Some people say charity begins at home. I believe this principle can also be applied to how we treat ourselves.
It’s like the much used example of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before putting one on the person in the seat next to you. If we are kind to ourselves first then we have a much bigger capacity to be kind to other beings.
“I’m my own worst critic” may hit home for many people. A friend of mine once confided to me that if her thoughts about herself were physical weapons, at the end of some days she’d end up in the trauma unit in critical condition.
I didn’t really understand this until I went to university and found myself struggling with course workload, which included physics, chemistry and calculus. So I decided to go and see one of the university student counsellors.
I was assigned to the first available person and lucky for me, that counsellor turned out to be one of the wisest and most compassionate people I have ever encountered. At the end of our first meeting he asked me, for the week ahead, to try and notice some of the things I was saying to myself throughout my day.
During our next visit he asked me to reiterate some of the thoughts. Many of them were cringeworthy and I was embarrassed to tell him, but he encouraged me to be truthful.
After relaying a few of the more horrible self-thoughts, he asked me how I would feel if I heard someone else saying those things to someone I cared about.
“Well, I said, I would be outraged. I would tell them to stop immediately.”
“So why,” said the counsellor, “is it okay for you to say these awful things to yourself but you wouldn’t tolerate it if you heard someone else saying these things to someone you loved.”
This was my first lesson in becoming mindfully self-compassionate. To this day it is one of the most profound teachings I have ever been given.
Being unkind to oneself is almost a default mode for most people and more often than not, it’s easy to revert to a more familiar voice of criticism. However, with practice, guidance and perseverance, a person can learn to be more self-aware of the emotions they are feeling, what they are thinking about themselves, and then in turn, to treat themselves with compassion. When we can do this it can become our own superpower.
In short, mindful self-compassion is learning how to become your own best friend and coach. It emerged out of the Mindfulness Movement, which in North America, was made famous by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his work in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at the Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since then there has been an explosion in the popularity of mindfulness and also medical research into how mindfulness can affect the human body and mind.
Awareness of feelings
Being aware of one’s feelings, especially in the heat of a moment, is tricky business. It takes practice and patience with oneself. Here are a few pointers from a course I took from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. These and many other tips can be found at centerformsc.org.
1. Self-compassion is not about judging yourself. It’s about trying to be aware of what you are feeling, nonjudgmentally, at any moment in time.
2. By becoming aware when we are experiencing a particular unpleasant emotion we can allow the emotion to pass by more easily. Thich Nhat Hahn, a very wise monk, describes this practice like watching clouds in the sky come into your view and then simply allowing them to float away.
3. Self-compassion is not the same as being self-indulgent or narcissistic. It’s simply being kind to oneself.
4. When you find yourself experiencing an unpleasant emotion, there are several ways you can give yourself compassion.
- First recognize that you are not an anomaly. What you are experiencing is also experienced by most other people.
- You can treat yourself with compassion both mentally and physically.
i. You can put your hands, one on top of the other, over your heart or chest.
ii. You can take a few deep breaths, concentrating on the air coming in and out.
iii. You can cross your arms and give yourself a gentle hug.
Emotional? No problem
As RuPaul, the famous drag queen once said: “Emotions don’t scare me!”
I believe in our culture. We have some work to do with becoming comfortable with the range of emotions humans feel and express.
For example, societal norms allow for us to openly express feelings of joy and happiness, but the opposite reaction can happen when someone is feeling angry or sad. Often when someone starts to cry, in public, they will immediately apologize “I’m sorry” and put their hand over their mouth to try and stop themselves from crying.
The observer’s response is to try and stop someone from crying.
“Don’t cry, it’ll be okay,” and pat or hug them to try and soothe them.
Often people try to negate the pain someone is feeling: “It could be worse…look at what happened to your cousin,” or, “You’ll get over it,” et cetera.
First of all, this can be harmful and secondly, this is more about the observer being uncomfortable than the person who is upset.
Listen without judgment
Crying is a natural and healthy response to pain and stress. Remember it’s a gift to just silently sit with them and let them express themselves without interrupting or giving platitudes.
Listening to someone, without judgment, interrupting or negating their feelings is one of the greatest gifts we can give. Doing so can help someone process what they are feeling by being able to talk it out. It can help someone to move through the emotion they are experiencing.
This past year has been difficult for everyone and there has been a lot of suffering on all levels. I hope we can all continue to be kind to one another, but also kind to ourselves.
If you’re interested in helping a child (or yourself) with emotional regulation and self-compassion, there’s a terrific
children’s book available called Breathe Like a Bear: Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere, by Kira Willey. I bought it for my grandson and it’s an amazing, practical book, beautifully illustrated, that is useful for children and adults alike.
I wish you all a happy and healthy summer full of kindness to yourself.
Sara Mitchell-Banks holds a Masters in Advanced Nursing Practice and completed the Canadian Mental Health Association Certified Psychological Health and Safety Advisor Training program. She is from Powell River.
Breathe Like A Bear: kirawilley.com/product/222633
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education: ccare.stanford.edu
Center for Mindfulness: umassmed.edu/cfm
Center for Mindful Self-Compassion: centerformsc.org