For Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote the following article called, Valentine’s Day: How Do I Love ME? that was very well received and became a topic of deep conversation in many therapy sessions with clients after it was posted. My sense of why this is such a discussion-worthy topic is because loving ourselves is something that we’ve all been told we should be doing, and intellectually, it makes a lot of sense because we’ve all heard that old adage: You can’t really love another unless you love yourself first. The reason I wrote that article in the first place was because so many of my dear clients kept bringing the topic up and kept asking me the same question over and over again:
I know that learning to love myself is a good idea and even a necessity, but I have no idea how to actually DO that…
So I wrote that article with the aim of giving readers concrete exercises they could do which would give them the desired result- more self-love. For this Valentine’s Day, I thought I would extend this concept further with you by sharing a very enriching Buddhist concept I’ve recently learned about and am doing my best to practice on a daily basis called self-compassion. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without Buddhism these days, as I have been thrown some serious curveballs by life that have left me feeling more than a little rocky- more like completely thrown off what I thought was my solid and immovable foundation. Buddhist concepts and practices have helped me to find my psychological and spiritual footing once again and continue to assist me, on a moment-by-moment basis to stay calm and peaceful, even when everything around me appears to have blown up into complete smithereens.
So if you are interested in finding some peace and clarity and the profound sense that everything is happening as it should and everything will be all right, I strongly suggest you check out what Buddhism has to offer. I recently read a number of articles on self-compassion, and from one called Inside the Heart of Healing: When Moment-to-Moment Awareness Isn’t Enough by Chris Germer, found my favourite definition of self-compassion so far:
“When love meets suffering and stays loving, that’s compassion.”
Compassion is a deep feeling for a suffering individual with the wish and effort to alleviate it. And self-compassion is compassion directed toward oneself; it means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding with which we’d want to treat someone we truly love.
So if I’ve got this right, I think this concept is all about having the same kind of deep compassion you’d have for a loved one going through great pain for YOURSELF when you find yourself in the midst of great suffering and pain. Most of us women are highly skilled at being there with love, understanding, and nurturing for a loved one who is suffering. And yet, we tend to treat ourselves far less compassionately when we, ourselves, happen to be the one suffering. Perhaps an example would help illustrate this best.
One of my dear sweet clients oozes compassion and caring for her loved ones, as well as practically everyone she comes into contact with on a daily basis. She is a nurturing wife, mother, coworker, and volunteers on more boards and committees than I can even name. She has a deep belief in serving her community and those she loves, and tells me unbelievably moving stories of the lengths she goes to be there for others; especially those who are suffering. To say she is an inspiration is an understatement. I am continually amazed at how she manages to do so much for so many people in a day. I feel tired just hearing what she is able to accomplish in a day!
However, there’s a reason she’s come to see me- she’s lacking severely in the self-compassion department and it’s coming out adversely in her relationship to food. Her schedule is so jam-packed that she barely has time to eat three meals a day. When I suggested that she sit down to eat each meal without distractions, she looked at me like I was completely insane. She quickly informed me that if she could even manage to EAT a meal in a day, it would be a complete miracle. I gently pointed out that eating regular meals is necessary to keep up our energy throughout the day, and seeing that she had such busy days, she needed to eat regular meals especially badly. This was not at all lost on her and she looked at me dejectedly and simply said, “Yeah. You’ve got a point there. But for some reason, I avoid doing that and make bad food choices when I do squeeze in time to eat.”
When we explored her relationship to food intimately, she came to realization that she was using junk food to “reward” herself for doing so much for so many people; that when she bit into a jelly-filled-donut while driving to her next appointment in her car, it was a way of giving herself a reward for running around and doing so much. When I asked her what the actual “rewards” of consuming junk food every day were, she quickly realized there were more “costs” than rewards in this behavior. Some of those costs included: guilt and shame for her ‘sneak-eating’, weight gain that was becoming increasingly distressing, lack of energy, irritability, and being more prone to getting colds and flus.
When I suggested that perhaps she could try out a different ‘reward system’ without the costs of her current one, she sat forward in her seat with her eyes locked in with mine. Then when I explained the concept of trying a daily practice of self-compassion, her eyes welled up and she became a puddle of tears for the next five minutes. I have noticed a very similar response with many of my clients when I suggest practicing self-compassion. It tends to evoke a deep sadness from within which often surprises them. They often comment, “I don’t even know why I’m crying.”
My guess as to why this touches so many of us on such a deep level is because we touch that part of us which needs and craves the kind of compassion which we so freely dole out to others, but often fail to provide to our own sweet selves. Just writing this, I am welling up with tears of recognition. I, too, suffer greatly from lack of self-compassion and have to work very hard at making it a regular practice. The good news though is that with daily and mindful practice, it’s starting to get easier and my hope is that one day, my brain will be rewired to go to self-compassion first, rather than self-destructive, mean thoughts aimed towards myself.
For the client I have discussed in this article, she was satisfied to have come up with some very simple and ‘doable’ behaviours with food which she felt were self-compassionate; rather than self-destructive. For starters, she is working on having healthy food choices on hand at home, in her car, and even at work so that when she is super-busy and doesn’t find time to prepare food, she can nourish her body with healthier foods than she had previously been eating. Her other new expression of compassion towards herself is to become aware of when she feels the emotional need to ‘be rewarded’ and is going to try asking herself: How can I reward or treat myself in a compassionate healthy way instead of a self-destructive way? In other words, how can she not use junk food to ‘reward’ herself and try something else, which is good for her overall health? Some ideas she came up with are: sitting with her eyes closed for five minutes and practicing deep breathing (meditation), going for a walk (exercise), and cuddling with her dog (physical affection). What are some simple and ‘doable’ ways that you can practice self-compassion?