Today is February 20, 2015, the day when 1000 Voices For Compassion makes its mark. Bloggers all over the globe have committed to posting articles today to celebrate compassion in all its forms and recognize the importance of such acts in our lives and the lives of others. If you’re interested in reading more articles by our movement, I encourage you to visit 1000 Voices of Compassion’s Facebook group or search the hashtag #1000speak on Twitter.
I prefaced my #1000speak lead-in article, “Acts of Compassion in Literature,” by saying I’d been debating two possible ideas before deciding to pursue both. Originally, “Acts of Compassion in Literature” was going to be today’s post. However, as I worked on this second piece, the topic struck a deeper, more resonant chord than I’d expected. Then again, the idea of self-compassion had already been on my mind recently. So, I decided to switch the order of the two articles, and in hindsight I think I made the right decision.
Many of us are guilty of being our own worst enemies. When battling illness, external conflict, or turbulent emotions, we sometimes exacerbate the problem through criticism, obsessive worrying, self-pity, even projecting our suffering onto others. And with our world the way it is today – a world in which we’re inundated with workplace demands, commitments to family and friends, and our own expectations for ourselves – it’s alarmingly easy to fall into this trap.
Here’s an example: After a frenzied holiday season at work and at home, I took some vacation time around New Year’s to relax and work on my novel. When I returned to work during the first week of January – BOOM! Suddenly I was juggling numerous priorities, being pulled in multiple directions, and feeling pressured to do it all even though I’d asked for help. I started fretting about whether I’d meet my deadlines, why no one was listening, whether the next day would be better or worse than the next. Some days those worries would be fester so deeply that I’d carry them home with them. On top of all that, I had blogging commitments I still needed (or wanted) to fulfill, and was dwelling on them in addition to everything else. By the last week of January, I was exhausted (even though I’d been sleeping), physically tense, and emotionally drained.
Was it overwhelming to read that paragraph? Did you also notice that much of the stress I felt then was internal? In some ways, I was suffering more from the unkindness I placed on myself than from the external conflicts I was dealing with at the time. And this lack of self-compassion wasn’t a one-time “event”; it’s something I habitually inflict on myself without meaning to.
Some people might respond to this by saying, “That’s the way life is. We just have to deal with it.” This is not true. Being unkind toward ourselves isn’t and shouldn’t be a constant. Because it’s an internal source of stress, it’s something we can learn to control or let go of completely, like a bad habit. (And we all know how difficult it can be to break those.) We may have no control over external sources of stress, but I think we can agree that with patience, determination, and practice, we can control the internal sources. In this case, we can teach ourselves to become more self-compassionate.
“But… if I’m being self-compassionate, aren’t I being selfish? Or self-indulgent?”
Not necessarily. Here’s how:
- When we’re being selfish, our egos take over and we ignore others’ needs or problems by focusing solely on ours. When we’re being self-compassionate, we remain in tune with others while acknowledging our own concerns. In fact, some therapists say that self-compassion can help parents, caregivers, and professionals in service industries avoid “empathy-fatigue,” or being overwhelmed when in the presence of suffering.
- When we’re being self-indulgent, we shirk responsibilities, seek pleasure, and/or become lazy, with little or no thought of how our indulgence affects our health and well-being. In comparison, self-compassion centers on our health and well-being. We become aware of our pain, then practice kindness and gentleness to alleviate that pain and make ourselves feel better.
Bobbi Emel at Tiny Buddha offers a beautiful definition of “self-compassion” here. It’s so succinct and perfect that I think I’ll just quote it for you below instead of coming up with my own:
Self-compassion creates a caring space within you that is free of judgment—a place that sees your hurt and your failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.
Now that we have a clear idea of what self-compassion is, it’s time to ask:
How can we become more self-compassionate?
The truth is, there are so many ways that the answer depends on each person’s unique needs. In other words, everyone’s path toward self-compassion will be different, yet equally meaningful.
Below is a list of suggestions for practicing self-compassion, taken from articles I’ve read and from my own experiences. Some of these tips may sound super-simple. Yet I think we can all agree that we don’t turn to them as often as we should; and by making a more conscious effort of including them in our daily routines, we’ll make our worlds a happier, healthier, and more peaceful place.
