When I was very small, perhaps too small, my younger brother Dan and I found ourselves fishing on a boat surrounded by bluish, green water right outside the Florida Keys. Dan, then known as Danny, wore a red and white Aspen shirt that was so long it covered his shorts, and I wore an aquamarine blue polo shirt with Kangaroo high tops that looked like they were on their 6th or 7th life. Our hair was unkempt, and the wind blew in our faces, as we drank Dr. Pepper’s without any sense of self-consciousness.
The captain of the boat, Alex, had a thick salt and pepper mustache, and a tan, almost reddish face adorned with Ray Ban sunglasses. He was the kind of man that was all paws. He would reach out into the ocean and seize that which he hunted, unabashed by blood or the passing of life. He was energized by risk, sun, and the search for new challenges both at sea and in the bar after work. On the boat, we fished for big game: tarpon, and sharks. We had a square shaped bait box located in the middle of the boat that housed live medium sized fish.
As a young boy, I was an excitable little guy, prone to distraction by whatever I invested my full energy into. At sea, I was taken by the waves, the sea life that passed, but mostly conversations with my brother, Dan, and Alex. Unfortunately, for the fish in the bait box, I was so distracted by these forces that I stepped on them at least a dozen times. I can still remember being yelled at for stepping in the bait box, but I remember something else too. Alex would just get frustrated for a moment, like a big wave that crashed. His temper would flare briefly, and pass like the calm water following a wave that gently rises up onto the shore. He would pat me on the back after to let me know that everything was alright.
Anger, in my family, was either avoided or embraced like a machine gun. It left the air heavy with anxiety or aggression. A great deal of time would have to pass before the air felt light and breathable again, but with Alex it was different. He was like a spring. Anger and tension, then release, then back to well-being.
At the time, I could not put my finger on it, but I remember thinking that I had a lot to learn from Alex, and wondered if someday he would teach me how to make the tense air light again.
It would take me years to realize that amongst Alex’s many lively traits that his most attractive trait was how quick he was to compassion for others and himself. If he made a wrong turn with the boat or went to the incorrect spot for fishing, he would grab his hair for just a second in frustration, and then calmly run a hand through it. He would acknowledge his mistake, offer up a platitude about how easy it was to gaff, and then he would continue on to his goal. We never had a bad day with Alex because he never let the bad that occurred during our time define the day.
Obstacles to Reflexive Self-Compassion
Many of us come from family systems in which it is not okay to make simple mistakes. For some reason, anxiety or judgment runs high, and our honest mistakes are met with harsh criticism. We learn from these experiences to repress our feelings or thoughts, especially our anger, which appears very dangerous. It is no surprise then that we find ourselves living the life we assume others will receive well. This process seems manageable so long as we have more success and rest than we do failures and poor sleep. However, when the latter overpowers the former, we find ourselves suffering with poor ways of remediating our situation. The difficulty we experience is most likely not being able to give ourselves permission to feel our feelings or thoughts as they arise, and to bring compassion to them in a natural way.
In times like these, we are easily exasperated and quick to falter our coping skills, and express feelings of hopelessness. Without a lifetime of self-compassion modeling, we lack the ability to accept and bring kindness to our experience as a reflex when there is no time or energy to do so with greater planning. It is easy enough to bring compassion to our experience, when we arrive at small obstacles and are replete with success and resources. We fall into judgment, shame, and hopelessness, when suffering occurs and we have few resources and are coming off of a succession of failures. It is in this time, that we need the self-compassion reflex.
The greatest impediment to developing self-compassion skills is that people undersell them, and oversimplify them. They say things like all I have to do is be nice to myself. That’s easy. I could do that if I wanted to. The easy response there would be to request a demonstration, but that would not be very compassionate. The best thing that we can do is to give ourselves permission to struggle, to not know, to need and be deserving of self-compassion. What is our other option, really? We can thumb our noses at that which might help us feel more empowered or we can put our pride down for a minute, and see if there is something we can do about it. We are all susceptible to pride. Me. You. Everybody.
