“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.”
― Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
As the famous saying goes, sh*t happens. We have seen more than enough of that kind of thing over the last year and a half. Even without a pandemic, we all experience struggles in our lives, and we all suffer because of things we’ve done or that happen to us. Suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition.
Yet so often we get angry at ourselves for struggling. Perhaps you believe you should cope better; be stronger, tougher, or more resilient. Maybe you expect yourself to be perfect and never make a mistake. As a result, you tell yourself off for being “weak”, “pathetic”, or “hopeless”. When you do, notice that you are hurting yourself because you are hurting. You are doubling your suffering unnecessarily.
Some problems can’t easily be solved. Sometimes you can’t alleviate your suffering at all. People you love will leave you. Opportunities you worked hard for can be lost forever. You will make mistakes that cannot be undone. If these things were solvable, you would have done so already. This only demonstrates how little direct control you have over your suffering.
While you might not always be able to resolve the origins of your suffering, you can alleviate the additional suffering you create when you are hard on yourself because you are struggling. You don’t need to kick yourself when you are down.
Letting go of this unhelpful and self-destructive habit will make the burden of your loss, or hurt, or pain more manageable and easier to carry – even though it doesn’t take your original suffering away. You can do this by learning how to apply the skills of compassion to yourself.
Offering yourself compassion can be difficult at first. You may feel a little uncomfortable or even resistant to the notion of being kind to yourself right now. Many people believe that it is important to be hard on themselves, believing that if they don’t, they will become lazy, careless, or hurt others. You might also feel that you don’t deserve such kindness and that any mistakes you’ve made need to have consequences.
Yet what we know is that being compassionate towards ourselves helps to motivate us to do better. It helps us move towards being better versions of ourselves (Gilbert 2009, Kolts 2016, Silberstein-Tirch 2019). Offering yourself compassion means supporting yourself in your struggle; being a warm caregiver for yourself when others can’t, won’t, or simply aren’t available. This source of compassion (you) is always available; you need only to learn how to access it.
The following exercise has been taken from The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism. It taps into your ability to be kind, caring, warm, and nurturing to others, and gently turn this ability towards yourself.
Activity: Holding a Baby Chick
Read the following script, then find a quiet place to complete this visualisation at a gentle pace. If you are not fond of birds, feel free to imagine something else small, harmless, and vulnerable, such as a newborn puppy, sleeping kitten, or tiny seedling.
Start by closing your eyes or looking down toward the floor, placing your feet squarely on the ground, and sitting up so that your head feels supported on your shoulders. Notice your body as it is resting on the chair, and how your feet are resting on the floor. Take three slow, deep breaths, and let your body sink gently into your space, feeling the support of the chair and the floor, holding you in place.
Place your hands together on your lap to create a little bowl. Imagine that you are holding a baby chick in your hands. Feel the tiny bird’s heart beating and its entire body trembling. Notice how you must hold this baby bird very gently in order not to hurt it in any way.
Appreciate that the chick is vulnerable and how you must take extra care to hold your hands open and steady. Notice that you hold the bird without judgement or criticism. Feel warmth and kindness flowing from you to the baby bird. Gently hold this position for a minute or two, noticing how it feels to hold this baby bird so carefully, delicately, and tenderly.
Now take a deep breath and imagine you are holding your suffering in your hands in the same way. Connect with your suffering and hurt. Hold your suffering gently and steadily in the same way you would hold the baby chick. Breathe.
Appreciate your suffering as something vulnerable and needing your care. Allow feelings of warmth and kindness to flow from you to your suffering. Feel an intention to help yourself in your struggle.
Stay with this experience for several minutes, breathing gently and focusing on holding your suffering tenderly, and with curiosity. Appreciate and soak up the experience of self-compassion.
If you find it challenging to offer yourself this warmth and kindness, focus on your intention to offer this kindness to yourself. Try to develop an attitude of non-judgement towards your suffering. Stay with this experience for a minute or two.
Then in your own time, as you bring this exercise to a close, feel a sense of warm benevolence toward yourself and commit to carrying this with you for the rest of your day.
At first, it may feel strange and unfamiliar to hold your suffering so tenderly. You may notice a difference between how you can offer warmth and kindness to someone else and how you approach yourself. If this happens to you, don’t be disheartened. Try the activity again and focus on your intention of offering yourself kindness. This is a useful bridge towards compassion.
And remember that you can start your journey towards greater self-compassion right now. Pause to notice your struggle at this moment. Notice any mixed feelings about this exercise. Notice any frustrations, evaluations, or judgements you have about yourself or your skills. Feel your desire to learn this new skill and any other feelings such as confusion, or sadness. Make room for all these experiences with kindness and without needing to do anything about them. Simply hold them, gently.
The skills of self-compassion can be learned over time, and with repeated practice. Start by finding small opportunities to pay attention to your suffering, and without judgement, ask yourself what you need at that moment. Treat your suffering as if it were as delicate and vulnerable as a baby chick. Hold your suffering lightly, gently, and with a willingness to experience that suffering even if you don’t fully understand it.
Chodron, P. 2016. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. US: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Gilbert, P. 2009. The Compassionate Mind. London: Robinson.
Kolts, R. 2016. CFT Made Simple. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Silberstein-Tirch, L. 2019. How to Be Nice to Yourself. Emeryville: Althea Press.
About Jennifer Kemp, MPsych(Clinical)
Jennifer is a Clinical Psychologist who works with clients who are struggling with perfectionism and the mental health problems perfectionism facilitates and maintains. Jennifer is the author of The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism. She integrates ACT, behaviour analysis, exposure, and Compassion-Focused Therapy approaches in her therapeutic and consultation work. Jennifer presents internationally on the topic of perfectionism and is available for public speaking, conferences, and workshops. Find out more at www.jenniferkemp.com.au.