The journey of life rarely follows the expected path. Last year around this time I experienced the most devastating loss I will likely ever experience in my life; the loss of our only daughter, Mamie. The grieving process is new to me, as is the earth-shattering devastation of unfulfilled hopes, dreams, shoulds, woulds and coulds. I typically opt for the well-supported, research-based approach to tackle difficulty, and I have come up empty handed on all fronts.
I am fortunate to have the support of my husband, family, friends, and a network of professionals interested in walking alongside to help me navigate. The experience is tough, exhausting, and continuous. At times it robs me of well-being, plays tug of war with my sense of hope and worth, and cripples my desire and ability to put one foot in front of the other. And, at other times, it serves as the fertile ground to plant seeds of self-compassion.
The practice of self-compassion came to me through my study of meditation. Honestly, I didn't give it a second glance until I desperately needed it. While similar to loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta, and ahimsa also known as non-violence in yoga, self-compassion isn’t a meditation practice. It is a way of relating to self and also others. It is a way of re-framing. Using self-compassion as a lens to filter my experience has been life altering. There are meditation and learning practices that facilitate exploration of cultivating self-compassion. But why do any of this?
Have you ever called yourself a name repeatedly? Lazy, not ____ enough (you fill in the blank), selfish, air headed? What about withholding something positive from yourself because you didn’t deserve it? How about self-inflicted punishment? I definitely have, we all do it; these are common behaviors. Possibly more familiar than we’d like to admit. So often we talk to ourselves in a way we would not dream of talking to someone else. Self-compassion is a radical approach featuring elements of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion validates its usefulness and application in many situations including grief.
Even though mindfulness is the third element of self-compassion, I understand it as the larger framework that makes self-compassion possible. You don’t have to set aside time to meditate, but rather greet your thoughts and feelings as an observer. When my feelings and emotions are viscerally close (over identification), I have to fix it all. I am grasping, attached, and there is no separation between me and my thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness offers me the opportunity to receive my thoughts and feelings rather than be my thoughts and feelings. This makes an enormous difference. It affords the opportunity to notice without being taken captive.
Along my journey of grief thus far, isolation serves to keep me closed from the idea that someone else could possibly relate. The concept of common humanity emphasizes that all humans are imperfect. Accepting our shared experience in grief, loss, and all the other aspects of life helps soften the impact of isolation. The practice of common humanity does not diminish the magnitude of our experience. It offers a sense of mutual discomfort and shared pain experience. Pain is a part of life, and our resistance to it is optional.
Self-kindness, another aspect of self compassion, was perhaps the most foreign to me when I started this practice. The idea is simple, be nice, speak lovingly, offer space and patience. As a trainer and fitness professional, I am accustomed to pushing myself, striving for more, and finding my "edge". Practicing self-kindness doesn't mean giving up, it means supporting with awareness and goodwill. As Kristen Neff says, "It is a practice of goodwill not good feelings." Easy to grasp theoretically, and I have a lifetime to practice.
Want to learn more or begin your own self compassion practice?
Check here for a comprehensive list of self-compassion authors, websites, and suggested practices: