When things are going well for us, it’s (mostly) easy enough to feel good about ourselves, and to feel compassion towards others.
But when life throws us those old curveballs every other day, or several times a day, it’s not so easy. Yet that’s when we need compassion the most – both to feel it for others and to feel it for ourselves.
So how to do it?
Let yourself off the hook
Firstly, if there are times you don’t manage to feel compassion, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, a bad person or anything else. It just means you’re like the seven billion or so other humans that live on this planet.
If that sounds flippant, it’s not meant to be. One of the ways most of us beat ourselves up is by thinking everyone else is somehow managing better than we are. In her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff defines three elements of self-compassion and one of them is recognising our common humanity. According to Neff, the opposite of this is “an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.”
Secondly, in Mindful Compassion Paul Gilbert and Choden say that there are times in our lives when it is harder to feel compassion for others – and not surprisingly, when we are experiencing suffering is one of those times.
Feel your emotions in this moment
So, if you feel disappointed, sad, afraid, angry – that’s okay. Allow yourself to feel those feelings. Yes, even the “negative” ones of disappointment, fear, sadness, anger.
Ee-ek! I hear you say. That’s exactly what I don’t want to be feeling right now!
Yes, I know, but it’s how you are feeling right now and arguing with reality doesn’t make reality change, it just makes our suffering more intense.
When you allow your feelings, you aren’t allowing them for all time, but for the moment that exists right now. That’s all we can ever do, because we can’t control a future that isn’t here, nor change a past that’s gone.
If it feels almost impossible to feel an emotion that terrifies you, it might help to visualise it. See it as a little child, and give that child a hug.
Don’t grip onto to your emotions – let them go.
When we feel disappointed or hurt, partly because of the sense of isolation Neff describes, we also tend to hold onto our suffering. We fold ourselves around it and cling, as if we were protecting our precious child.
But if you hold a child too tightly, you will hurt her or him, and it hurts to hold onto emotions.
So, just like you would a child when the upset has eased, let the emotion hop down and run away.
Notice when the feeling isn’t there
When we are so busy nursing an emotion, sometimes we don’t even notice is has passed. We tell ourselves the story of, “I feel so upset.” Yet in this moment, the upset is no longer there except in our story.
If this seems hard to grasp, think of a time you felt angry with someone, and then you heard something funny and laughed. You forgot about feeling angry – until something reminded you and then the anger came again. When this happens, we tend to tell ourselves, “I’m still so angry.” But that’s not true. Our anger wasn’t continuous. We let go, and then we felt it again. In between there was laughter. The same is true of other emotions. I once felt disconsolate, but went with a friend to see a funny, uplifting movie. I became so absorbed, I forgot my misery. Then the film ended, we left the cinema, and I remembered to be miserable again.
So if it seems impossible to let a feeling go, instead start noticing when it isn’t there.
Let go to take action
Often we cling onto negative emotions because we think we need them. Yet contrary to what many people believe, letting go won’t make us sit around doing nothing.
Sticking with the metaphor of the child, can you see that if you hold on tightly, instead of motivating, it keeps you stuck?
While anger or fear can feel so unbearable they push us into action, that action is often rash, destructive and eventually exhausts us. When our motivation comes from harmonious emotions, such as courage, we create constructive change.
Interestingly, we can let go of anger or fear and take exactly the same action we might have planned, but do it in a different way. Two friends of mine recently experienced this. Their situations were similar but the outcomes were different.
*Jake had invested a lot of money in a project. His work partner *Dave kept missing deadlines, sometimes not even starting tasks. Jake felt reliant on Dave’s expertise and was getting exasperated, especially when he couldn’t do his own tasks because he was waiting for Dave. He felt so furious that he considered dropping the whole project, even though he would lose money.
Instead, he released his anger. This freed him to see that Dave was feeling way out of his depth and struggling to make decisions, even about small things.
Jake called a meeting, at which Dave immediately said, “I’ve let you down again.”
“Yes,” Jake replied calmly. He continued, “That needs to change. What can I do to support you to make sure your work gets done?”
They discussed Dave’s difficulties with decision-making and worked out a plan to make more decisions together so that Dave could complete tasks, knowing he had Jake’s agreement. Things have improved enormously since then, and now that Jake’s not seething he’s more able to discuss issues as they arise.
*Emma was in a similar situation, but without the money investment in a project. She had wanted to leave it for some time but worried that she might be letting down other people and that it would affect their friendship. When she let go of her frustration and sadness that things hadn’t worked out, she realised that if she left it would actually be better for the others too. She could do what she’d felt she needed to, but without anger.
We often feel angry because we feel trapped, but our anger prevents us from seeing all aspects. Sometimes, as in Emma’s case, we can simply step out. Other times, letting go means the other person is freer to change – as happened with Jake and Dave. It’s not hard to see why this happened. Even if we don’t openly express anger, it’s in our demeanour. When we try to force people to do what we want, they generally want to resist or defy us back.
Be your own friend
The same applies to us. You are less likely to motivate yourself when you internally yell and scream, call yourself names and punish yourself. Those are all sure-fire ways to sap confidence, and add another layer of unhappiness to that you already feel.
Do it as best you can
If you find yourself hanging onto emotions or punishing yourself, don’t add to that by punishing yourself for that! (As Neff points out, we even judge ourselves for judging ourselves!) Just remind yourself you are doing it as best you can right now, and that’s enough.
Give that child a hug
So, instead of punishing, give that child part of you a gentle hug, remind her or him that you love them.
Focus on the present moment
Whenever we are dealing with disappointment, our minds tend to go over what’s happened again and again – or else they race off imagining scary futures. It’s useful to remind ourselves that right now, in this moment, we are okay. Even when dealing with difficult situations, it’s the thought of what might happen that causes us most distress. When I look back over my life, I can’t think of any time this wasn’t true. This is even true when we are experiencing grief. Though we feel sadness that our loved one has died, it’s when we think about the future without them that we feel worst. Noticing this and gently taking our minds back to the present can help us cope.
Say, “I love you,” – to yourself
A few years ago, I had some worrying physical symptoms and felt scared. I did my best to allow the fear, but at times it felt overwhelming. After a while, I simply repeated to myself, “I love you.” After a few minutes, I felt calmer. The fear continued to come in waves, but I felt more able to cope with whatever I might have to go through. (It turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I’d feared.)
You can do this in any difficult situation. If you don’t feel loving towards yourself, just do the best you can. A little love goes a long way.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
The ideas in this post are inspired by The Sedona Method and Self-Compassion. I highly recommend both these sites if you’d like to go further into befriending yourself in any situation. You can also check out the books mentioned in this post by clicking on the links below. If you do and then buy anything from Amazon, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you in advance!
Disclaimer: If you are experiencing serious emotional or mental health issues, please see a professional qualified to help you.
This post was written for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s theme of Compassion in Disappointment. To read more posts or add one of your own, click the blue button below. It is open until the 29th of this month, so you still have time.