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Learning to be more compassionate toward ourselves
For most of my life, I hated myself.
I hated almost everything about me. I hated being too embarrassed to go to the bathroom during class. I hated that I was too afraid to raise my hand for fear of looking stupid, even if that meant not knowing where to buy lunch milk. I hated the humiliation of losing fights on the playground.
I was ashamed that I cried while on Santa’s lap and during grade school graduation. I loathed my curly hair and wanted straight hair like Roger Nethersole, the cool kid from South Africa with an even cooler accent.
Earning Bs and Cs left me feeling like a failure. I resented the teacher’s pets who sat front and center and shot their hands up at every question as if to say, “I know! I know!” the ones who reminded me of my inadequacy.
When my sixth-grade teacher advised that I be held back in math, I felt mortified. When a seventh-grade classmate said, “I’m finishing my first novel and ready to start my second one,” I felt depressed.
But the greatest humiliation of all, the thing I despised most, was my skinny body. Everywhere I went, people called me skinny. As the thinnest kid on the baseball team, I struggled to do pushups. When the schoolyard bully came around, I laced up my shoes, preparing to outrun my friend. “You’ll fill out,” my best friend’s mom said reassuringly. But we both knew it was a lie.
I resented the other kids who said I should be with Buffy, the female counterpart to my male body. I didn’t want anything to do with her. While sit-ups and climbing a rope may have been straightforward, that didn’t keep me from being picked second-to-last when choosing teams in gym class. The waiting was gut-wrenching.
My only claim to fame was tying the school’s best athlete for the fastest time in the 600-yard run. Oh, and being the “second best frisbee thrower,” according to one kid. At the end of one school year, my teacher handed me a note that read, “You are special, Ryan.” I will never know whether she gave that note to everyone, but for a moment, I felt special.
The self-loathing I felt in childhood carried well into adulthood.
Thankfully, escaping the tyranny of self-hatred and learning to develop a kinder, gentler, and more loving relationship with ourselves is possible. Doing so is vital because, as my friend, Art Mortell, says, there can be no satisfaction without self-acceptance.
One of the most effective ways of learning to accept ourselves is through the practice of self-compassion. According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion consists of three elements:
Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Self-compassion calls on us to be friendly and sensitive toward ourselves when we are in pain, make a mistake, or feel deficient, rather than dismissing our suffering or being self-critical.
Common humanity vs. Isolation. Feelings of frustration when life doesn’t go as planned often coincide with an unfounded yet total sense of Isolation—as if I were the only person having this experience. But to be “human” means to be exposed, vulnerable, and imperfect.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Self-compassion also entails approaching unpleasant emotions in a balanced way without suppressing or magnifying our feelings. Maintaining a broader perspective and observing our negative thoughts and emotions with clarity, openness, and mindful awareness keeps us from getting swept away by negative reactivity.
Now it’s time to put self-compassion into practice. Here’s what it looks like in daily life:
Think of a difficult situation that is causing you stress, worry, or anxiety. Bring to mind the issue, and see if you can feel the intensity and emotional discomfort in your body.
Now say to yourself:
“This is a moment of suffering.”
Mindfulness is acknowledging what is without judgment. Alternatively, you could say:
This is stress
“Suffering is a part of life.”
We acknowledge our shared humanity. Other options include:
Other people feel this way.
I’m not alone.
We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands on your heart and feel the warmth and gentle touch on your chest. Feel free to use whatever soothing touch feels right for you.
“May I be kind to myself”
You can also ask, “What do I need to hear right now to show myself kindness?” Is there a particular phrase that speaks to you in your situation, such as:
May I give myself the compassion that I need
May I learn to accept myself as I am
May I forgive myself
May I be strong
May I be patient
This practice is beneficial at any time and in any situation. It will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion whenever and wherever you need it most.
Self-compassion is one of the most helpful practices for counteracting the negativity of self-criticism. It is an antidote to the anger and rage that can build up from a lifetime of negative self-talk. It helps us stop fighting with ourselves, heal our shame, and soften our hearts. Seeing and holding our pain with kindness allows us to witness and hold others’ pain with kindness too.
Just as rain fills a basin with water, every act of kindness, moment of warmth, and instance of forgiveness is like a drop of compassion filling our hearts with love.
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