I have been living in this lesson for decades. As a patient and understanding person, it takes quite a bit to upset me. I will forgive the mistakes and offenses of others, and will gladly intervene with compassion in a work or personal setting. I tell people all the time that “we are all human, and none of us is perfect!”
I have a very intense job, and at the moment, given our uncertainty about the coming weeks and months, it has become much more so. In the midst of growing stress, I have made a few errors just this week. None of these mistakes placed anyone in danger, but you betcha I have been beating myself up for those since! I hold myself to the standard of perfection, though I would never hold another person to that standard. I am willing to understand, forgive, encourage, and be gentle with others. Why is it so terribly difficult to do so with myself?
In a previous blog post, I discussed the anatomy of the human body. However, let’s review: in the human body, the first muscle filled with blood rich in oxygen (and that receives this blood before the remaining vessels and organs) is the heart. Think about that – the heart circulates to itself before it sends blood to the rest of the body! If the heart were to save itself for last in the flow of nutrients and crucial life-giving capacity, there would be nothing left to nourish it. It would die, and the rest of the body would die.
In Tibet, the word compassion is not considered complete if it does not include ourselves. If you are doing something kind for someone else, but it is harming you, then it is not a compassionate act. I heard this from a friend years ago, and have had it on repeat in my brain numerous times. It is relevant nearly every day, in our work, our family lives, in relationships, and within ourselves. It is easy to become lost in the service of others, in our career or vocation, and in our families.
Many of us are facing sudden changes due to this new “normal” we are learning to embrace (or at least accept). We may not feel, particularly those with spouses and children or who have essential jobs, that we have any time to care for ourselves in these days. Burnout is rampant in the health care professions, more than any other job sector. With this outbreak, the increased demand for certain medical services, and the abandonment of others, there is a danger this will only increase. I have experienced it myself!
Isaiah 54 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. In it, the author relates a message from our creator, filled with compassion and promises to rebuild us, though we may be ravaged by storms and afflictions. I go to this passage when I am discouraged, lonely, burdened with my anxieties, and when I have not cared for myself. Pampering is one way to care for ourselves, but a pedicure will not cure our hearts of their grief and pain. Taking deeper steps to care for ourselves is vital, and will require more creativity for many of us as we are confined to our homes. The most critical part of making these external efforts, however, is that we find a place of solace for our hearts and souls to partake in nourishment.
When we experience stress or exhaustion, our circles of relationships, those friends and family members we normally reach out to and maintain ongoing conversation with, often become smaller. I retreat within myself and become quiet, not communicating well with friends. The noise in my head becomes so loud I cannot give voice to it or verbalize it. I will find myself hiding for days, not reaching out and asking for compassion from trusted friends. I will offer prayer and encouragement to others, but will not ask for it myself.
We each have our ways of coping, but are not often willing to check ourselves and ask, “What do I need? What does my body need? What does my soul need?” We try to plow through, continuing to adopt an “autopilot” mode instead of stopping and realizing that we are not including ourselves in the membership of humans needing compassion.
One of the most important parts of mindfulness is recognizing the value of taking care of ourselves. If we are truly going to be a benefit to others, then we must absorb that caring for ourselves is not selfish. No one deserves it less than anyone else. Caring for ourselves is the best way to prepare ourselves to give back. We cannot be genuine when we are masking the caverns of pain within us or are refusing to face our own needs. The wisdom of the body knows this. The heart and mind know this. They may become tangled, but they speak to us and ask us to rest. We have grown accustomed to ignoring them, but they continue to ask.
Albert Einstein held this observation:
We place ourselves into prisons of a sort, removing ourselves from the circle of humanity and keeping ourselves from receiving compassion. We bury our needs and desires, and we consider ourselves beyond reach. We “tough it out” while becoming colder and less caring. If we are all part of a whole where everyone’s own well-being is vital, then our well-being is just as necessary as anyone else’s!
So, how do we love ourselves in order to love others? First, we must recognize and accept that we are valuable and worthy of love. Finding ways to quell the self-criticism which we all hear, that tape that is on repeat inside our heads, is crucial. The definition of mindfulness is “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing feelings, thoughts, and sensations but not judging them.”
We are quick to take a thought or feeling and immediately apply it or believe it as truth, instead of evaluating it as part of a process we are working through regarding external situations and internal triggers. If we are in a conflict with another person, we find fault within ourselves or think we were the focus of the other person’s anger or negativity, allowing words to have power over us. Taking time to sit with (not in, but with!) our emotions and reactions, praying and seeking counsel, and separating ourselves from the feeling allows us to focus on what is within our control and what is not. This also enables us to care for ourselves by finding and reciting truth.
A dear friend has found much solace in focusing on one activity at a time. When she is preparing and eating food, she focuses on that. She turns off the television/computer/music, does not look at her phone, and sits with her husband in conversation, enjoying the nourishment she is providing her body. In this era of busyness and constant multi-tasking, she carves out a few minutes of mindfulness throughout the day.
Removing ourselves from circumstances or situations that are toxic to the soul is another way to be compassionate toward ourselves. Quite a few friends of mine have quit social media due to the great distraction, comparison, and self-criticism they found themselves sitting in so easily. I took myself off Facebook for an extended period of time while struggling with anxiety, and I did not miss it!
Nurturing relationships that bring us joy and edify us is a compassionate act. I have chosen to end or greatly diminish contact in friendships where reciprocation and mutual encouragement was not present. It is not selfish to remove unhealthy friendships from our lives. I also know this is much easier said than done! But I do not want to participate in any activity or relationship where I know I am only doing so out of a sense of obligation.
I am aware that there are relationships and situations where interaction is unavoidable, such as with family or extended family, or in the professional world. In these circumstances, there are still many ways to be compassionate toward ourselves. Developing a plan of action and being conscious of/voicing our needs is very important, and placing boundaries to protect ourselves is not selfish, but self-aware. Some basics to practice this self-awareness include staying in a different location than the family, limiting contact and time spent in those activities considered most important, deciding what topics are off-limits in discussions, and maintaining open communication with your other half.
Consciously taking time to learn and find what brings us joy, to focus on nourishing ourselves, and to accept where we are and who we are, will equip us to give and love genuinely. Forgiving ourselves for shortcomings, receiving compliments (so hard for me to do!), speaking positively to ourselves, and discerning truth from lies are all components of self-compassion. Synonyms for compassion include benevolence, mercy, grace, humanity, kindness, and tenderness. Let’s try to live a few of these words in action: not just for others, but for and toward ourselves!