’s a terribly unhelpful pattern that warrants breaking, mainly so we can learn to be kinder to ourselves when we need it most. But that’s just it: It’s a subconscious pattern we don’t even see happening, until we’re suffering the effects of it.

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 our 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. Nonjudgment.
  2. Feeling our feelings.
  3. Knowing we’re not alone.

So what if in those moments we feel we’ve messed up, we can silence our inner judge and wade out 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, or see it for what it is, because you are typically using it to provide soothing and support for others when they are needing it. However, it exists inside you and can be used with and for yourself any time. Feel free to take a minute to let that sink in.

It takes practice and maybe even permission to begin the process of turning your love inward. So let me start here by giving you permission to be kind to yourself — it’s going to benefit you, and that’s amazing. It’s also 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. If you are brave enough to reach out to supportive friends and family, they would remind you of that. However you can do this for yourself too, with practice.

Now that you’ve achieved your Certificate of Human Normalcy, the next step is to tune 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.

Side Note: There’s nothing wrong with you for having big feelings and/or 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 need 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.

It might be hard at first, but practice letting the feels flow. Bonus points if you can figure out what happened to spark these feelings in the first place. I’m still working on this one, folks. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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 SO hard,” “I'm so angry or sad because this person/project means so much to me.” Or maybe just, “It’s OK to not be OK.” Do something in the moment, or 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; however it becomes easier if you can remember two vital points. One, that you are a kind and generous friend to others, and that means it’s possible to turn your listening and nurturing skills inward. Two, 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 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. This means that, in turn, my heart is free and full of love so 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 kristinepetterson.com.

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