Self-Compassion is For Everyone
Self-Compassion is open to all people. That is the response that I give to most people, who ask me about self-compassion. They worry that they have lived a life of too much criticism, too much worry, too much compulsive reaction to the expectations of others. They worry that it is too late. They are afraid that it is too late to accept their thoughts, feelings, and bodies.
It is never too late, though. In fact, the longer you wait perhaps the more drive and meaning will manifest with your self-compassion practice. The fundamental tenet of self-compassion practice is that we are kind to ourselves because we suffer. Suffering is all that we need to give ourselves permission to practice self-compassion. It does not matter how much suffering. All levels of suffering are enough.
I once worked with this woman, who covered herself in makeup, bedazzled shirts and sweaters, shoes with glitter, and purses adorned with plastic gems and gold plated metals. She was like the world’s hardest working Cinderella, except it was her ex-husband that made her feel like she was poor and unworthy of love, and her children who ignored her like those people from the fairy tale, who had no interest in inviting Cinderella to the ball.
So every day, she would wake up, and go to her closet and makeup counter like she was consulting the war journals. She would arm herself with what she felt would make what little she had to offer seem beautiful in the eyes of those who surveyed her. Of course, her self-worth was so low and her anxiety was so high that she did not pick one item that stood out a little bit. She would pick attention-getting choices for each part of her wardrobe. Her foundation was thick, her lips often so red with re-applications that they would linger on to the skin above and under her lips, and she applied so much blush that she looked like one of those pale dolls from the fifties. She did not stop with makeup and clothing. She tried to spread this love to everyone she met, deciding to sell make-up to make others beautiful and excitedly engaged everyone she met in impassioned conversation.
It is impossible to meet someone with such good intentions, who simply wants to be loved and tries with all of her might, and not love her. With all of this work at the day’s beginning, I was curious how the days ended. It turns out with lots of tears, a bubble bath, bonbons, and her favorite television show, while she waited anxiously for the phone to ring, hoping one of her children would call, and offer to spend time with her.
In essence, she woke up everyday with a broken heart, her clothes, her makeup, her purses, and extroverted efforts were the twine she used to hold her heart together. These efforts could be effective during the day, but she would have moments where she would think about how her husband left her, the young women he chose after 30 years of marriage, and how her children somehow blamed her for the breakup, since their father was mostly quiet and would often scorned their mother for being overbearing in her zealous for life.
It was clear that she was deeply in need of some self-compassion to help her accept these tough moments, to enable her to have hope in the present, to give her the courage to contact her children and ask to spend time with them, and to nurture what was clearly a shining, shimmering, splendid but wounded heart. She was afraid. She thought it was too late. She had already lost everything she cared about, the love of her life and her children. She believed she was damaged goods.
You cannot tell someone, who thinks that they are damaged that they are not. It disenfranchises them from their self-agency and rejects their experience. This either leads to shame or self-doubt. The only think worse than feeling damaged is feeling that you are to blame for this damage, and that you are crazy for feeling damaged too. So, I met her where she was. We are all damaged, I told her. She could not believe it. I told her that it was true, and that we all spend some part of the day doubting ourselves, and wondering whether past suffering was proof of our worthlessness or inability to be loved.
So, she asked me why I did not look as distraught as her. I told her that I accept that these feelings will come up as they come up for all people, but that they do not define me. Then, I bring self-compassion to my experience, and through it I am afforded the ability to have greater humility and understanding of my patients when they show up. I also noted that, like a good mom, self-compassion helps me to be present to those around me when I am needed. Without it, I would be lost in my own thoughts, which could happen to anyone.
Being the hard worker she was, she decided that she wanted to try this self-compassion thing. It did not happen all at once. She began by noticing feelings of rejection and worthlessness during her first week of practice. During her second week of practice, she made space for these feelings. During her fourth week, she wondered to herself how she could be kind to herself. During her fifth week, she used the self-compassion phrases, and would give herself little treats when she could that made her feel better. During the sixth week, with considerably less makeup on, she took a big risk and called one of her children from my office to make a date. She left a message. For some reason, when she got home she was still feeling courageous and left messages for her two other children. By the seventh week, she had dates with two of her children, and by the eighth week she had dates with all three. 3 months into our work she began to pursue internet dating, and went on a lot of dates with men who seemed to warm to her even though they clearly had their own issues that prevented them from being with someone in a healthy way.
Her self-compassion practice had been working. She never settled. She waited six months until she found a man, who made her feel beautiful for how much she loved life, her children, her religion, and her deepest wish that all people be beautiful and be loved. He was a fisherman, who had spent several years at sea making his living by bringing in fish on even the coldest days. It was an isolating life, and his tender heart always made him feel more alone amongst the macho guys that tended to man the boat with him. After 60 years, he just wanted a woman with whom to share his life. He had actually given up completely, when his sister decided to put up an online profile for him.
I am told that to this day they are happy together, and practice self-compassion formally on their own and informally in their sincere communication of their needs and compassion for their difficulties when they come up. After all those years of feeling damaged, this Cinderella finally found the love within and outside of herself that made her feel accepted and beautiful.
It Is Never Too Late for Self-Compassion
No matter where you are in life, it is never too late for self-compassion. It is never too late to love yourself or others. It is never too late to accept your experience, and begin to bring compassion to your heart to give you the courage to honor your feelings and ask the world for what you need. It is not the receiving that counts, but the asking. The asking tells the story of someone, who loves themselves enough to accept the damaged parts, and still believe they are worthy of love, the love of others and the their own love.
So often, we find ourselves faltering in ways that lead to self-condemnation, and fear that this act alone is enough to deny us acceptance and love. The truth is that we all feel this way sometimes. The world can be hard, and we are only too human. We will make mistakes that seem insurmountable and indicative of some deeper wrong inside of us. Take my word for it, they are not.
We all fall down. We all fear that we will not be able to get up. Acknowledge how it hurts to fall down. Be kind to yourself. Then, get up. Get up for yourself. Get up because you are owed love simply by being human, as such it can never be taken from you no matter what you do or how you feel. Like your breath, it will always be there to assure you that you are worthy of life.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 71. In the Books.