- Turn off – or learn to ignore – your inner critic. How do you feel when you make negative or judgmental statements about yourself? (Crappy, right?) Would you make similar statements to a friend in the same position? (Most likely not.) If you feel compelled to criticize yourself, stop and consider what you’re about to say. Then, rephrase the statement in a way you’d say it to a friend. Chances are it will be more sympathetic and encouraging than the original version.
- Let go of doubts and worries. When we internalize our concerns, we can literally make ourselves sick. Our bodies and souls deserve much better than this. If you’re overcome with worry, start by physically comforting yourself. Take a moment to breathe slowly and deeply, and hug yourself. Then, imagine the outcome you truly want from the situation instead of the worst-case scenario. If you believe in a higher power (God, the Universe, angels, etc.), maybe offer a verbal or written prayer and give your fears and doubts to the one you follow. That act of mental release often makes you feel physically or physiologically lighter afterwards.
- Celebrate your strengths and accomplishments. The surest way of feeling good about yourself is by acknowledging what you already do well. Compliment yourself on your skills and hard work, and be thankful for them. If you’ve reached a long-awaited goal, go ahead and do a happy dance (why not – you earned it!), then start working toward the next goal.
- Accept your imperfections. No one is perfect. That’s what makes us human. In her article “We Are All Imperfect: How To Own It & Keep Growing,” Fiona Robyn says that being honest about yourself – your qualities as well as your flaws – can help you on the road to self-improvement. By owning up to your shortcomings, you’re not only apologizing to others, but you’re also saying, “Hey, I’m a work-in-progress, and that’s OK.” It’s simultaneously an act of vulnerability that others will appreciate, and a show of unconditional love and support for yourself. And, it will also make you feel better in the long run.
- Practice gratitude on a daily basis. This has been part of my daily routine for almost 3 years now, and I can’t fathom ever giving it up. Finding something – even one small thing – to be grateful for every day can foster a healthier, more optimistic outlook and instill inner peace and contentment. It reminds you that there’s always something to look forward to, and that life is truly magical. See what happens when you make this part of your wake-up routine or bedtime rituals.
- Create an “affirmations box.” Remember the photo of the box with the small pieces of paper inside? It’s my “affirmations box.” I made it last year by typing up affirmations from Liz Simpson’s The Book of Chakra Healing and Sue Patton Thoele’s The Woman’s Book of Confidence, printing them, cutting each statement into individual slips of paper, and storing them in a hand-carved wooden box that a friend gave me after a trip to Haiti. Picking an affirmation at random each day and repeating it several times has a similar effect as practicing gratitude daily. It helps you internalize positive statements and believe in your inner goodness, gives you strength and courage for the day ahead.
- Make time for other spiritual habits. Journaling, meditation, yoga, praying – whatever helps you get in touch in your inner self, set aside time for it every day, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. It helps you remain centered – or regain your centeredness – in the midst of a hectic lifestyle. Also, Christopher Germer, PhD, offers several self-compassion meditations that you listen to or download to your computer. I found these while researching self-compassion articles before writing my own – and what a coincidence, because I’d been looking for meditations like these! I can’t wait to try them.
- Remember to look outside yourself. Self-compassion means staying in tune with others was well as ourselves. As you practice kindness and empathy with yourself, make sure to practice it on others as well. Making someone else’s day could very well be the highlight of yours, too. 😉
Our world can be a cruel and crazy place. Unkindness only fuels that fire more. If, in the words of Gandhi, we want to be the change we wish to see, we can start by practicing compassion in all its forms – love, acceptance, respect, empathy, forgiveness, etc. – with ourselves. And when we do this, compassion toward others will come more naturally. Try it. See what happens. Above all, though, be patient. It takes time to learn how to be more self-compassionate. I still struggle with it from time to time. But once we achieve a better sense of it, the results might pleasantly surprise us, and bring more fulfillment than we could ever imagine.
Our mission of making the world a more compassionate place doesn’t end today. Join us as we continue the movement at the 1000 Voices for Compassion Facebook Group. Or, tweet #1000Speak if you’re on Twitter.
In what ways do you practice self-compassion? Do you think you could practice it more often? Do you have additional suggestions to add to the list above? Let me know in the Comments section below.