Giving yourself permission to be human
My mentor Alicia Gregory, and I share a sort of nerdy obsession with good research on what I’ve taken to calling “the good life.” Lately I’m really loving what I’m learning about Self-Compassion. I commend Christopher Germer’s website and free guided meditation downloads. Since I started this post, I’ve gotten halfway through Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion, which I have enjoyed too. If you’re looking for a “self-help” kind of book that introduces the concept, some of the background, and the research, this is a good place to start. Self-Compassion can begin with a startling realization: most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never talk to another human being (or even the dog).
“Suck it up!” “You are stupid to feel this way!” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and just have another drink!” “Who do you think you are to think you deserve a break?” “If you don’t do better, they are all going to realize you are a fraud and leave you.”
There are three movements to cultivating something healthier: First, we must become aware of our distress, negative emotions, self-defeating habits, and automatic responses to pain. Without judgment: just aware. Simply learning to say to ourselves before we rush off into a reactive tailspin; “oh, I am feeling bad.” Or, as Sylvia Boorstein recommends: “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Breathe. Pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.” There is a mindful part of us that is aware of our experience without being caught up in it–an inner observer. It is out of this place that we notice, label, and sit with our difficult experience.
A separate paragraph to emphasize the hardest part of this practice. The attitude is kindness. It helps to imagine a beloved child, dear friend, or precious pet. Approach yourself as you would a beloved other, with care, with compassion, with empathy. I’ve been teaching myself put my hand on my heart and say softly; “Wow, buddy, this really hurts, doesn’t it?” Because I can’t bring myself to call myself “sweetheart.”
The second movement is normalizing your experience. Everyone struggles. Failure is normal. Everyone knows discomfort. It can be a powerful teacher. Give yourself permission to be a fallible, normal human being.
Third, practice compassion toward yourself. Incorporate your own version of Boorstein’s wonderful “sweetheart” practice. Download Germer’s self-compassion meditations and put them on your phone and do one every day. It may be hard to sit quietly and wish yourself well. I recommend sticking with it. None of us will be fully compassionate with our weakness every time, but we get better with practice.
One further note: for those of us with a strong habit of perfectionism, shame, or feeling unworthy of love, it may be really difficult even to start with such a practice. We may fear that if we offer ourselves compassion for mistakes, pain, weakness, or hurt, we will be “lazy,” or slip off the deep end into failure. It can be hard to keep in mind that just as trees bear fruit in sunshine and good soil, humans grow with love, belonging, and security. I’m not merely being poetic here: the research is in. Secure, loving relationships (with self and others) are the basis for flourishing. If you want to work on self-compassion (or want to want to), but find the inner barriers too difficult to surmount, working with a therapist or spiritual director may help.