Although this post was one I wrote a while ago, its message is entirely relevant to 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, so I’m republishing it for today.
It’s a little over a year since I read Kristin Neff’s book Self Compassion and the topic seems to keep cropping up everywhere – in conversations with other bloggers, and just in life in general. So it seems a good time to write about how my life has changed in the year since I read that book. And yes, it has changed! You can read my initial review of Self Compassion here.
Before I read Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, I had spent years working to improve my life. Everything I’d done did help. In particular I find the Sedona Method of huge benefit. I have a relative with a serious mental health condition and used to find it very difficult to cope with that. I’ll call this person Albert, to protect their identity. I used to think I needed to help Albert see things differently, to make him better. All that led to was stress and arguments. Realising that instead I could welcome or allow my own feelings when I was in Albert’s company – and I could let them go – was a huge shift for me. My stress levels during out encounters dropped immensely and I could listen without thinking I needed all the answers. I could listen.
I use the Sedona Method’s welcoming and releasing processes every single day – several times a day. It is woven into the fabric of my life. I rarely fully believe any judgment I have of anyone else – what I see in others that I don’t like, I can always find in myself. If I judge you, it will come back at me sooner or later. So I regularly use The Work of Byron Katie to write inquiries into stressful thoughts – (I include some of them in this blog.) I journal almost every day and meditate in my ad hoc way. Self Compassion was by no means the first book I read that emphasised the value of self-care. I don’t even particularly use Kristin Neff’s self compassion mantra, at least not every day.
- This is a moment of suffering
- Suffering is part of life
- May I be kind to myself in this moment
- May I give myself the compassion I need.
Yet it is there in the background of my life now, underpinning everything I do. When I slip into self-blame, it is less vicious than it used to be and lasts for a shorter time. I more easily remember that it serves no useful purpose and remember to treat myself with kindness.
Is it wrong to be kind to ourselves?
Before I read Self Compassion, even with all the work I’d done to let go of old beliefs and behaviour patterns, I had a lingering feeling that it was wrong to be kind to myself, and it was wrong to think that I was good enough. This is a common way of resisting self-compassion, as Kristin Neff points out. She says, “The tendency to criticize ourselves and feel worthless as a result can be traced in part to larger cultural messages.” In other words, most of us are so used to it, that we don’t even realise there could be a different way.
Mostly, we try to combat that by raising our self-esteem – or trying to – by noticing where we are good at stuff and where we are better than other people. But we can’t all be the best all the time, and there will come a day when all of us can’t do much at all. Some people dread that day so much that rather than face it, they end their lives early.
“We’re all in this together.”
If I had to pick one aspect of this book that affected me more than anything, it would be that as Neff says, we are all in this together. Early in my adult life, I worked as a fashion designer. For a few years I even had my own business. This song by Soft Cell, Bedsitter, sums up how I felt at the time.
Fashion is an industry where nothing stays the same for long, and it is one where to “succeed” you generally need to stand out. I’ve encased “succeed” in inverted commas because – what exactly is success? Having Prince Charles and Mikhail Gorbachev among his clients, as well as being the youngest person to win British Fashion Designer of the Year, would probably make Alexander McQueen count as successful in most people’s eyes. But not in his own. McQueen killed himself in 2010, at the age of 40.
What is success?
So perhaps I was successful as a designer – I saw that trying to make it big in that world was destroying my already low self-esteem, and I got out. It’s important to notice that it wasn’t the industry that destroyed my self-esteem, it was the belief I had to succeed when I wasn’t, and when I didn’t even know what that meant. It was the belief that I needed to be more confident when I wasn’t, and that I needed to be pushy when I wasn’t. I so strongly believed then that I needed those qualities that I didn’t even stop to question whether the people who were doing better (selling more garments, getting more exposure) than I was had them. I just assumed they did. I also assumed they all had cliques and that I would never be invited in. Yet was McQueen confident in the moment he took his life? Did he feel that he belonged?
In fashion the focus is on the surface. It might seem strange, and it was certainly naive, but I drifted into the business not realising how an industry where the focus is on the superficial would mean that many connections were superficial. I’m not saying that the people in the industry were superficial – nobody is – we all have depths. But much of the time, the way most people relate to each other in fashion is motivated by the desire to stand out, be different and be seen to be different. This can only ever lead to loneliness. At the bottom of the fashion designer pile, I felt that loneliness. At the top, McQueen felt it too.
Leaving the business didn’t end my loneliness, didn’t make me instantly feel good about myself. But it was the beginning of a road that I’ve been travelling ever since, a road to connection, interdependence and inner peace. That road has had detours, and a few dead ends. But the view keeps getting better the further along it I go, so I’ll stick with it.
It seems hard to believe now, but when I read Self Compassion a little over a year ago, I didn’t particularly like the idea that we’re all in this together, or that I am no different to anybody else. I still carried remnants of the belief that the way to succeed, the way to be happy, was to stand out, to be special. Of course, on the surface, I am different to you. I look different, wear different clothes, quite probably I even eat different food (since I’ve eaten vegetarian for a long time) and I might even have different views on politics and child rearing to yours. But those are all on the surface. Underneath, what connects us all, are our emotions and our suffering.
Every person on this planet has moments like the one that Alexander McQueen must have had, moments when we think we can’t go on. Most of us do go on. Because we remember that this moment won’t last forever, because we remember someone does love us, or need us. Because we feel connection. As parents and teachers, many of us think it is important to teach our children independence. But this is part of the same cultural mindset that Neff describes as teaching self-criticism.
Interdependence, not independence, is what makes us happy.
Independence in extreme is alienation. Loneliness. What makes more sense to me, is interdependence. John Donne had it right, over five centuries ago – no man is an island. No woman is either, or child.