When I grew up I learned a lot about being compassionate and giving to other people. My mother is German and came over after World War II at age 19 as a nanny. Eventually, she married an American guy (for worse rather than for better) and had two daughters. We really struggled when my parents split up. She began to sell Avon door-to-door to make ends meet. We were even on food stamps for a time. She either made our clothes or whipped up outfits from the local thrift shop. Few would ever have a clue about much we struggled. This led to a quiet kind of shame, an imposter syndrome. Still, we were always giving. If there was something that we didn’t need and somebody else could use it, we’d just gave it away. My mom’s cosmetic customers ended up with our hand-me-downs and toys for their children. It was quite the network of generosity.
Of course, kindness, self-sacrifice, and a reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy were very important values. But in our family it almost went to the extreme. When it came to giving for oneself, or even wanting or desiring anything, it was fraught with guilt and anxiety. Sometimes I became angry about it, too. It seemed somehow unfair and I threw fits of frustration.
I realized only later when I started learning about the science of compassion that I had found ways as a child to be caring towards myself. Often it was in the form of running away from home. This meant bee-lining through the backyard into the woods with my stuffed animal, named Rango, and my Raggedy Ann sleeping bag. I had many forts under pine trees and also up in the thick branches of a weeping beech situated on a rich neighbor’s estate. Mostly I’d find a favorite spot in a hidden thicket and lay down on the soft pine needles, looking up through the long arms of the trees, and just rest. I’d take in the sights and sounds and the smells; and it was really only when it got too dark that I would sneak back into the house and up into my room. (Of course, my mother knew I’d do that.)
Without knowing it, I was recruiting my own physiology for self-soothing. I engaged the “calm and connect” pathways in my body, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. I also had some courage.
This past winter I “ran away” to my first meditation retreat. It was a 7-day silent retreat for women. There was snow everywhere and it was bleak. We were not supposed to write in journals or read books, and of course there was no speaking other than in the conduct of some shared chores. The rebel that I am, I cheated a little bit. At the last minute before I left home, I brought with me a very thin book of poetry by Mary Oliver, Swan, that someone had gifted my daughter for her 18th birthday. I thought, “I can sneak this in with me.”
One night just like a child, I took out a flashlight and began reading. One poem cut me to the core. It spoke to me as if from a long hibernation. I recalled that earlier time in my life when I found refuge in the woods and wept. The poem is called “Trees,”
Heaven knows how many
trees I climbed when my body
was still in the climbing way, how
many afternoons, especially
windy ones, I sat
perched on a limb that
rose and fell with every invisible
blow. Each tree was
a green ship in the wind-waves, every
branch a mast, every leafy height
a happiness that came without
even trying. I was that alive
and limber. Now I walk under them —
cool, beloved: the household
of such tall, kind sisters.
Such tall, kind sisters. We need to find our places of refuge. A safe place. A sense of feeling bolstered up. As a young girl I had to learn how to bring compassion to my own suffering. I did it without even knowing it and because of that I didn’t appreciate the essentiality of this kind of self-love. Instead, I felt guilty about being such an ornery, temperamental child, of which I was often reminded.
Self-compassion is a psychological resource that we need to repeat over and over again. It’s about being on your own side, like a true friend. Self-kindness is a source of inner strength. As the psychologist Rick Hanson teaches, we need to absorb these nurturing and beneficial experiences so they get turned into lasting changes in the neural structures of the brain. He refers to this resourcing as filling the “neural backpack” with the supplies needed for wellbeing and true happiness. Self-compassion is one of those survival skills to carry along the journey of life.
Speaking kind words
One way that we can cultivate self-compassion and add it to the neural backpack is to come up with kind words for yourself.
You can write down simple statements such as:
I am okay.
I’m taking a stand for myself.
I trust in myself.
I am enough.
Even though this feels hard, I will be kind to myself.
Or, refer to yourself in the third person or imagine a wise being, an angel or spiritual guide, speaking to you:
You can do this.
Your true nature is love.
The only caveats are:
Be clear. Be authentic and true to your experience. Use a kind tone.
You can ask yourself what do I need to feel calm in my body? How can I bring kindfulness to this moment? The answers are typically universal human needs. For example:
You can also bring to mind times when your were really on your own side. Maybe it was through a hardship, failure, or loss; or you found yourself speaking up to someone who disappointed or hurt you. If this it too hard you can recall a time when you were encouraging or protective toward a loved one or friend. Direct that gentle attitude toward yourself.
Write down your phrases. Once you have one or two, try them on. Find a few minutes each day to quietly reflect on the statements. Repeat them aloud or in your mind and let them sink in. Call upon them when you find yourself in a challenging moment. You may use more traditional loving kindness phrases, too. These are phrases of wishing yourself well and including your being in the circle of humanity:
May I be safe and protected
May I be peaceful
May I live a ease and kindness
May I experience joy and purpose
Feel what it’s like to be committed to your own well-being, to being your own BFF. Let the feelings, thoughts and intentions of being a true friend to yourself sink in and becoming a part of you. And repeat.