Dear readers. Fellow moms and dads and caregivers. Parenting digs up all sorts of long-forgotten memories better left in the past, doesn’t it? For me, some of those memories are pleasant, but it’s more often the painful ones that float up into my consciousness and make trouble, stinging my heart like jellyfish.
I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. It started early. By the time I was my son’s age (10, currently), I was already a mess. The reasons for my depression are complicated, but long story short, it stems from growing up with parents who never validated my negative emotions in times of stress. If I was having a hard time, it was because I was:
- not trying hard enough
- a failure
Being compared to other kids didn’t help. Even in my middle age, it’s hard to shake the critical voices I’ve internalized. They tell me that I will never be good enough. They tell me that I’m not a good person, that I’m a waste of space. My parents are in their seventies now, and they are no longer the same people I remember from my childhood. While they should’ve have been more careful with their words, I can put them into context of their suffering.
As my son grows into the age I was when life began to feel bleak, I find that even pleasant interactions can sometimes trigger painful memories, and I end up stewing in anger and resentment. Stuck in the past. My anger is justified, yet my lack of compassion for what my parents were going through (that had mostly nothing to do with me) makes me feel like a bad person. Shouldn’t I have forgiven them long ago? It’s been decades. It’s Catch-22: admit I’m angry, but my anger makes me feel like a bad person. I call it the self-feeding cycle of self-hate. So, I’m supposed to feel compassion for my parents, but where is the compassion for myself? That piece of the puzzle is always missing.
Why am I so mean to myself?
I have great capacity for kindness towards others. I see other people as deserving of my kindness. Then why is it so hard to do the same for myself? It turns out this is quite common. Many of us have a hard time giving the same kind of compassion to ourselves. Psychologist and self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff states in her audiobook Self-Compassion Step by Step, that people equate self-compassion with weakness. This couldn’t be further from the truth, she argues. Self-compassion gives us the capacity for kindness and resilience. She backs up her argument with solid scientific research, often cited by relationship experts like Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute and Dr. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally-Focused Therapy).
So, what is compassion? Whether it’s towards others or ourselves, compassion recognizes suffering is occurring. It then responds emotionally to the pain that’s occurring. At the same time, compassion acknowledges vulnerability as a common human experience. It recognizes that suffering we witness today could be our own tomorrow. In compassion, we find humanity that exists in all of us. Defined in these terms, I think most of us practice compassion towards others on a regular basis. What about to ourselves? Maybe not so much?
The benefits of self-compassion
In her audiobook Self-Compassion Step by Step, Dr. Neff relates a story about flying with her autistic son. After takeoff, her son found the experience too stressful and threw a tantrum she couldn’t quell. It’s a nightmare scenario to which any caregiver can relate. As passengers stared daggers at her and her son, she survived the flight without falling into despair by extending compassion to herself. She acknowledged what a difficult thing she was going through. That acknowledgement, the act of self-compassion, gave her the resilience to be compassionate and caring towards her son.
In this short interview, she talks about a study she did on veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Her studies concluded that the level of self-compassion soldiers had was a better predictor of whether they developed PTSD compared to how much combat they saw.
These are just two examples. She cites many more in her books.
OK, so how do I give myself compassion?
So, it was my therapist who recommended the audiobook of Dr. Neff’s book, and it was quite useful because in it, she offers many guided meditations. Compassion begins with mindfulness, because we must learn to recognize our own emotions to know how to care for our heart and mind. Through her guided meditation, I’ve learned that self-compassion isn’t a switch you flip on and off. It’s a daily practice. And, as with everything, you get better with practice. Another simple but effective gesture of self-compassion is to give yourself a gentle hug. Or alternatively, try placing your hands over your heart in times of distress. I felt silly at first, but it really worked—it got me through a rough weekend.
Our contributor, licensed family and marriage therapist Vinay Gaglani offers a wealth of information on self-care in her post, Refilling The Empty Cup. In the interview, she talks about what self-care is and isn’t. Self-care works best when it has both expressive and receptive components. It’s one part creative activity and one part taking in the creative expression of others creative. If giving yourself a spa day works for you, by all means, go for it, but I take to heart Vinay’s point that for self-care to be fulfilling in the long run, we need to be active participants. For example, I’ve taken up oil painting and figure drawing again after years (decades, really) of hiatus. That’s been extremely rewarding and helpful in rebuilding my self-esteem.
The gift of low expectations
We live in a society that brags about having a schedule so full there isn’t time for sleep. We see celebrities, friends and family on social media and assume what they’re projecting is real, when it’s merely a highlight reel—and a tiny, highly curated glimpse at that. I say give yourselves the gift of low expectations. If you ordered pizza for a week because you had no time to cook, don’t be down on yourself. Think of it this way, good for you, you fed yourself. Lost your temper and yelled at your kid? Apologize and move on. Couldn’t get out of bed due to debilitating depression? That’s okay. You live to fight another day.
I find that the more I let go of my own expectations and embrace how I truly am at moments of distress, I’m able to create space in my mind to be more generous towards others as well as myself. So go easy on yourself, my friends. Doing so will allow yourself to have better relationships with all those around you.
Dr. Kristin Neff’s TED talk on the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion.
What Makes Self-Compassion Such a Hard Sell? by Bernard Golden, PhD
How To Cultivate More Self-Compassion by Allison Abrams, LCSW-R
My favorite mindful Meditation app, Headspace