The little girl in the framed photo is holding a Siberian husky pup almost too heavy for her little body. She has dark banana curls and is missing her two front teeth. The teeth were lost after a face plant on a marble coffee table a year earlier. Like a gymnast on the parallel bars, she had been swinging her body forward and back like a pendulum, her little hands grasping the carved mahogany arms of a couch and chair placed kitty corner to each other. She had been warned not to do that, of course.
The old photo rests on a small cabinet in my home office in a lovely frame set against the backdrop of a wall painted with a lavender hew called Misty Memories. My eyes scan this photo every day, along with a few photos of my daughters at various ages and other reminders of the vulnerabilities and joys in life. I’ve included my small self in my morning ‘centering practice’ for so long that I’ve virtually forgotten the original intent for placing her in my view: Self-compassion.
What are some things you do to take care of yourself when the world seems to be falling to bits and pieces?
That’s a question I was asked recently by two amazing moms, Leslie and Tesi, founders of the Mama Bear Dares podcast. As I thought about my own life, the most tangible answer I could offer was having this little picture in my view every day. When I look at it I give an internal bow to that child who was so full of light and love and who overcame so much. It’s also turned into an acknowledgement of gratitude. It’s as if the now-me and my smaller me can wink at each other, our mutual gaze strung by delicate threads of resilience across the decades. And I always smile.
But the kicker is this: I don’t mention this practice in my book. This blind spot took me by total surprise. I have suggested this ritual to women who seek my counsel countless times. I even suggest they find photos of themselves at various ages 3, 12, 25 and so on. For some women, this is difficult because of all the pain, shame, or regret their past can trigger. But that’s precisely the point. Loving ourselves can be very hard to do. In fact, there is so much resistance to this idea that I put my own photo out many years ago. I wanted these women to see that I do this, too.
When I shared this idea Leslie and Teri teared up. It captured their attention. Their original question was about coping with the plight of humanity but we ended up talking about self-care. It can be challenging to care for others or to find one’s bearings when the latest calamity hits your life or ambushes the airwaves. We can fall under what I call a SPEL: Self-Protective Empathy Lethargy. The overwhelm can shut us down and make us want to crawl under the bed. That’s where I used to hide as a kid. This is a natural and human response to threat or fear. As a way through we need to find ways to calm the fear. “Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves,” says the meditation teacher, Pema Chödrön. Many wise people insist that in order to love and care for others, we must first love and care for ourselves.
Love Includes Everyone, So Count Yourself In
Love me first? It’s a true paradox. Self-kindness doesn’t just spring out of nowhere—it arises from being physically held by another person from the moment you were born. Envision the quintessential image of a mother with babe in arms, perhaps a memory of holding your own infant. Physiologically, a bonding process is unfolding within that image—eye gazing, rhythmic breathing, beating hearts, cooing sounds—sealing the human connection. Or imagine a beloved pet like the puppy in my photo. For me that photo is a double shot of mojo. I’m sure I didn’t even realize it when I chose to frame it for my little office altar so many years ago—before I even had a clue about the powerful emotional and physiological effects of self-compassion practice.
Such tenderness is inherently relational and has been part of our neurobiology from the start of life. But we don’t always have loving caretakers around when we need them. Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves enveloped with tenderness. Indeed, self-compassion has strong physiological elements. You can give yourself an inner hug, or embrace yourself with folded arms, or place a gentle hand over the heart. This is how you can ignite your body’s natural ability to soothe. That’s why having a photo of your smaller self can be so healing and nurturing. To seal in this self-care you can add in a personal affirmation that is authentic and true to your experience in the moment. It can be as simple as “I am strong.” “I am loveable.” “I’ve got this.” For the skeptic, you might try: “Even if this feels weird, I will be kind to myself.” Sometimes using self-talk in the third person can be helpful: “You sure were cute, kiddo.” “You are worthy of love.” “You can count on me.” The practice is meant to ignite uplifting feelings of love, tenderness, trust, protection, and well-being in relation to yourself.
When it comes to helping others just start close to home: the home of your own heart. The more you practice kindness for yourself, the more resilient—and compassionate—you become for others.
You can listen to Mama Bear Dares podcast here (Episode #146) as well as many other great conversations with women.
Learn more about my book, The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World.
For any one who pre-orders a book you can also get some extra goodies, like meditations downloads and affirmation images for your devices — after all we do need reminders!