It’s easy to be kind to ourselves when life is going swimmingly. Not so easy when the script in our heads isn’t playing out, and life has taken twists and turns we didn’t plan and didn’t want.
Years ago, I had a fantasy that it was possible to never feel emotional pain. I’d read several of those “positive thinking” articles that suggested as much. If you aren’t happy, it’s because you are choosing not to be. Choose Happiness!
This is complete rubbish; absolutely pernicious.
Let’s make an acronym for that. It would be:
C. R. A. P.
Life brings crap to us sometimes, and sometimes crap hurts. A lot. But – and this is huge – we don’t need to add to our pain by resisting it.
According to Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion (one of my favourite books) “suffering is the mental anguish caused by fighting against the fact that life is sometimes painful.” It took me decades to realise that fighting pain doesn’t make it go away. Neither does ignoring it or avoiding it. Nor does blaming someone else for it. In my experience at least, nor does yelling, screaming and punching pillows. Some people disagree with me on those, so it works for them and might for you. Crying on the other hand… I probably could fill a few buckets with the healing tears I’ve wept.
I cried a few rivers of those healing tears when my father died in August 2013, after five years of living with a painful bone marrow cancer that destroyed some of his vertebrae. The time around his death was a sore test of everything I’ve ever learned about treating yourself with kindness.
I have used a releasing process for years, which simply means I notice what emotions I’m feeling and welcome or allow them. Although emotions like grief, fear and sadness are painful, in my experience, Neff is correct when she says it is our resistance to them that causes our deepest suffering.
Despite of all I’d learned, I still sometimes resisted. Sometimes I fell into the “choose happiness” pit and told myself I should just remember the good times, and be glad my father was no longer in pain. I tried to rationalise away my sadness by saying he was an old man, so it was his time. (That might have been true, but it didn’t stop one iota of my sadness.)
Other times I even resisted my resistance! I thought that because I’d learned techniques to release emotions and to question stressful thoughts, I should be able to do that now and feel peaceful. Really, that’s just another way of falling into the “choose happiness” pit, another way of resisting what is.
When I realised I was adding to my own suffering by believing I should be different to how I was, I allowed myself to fully feel the sadness and grief. So what if a mindfulness guru (or several mindfulness gurus) might be able to experience the death of a loved one with only peace in their hearts? That is right for them, and what was right for me at my father’s death was to keenly feel grief and loss.
We can’t make ourselves feel a certain way, just because someone else feels that way.Tweet
When I feel as if every fibre of my being is resisting something that can’t be changed, the best thing I can do is to be compassionate towards myself. If I am resisting, that is reality in this moment. Telling myself I shouldn’t resist when I am is just another form of resistance! Allowing that, welcoming it, being kind towards myself when I notice it, means that I stop resisting at least one aspect of what is happening.
This extremely subtle resistance is not easy to spot. We are so used to hearing that the way to live a happy life is to “love what is” that we often don’t realise that our inability to love what is happening right now is also part of what is happening right now.
Yet, for me, that awareness has probably been (and still is) the single most important element in self-compassion. When we allow the deepest darkest parts of ourselves to surface, the light dissolves them.
There’s another part to resistance that isn’t often discussed – as well as resisting feeling negative emotions, we can also resist letting them go.
It is even possible to do both at almost the same time. We resist the emotions because we assume that if we allow them we will always feel that way, and then we feel sorry for ourselves because of our endless suffering. But feeling sorry for ourselves is not the same as self-compassion. It doesn’t release our suffering, but intensifies it. It’s almost as if we fold ourselves around our painful memories and cling on tightly, and in doing so we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to do things differently.
Recently, a friend of mine was going through a hard time and feeling low. She began to dwell on her unhappy feelings and said she’d felt this way for years. This didn’t fit with my observations, but she said she was good at pretending. During one of many conversations, I said that sometimes when we feel depressed it can be hard to feel grateful for good things, but that gratitude does seem to help. She felt resistant. To her, it seemed as if I was suggesting she should be grateful, and should deny her feelings of depression. That, I think, is largely why we hang onto our miserable feelings – because we want them acknowledged. We want a witness to our pain.
We cleared up the misunderstanding and talked some more. I explained that even when we feel depressed or sad we can still have moments of gratitude. That was certainly true for my family after my father’s death, and it was true for me after a miscarriage. During a bout of depression it’s not that gratitude isn’t there, just that we lose awareness of it. (In the same way that on a cloudy day our inability to see the sun doesn’t mean it’s gone away.) My friend thought about this, and we talked about times she’d felt happy or grateful, recently and further in the past. She felt less resistant to gratitude and happiness.
We can be our own witness. Taking time to notice things we feel grateful for, whilst also acknowledging our painful feelings, gives us the opportunity to let go of those painful feelings and to heal. It lets us see that our painful emotions are not who we are, just feelings that come and go, (even if sometimes they hang around for a long time.)
So self-compassion during difficult times has two wings – we allow ourselves to feel our emotions – and we are willing to let them go.
This means we stop seeing emotions, or indeed life itself, as fixed. Instead, it becomes fluid, ever-changing. Instead of trying to change things for all time – which we can’t do anyway – we allow change in this moment. Right now.
Along with advice to choose happiness, we often hear that present moment awareness is the key to that happiness in difficult circumstances. There’s more truth in that than in the unsympathetic suggestion that we can and should just “choose happiness,” but it’s far too easy to think that to be present we need to continuously be observing the feel of the keyboard beneath our fingers, noticing the blue of the sky, hearing the tick of the clock. The human brain is incapable of constantly noticing everything in every moment.
The truth is actually far simpler. This moment is all we ever truly have. Everything else is either a memory or a fantasy. Realising that is all that present-moment awareness is. When I am fully aware of this (not just logically knowing it but truly feeling it) then all resistance to what is just falls away. With it goes my suffering.
It almost feels inadequate to end this post here. But the truth is, you have what you need to be compassionate with yourself in hard times.
This moment is all we ever truly have. Anything else is either a memory or a fantasy. Tweet
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