You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection – Buddha
Recently, I had an interesting response from a therapist friend of mine, to my blog post, Reflections On a Bipolar Life. He commented on how my piece illustrated a concept in the mental health field known as “self-compassion.”
In my writing about bipolar disorder, I described the process of healing that I experienced. And my journey to find a way to integrate parts of myself that I was afraid of, or that I viewed as flaws. And how I needed to accept my illness as a uniquely positive attribute. Recognizing that it is just one facet of a uniquely, complicated me.
And in doing that, I was able to open myself up to feeling whole and beautiful. And open to sharing my experience with all of you.
Well, those were definitely huge, dramatic moments in my life. But there are also many, smaller moments in my day where I struggle with self-acceptance. I think we all do.
Lately, for me, it has been around the issue of my appearance, in particular, my weight. It may sound trite, but having been overweight, I carry around that painful shadow. When I was growing up, I was ashamed of being heavier than my peers.
And, as an adult, I’ve grappled, at times, to like what I see in the mirror. I’ve struggled to be the confident woman I mostly am.
I know it’s easy to read this and write off my experience. Like “so what?” or “what’s the big deal?” Or even “wow, that’s shallow.” And that’s an understandable reaction. But, I believe, that it’s in these everyday hurts, these smallest of abuses, that we experience profound suffering.
Small hurts cut deep. We feel them to our core. They penetrate a vulnerable place within us. A place that we walk through the world trying to deny, to hide, to protect. But it is who we truly are. And we all want to be loved and accepted. We want it from others, and we need it from ourselves.
I think we all hear these judging voices – the ones that say we’re not good enough, not attractive enough, not successful enough. We are our own worst critics. We talk to ourselves in ways we would never think of talking to a friend. And, like small barbs, the insults chafe against our interior, and exhaust us, and sometimes actually begin to define us.
In a nutshell, this notion of “self-compassion” is a Buddhist response to the traditional “self-esteem” movement we’ve been exposed to for years. The main distinction is that self-esteem is based on competition and comparison. It is achievement oriented – we should be better than others, be the best in every area of life. Even while this is impossible (how can we all be the best?) it is still something we are supposed to strive for.
Self-compassion, however, is an actual acceptance of who we are, the way we are. Right here, right now. It is a way of reinforcing the positive, not through competition or fear, but through simple affirmation. The idea is that giving ourselves positive feedback goes a lot further than beating ourselves up with negative thoughts.
Another component of self-compassion is the extension into the wider world, to the shared human experience. When we fail, or we are having a difficult time, we seem to think that something is fundamentally wrong. That things should be perfect. Because, if they were, then we wouldn’t be feeling inadequate or in pain.
But why not appreciate being human – with all the pain, the struggle, the imperfections?
All of us are flawed. When we look around, we know that others also share our struggle. We know that to suffer is a universal experience. It’s a fact of being alive. So, in this way, self-compassion allows us to recognize the common suffering among all of humanity.
So to address our own pain is to empower us to reach out to others.
But women, especially, are so uncomfortable praising ourselves, even nurturing ourselves, because it seems self-indulgent. We’re afraid that we will become lazy or narcissistic. But to truly love and accept ourselves is a radical notion.
It means that we embrace all of our hard-earned edges. Our stretch marks, our worry lines, the gaps in our teeth, our slight limp. Our chunky thighs, our shyness, our lack of education. Our pain and our loss. Our singleness, our insecurity, or our lack of athleticism. And the many times in the day when we feel fat, and unloved, and unworthy.
Kristin Neff, in her book Self-Compassion, believes that simple meditation can help us find the acceptance that we crave. To do the meditation, we must start in the moment when we are struggling and feeling the pain of self-judgement. First, we begin by placing our hand on our heart.
And then, to ourselves, we simply state the fact that we are hurting, and acknowledge that the pain is real, no matter how small it is.
And then, we say to ourselves, I am not alone, others feel this pain, too. And next, I feel compassion for myself in this moment.
And finally, I am okay, just as I am. Here, now.
Doing this meditation, it strikes me how subtle the effect is. It’s just a tiny shift of the heart. A movement towards softness, toward a gentle opening. A space where I feel a little bit like a flower unfurling. Or like a frightened kitty being coaxed out from under the bed.
In just allowing myself to slow down and recognize my discordant feelings, the moment can change. I’m moving out of feeling disgusted or angry or disappointed. With my focus on my breath and the awareness of my body, the positives can flow in. I have this moment – right here, right now. I’m okay – just as I am.
In spiritual language, this meditation expresses the fact that we are each uniquely created to reflect God’s glorious imagination. By acknowledging the sacred beauty in ourselves, we honor and celebrate a larger grandeur. And it is our role to appreciate our amazing bodies and souls – and value them, not denigrate or dismiss them.
I’m willing to give it a try. It is perfectly clear to me how my negative thought patterns mold my attitude and pollute my outlook. So maybe positive affirmations can work in the opposite way. And maybe, through meditation, I might sense a positive reaction in my body. And feel the negative chatter in my mind begin to quiet. And this radiating energy, in turn, might even extend outward into my family life, into my relationships, and even beyond.
A lot to ask? Maybe.
I remember my mom used to have a small, satin, lavender-filled, heart-shaped pillow. It had a little bit of weight to it, and it nested perfectly in my hand. It was a gift from a friend, designed for Mom to place on her heart when she needed to feel comforted – and to feel healed. It was funny, even picking it up in my hand felt so soothing.
At the time, I didn’t think the little object was really Mom’s cup of tea. She didn’t go in for any of that New Age type of stuff. But I was wrong. Mom cherished it.
And, you know, never for a moment would I discount the power of that little heart to heal Mom’s cancer. Because I truly believe that subtle actions can make a difference. They may be the only things that actually do make a difference, if you think about it.
Like my mother’s sweet lavender heart, the most powerful kind of compassion is the kind we apply to our own broken hearts. It’s an act of radical self-acceptance that can transform our lives.
For the only way we can love others is by first accepting and loving ourselves, completely. Only in this way can we be whole, by throwing out the critical, shaming voices. And while it seems a simple thing, it is definitely not easy.
But once we understand it’s power, a completely different way is open to us.
A hand holding a heart, a few gentle words. A simple gesture of compassion, an uplifting idea. My small gift to you – like a lavender-scented pillow to place upon your breastbone.
That we may both feel the comforting, satiny weight, and inhale the herbal sweetness, and know – really know – just how beautiful we are. Right here, right now. We are whole, we are perfect, and we are beautiful – just the way we are.
In the photo: Le Mur Des Je'taime, in Montmartre, Paris, by Frederic Baron and Claire Kito. The words I love you, written in every language in the world.