The Other Part of Mindfulness
If you’ve been keeping up with my March Mindfulness tidbits this month, you have learned that Mindfulness is about noticing distracting thoughts and feelings, without getting completely wrapped up in them. However, those new to Mindfulness sometimes forget that there’s more to it than that. There’s an essential part of Mindfulness that is needed in order for you to really reap the benefits of the practice. This integral piece of Mindfulness is (insert drum roll…) self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a vital part of any Mindfulness practice. Once, many years ago, when I was a child, I tried to impromptu sing a high-pitched part of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror song at the church I was attending. The setting was appropriate, as the other kids in the youth group and I were running a special service. The sound, however, was horrible. I mean, to me, the failure was epic, and it was in front of an audience. Decades later, I would experience panic attacks at the thought of singing a solo in front of anyone. As silly as this example may be, it is a true example of a time when I refused to have any self-compassion. I granted myself no grace and no mercy. I held onto the feeling of failure and I harshly judged myself without forgiveness. The residual anxiety, therefore, thrived and built up over time. It prevented me from engaging in activities that I would have otherwise thoroughly enjoyed. It took me years and years to work through the anxiety.
While I greatly value my ability to express compassion, forgiveness and empowerment for others, I have had my own historical struggle in consistently doing this for myself. Have you ever struggled with forgiving yourself or giving yourself any benefit of the doubt? If so, you are not alone.
What really is self-compassion? Self compassion is about stepping away from harsh judgement and criticism of yourself, and stepping into acceptance and understanding of your human-ness, while showing kindness to yourself. Self compassion is an inward process and experience that requires cognitive action. When feeling sad, angry, disappointed, guilty, embarrassed or some other feeling, about something we’ve done or said, we notice these feelings, we recognize the situation, we hold ourselves accountable for our words or actions, and we allow ourselves to move forward. We learn from the experience, and instead of holding ourselves captive by the mistake, we offer ourselves forgiveness. We acknowledge how we feel, we remind ourselves that it is okay to feel that way, and then we forgive ourselves. Instead of staying stuck in the yuck, we give ourselves permission to move forward. We recognize that the mistake does not define our whole existence, and that we are capable of progress.
What self-compassion is not. Self-compassion is not about justifying poor choices that we make, rather, it is about not letting poor choices become our defining identity. By granting ourselves forgiveness, we allow ourselves to be free from staying stuck in the intense feeling, and give ourselves the opportunity to create an action plan to move forward. That action plan will look different, depending on the circumstance. It may include apologizing to someone else; it may include the use of a visual reminder to prevent us from repeating the same behavior; or it may include a variety of other things. Without forgiveness, an action plan is less likely to be effective and the anxieties associated with the poor choice we made, will grow. We will feel out of touch with ourselves and we will feel out of control with our feelings. The icky-thoughts and feelings about the choice, sets the backdrop for our actions moving forward, because we had never freed ourselves from them through the process of forgiveness. This becomes breeding grounds for resentment in relationships with others, because our relationship with ourselves impacts our relationships with others.
As an example, consider Sally. Sally prided herself on getting everything done promptly. She had an exceptionally rough week and accidentally missed paying a bill. She had never done this before and felt horrible about it. Her partner was upset initially, and expressed disappointment, but they paid the bill late, and after a day passed her partner moved on from it. Sally, however, kept going over and over how horrible it was that she missed this payment date. “I can’t believe I did that”, “What is wrong with me, I have never done this before!?”. Sally started to double and triple check the bills because “I am supposed to be prompt and remember everything. I can’t mess this up again”. Her anxiety skyrocketed as she continued to constantly doubt herself.
Instead of forgiving herself for the mistake she made, she held herself emotionally and mentally captive by it. Her anxiety grew and she felt the need to re-review all of her responsibilities.
One day, her partner forgot to take the trash out. He apologized, but did not make a big deal out of it. Sally, on the other hand, internally bred resentment due to her increased vigilance on responsibility management. Her thought processes about how responsibilities needed to be handled became more rigid, not just for herself, but for her partner. “Ugh, really? I remember all of this stuff and drive myself crazy to make sure everything is paid on time and you can’t even remember to take the trash out!”
When you lack compassion for yourself, it shows up in your relationships with others. In this fictional example, Sally did not practice self-compassion. She did not give herself the benefit of the doubt by reminding herself that everyone forgets something at some point. Instead, she held onto her disappointment with herself. She began to perceive it as a potential threat against her ability to live in accordance with her ideal self-concept (being prompt and responsible ALWAYS). This rigid way of thinking grew, and it caused her to feel resentful towards others in her life. Since life is not always rigid (things can’t always be all black or all white), it was impossible for her not to start to experience resentment with her partner when he failed to fall into the “always” category.
Self-compassion may initially sound simple, but it is not easy, and it is not often focused on in our culture. It is, however, very powerful. Self-compassion is necessary for anyone who is looking to incorporate Mindfulness into their lives. The truth is that we will all mess up at one point in time. We will not live up to the “ideal”. We will make mistakes; we will embarrass ourselves; we will do or say something that someone else is offended by (even when we do not intend to offend). What is most important is not that we are forgiven by others, but that we are willing to first forgive ourselves.