“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~Jack Kornfield
I never wanted to see a therapist. I imagined settling onto the storied couch and seeing dollar signs appear in concerned eyes as I listed the family history of mental illness, addiction, and abuse. I feared I’d be labeled before I’d ever been heard.
But after experiencing the emotional shock of witnessing a murder, I knew I needed a space to grieve. So I gathered all of my courage and laid myself bare to a very nice woman who had Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements on her coffee table. I trusted her.
Within moments of meeting me, that very nice woman shattered the world I knew. The characteristics I viewed as strengths—my drive, my nurturing nature, my strength under pressure—were neatly organized into a single neurosis: codependency.
As I leafed through the pages of the book she recommended to me, I saw myself in the narrative of the co-dependent: giving until I had given all that I had; investing myself deeply in the mental health of those around me; constantly trying to make others happy.
But rather than find comfort in the words on the pages, I found myself sinking into despair. All of those years I thought that I had escaped my past unscathed, and here I was, stuck with a label: codependent.
Week after week, I dove deeper into this idea that perhaps I needed to confront my past; perhaps I did need to grieve. I cried. I raged. I stopped eating. I ate too much. My health declined.
My therapist told me I needed to relax. So I woke up early every day, determined to be the most relaxed person I could be: always striving to relax harder, better. And yet I didn’t feel better; I felt worse.
By accepting a label given to me by a near stranger, I had unconsciously shifted my focus from living in the present to fixing something that I perceived to be wrong with my past. And it had overwhelmed me.
My inner critic gained a strength previously unknown to me. Every day, I thought about how I might make myself better. I cursed at myself for being unable to let go, and then I cursed at myself for cursing at myself.
I was exhausted.
As I slowly came to realize that I could not keep up with that inner critic, something changed. I accepted that I couldn’t be perfect. I accepted that I was human.
Only by finding my edge—that place where I couldn’t take any more—was I able to finally let go. When my inner critic started to rear its head, I learned to stick up for myself as I might defend a friend: “I am only human. I am not perfect, nor do I need to be.”
With that simple acknowledgement—I am not perfect, nor do I need to be—I was finally able to free myself not only from the pain of past experiences, but also from the pain that came from reducing myself to a label.
By learning to practice self-compassion, I became comfortable with the person I am today, free of expectations.
The journey to self-compassion was a difficult one for me, but I believe it to be a journey that I will only need to take once. Today, I have the tools I need to practice self-compassion without having to first battle my inner critic, and these are tools that anyone can use:
1. Acknowledge challenges and let them go.
I always remember, “I am not perfect, nor do I need to be.” When entirely normal emotions come up—frustration, stress, anger, fear—I remind myself that no one expects me to be perfect. I allow myself to feel whatever it is I need to feel and to then let it go.
2. Remember that you are exactly where you need to be.
When we start our journey inward, we may learn things about ourselves that shock us. I try to remember that every challenge has its purpose and I am exactly where I need to be today.
3. Practice self-growth rather than self-improvement.
Improvement implies that there is something to fix. Rather than attempting to “fix” what’s “wrong,” I focus instead on strengthening what’s right. Work toward personal growth rather than some idea of perfection.
4. Speak to yourself as you would speak to a friend.
As I faced challenges in my personal growth, I learned to be kind to myself. If a friend was struggling with an uncomfortable emotion, I would never criticize that friend with language like, “Why can’t you just learn to be happy all of the time?!” So I don’t speak to myself that way either.
5. Give yourself a hug.
Go on. Right now. Just do it. That felt good, didn’t it?
Self-compassion is an inside job. I’ve learned that if I am gentle with myself, the world becomes a gentler place. I invite you to experience it too.
Photo by Joseph Vasquez