Or at least it should. Each day I get clearer that if I want to go do good in the world–and I do–then I must approach the people I encounter and the situations I find myself in with as much compassion as I can possibly muster. And I am increasingly clear that I must extend at least as much compassion to myself as I do other people. This has been a difficult concept for me to grasp, and I won’t pretend that I fully understand it at this point, but I’m going to work on it until self-compassion and self-kindness becomes part of my palette of colors from which I paint my life. It’s this simple really: how can I hope to offer compassion and lovingkindness to others when I can be downright mean to myself?
I’d heard the concept of self-compassion before, but began seriously thinking about this a couple of years ago when I began attending a weekly sitting group at The East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland California. The teacher was leading us through lovingkindness meditation–offering wishes of goodwill to all beings–inviting us to place our hand on our hearts and first offer ourselves good wishes: May I be peaceful and happy. May I be safe and protected from harm. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with ease and wellbeing. She instructed us to imagine we were looking upon the face of a loved one, offering them lovingkindness, only the loved one was ourselves. The first time I tried this it took me a moment to focus on and send loving intentions to myself, but I remembered myself as a child and found that I could offer myself compassion and kindness.
I’d started attending the weekly meditation in the summer of 2011 after I’d experienced a number of personal and professional setbacks that had me reeling. Over the course of a few months I experienced the breakup of a six-year relationship, lost my job, and was forced to move out of my home. With the loss of my job, I lost my health insurance and with that the access to prescription antidepressants I’d taken for a number years. Throughout those first few months I had plenty of opportunities to be hard on myself, lament all the mistakes I’d made, what I had or hadn’t done right. If ever I needed to experience compassion it was during that time, and given my life circumstances at the time, I was in the best position to offer it. Somewhere in the midst of all the emotional upheaval I managed to do a few things right–one of which was to attend the weekly meditations and participate in classes and retreats at EBMC. It was there that I began to learn more about and practice compassion for myself and strengthen my already ingrained tendencies toward compassion for others.
Among the many lessons I’ve learned through the challenges of 2011 and the intentional, positive steps I undertook to overcome them, one is the idea that compassion, lovingkindness, gratitude, and so many other attributes are strengthened through practice. They are like muscles–they get stronger when you exercise them and atrophy if you don’t. Offering compassion for yourself first might be like lifting a heavy weight: you might strain and struggle at first to lift it. What does this look like in practice? Sometimes when people make a mistake, they fuss at and berate themselves, “How stupid was that!” “I am a total idiot.” “I should have handled that better.” For some people who work for mean bosses, were bullied on the playground, or who’ve found themselves in one way or another being mistreated, belittled, or even abused by others, they internalize these messages and ultimately either agree with what is being said about them or berate themselves first before anyone else can do it to them.
Over the past few months I’ve noticed a bit of slippage in my level of self-compassion. I’ve said things to myself that I wouldn’t dream of ever saying to anyone I loved or even liked. Extending compassion to yourself goes beyond simply not berating yourself, but moves to actually acknowledging and validating your worthiness of love and acceptance for who you are. When someone is in need, or hurting, having a bad day (or month, or year), when they lack the basic necessities of life that many people take for granted, our hearts go out to them, we want to help, to offer aid, or comfort, or support of some kind. What would it be like for us to offer that same level of concern for our own healing, health, and wellbeing? Offering compassion to yourself begins with extending kindness, gentleness, and patience as you would to any person you saw hurting and in need.
Yesterday I wrote about bearing witness, about our human desire to be known by and connected to other beings. Our ability to connect is affected by our sense of our own worthiness and lovability. As we begin to be kinder to ourselves, to care for ourselves by asking for what we need from others as well as providing for ourselves, we begin to draw from our own well of love and compassion and can then offer those qualities in our interactions with others. And everyone benefits from that.
“Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves.” ~Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.