I was supposed to write this blog post last weekend. I’ve been so proud of my consistency in creating posts every two weeks. But last weekend, amid a flurry of car repairs, social events, and recording content for my online parenting course, I completely and totally forgot. I only remembered mid-way through a session with a therapy client on Monday morning; it jolted me as it hit, the same breathless, gut-punch feeling that comes with receiving a collections notice for a bill you’ve forgotten to pay or getting an unexpected letter from the IRS.
After that initial jolt, though? I’m excited to say, it was a little different than usual. The first question I asked myself was, “What would a self-compassionate person say to themselves in this situation?”
At that question, the knot in my diaphragm released, my fingers relaxed and uncurled, and my shoulders dropped. Receiving kindness from myself rather than condemnation not only allowed me to remain present with my client for the rest of the session; I also felt safe with myself.
And I knew what I wanted to write about as soon as the session ended.
I am not by nature a self-compassionate person, but I think I am becoming one.
At least, I’m really working at it. Recently, I’ve been researching mindfulness and self-compassion as I create my online parenting course. Here’s what I have learned: self-compassion imparts an incredible amount of resilience, emotional regulation, and cognitive flexibility, especially when compared to self-esteem or positive thinking; it is also our path to joy, connection, security, and generativity. It is how we become all we can be, how we squeeze every last sweet drop out of life, how we pass through fire with singed eyebrows but intact souls, how we write our names in long-lasting love on the lives of those around us.
I know it’s a bold statement, but I’m coming to believe that there is nothing more important in my relationship with myself and others than self-compassion.
I won’t lie to you and say it has been easy to learn self-compassion. It has actually been tremendously difficult to cultivate kindness toward myself in a culture that praises comparison, competitiveness, self-deprecation or even self-flagellation (particularly among women), and upholds the use of use harsh criticism as a motivator. It has been difficult to learn loving and joyful embodiment in a culture that encourages us to live like heads driving around body-machines we despise and often view as inconveniently needy, limited, or worn out. It has taken me years. But I’m getting there.
I now place a gentle hand on my chest when I’m stressed or struggling and tell myself it’s okay that it’s hard. I now thank my body for all she does for me every day (there is power in referring to my body as “she” instead of “it”; try it for yourself). I now allow myself to appreciate my strengths and wins, and I take a moment to send myself kindness and grace for my mistakes, losses, and flaws. And over time, the space I inhabit—physically, emotionally, spiritually—has grown softer, warmer, safer. Bad days don’t hit so hard. The savor of good days lasts a little longer.
Self-compassion can be both a spiritual practice and an act of courage.
I define spirituality as meaning and connection: whatever gives your life meaning and purpose, and whatever connects you to yourself, to others, to the world, or to a higher power, this is spirituality. For many, myself included, spirituality means participating in a formal religious tradition; for many others, spirituality can look like many things: vocation, mindfulness or meditation, time in nature, acts of love and compassion as simple as changing a soiled diaper or as grand as fighting systemic oppression. By practicing self-compassion, we are practicing connecting ourselves to all of humanity and connecting all of humanity to kind and loving intention. This doesn’t mean just conjuring up warm, fuzzy emotions; this means bold, decisive, counter-cultural actions on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of all the others to whom compassion links us. True spirituality is not passive; it is lively, courageous, and active.
For me, self-compassion has been a beautiful spiritual experience. My personal practice of self-compassion means giving myself permission to view myself through the eyes of a loving and benevolent higher power. If I truly believe that God loves me, who am I not to love myself? Do I know better than God? But this, too, takes courage. It’s daring (and a little scary) to accept myself as inherently beloved in a world that tells me my worth is in my productivity and earning capacity.
If you have a spiritual practice already—no matter the tradition, no matter your level of comfort or mastery—try adding self-compassion. Sprinkle it into meditation, prayer, ritual, or fellowship. Remember that loving your neighbor as you love yourself requires that you must first love yourself, and that your love for others is directly impacted by the depth of your love for yourself. If you don’t have a spiritual practice, try starting with self-compassion. If you aren’t interested in spirituality at all, consider the neurological benefits of mindful self-compassion in terms of integration, emotional regulation, reduced stress hormones, improved mood, and increased cognitive flexibility.
Another place where I am discovering the sweetness of self-compassion is in the daily work of parenting.
The self-sacrifice, humility, and love required to parent well has become part of my daily spirituality; it gives my life meaning, and helps me to connect with the world. Through parenting, I connect with my daughter, and also with all children who deserve love and care; through parenting, I connect with myself, and also with all parents who give all they can to their children. All children are worthy of love. So are all parents, in all their flaws and failings. And I am one of them. This connection keeps me grounded in my humanity—both the glory and the mess of it.
Parenting my daughter is, I think, the most significant thing I will ever do with my life—and certainly, the most challenging and meaningful part of every day. I parent my daughter with a depth of tender compassion that is difficult to show myself. I find, though, that my compassion for her becomes more rooted and robust when it springs out of compassion for myself.
I often talk with my clients about the “wise, kind Self”—the highest part of ourselves, that has access to all the wisdom and love we need to flourish. I picture my own wise, kind Self as a tall, brown-haired woman maybe a decade older than myself; she looks a little like me, but her face is softer, her hands are stronger, and she doesn’t worry so much. She usually has a smile in her eyes. I find myself leaning on her in challenging moments—when my daughter is screaming at me, when I’m exhausted or frustrated or heartbroken, when the kitchen is trashed and bedtime is late and the next day is too full.
“It’s okay,” my wise, kind Self says to me in a smooth, low voice. “This is hard. You’ll never do it perfectly, but you’re learning. Life is difficult and full of hurt and mistakes, but it’s also full of grace. Be gentle with yourself. Take a deep breath. Relax. Whatever you can do is enough.”
Self-compassion is how I am cultivating secure attachment with myself, a deep bond of trust where I know my needs will be honored and met, painful ruptures will be repaired, my body will receive the care she deserves, and comfort can always be found. And because I carry this secure attachment within me, nobody else can threaten or harm it. It’s changing me, as a therapist, a mother, a daughter, a friend. It’s steadying me. It’s strengthening me.
With kind intention, I am wishing the same security and self-compassion for all of you.