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Self-compassion: An essential ingredient for change makers

Apple-words-200Being kind to yourself isn’t just about patching yourself up so you can head back out onto the battlefield to fight for social justice. It’s a personal and political act which shows that you are worthy of being valued, cared for and loved, writes Julie Catt.

22 August 2014

“Don’t they say that you have to love yourself before you can love somebody else?”

My client stared at her boots, their polished toes pointing inward. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. I imagined a robed, bespectacled headmaster wielding a ruler over her poor knuckles: “You must love yourself!” Crack. “You must love yourself!” Crack.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I replied, kicking myself (compassionately) for answering a cliché with a cliché, even if it is my favourite one. Then we settled in to the therapeutic business of figuring out what that hoary old chestnut meant to her.

As so often happens with folk wisdom, a complex idea has been distilled into a kind of poison.

My client, like so many others, had been sipping on it for years, and it had led her to doubt whether she would ever be “ready” for a partner because she had drawn the logical conclusion that in order be worthy of self-love she had to be thinner, fitter, smarter, nicer, prettier, more successful and enlightened. So she had embarked on a rigorous regime, part of which had led her to my couch.

The truth, of course, is deeper, richer, and more interesting than “they” might have you believe.

Having compassion for yourself – accepting the unique, messy, funny, flawed, mucous-filled, wonderfulness that is you – does allow greater connection with others, if only because the converse is also true: self-rejection leads to withdrawing from others so they won’t see the flaws you so despise.

Self-hatred leads you to assume everyone else will agree with you. Self-compassion doesn’t mind so much; instead, it invites compassion for others at a deeper, more authentic level because it allows us to relax.

It’s like the difference between a home into which guests are only allowed when it’s showroom tidy, and the home with bags and shoes at the door, full of laughter and dust-bunnies and a sink full of dishes – which do you imagine will get more visitors?

Accepting ourselves, spots and all, allows us to believe that someone else will accept us too. Accepting ourselves with compassion makes welcoming others easier.

Stop fighting anxiety

Imagine a cocktail party where you know only one or two people. You walk in wondering who to talk to, what to say. You may look for a friendly, welcoming face, or just head for the bar.

It might feel like anxiety is circling like a vulture, waiting for its moment to grab you by the collar and drag you away. Wait. Don’t give up and play dead just yet.

What if I told you that some level of distress was perfectly okay? That awkwardness is a normal and healthy part of the human condition? That most people at this party are also searching for a witty and original something to say?

Now imagine letting go of needing to appear smooth. Be kind and allow yourself to be a bit nervous.

Coffee-heart-self-love-250Anxiety isn’t the enemy here. What gets us all in a pickle is the fight we start with anxiety – the fear and shame of being afraid, if you will. I’ve got two pet analogies about anxiety. One I made up myself (I think) and one I stole from a client.

In these analogies you’ll see how self-compassion is the key to alleviating anxiety.

The first one goes like this: Anxiety, sadness, happiness, anger, lust – they’re all just feelings. And feelings are like clouds. They move through you at varying pace. They grow, darken, increase in intensity, change shape, look like puppy dogs or machetes, and always, always dissipate.

Attach a bunch of meaning to one, or start hating yourself for having it, and suddenly you’ve tethered it to behaviour, to the earth. This can work for you or against you, depending on the feeling.

If you let a feeling of joy inform your behaviour, then chances are you’ll be a delight to be around. You’ll be one of those people who puts money in strangers’ parking meters.

If you start hating yourself for feeling lust, you’ll flinch at your lover’s touch.

If you have anxiety about having anxiety, you’ll develop a belief that you’re an anxious person, and you’ll let that belief push you around like a playground bully.

And here’s the stolen analogy: Imagine distress is a visitor to your home. It knocks on the door. So, let it in. Make it a cup of tea and sit with it. But don’t start a fight with it, or it will bring in its friends for back up.

And whatever you do, don’t let it move in and start rearranging the furniture. If you sit with it and sip your tea, then get about the business of tidying your home, it will leave peacefully when it is time.

Treat yourself as kindly as you treat others

I know that’s all very Zen and I’m hardly the Dalai Lama, but I do believe that this kind of acceptance – self-compassion – is a key component to managing difficult feelings.

Another is self-care. One way to develop compassion for yourself (and in turn manage distress) is to start behaving as though you already have it.

Think about how you would nurture a person or animal that was hurting. Would you offer her solace, a quiet environment in which to heal? Would you bring him to a beautiful spot in nature? Would you stroke her, brush his hair, feed her something nourishing? Would you listen to her troubles?

If you start treating yourself in this way when you’re hurting, you’ll start to feel cared for, and worthy of being cared for.

Activists, in particular, find themselves fighting the good fight for the vulnerable, the under-privileged, and the exploited.

In the process, there is the real possibility of being exposed to significant difficulties, be it as mundane as an endless collective meeting or as horrific as a stinking abattoir.

The more you put yourself in the line of fire, so to speak, the more crucial the need for good self-care, for calm acceptance of negative feelings – for compassion.

This isn’t just about patching yourself up so you can head back out onto the battlefield; this is a personal and political act which shows that you are worthy of being valued, cared for and loved.

Ways to develop self-compassion

  •   Spend a little time in nature each day, allowing yourself to feel part of, rather than a visitor to, the natural environment.

  •  Become familiar with your body. Stroke your skin, sink into crevasses and over lumps. Appreciate it as a complex, changeable, warm, imperfect landscape that is uniquely your own, for the rest of your life.

  • Develop a mantra (something like: “I accept myself fully, and all feelings pass”, “I’m not afraid of being afraid”, or whatever fits), learn a breathing technique that works for you, and use them when anxiety comes to visit.

  •  Each evening, write down three things you appreciate about yourself. If you experience physical challenge, then acknowledging parts of your body that bring pleasure could be useful. If feelings of being fraudulent or inferior are familiar to you, perhaps think about your accomplishments. These things could be as small as “I loaded a printer driver today, and it worked!” or as big as developing a successful lobbying campaign or saving a life. This exercise may feel contrived at first, but it is an effective way of shifting focus and raising awareness of what is working rather than what’s not.

  • Allow yourself to talk about your vulnerabilities and concerns. You might be surprised to find others can relate to these feelings, and in fact might be relieved to have an opportunity to explore them with someone who gets it.

  • If you find yourself resisting these strategies, sit with the resistance and see if something interesting becomes visible. Talk it over with a friend, or if you’d prefer someone professional and neutral, a recommended therapist. Remember that cornerstone of activism: The personal is political. Social change starts at home. And home, no matter where you are in the world, is the unique body and brain that make you who you are.

Julie Catt is a psychologist in private practice in Sydney, Australia (rooms in Paddington and Sydney CBD), and author of Normal: The True Story of a Complicated Family (Text Publishing, 2009). Find her on Twitter: @jbcatt; Facebook: Julie Catt – Paddington Counselling and Psychological Services or on Tumblr.

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