Part 1.

The importance of caring for ourselves with kindness and compassion.

"For someone to develop genuine compassion towards others, first they must have a basis upon which to cultivate compassion, and that basis is the ability to connect to one's own feelings and to care for one's own welfare - caring for others requires caring for oneself."

- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Caring for myself sounded to me as if it should come naturally. I didn't think it was something that I had to 'think' about and I certainly didn't think I'd have to practice it. But, when life got tough I found that I didn't have that many self-care strategies, and I had to admit that I just didn't know how to look after myself that well.

Like many of us, instead of practicing self-care, I had been practicing a long-term form of self-criticism and self-neglect, and I practiced these strategies for such a long time they became neutralized, habitual and invisible. I'd been so harsh to myself for so long that I was no longer aware that I was doing it, but the effects of this regular practice registered in my:

  • body - in the form of tension, stress, tiredness, illness
  • emotions - as fear, shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness
  • mind - as a narrowing of awareness, zoning out, reactivity, sense of being on high alert
  • behaviour - short temper, passivity, avoidant, withdrawing.

But, it doesn't have to be this way. The development of mindful awareness and loving kindness allows us to bring into view anything that isn't loving or kind, such as self-criticism (often termed the inner critic) and patterns of self-neglect.

Most of us would like to send our inner critic into deep dark space on a one-way ticket. But, strangely enough this would be unproductive, unwise and unkind, because our inner critic is part of us, a valuable member of our team! Our inner critic is in effect a self-coping strategy that we've developed to protect us from disappointment and hurt (it's intentions are good!).Nevertheless, the best thing we can do is develop our awareness so that we can identify when our inner critic is active or stressed and then meet it more wisely, with understanding and generosity rather than fear or rejection.

It might feel a little strange to try and befriend your inner critic, especially if it's continually harsh. So it might be useful here to imagine having the job of the inner critic, criticizing all day long and then, when the person you're criticizing is hurt or feeling down, turning the volume of the criticism up! That would be a pretty exhausting and difficult job to do wouldn't it? And that's the job many of us do all day long (on top of everything else we're doing), except in this scenario we're both attacker (self-critic) and attacked (by our own self critic!!). No wonder we feel miserable and exhausted.

The process of befriending our inner critic, of coming into tender relation to it (to ourselves), of connecting with our feelings, and meeting our experience instead of rejecting it, is kindness and compassion in action.

But it's not enough to know on a cerebral level that it's wise to cultivate self-compassion. Because our patterns or practices of self-criticism or self-neglect may be well established its really important to have explicit practices which we can learn and then repeat. Practices like Loving Kindness and Compassionate Acceptance help us to:

  • Develop a friendliness towards ourselves, especially when we're hurt or life gets tough
  • Meet our suffering, pain, distress, sadness, loneliness in a gentler, more compassionate way
  • See when unkindness arises. Once we see the patterns then we have a choice as to how best to deal with them
  • Develop a friendliness towards others which helps us feel less isolated and alone and more connected