Jennifer Boire - Musemother



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January 2012

Self-Compassion for the New Year

I don’t know about you, but I am nowhere near ready to begin imagining the year ahead of me yet. There are many things I could consider working on, that is if I believed in making resolutions. But I'm listening to some advice I received lately that suggests putting off New Year`s until February 1st. Most of us are still overextended and over-tired from the holiday marathon of parties, gifts, hostessing and traveling.

So because I feel too tired to make a list of things to tackle or improve, I think what I really need more of is some self-compassion. Partly because ton my first day back from holidays my Inner Critic was hounding me to clean the house, remove the decorations, take down the tree, and didn't even want me to relax and enjoy my last few days 'off'. I sometimes have a hard time giving myself permission to rest, and for a writer, that`s a really big challenge -  to take time off from house stuff to do the creative stuff like editing books, preparing classes, and just writing.

So I picked up a small book I got in my Christmas stocking, How to be Compassionate, by the Dalai Lama, thinking I would get started there. He does suggest that we could live in a happier, peaceful world if we were all more compassionate: by this he means, be compassionate and serve others first, by thinking not only about the ego needs, the ‘ I’ needs, but by practising more kindness and tolerance.  Just reading this made me feel immediate angst. My latest book, due out in mid-January, is all about self-care, and learning how to put ourselves on the list or agenda in the first place. It`s at the root of the conflict most women feel - how to practice compassion and also take care of my own needs? But there`s another way to look at it, and that is with self-compassion: if you are beating yourself up and being overly harsh with yourself, how can you show kindness and compassion to others? The Dalai Lama even says we can consider self-compassion as being wisely selfish, putting others first because by showing other people kindness, love and respect, you help them respond in kind, increasing your own happiness. Bud Harris might call that Sacred Selfishness.

I like the sound of that, because I know that centuries of putting others’ needs firsts have trained most women to forget about our own needs to the point of self-injury and neglect. It has been wired into us that taking care of our own needs is Selfish, and that selfishness is a sin.  I don`t know if this applies to women under 30, who may have been brought up in less religious households than mine was in the fifties, but in any case, it applies to all those wjho tend to forget to feed themselves, or forget to take a break from work to get some fresh air and exercise because they have a deadline coming up and can never seem to unchain themselves from their desks. Productivity is good, but if it leads to burn-out, illness and cancer (like many of the patients at the Cancer Wellness Center I volunteered at), that’s not so good.

So to find out more about self-compassion, I went to the website of Dr Kristen Neff, a researcher and Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin who has written a book called Self-Compassion: How to stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind.

She suggests that our tyrannical need for to be better than and different from others, leads us to feel inadequate instead of better.  Self-compassion is different from self-esteem, and it's not about being self-indulgent or about feeling woe is me self-pity; it actually comes out of mindfulness practice (Buddhist based). 

Here is a short version of the three elements of self-compassion:

Self-kindness: Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.

Common humanity: Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. Knowing that I am not alone feels good.

Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  This stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus gaining a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.  Excerpted from website, Dr Kristen Neff.

Mostly, the underlying fear that prevents us from being compassionate towards ourselves is that we’re afraid we`ll be too easy on ourselves, that we'll become couch potatoes and snarf chocolate covered almonds all day.  But consider that your Inner whip-cracker and all-around-nasty-voiced person kicking you in the pants is not always your best friend. What if you enrolled the help of your Inner Coach instead, and imagined unconditional love and support coming from a wise inner voice (who sees you as you are, just like your best friend)? How would you feel differently if you spoke to yourself with the same understanding and awareness that you bring to your friendships or your children when they are feeling discouraged and in despair, or too self-critical?

If this feels like too big of a stretch, practice writing kind words in your journal whenever you are feeling down. Give your Inner Coach a name: model them on your favourite aunt, or any other positive encouraging person in your life.  Don’t let that negative self-talk make you feel small as you deal with the New Year, or the plans you’ve made and the resolutions you’ve listed, or the over indulgence of the holidays. Be your own best friend and practice some self-compassion.

Now, get out of those pyjamas, throw out those Haagen Daz containers and vacuum the living room!
(just kidding)

Jenn aka Musemother

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