Compassion for others seems heartwarmingly heightened this time of year, as many people are moved by this season of giving and gratitude. While many of us attend to the suffering of others—we give of our money, food, and time to various charities and causes, we care for ailing loved ones, etc.—we often pay little attention to what is going on inside ourselves. How long can we expect to sustain help for others when we fail to honor our own needs?
Self-Compassion is Not Selfish
Self-compassion may be one of the best gifts we can give ourselves and others. In her book Compassionate Laughter, Nurse Patti Wooten writes:
As we establish a loving, spiritual connection with those we care for, the separation between self and other melts away. We begin to include ourselves in our compassion. If we hope to continue to care for others, we must remain sensitive to our own needs, intuitions, and emotions.1
For some, self-compassion may even be a prerequisite. Tibetan Buddhist Lama Gelek Rimpoche states, “For me the goal of spiritual practice, spiritual work, is that first we have to liberate ourselves, then help liberate others.”2 I call this the “Airplane Oxygen-Mask Principle.” If you’ve ever flown on a commercial airline, you are probably familiar with the emergency instructions given by the flight attendant: “In the case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from overhead. Adults, please place the oxygen mask on yourself first, before placing an oxygen mask on your child.” Sometimes we have to save ourselves before we can ever truly be helpful to others. We certainly can’t do much good passed out on the airplane floor due to lack of oxygen.
If you have compassion, you are said to have “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”3 My question for you is, are you conscious of your own distress and, if so, what are you doing to alleviate it? The following are examples of how to extend compassion to yourself when it’s lacking.
Give Yourself a Break
One recent afternoon, I started to feel tired, then a bit gloomy and grumpy, then headachy. I finally had to acknowledge that I had over-scheduled myself with commitments and was suffering the results. I was a slave-driver working myself into exhaustion without compassion for my needs for rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Would you encourage your best friend to keep working for a boss who never gives him or her time off?
My response was to allow myself time that evening and the days to follow for mini-breaks: a nature walk, a funny movie, a nap, fifteen minutes of meditation, a hot bath, or a cup of tea and an inspirational book. By taking time off, I actually became more productive, creative, and efficient than if I had plowed through relentlessly.
Be Gentle with Yourself
You may be among those extraordinary people who are participating in their own healing of a physical or emotional condition and who believe in their power to improve their health. But perhaps things aren’t changing as quickly as you’d hoped. Perhaps you have worked long and hard on your health and you still don’t have the results you desire. Your internal dialogue may be heading toward thoughts such as, “I’m not doing enough. I need to work harder. I’m not thinking positively enough. I hate my ill body.” Renowned Medical Intuitive Caroline Myss notes:
When you must take time to heal, do it gently. Healing through force of will alone, through determination without self-compassion, is a form of self-inflicted violence. Don’t resent your body for breaking down; learn from the experience so that it does not have to be repeated. Trust the process of healing. It has an intelligence of its own. Learn to listen to what your body needs and to what your spirit needs. Above all, value your health and your well being as your first priority. Honor thyself.4
Having compassion for yourself means being your own best friend—being for yourself and not against yourself. There are always things we can improve on, but self-compassion means sending yourself love and appreciation for whatever positive strides you’ve made in your life or simply because you deserve unconditional love and compassion just as much as any other being in the Universe. There is nothing more you need to be or do or do better to deserve self-compassion.
Take the Pressure Off
How much pressure are you putting on yourself to be, do, or have something? What would happen if you took some of the pressure off? Many of us place more and more demands on our time and then are upset with ourselves when we aren’t able to accomplish all we set out to do. Law of Attraction experts Abraham-Hicks assure us that “You did not come forth to ‘get it done.’”5
We certainly did not come forth to put an impossible load of demands upon ourselves and then feel bad for always falling short. Self-compassion means relinquishing this self-imposed pressure to be Superman or Superwoman. Simplify. Prioritize. What do you most value? Perhaps your body and soul need a half-hour of fun time today rather than a clean bathroom.
Be Patient with Yourself
Perhaps you are seeking spiritual enlightenment and have been practicing spiritual disciplines and principles for years but haven’t reached the state of nirvana you desire. “I should be enlightened by now,” you may be thinking. “I shouldn’t have reacted so angrily in that situation. I should have been able to maintain a sense of peace and joy. I should know better by now.”
Just as children tend to naturally develop more advanced skills as they age (e.g., they often roll around or push up on all fours before they crawl, and crawl before they walk, and walk before they run), we can allow ourselves the benefit of divine timing, knowing that as we set our intention toward enlightenment or personal growth or change of any sort, we are improving at just the right pace for us. Is beating ourselves up for not being able to attain what we want within our specified time frame a kind and loving act? How do we know we aren’t right on track?
Forgive Yourself for Making Mistakes and Not Being “Perfect”
After many years of striving to become a highly conscious being, I still have times when I fly off the handle at my kids or make a sarcastic remark to my parents, or am too fearful to do something I need and want to do. Although I am much more aware and getting better and better, I still don’t “get it right” one-hundred percent of the time. My big “Aha!” moment came when I realized I needed to have compassion for myself, because I was truly doing the best I could with the resources I had at the time.
And if I still made mistakes even though I had the best of intentions, how could I expect any more from anyone else? Wasn’t everyone doing the best they could with the resources they had at the time? Dare I admit, even my ex-husband? Self-compassion means forgiving yourself for not being perfect and allowing room for mistakes. They are a vital part of learning and growing.
When you feel fatigued, frustrated, stressed, or unhappy, try giving yourself the gift of self-compassion. Not only will you reap the enormous benefits, but you will also cultivate more compassion for others. You’ll inspire them to treat themselves with kindness, and you’ll have more energy and enthusiasm to keep on giving.
Compassionate Laughter, Patty Wooten, R.N., Salt Lake City: Commune-A-Key Publishing, 1996, p.44.
GOM: A Course in Meditation, Gelek Rimpoche, Ann Arbor: Jewel Heart Tibetan Buddhist Center, 2005, p. 4.
The Creation of Health: The Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual Responses That Promote Health and Healing, Caroline Myss, Ph.D., and C. Norman Shealy, M.D., 1993, p. 383.
Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Wealth, Health, and Happiness, Esther and Jerry Hicks, The Teachings of Abraham ®, 2008, p. 213.