Updated: Mar 24, 2020
We are all in a period of unprecedented change. Our normal routines and rhythms have been disrupted and we should probably all take a moment to stop and acknowledge that this is new and sometimes it hurts.
Self-compassion, in its simplest form, is being kind to yourself when you are in pain. This means reacting to your own pain the way you would react to a friend or a child who was suffering.
Many of us are experiencing pain right now. We are losing access to things we love. This hurts and it’s supposed to because those things were—and are—so important. What we want to avoid in this situation is heaping a lot of secondary pain onto our experience. Secondary pain is when we get angry at ourselves or at others for being sad or scared. In this way the whole experience gets worse; it’s pain on top of pain.
But what do we do instead? We can choose to apply some of the soothing balm of self-compassion onto our experience. For example, if you aren’t at your optimal levels of work productivity or you’ve abandoned healthy eating for the time being, you come to a choice point. You can berate yourself, “why can’t I get it together like everyone else has!?”, or you can choose self-kindness, “this is so hard right now, I’m doing the best I can – we are all doing the best we can”.
Below is a brief exercise you can use to cultivate self-compassion for the situations you are facing right now.
Treat Yourself Like You Would Treat a Friend
1. Imagine that a close friend was telling you about what was happening in their world right now. Maybe their daycare has shut down. Maybe they are being expected to work full-time hours from home but also to homeschool their children at the same time. Maybe they are separated from their friends and family and they miss them. Maybe they are scared.
2. Now imagine that you are at your best. You’re feeling kind, you’ve slept well. What would you say to your friend? What tone of voice you would use? If you’re keeping a gratitude journal already, maybe write down the response you would have to that friend.
3. Now think about how you are talking to yourself as you go through the same difficult situation. What words are you using in response to your own pain? What is the tone of voice you are using?
4. Do you notice a difference?
5. Can you offer yourself the same words of kindness and compassion that you offered to your friend?
6. What does it feel like to receive that self-compassion?
7. Allow yourself to sink into this feeling.
What would it be like if you responded to your own difficulties during the time of COVID, or even beyond?
Our culture doesn’t promote self-compassion. We often prize care towards others, but I certainly didn’t grow up seeing people respond with care and tenderness to themselves in times of pain and that is what can make this a new and unfamiliar practice. When was the last time you said something stupid in a meeting and you responded with a gentle kindness? “Oh Lianne, I’m sorry you feel embarrassed”?
If you’re struggling with offering yourself kindness right now, let me offer up a perspective that might help. People who are higher in self-compassion experience fewer negative emotions and more positive ones. They are better at coping in times of stress, they sleep better, they are better at offering social support to those around them and they can hang in when others are also in distress. Being compassionate to yourself is just about the best thing you can do for yourself and for other people as you’re trying to figure out how to navigate this new reality.
I’ve spent a lot of time, over 25 years, practicing yoga and meditation. Much of that personal work has focused on developing nonreactivity or learning to “tap the breaks” before I react in times of stress. I am all about nonreactivity in the face of stress, but after years of practice I realize that it just isn’t enough to simply pause. We then have to respond in a caring way, especially to ourselves.
For more great self-compassion exercises, check out selfcompassion.org.