The best best-friend you will ever have
I met up with a friend recently for a coffee. It was great. I hadn’t seen her for some time, but it was easy to chat and catch up on all the things that had happened in our respective lives. We spoke of all our successes, failures, frustrations and fun. The topics ranged from babies to yoga and seemed to cover everything in between. I told her about some of the things I had been enjoying and some of the things I was worried about. My friend’s responses to my worries were consistently caring and encouraging. Any task I described that I was worried about trying because I wasn’t sure of my abilities was quickly met with supportive statements and re-assurance from her that I had all the skills I needed to perform these tasks successfully.
With her positive attitude and almost cheerleader like abilities, it was with some amusement that I sat and listened to her talk about her own worries. She wasn’t sure she was going to pass her course. She wasn’t ready to start teaching because her practice wasn’t up to scratch. All her worries came out and, much to my chagrin and probably her surprise, I started laughing. “Why is it that I’m so able to do all these things that I’m worried about and you aren’t?” I asked her. “We both passed the same course!” I reminded her. When she rightly pointed out that she is different from me, I whole-heartedly agreed with her and also said that we can be unique and still have similar skills and abilities. I also pointed out that we seemed to have quite similar insecurities, and while she was certain that I had no reason to be insecure, she didn’t seem able to consider that she, too, had no reason to be insecure.
It got me thinking – again – of how easy it is for us to act as cheerleaders for others and as judge, jury and executioner for ourselves. Why is it we do that? I’ve written about this before, not very long ago at all, but the pervasiveness of this behaviour struck me again as I sat chatting with my friend. The things we tell others are so positive. We are really supportive, encouraging and even forgiving as friends. And yet we can find it impossible to be-friend ourselves.
Earlier this year, I completed a “Radical Compassion Challenge.” Developed by Tara Brach, this 10-day challenge included a kind of 5- or 10-minute lecture followed by a 5-minute meditation centered on compassion, led by Tara. This was followed by a conversation that Tara had with someone, a different person each day. The conversation would last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and she spoke with people like Maria Shriver, Kristen Neff, Elizabeth Gilbert and Dan Siegel. If there’s anything I took from these 10 days of video and audio clips it’s that ‘Radical Compassion’ – or being able to show compassion to those we find difficult or whose values don’t seem to match our own – starts with learning how to be compassion to ourselves. We must be able to accept ourselves and all of our quirks and emotions in order for us to be able to be radically compassionate with others. And as I am continually reminded, that’s not easy. We can show ourselves compassion in some areas, and still berate or demean ourselves in others.
So how can we work on increasing the consistency of our self-compassion? One thing I wouldn’t recommend is laughing at your friends when you see them being hard on themselves – unless you know each other really well. But there do seem to be a few easy things that we can do to develop our self-compassion muscle. First of all, we can make a commitment to ourselves to work on our self-compassion. Being intentional about anything seems to be the first step towards making most changes. Once we make that commitment to ourselves, we can start to notice – notice those times when we are kind to ourselves and are able to cut ourselves some slack and notice those times when we are far from kind to ourselves, when we find ourselves berating, judging and calling ourselves names.
There are also some practical things we might consider doing. Looking at and completing the self-compassion scale developed by Kristen Neff can help you measure your level of self-compassion, to see if it is low, moderate or high. Once we know how much we need to work on our self-compassion skills, we can then choose specific activities to strengthen our ability to show ourselves compassion. We might choose to do specific exercises developed by Kristen Neff that help enhance our self-compassion. If you like writing, you can try her suggestion of writing a letter to yourself, from the point of view of a compassionate friend, every day for a week. Or write in a journal. Keeping a journal in which we write about what’s happening for us and how we are reacting to various life circumstances can not only bring more awareness of how we are talking to ourselves in different situations, but can also lead to insights about patterns of reacting or ways to think or act differently in similar situations. Or, you can choose to write about your personal imperfections and inadequacies and then consider in writing how you would respond to your best friend if he or she came to you lamenting about these same things. Notice if you would offer your best friend the same judgement you pass on yourself or if you are more forgiving and accepting of his or her faults. And then try forgiving and accepting yourself.
If writing’s not your thing, you can try talking. Talk to your friends. Ask them what they see as your strengths. If you find them to be kind and compassionate friends towards you, ask them how self-compassionate they think they are. Or do an exercise on your own to find your loving-kindness phrases. These are exercises in which you ask yourself what you need and what words you need to hear. Once you have phrases that are personal to you, you can start to use them at times when you’re noticing that you’re not being kind to yourself. Here is a link an exercise available on the Mindful.org website to help you find your loving-kindness phrases:
Or try compassion-focused or loving-kindness meditations, if that’s more your style. Here are some you might want to try:
You may notice these are all very similar even though they come from different sources. There will be other, similar guided meditations. If you like this kind of thing, find the one that works best for you.
You could also take some time to become aware of – and flexible with when you can – your expectations of yourself. As I’ve said before, understanding this can help you question how reasonable those expectations you hold of yourself are. If you can allow yourself to be ‘good enough’ from time to time rather than always having to be perfect, you will start to cut yourself some slack, increasing how kind you are to yourself and therefore you ability to offer yourself compassion. Or, start by simply reflecting each night on what you’re grateful for. What about your life is a blessing? Is it your home, job, family, pet? Is it your ability to walk through the park on your way somewhere? It is your favourite scarf, hat or t-shirt? Keep it simple to begin with; there will be something in your life that you can be grateful for. Doing this starts to re-wire your brain to look at the world in a different way. It may take time, but I’m sure it works. And when you can identify those things you are grateful for, it becomes easier to offer yourself compassion when things may not be perfect.
The point is, there are many practical ways to start to flex your self-compassion muscle. Find what works for you and then do it – for you. Because when you can do it for yourself, you can become your own best friend – and likely an even better friend to others. You can then be there for yourself, anywhere, anytime. And when you can do this for yourself a little bit more easily, others will see that, if you can do it, maybe they could also do it for themselves. Then they might pass that ability on to their friends and so on and so on. And, maybe, self-compassion – and compassion in general – can become the norm. Wouldn’t that make this world a little bit nicer to live in?