Self-Compassion for Success: Lessons Learned From a Boy Unmoved by Autism

The Rocky Road of Relentless Work

A long time ago, someone once told me that if I just outworked everybody that I would be successful and happy.  Of course, as I got older I experienced not entirely great health consequences from working without any break.  I would work past exhaustion and injury.  In fact, the more my health was affected, the harder I worked.  What is that metaphor about how having just a hammer makes everything seem like a nail?  I would love to tell you the story about how I came to this great discovery about a need for self-compassion, while climbing the steep ridges of the Matterhorn, but it wasn’t my epiphany.  It came from an eleven-year-old boy with Autism named Cody.

Cody Rules

Cody was a funny kid, and despite his challenges, he carried an extraordinary amount of optimism about him.  He wrote “Cody Rules” on the cover of all of his books to revel in the double entendre of wanting to think well of himself, while acknowledging that he needed to memorize a Bible’s worth of rules to navigate complex social situations.

Cody did not really have the money to be a great Jordan sneaker collector, but the two pair he had were flawless.  “I walk like a duck,” he told me one day.  “What?” I asked.  He said, “I walk like a duck. That is why there are no creases in my shoes.  It’s my superpower.”  Stuff like that.  How could you not love this kid? 

Despite his optimism, he faced bullying everywhere he went.  The kids in class made fun of him for correcting other kids for breaking the rules.  The kids on the bus made fun of him for the poorly coordinated way that we stumbled into his seat.  Even his father referred to him as “funny,” but not in the good way. 

Cody’s resilience and his difficult experience softened my heart.  It felt like a wave of warm air, followed by the slow swallowing of a rock that gently turns on your tear ducts just enough to know they are there.  It was not all touching tears though. 

For someone who is not supposed to be able to read social cues or tap into the emotional experience of others, Cody was particularly apt at sensing interpersonal tension.  Even though he could not swim, he would jump up really high and pull his knees into his chest and yell “Cannonball!” when he felt social situations start to become strained. When I first heard this sound, I thought it was an homage to swimming, so I asked him.  He said, “Oh no I can’t swim, but I have seen other people swim, and I want to.”  Cody’s secret was that wishing himself well-being was enough, but that took me some time to learn.

Cody’s Self-Compassion Wisdom

One day, we were working together, and I had already dealt with 4 clinical crises that week, 3 papers, 2 presentations, and the kind of insomnia that makes you wonder if there are any clinical trials going for temporary sleep recovery through controlled comas.  He was busy building a town with the figurines and vehicles he pulled out of the play therapy trunk, and he said, “You look stressed.  Take a nap.  I will time you.” 

Two of the most empowering skills for all children are to demonstrate an ability to cope with stress and teach you how to cope, so of course I obliged.  After 10 minutes of this, and lots of celebrating on Cody’s part for doing such a good job, he said, “You need to take better care of yourself, so I can see you next week for therapy.  You should try the mini-naps.  They work for me.”   Just like the cartoon characters, there was my thought bubble.  In it, was a clearly written adage, “To care for others, I must care for myself first, and take mini-naps.”  Hey!  Don’t judge me!  I think Cody should be marketing these mini-nap things.  They are brilliant!

Finding An Excuse For Self-Compassion

Often, we find ourselves working our fingers to the bone, and when our bodies demand rest but have yet to produce the results we desire, we push harder.  This makes us, albeit unintentionally, pretty cruel gardeners.  You know, the kind that douse their plants with water and yell, “Grow plant, grow!”  Yeah, those plants usually die.  Not dying is good.  We need to appreciate our bodies for how hard they have worked, and take really good care of them, so they have the ability and the will to work hard for us again.

Although my self-compassion practice now is very strong, it was not very strong then.  It took Cody’s practice and his example to help me step it up a notch.  You don’t have to love people as much as I do to have an excuse to give yourself self-compassion.  Simply think of what your greatest motivation is, and see if you can use that to drive a self-compassion practice.  We are talking about the ability to recover faster and more fully, which should be a pretty good incentive for hard workers. 

In this way, self-compassion is the safest performance enhancer we have.  At the very least, your competitive side has to be saying, “We should definitely look into that.  It sounded like he said performance enhancing.”  The beauty of self-compassion practice is that it does not matter why you decide to practice it.  The practice, itself, will bring you well-being, and eventually give you the kind of core values that allows you to live well and long anyway. 

So forget about me for the day, and listen to the wise words of Cody.  Take good care of yourself, so that you can be present to all the things that inspire you and revitalize you, and for all the people you inspire and revitalize too.  Also, the cannonball thing is magic.  I do it whenever I can, and in my mind I silently wish for Cody to realize his swimming dream.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 86.  In the Books.