When I was 15, my boyfriend broke up with me. When I was 19, I got fired from my first office job. When I was 27, I found out my youngest son had diabetes. When I was 35, I broke a confidence with a friend. When I was 45, I was obsessed with the wrinkles in my face… And so it went, one situation after another in a life that felt like it was going off the rails. In each case, I was devastated and totally sure that it was my fault, and I was the only one that had ever felt this way.
Sound familiar? Sound ridiculous?
Yes, we know that life has its ups and downs, and every one of us has their problems, but somehow, we don’t really know it when we are in the middle of the latest disaster. The voices in our heads become so ingrained that we don’t realize they are just stories and not who we are.
Over the years, my mindfulness practice gave me the ability to see these attacks on myself for what they were and even started to soften the blows a bit. I could sit with the voices that told me I was a total schmuck and see that they were just thoughts. But what my mindfulness practice didn’t give me was an alternative voice, a different story.
Finding an Alternate Voice
A chance meeting at an airport gave me the missing piece. It was at the end of a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I and the woman sitting next to me on the shuttle both had delayed flights. Her name was Kristin Neff, and after chatting briefly about the retreat, she shared with me that she was a researcher and that she had just written a book called Self-Compassion.
I was intrigued, and I loved the title! Was there another way to work with the voices in my head? The ones I’d been listening to for the last ten days? Well, it was certainly worth a try!
Treat Yourself as a Friend Would
Simply, self-compassion is about being your own best friend. It has three components:
- Mindfulness – Acknowledging that you’re in pain – “This hurts right now.”
- Common Humanity – Suffering is a part of life – “I’m not alone.”
- Self-Kindness – Taking time to soothe yourself; say a few kind words, or put your hand on your heart.
As I began to incorporate these new practices into my life, things began to change. I was kinder to myself and others, and I began to replace those stories of inadequacy and isolation with stories of self-love and connection. And sometimes, I could actually stop myself before I did the next destructive thing, like lash out at someone who didn’t deserve it, or drink too much wine, or eat too much pizza.
Over time, I realized the most transformative part of self-compassion for me is “Common Humanity.” When I’m struggling with self-criticism, it really helps to know that I’m not alone, that other people do the same silly things, and that it’s not a fatal flaw on my part. Or if it is, its one we all share.
We really are all in this together! With this new understanding, I can even laugh at myself sometimes. Slowly, kindness and acceptance are becoming my default, and I love being part of this community of crazy, goofy human beings.