Kristin Neff does research and teaches on the topic of self-compassion. She has identified three components of self-compassion.
First (she says), we need mindfulness. We need to develop that witnessing part of our minds that understands we are telling ourselves a story about who we are and what we’re doing. That story may or may not be the truth. Often, it’s not. It’s the distorted ramblings of a mind steeped in our culture’s ideas of “not enough.” (“I am not smart enough, rich enough, together enough, etc.” you might mistakenly think.)
Historically, this has been difficult for me. It has taken me decades and a regular meditation practice to take the advice of Pema Chodron “don’t believe everything you think.” Watching as my mind shifts from one set of imaginings to the next and labeling them all “thinking” has helped rob them of their defining power. When I am most courageous, I can check with others, saying (as Brené Brown suggests) “the story I’m telling myself is…” The other person can help me know if my understanding is shared.
We also need to understand our common humanity. We are not the only ones feeling like we do. Sometimes, you may imagine that you are struggling and everybody else has it all together. In fact, everyone has difficulties.
Chronic illness is often isolating. It’s easy to believe that we are the only ones who are suffering as we are. Pain and disability keep us away from support groups. Social media can help when we connect with others in the same boat,, but hurts when we find ourselves comparing our lives to the carefully curated happy stories others may present. If you are living with chronic illness, please know that you are not alone.
When I first started sharing my story in public, it was enlightening for me to discover that my words touched not only other people with illnesses, but also people who – in my eyes – lived “normal” lives. They, too, endured times of physical disease and emotional distress. We all struggle; but often we don’t show each other the truth of our lives.
Finally, we need to be kind to ourselves. Imagine how you would treat a dear friend who is in a similar situation. You would offer support and understanding. We are often our harshest critics. We think if we are not tough on ourselves, we won’t accomplish anything. Kristin Neff’s research shows that is not the truth. People who are kind to themselves also get things done.
I read about meditation and thought it sounded good. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep my mind empty or focused on my breath. I would scold myself: “stop it! You’re supposed to be thinking about your breath, not worrying about your to do list…” When I started working with a teacher, she explained and demonstrated that A) meditation was not about emptying your mind and B) it was no problem when my mind got lost in thought. I could just gently return my attention to my breath. Now, practicing meditation is a way of practicing self-compassion.
Here is a short contemplation, adapted from one suggested by Dr. Neff:
Close your eyes and bring to mind a challenge that you have right now – an area of struggle in your life. Hold the challenge in your mind and feel it in your body as you take three long and gentle breaths 1… 2… 3.
Say to yourself: “this is a moment of struggle, of difficulty. What you’re going through right now is hard.”
Imagine you are getting a long, slow, heartwarming hug. 1… 2… 3
Say: “anyone would find this difficult. Everyone has struggles.”
Now remember your choice to be kind to yourself. Say supportive things to yourself: “I’ve got your back. I’m here for you.”
Imagine you are sending the energy of that hug and kindness out to others who are facing challenges like yours.
You can use these three components of self-compassion whenever you feel like you are in struggle and difficulty.