When I hear the saying, “Treat others as you would like to be treated” I can’t help but think we should also say, “Treat yourself as you would like others to treat you.” I witness over and over again in the therapy office how unkind we can be to ourselves and how this lack of self-compassion interrupts our attempts at self-understanding, growth and healing. Just as when a person outside of us criticizes us and our instinct is to freeze up and defend against the attack, self-attack and self-criticism creates the same dynamic inside. This resistance creates a major barrier for self-awareness and exploration – key ingredients for growth and change. When, instead, we can bear and even love ourselves, despite our flaws, our systems relax and we can bring more openness and curiosity to our inner explorations. In this way, self-love and compassion can be powerful agents of growth and change.
What I have noticed in therapy sessions is that many people are afraid (consciously or unconsciously) to have compassion for themselves around parts of their personalities that they don’t like. There is a common belief that having compassion for oneself will further compound the stuckness or unwanted behaviors that one is trying to overcome. In this way, self- compassion is equated with stagnation (if I have compassion for the struggle I have around my anger I will not grow and learn a different way of responding – or – If I love myself around my lethargy I will never get anything done!). What happens then is people reject, judge and attack themselves around these unwanted behaviors. When they respond in this way, not only are they left with the unwanted behaviors in tact, but they are also feeling bad and guilty on top of that!
What I have come to understand is that self-compassion and love, rather than hindering change, are in actuality a key strategy for change and growth. If I can find a way to have compassion for myself as a person struggling with anger, lethargy, over-eating, lack of tidiness, co-dependence, or fear, I will have less resistance to exploring what created this behavior in the first place. I will be more open and willing to be curious about the behavior, which will in turn create more room for exploration. It is this type of open, curious exploration that I have seen people use to get at the root cause of their most troubling problems. That said, cultivating compassion and love for one’s self, especially around difficult issues, is not easy. For many people it will take practice and effort to learn to respond to one’s self with care and compassion rather than falling into automatic attack and judgment.
Here are a number ways which can assist in developing self-love and self-compassion:
Working in psychotherapy with a therapist who can love and accept us even when we are having difficulty can be very helpful. A good therapist is able to demonstrate neutrality and compassion, and create a model for her clients for how to do this for themselves (I wrote about his in my other blog posting titled “Showing up with what is real”). Sometimes imagining a child or close friend (in place of one’s self) experiencing the difficulty can be helpful, as it can be easier at times to have compassion for another person. If you imagine a child, for instance, eating an extra piece of chocolate cake, would you scream at her and tell her how horrible she is? Hopefully you would be able to handle her with affection, love and firm guidance or even curiosity about what emotions may be behind the behavior. That is what we are striving for within ourselves as well.
Exploring the behavior or reaction that one is having and discovering the root cause of the behavior can be healing on many levels, especially if one is able to stay in touch with feeling responses (having a skilled therapist can be invaluable here). Having a deep feeling level understanding of how a behavior or reaction developed can sometimes bring one in touch with the vulnerability that was present when one learned this type of response or behavior. It can be easier to generate compassion when you get in touch with your vulnerable feelings around whatever is troubling you.
There are a variety of meditations that we can use to practice self-compassion, and practice is often exactly what many of us need here. Making up your own meditation may be best, but one example may be to imagine a loved one, pet, or deity who instills an easy sense of care and love in your heart and pay close attention to the flow of the energy of love and compassion going towards the loved one. When feeling comfortable with that, gently turn this flow of love and compassion towards yourself. Sit in and soak up this energy for as long as you like. This can be practiced throughout the day or at night before sleep.
Remember and come to terms with the fact that all humans are a work in progress. To be human means to be perfectly imperfect. Everyone here has there own “stuff” to work out and there will consistently be areas where any one of us can be looking to grow and learn. Navigating life, relationships, work, spirituality, etc can be difficult at times! We are all doing the best we know how and it may be good to remind yourself of this when you find yourself losing patience for yourself.
How would you like others to treat you? Especially in the midst of difficulty and struggle, most of us would want to be treated with kindness, compassion and love. Berating oneself does not benefit anyone, and it certainly does not encourage growth, healing and change. It would be of value to all of us to exercise more compassion for ourselves. When we can have compassion for ourselves around our perceived flaws, we can relax and bring more openness and curiosity to our inner explorations. In this way, not only does it feel good, but self-love and compassion can also be powerful agents of growth and change.