I’m so excited to share this post with you today as part of the Women’s Holistic Health Blog Tour hosted by Vivinne (Kala) Williams from YogaBlissDance.com. Throughout the tour each expert blogger will share her tips on how women can maintain their emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
During my first semester of graduate school I was extremely depressed. On top of the depression, I was living with the daily stress of ending a long-term relationship, going to a school I didn’t like, and I was strapped for cash. I was so run down physically and emotionally that the slightest change in temperature would leave me sobbing until my stomach hurt.
I’d just moved in with a new roommate who was homesick and sad, too. Some nights we’d cry together on the floor in our apartment and eat cookie dough from the tube with a spoon.
Even though I was living with someone who understood how low I was feeling, I still felt guilty about how miserable I felt in the midst of the privileges of being a student. I was studying public health and learning about communities that were experiencing suffering in ways I couldn't even fathom.
So as depressed as I was, I felt even more ashamed to be wallowing in self pity when others in the world were in far more pain. My inner critic was a constant bully, demanding that I suck it up and quit being so ungrateful. Criticizing myself added yet another layer of unhappiness on top of my already painful depression.
It’s strange to look back on that tangle of shame and self criticism. When I spent those evenings crying with my roommate, I felt deep compassion for her. I wanted her to feel comforted and loved, especially in her most vulnerable moments. That was the opposite of what I wanted for myself.
How often do we extend kindness and compassion to everyone around us while refusing to offer it inward?
We are quick to support our friends, families, coworkers, and even complete strangers when they're in challenging circumstances, but we don't always feel we deserve the same treatment.
This is a dilemma that so many of my self care coaching and yoga clients face. They are beautifully open-hearted and generous human beings who instinctually comfort those around them, while simultaneously beating themselves up for even the smallest mistakes.
When we're struggling, so many of us defer to our inner critics, giving them the power to invalidate our emotions over any perceivable "weakness".
"I can't believe you screwed up that report. No wonder you always get passed up for a promotion!"
"Why is everyone happy right now while you're miserable? You are totally pathetic."
"You should have been there when he got hurt. What kind of parent would be so neglectful?"
Would we say any of these things to those we love? Of course not! Most of us wouldn't even say them to people we don't like!
We may tell ourselves that harsh self criticism is what it takes to drive ourselves to snap out of it and do better. Or we may already know that it's unproductive and just makes us feel worse. Either way, research shows that belittling ourselves creates more anxiety and depression, and axes both our motivation and ability to reflect and think critically.
Bullying simply doesn't make us more productive, successful, or happy.
Instead, we are far better off treating ourselves lovingly, especially in our darkest times. What we truly need is perhaps the most important skill I help my self care clients hone: self compassion.
These reminders can help:
1. Self compassion is about responding to your own pain with love.
The first part, that recognition of suffering, can be the scariest.
During that unhappy semester of school I was terrified that acknowledging how much I was suffering would whisk me down a spiral of shame from which I might never recover. It was easier to let my inner critic berate me than to be still and hear what I was feeling beneath the self loathing chatter.
I didn’t think I could summon the courage to look in the mirror and say “Wow, I’m actually in a lot of pain right now.” But that’s the thing about self compassion.
Sitting with pain is uncomfortable. It's easier to escape or numb ourselves with TV, alcohol, or Candy Crush.
But we need mindful observation so we can move on to another critical part of self compassion: acknowledging that suffering isn't unique.
We suffer to varying degrees, but we are all vulnerable to pain, just by the privilege of being human.
3. Even in this very painful moment, you aren't alone.
Although a fellow sad person may not be sharing a spoonful of Nestle Toll House with you in the hallway right now, people in the past, present, and future have, are, and will hurt just like you.
Some of them may hurt more, but it helps to remember that compassion doesn't need to be conditional.
4. In fact, being kind to yourself gives you a more full well from which to offer love and warmth to others.
It's hard to help others when you can't see beyond your own pain. Supporting yourself emotionally can actually give you the safety and energy to further serve those who could benefit from your compassion.
I love this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: "Compassion is a verb."
Compassion, like self care, is more than a single act. It's a way of being in the world that helps us grow, forgive, comfort, and serve.
6. But like any lifestyle change, it takes practice.
Sometimes a moment of self compassion here and there is all we can muster today. After all, many of us have been surrendering to our inner critic for years, decades, or maybe as far back as we can remember.
Long-standing habits are rarely changed overnight, so I ask people to start their self compassion practice with a manageable, inspiring step.
That may be to simply interrupt your next self critical moment by observing what you're feeling and reminding yourself that others in the world feel it, too. You can then repeat a few loving words, like "I love you." or "May I be gentle with myself in this moment."
With practice, self compassion can become second nature and transform how resilient, brave, and happy you feel.
7. So, with all of the beautiful bravery that it takes to be present with the human experience, choose to meet yourself with the kindness you’d give your dearest loved ones.
On my most difficult days it helps to speak to myself from the perspective of my then roommate, now best friend.
“You’re heartbroken right now, Emily. I know it feels miserable, but you aren't alone. I love you and we’ll get through this together.”
What about you? How would you speak to yourself if you were your own best friend?
Emily Burrows is a self care coach, yoga teacher, and fierce advocate for self-compassionate living. Her life's work is helping women treat themselves like loved ones, through meaningful lifestyle change and unapologetic self care.