To begin to acknowledge our need to develop reflexive self-compassion skills, we must first acknowledge pride. Pride is there to protect you from losing your will to fight on. It is there to protect your self-esteem, to prevent others from short selling your worth, but pride has its costs. Pride is also an infinite journey towards believing that we are good enough for ourselves or others. In this way, pride is kind of a set up. It empowers others to determine our worth.
Others do not determine your worth. People who are self-aware know that they have plenty to work on to achieve their goals because the world is constantly changing, which requires continued evolution. To judge someone else is to lose sight of that all together, which lets you know that (at least in that moment) those prone to judge others do not possess the objectivity necessary to determine your worth. So give yourself permission to let go of pride, since its services are not presently required, and make room to first learn explicitly, and then through many repetitions make implicit (or reflexive), self-compassion practice.
The Process for Neutralizing Pride and Acquiring Reflexive Self-Compassion
Here is the process. Notice your suffering. Notice pride as it arises. Thank pride for trying to protect you, and let it pass. Make room for more adaptive ways to take care of yourself. Practice self-compassion. Use the self-compassion phrases. Over time, these phrases will become part of your DNA, and when suffering arises your body will know how to engage self-compassion immediately. Then, find a way to reward yourself for this practice, so that you have an innate reason to continue with this work. As your practice progresses, your self-compassion will become more reflexive.
The Curse of Success
In my years of practice, I have found that people are open to new tools, when their suffering is the greatest and they are out of options. Yet, once they find success with these tools, and their lives begin to feel better, they tend to relinquish them. There are many reasons for discontinuing this practice, but none so great as pride. So, if you want to live a life of well-being with extraordinary self-compassion, you must change the way you think about acquiring new tools, especially new tools that are not popular in the current social climate.
It is not my intention to scare you away, but rather make you aware of the obstacles that will be waiting for you when you begin to have success in managing your suffering. When we know an obstacle is coming, we can experience it a little bit in the present and become somewhat immune to it. We also have more resources and ideas available to manage it, when it comes up. This process is also known as the inoculation effect.
Setting Aside Pride for Self-Compassion
When given the choice between pride and compassion, choose compassion every time. Pride will not keep you warm at night, but compassion will. We work on compassion because we are the determiners of it. We own it, and it is a part of ourselves that is purely invested in bringing us real well being amidst a sea of false promises that are more likely to boost our pride. We do not own pride. Pride is something you get from accomplishments, which are passing. They come and they go, and are often determined by outside sources. Pride is something that we made up to encourage you to work, and do things for others. If you do, they will be proud of you, and they will give you permission to be proud of yourself.
Self-compassion does not work this way. It literally asks you to do whatever it necessary (less harm to yourself or others) that will allow you to honor your experience and move towards well-being. Self-Compassion is neither passing, nor owned bv others, nor devised as a way to get you to work more. It is simply a means of living well in the present. Since, the past is already gone, and the future does not exist, it is all too important to invest in our present. If you are truly concerned about the past and the future, just knows that it is our present that determines our experience of the past, and our success in the future.
Of course, this pride thing is big and a nuanced part of ourselves that has developed from the early family experiences to which I have previously alluded. Pride is also socially validated, and many would have you think that it is a strength. It will take some resolve on your part to choose self-compassion instead. Like all things, you will have to consider all the factors and who is affected: you, your friends, your family, your children, and your pets.
In the end, the choice is pretty simple though. Pride will help you fit in, and potentially make you well liked in fleeting ways. When suffering shows up, it will only increase your pain. Self-Compassion will make you feel loved in an ongoing and dependable way, but might not be something to brag about. Well, not just yet. Who knows? In the future, they might say, “Look at the self-compassion on that person! They must be a self-compassion master: a human love machine. I wonder what that feels like?”
Until then, wishing you the courage to face and be kind to yourself when pride shows up. Wishing you the resolve to choose self-compassion in its stead. Hoping this commitment to self-compassion remains and is rewarded. Mostly, hoping that you live a good life, full of well-being and kindness.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 73. In the Books.