Charlie Brown is a cartoon, which famously features the ever-lovable Snoopy. Snoopy has some tough days though, and he can be seen during those tough days enduring all the elements outside almost as if he is being punished or punishing himself for a recent wrong. Snoopy’s experience is not far off from the phrase, being “in the doghouse,” which refers to a dog making a mistake and having to sleep outside or for us being in trouble indefinitely.
We all have a lovable Snoopy in us that we punish, sometimes for days. It is almost as if in punishing ourselves we feel that we are both getting what we deserve but also enduring what we need to in order to deserve our next good or, in Snoopy’s case, sunny day.
Some of this comes from watching movies in which the hero endures great suffering to achieve great success. Some of it comes from trying to adapt to a punishing environment rather than oppose it, but most of it comes from control.
Here is how control comes into play. We are first exposed to suffering or criticism from others for a mistake, which hurts a lot. Then, we tend to adapt by being so tough on ourselves that others are less capable of causing us suffering or back off completely. In this way, when we suffer we can at least tell ourselves that it is under our control.
Short term this plan may be effective. Others may be less effective in causing us pain, but long term this plan backfires on us. Instead of teaching ourselves that we will process and manage suffering, we teach ourselves that we are capable of doing ourselves great harm and likely will when suffering shows up. We are also learning that our thoughts may not be a safe place when suffering is on the horizon.
Manifesting more suffering does not help us master it; it simply magnifies the frequency with which all behaviors lead to suffering. On the brain level, when a scenario occurs, the brain forms neural connections to match the behavioral response. When this scenario re-occurs, the brain defaults to the pathway with the most neural connections. To simplify, if every time you experience suffering you punish yourself, your brain will default to punishment as the response to suffering over time.
We cannot undo these neural connections, so to change our response to certain scenarios (in this case suffering), we recognize the scenario (suffering), and our natural response (punishment), and bring kindness to it. This self-compassion response to suffering will also begin to develop neural connections, and over time (once it has moral neural connections than punishment), it will become the default response.
Often pride prevents us from changing a behavior that we have used for so long despite its lack of ability to get us the results we desire. We all experience pride, and it is an obstacle for all of us. However, like most things there is a way to short-circuit this obstacle.
For most of us, this short circuit is responsibility for someone or something greater than ourselves. When I started working with children who were at great risk of physical, mental, or emotional crisis, the only thing that mattered was the child’s well being.
I once encouraged a child to insult me during a period (about 3 hours) in which she felt compelled to take her life. My pride did not love that, but she lived, and that is all that really matters. Frankly, it was freeing to know that I did not have to be limited by what my pride would allow me to learn or utilize, and that I wasn’t a great, big narcissist. Say whatever you want, but being a narcissist seems like a lot of work!
Whatever you may think of yourself, somebody needs you. Sometimes just a hello or a short conversation leaves people feeling important enough to continue their lives or even seek help when necessary.
I have had many clients (both children and adults) who felt they had become invisible to the world and thus began to suffer immensely. Then, on the way to one of our visits or while waiting on a bus, someone would talk to them, and they would feel alive again. If you struggle to be kind to yourself for yourself, at least think about how this kindness might potentially profoundly affect someone else’s life.
Now that we know the world needs you, how can we begin to undo this craptastic pattern of suffering?
First, acknowledge that increasing the suffering you experience is not helping you suffer less or helping you to achieve your goals.
Second, acknowledge that people need you too much to let pride deprive you of making a change that is better for you and everyone you come into contact with.
Third, when suffering occurs, acknowledge your inner Snoopy (you are a good person who comes by your mistakes honestly). Name the suffering. Make space for it.
Fourth, bring kindness to your experience through a meaningful phrase you have developed on your own or have chosen from a prior entry that worked for you “May I be free from suffering. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself just as I am. May I live with ease.”
Fifth, bring meaningful action to yourself that simply makes you feel good in a healthy way (e.g., the ninja hug, a warm cup of tea or hot chocolate, call a friend, go to the gym, take a walk, watch a funny video).
Our truest goals in life are to live a meaningful life that values our own well being and the well being of others. As in the case with the suffering of those you value most (a child, a parent, a beloved pet), we need to acknowledge suffering when it occurs, and bring kindness to that experience. If you struggle to do that for yourself, at least do it for Snoopy.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 20. In the Books.