Cultivating Inner Strength and Kindness in Difficult Times
Events in recent weeks have caused a considerable amount of stress and strain individually and collectively, disrupting our lives in ways we could barely have imagined only a few months ago.
As we adapt to this new, unknown territory, emotions are running high. We often don’t know how to process what we’re feeling and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all.
Personally, I have felt a roller coaster of emotions and, if I’m honest, life has not been easy. In such trying times, self-compassion is an invaluable resource. Caring for ourselves may be the last thing on many of our minds, but it's essential in helping regulate our emotions, calm our nervous system and, ultimately, increase our compassion for others. Here I will share a little of what my self-compassion practice has looked like lately and how it has helped me find calm and focus amid the chaos.
Step 1 - Awareness of what I’m feeling
At the beginning of this pandemic, I could barely make sense of what I was feeling. It was hard to put into words. It was enough to simply say to myself
This feels really hard right now.
For several weeks that was about all I could manage. In time I could begin to label emotions more distinctly, like,
I feel sad, I’m anxious, this feels like grief etc.
I didn’t have any solutions or answers and the most compassionate thing I could do in the face of suffering was to be with myself and whatever I was experiencing in a kind and gentle way, just as I would sit with a dear friend or child who was struggling.
As humans we naturally try to avoid painful experiences and gravitate towards pleasant ones – we'd rather focus on something else, throw ourselves into problem-solving mode or numb our feelings altogether - so this turning towards our difficult emotions can seem counter intuitive at first. But the simple act of naming emotions as they arise creates both space and warmth, which in turn can allow them to soften and loosen their hold on us.
Step 2 – Know that I am not alone
The second stage in cultivating self-compassion is to remind myself that I am not alone in my suffering. I could reassure myself that suffering is, after all, a part of being human.
Lots of people are struggling right now. It’s normal to feel the way I’m feeling.
It can be hard to acknowledge our common humanity when we’re struggling. We have a tendency to withdraw, to feel separate from others, to feel that somehow we shouldn’t feel this way. This can make things worse by adding a layer of self-criticism, guilt or even shame to whatever we’re experiencing. But the reality is that everyone struggles, suffering is part of life. So, validating our suffering and acknowledging it as part of the shared human experience – global crisis or no global crisis - is a compassionate response.
Step 3 – Asking ‘What do I need’?
Once I was able to connect with my pain and incline towards it with kindness, I could ask myself the quintessential self-compassion question
What do I really need right now?
This question is so simple yet often overlooked. The answer is personal to everyone. For me, what I needed at first was to let my experience be exactly as it was. If I needed to cry, I’d cry, if I wanted to lose myself in my work, I’d allow myself to do that. Increasingly as I continued to ask myself this question over and over again, I discovered I needed to find ways to get out of my head and into my body. I would go for a walk, say hello to the neighbors (from a safe distance of course), spend time in my garden and let the sights and sounds of springtime dazzle my senses. These are some of the informal ways of practicing self-compassion.
There are also more formal ways of practicing which I enjoy too. Meditating as part of a global online community has been an unexpected gift of this crisis, helping me to witness our common shared humanity firsthand. Above all, whatever I do, I do it with kind intention, honoring whatever I’m feeling, without judgement. I incline towards my critical voice as a friend, thanking it for trying to protect me and wanting me to improve, even if I don’t choose to heed its advice. And I honor the scared and vulnerable part of me that doesn’t know what to do, just as I would comfort a loved one who was struggling in some way.
I know this feels really hard right now. I am here for you, we will get through this, I love you, what do you need right now’?
I find ways to soothe myself, ways to connect with others, ways to be kinder to myself. I practice gratitude for the small things, I nourish my body and mind as best I can and, perhaps most importantly, I cut myself some slack when I don’t reach my own expectations. By the cultivation of self-compassion, I find that I am not only more able to support myself in my time of need, but I have the emotional capacity to be there for others too.
So, when you're struggling and feeling overwhelmed, try asking yourself
What is this emotion I'm feeling?
How might I meet this feeling with kindness?
What do I really need right now?
*The 3 step process described here is an adaptation of the 'Self-Compassion Break', an informal practice from the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion course.