“In some ways, the path of learning how to be loving and kind to ourselves is a lifelong, never-ending journey. For those of us who are very skilled at being hard on ourselves, it can take a lot of effort to transform our relationship with ourselves from one dominated by an inner critic to one based in self-compassion.” Ali Miller
Being compassionate towards ourselves, research shows, is a major contributor to mental health. No longer limited to the realm of transpersonal or Buddhist-influenced psychology, articles on the benefits of self-compassion are popping up in mainstream periodicals such as Harvard Health Publication and Scientific American. There’s no question that befriending ourselves is a powerful and transformative approach to healing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and a host of other variations of human suffering.
But what exactly is self-compassion and how exactly do we befriend ourselves?
In some ways, the path of learning how to be loving and kind to ourselves is a lifelong, never-ending journey. For those of us who are very skilled at being hard on ourselves, it can take a lot of effort to transform our relationship with ourselves from one dominated by an inner critic to one based in self-compassion. If you are making this effort, please give yourself a pat on your back right now: this work is not easy, and I have deep respect and gratitude for anyone who embarks on the journey of self-love. I believe it is extremely important work, not only for our own well-being but for the well-being of our whole world.
While it is hard work, there are some really simple-yet-profound ways to make befriending ourselves a reality, and I’d like to share a few very practical and down-to-earth ways that have worked for me.
- Pee when you have to pee! A famous Zen saying goes like this: “When hungry, eat. When tired, rest.” This teaching, while incredibly simple, is also very profound when put into practice. Keeping with this spirit of self-care, I would add this: When you notice you have to pee, pee. In other words, don’t hold it in while you attend to seemingly more important matters. Sure, there are times when holding it in might make more sense, like if you’re in the middle of a short presentation, or if you’re in a taxi on the way to the hospital because your partner is in labor. But there are a lot of times throughout the day when we prioritize other needs over own body’s needs, thereby ignoring ourselves on a very basic level.
Try this: Next time you have to pee when you’re in the middle of something, such as typing an email, checking Facebook, reading a blog, cooking dinner, reading your child a story, or even working, notice how you respond. Do you hold it in until you’re done with your task? If so, how long do you wait? What are the consequences of waiting? See what happens if you spend one day with the intention of stopping whatever you’re doing when you notice you have to pee and taking care of yourself by going to the bathroom. And then notice the effect of prioritizing your body in this way. Were there any negative or positive consequences?
It may sound silly, but I’ve found it to be a very effective way to put myself and my bodily needs first. It’s a way of sending a message to my body that goes something like, “I hear you, and I am attending to you. I care about you, and I will show this care by taking action to support your well-being.”
- Stop and Attend: I don’t know about you, but there are lots of times throughout many days when I either stub my toe, bite my tongue, get a paper cut, bang my elbow, or otherwise get a minor injury. These are so common and so easy to ignore that my tendency is to just move right on past the pain and carry on with whatever I was doing. I’ve begun using these little hurts as opportunities to befriend myself, and it’s quite a powerful practice.
When you hurt yourself physically, no matter how minor the injury, stop and attend to the pain. Rather than either ignoring the pain or quickly popping an ibuprofen, take a moment to pause and be with your body that is in pain. If you stub your toe while you’re in the middle of moving something, for example, see what it’s like to take a time-out, hold your toe in your hand (kind of like giving your toe a hug), and send your toe loving energy. It doesn’t need to be in any over-the-top sort of way, just hold your toe, maybe caress it, or even kiss it, like you would a child’s boo-boo. Even if you stop and attend just for five seconds, you are sending your body the message that it is precious to you, that its pain matters to you.
This stopping and attending to your physical pain is great practice for stopping and attending to your emotional pain. It’s an easier way to begin learning how to befriend yourself because the physical pain is so obvious and simple, while emotional pain can be more subtle and complicated.
- Ouch!: For some of us, particularly those of us who are more on the sensitive side, human interaction can be wrought with subtle and not-so-subtle emotional pain. We feel upset when someone says or does something that doesn’t meet our needs, and sometimes it can really shake us up. How do you respond when you hear someone say something or see someone do something that stimulates emotional pain in you?
Try doing this: Say, “Ouch!” either silently or aloud. Simply acknowledging when we are hurting is a form of self-care, and this kind of acknowledgment is the first step in befriending ourselves. As long as we’re unconsciously ignoring or pushing away our pain, putting it aside as we focus on seemingly more important things, we can’t respond with love and kindness to ourselves.
Rather than trying to talk yourself out of the emotional pain or otherwise suppressing it, see what it’s like to simply let the pain be there. By saying, “Ouch,” we let ourselves have the pain before getting around to trying to fix or change it. We are being with ourselves in the pain, and this is really the foundation and essence of befriending ourselves.
The Buddha is known to have said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection.” While perhaps lofty-sounding and abstract at first, befriending ourselves can actually be as simple as peeing when we have to pee. Try it out and let us know what you discover.