4 ways to practice self-compassion
When my mother died in 2000, the quote my siblings and I chose for the front of her celebration of life program was, “The fruit of love is service–which is compassion in action.” Mother Teresa
My mom’s ability to feel empathy, acceptance and deep compassion for those who suffered–particularly her patients–was deeply moving. One time when I was around twelve, I remember riding with my mom on a Saturday morning to visit an elderly man who was dying; we drove an hour to reach his rural home. A nursing consultant, she was “off the clock” but she wanted to see if there was anything she could do to make him or his wife more comfortable.
This was one of many times when she went out of her way to help others in need.
Yet, for all the compassion my sweet mom was able to find for her patients, her cupboard was bare when it came to finding compassion for herself. She was highly critical of her parenting, her work, her creative life and she frequently put herself down. This was painful to watch and hear and it made me want to forge a different path when I became a parent.
When my son entered middle school, our family created a Family Purpose Statement and highlighted the top five qualities that were most important to us. At the top of our list: compassion–for self and for others. It felt pivotal to carve out time to co-create this and post our manifesto where we all could see it (pick up a copy of my book Nurturing the Soul of Your Familyto learn how to create your Family’s Purpose Statement).
At a recent retreat I led at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Wellness in the Berkshire Mountains, a woman from Amsterdam shared with our women’s group that her three year-old daughter calls herself “little sweetie.” The mom remarked, “I often hear her my daughter roaming around the house saying …it’s ok little sweetie, you’re tired …it’s ok, little sweetie, you need a snack and a drink. Or to her mom, “little sweetie is sad–she needs a hug.” This mother’s young daughter simply knows no other way than to treat herself with loving kindness; she hadn’t been taught there was any reason she shouldn’t. (She inspired the rest of us to refer to ourselves as “little sweetie” for the duration of the weekend!)
I wonder what our collective culture might be like if we taught self-compassion as a sought after skill to be developed and honed–as equally valued as hard work and perseverance. Can you imagine hearing teachers and other influential mentors regularly remind their students and peers, “Be gentle with yourself” …? (Read more about the science behind and benefits of cultivating self-compassion from my friend Dr. Kristin Neff.)
How do you begin to cultivate self-compassion? Here are some ideas that help me:
- Find and post a picture of yourself between ages 3-5 (a tender time) and see how this shifts your perspective and ability to be easy on yourself; you’re still that same little person! (This is little Renee, above, at age four.)
- Take a 30,000 foot view and find perspective: we’re all juggling so much: divorces, illnesses, parenting woes, career/life changes, work upheaval–give yourself a break. You have a lot going on and are doing the best you can. Sometimes we lose sight of all we’re navigating.
- Reach out for support: have a heart-to-heart with a dear friend who holds the highest and best for you. A kind conversation can really help us loosen our hold on what’s “right or wrong” and help us see things with softer, gentler eyes.
- Be inspired to model this for your children: if you’re a parent, instilling in your children the value of being kind to themselves can help them develop strong self-esteem, lower stress and heighten resiliency. Let them hear, “I had a challenging day, I’m doing the best I can.”
Sometimes when I notice I’m being hard on myself, I will take a long, slow deep breath, place my hands over the center of my chest and invite in self-compassion. When I can remember to soften and open my heart, it helps me see others in a whole new light. Compassion for others starts with compassion for myself.