Self Compassion in Uncertain Times
tips for being ‘kinder to self’
Many year ago, as a graduate nurse, I was subjected to treatment that was so painful that it left an indelible imprint on me. During handover I was publically humiliated by my Nurse Manager. She had a reputation for this kind of behaviour and I was not the first victim of hers. After she had finished humiliating me I was left shaken, full of shame, guilt, thoughts of inadequacy and anger at myself. What I experienced in that moment was the distress that occurs when there is a divergence between real life events and an idealised vision of reality. I wanted to be an expert practitioner impervious to error and whose practice was beyond criticism and the fact that I was so heavily invested in this self-expectation left me vulnerable to a painful “falling to Earth” as I experienced the gap between how I was as a grad and how I thought I needed to be.
Our challenge is to identify those things that are out of our control, accept them and let them pass us by like leaves floating on a stream and to put our attention and energy into those things that are in our control and make a positive difference there. Whilst our control over the pandemic and its human and economic effects globally is minimal our attitude and treatment of ourselves is entirely our choice. I think we will do better if we respond to these events from a position of kindness and compassion, and this response starts with how we treat ourselves.
I am sure these “gap moments” are universal. These “gaps” as Dr Russ Harris calls them in his book The Reality Slap occur frequently throughout our lives. Most of them are minor, low in significance and easy from which to move on. Sometimes they are intensely private and individual, having significance only to ourselves. At other times they are universally shared like the gap that’s occurring in context of this COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic induced gap can be viewed as occurring between our familiar sense of connectedness, freedom of movement and feelings of environmental safety and the recent isolating effects of home confinement, loss of liberty and struggle to maintain quality service and productivity at work. The world’s medical and political leaders remind us that we are in unchartered territory and our future is totally unknown leaving us apprehensive and anxious. Such a response is natural, normal and protective.
Here are two tips for being kinder to yourself during these challenging and rather frightening times.
Make room for your difficult and painful thoughts and feelings.
We humans have extraordinarily clever brains. They are infinitely creative and capable of drawing connections between situations and events in incredibly imaginative and innovative ways which they then feel obligated to tell us about as inner monologue that chatters away all day long. Despite much of it being illogical or unlikely to happen it doesn’t stop our minds telling us about all the terrible things that are going to happen.
It was Buddha who said “don’t believe everything you think” which is something I remind myself of on a near daily basis.
You may have noticed if you try stop this inner chatter or deny its existence it only comes back harder, louder and more impacting than before. So make peace with it and create some space for it to exist. Your mind is warning you of potential dangers. It’s doing its job. So next time you have worries for the future you might try:
- Thanking your mind for caring about you. Reframe the chatter as largely useless but well meaning.
- Create space between you and your thoughts by transforming your thought from “I won’t keep my job” (for example) to “I notice my mind is telling me that I won’t keep my job”. In so doing you become a passive observer of your mind’s activity rather than an interactive participant. It’s a learned skill that allows us to not engage in these thoughts.
- Try voicing your worry to that of Homer Simpson or your favourite comedian.
- Write your worrying thought down using coloured pencils. Nothing can be too impacting written this way.
- Sing your worry narrative to the tune of happy birthday. How could it ever be taken seriously after that?
The second strategy takes an acceptance based approach to the highly changeable uncertain times we find ourselves in. Humans have about 7 basic emotions (fear, rage, sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise and contempt). For most of us this pandemic leaves us with uncertainty, anxiety and fear and for some a sense of loss. These are perfectly natural emotions felt in challenging times. Indeed to not feel them could be seen as a little “out of touch” and whilst they are painful and few of us welcome them, they are not harmful. It helps to remind ourselves that these feelings are never bigger than us. We can make room for them, allow them to be and acknowledge their presence, and get on with what matters to us such as our relationships, staying connected and doing our best in our work. The most unhelpful thing we can do is to avoid, judge or struggle with them. Examples of unhelpfulness might include drinking excessively (avoidance), applying an emotion rule such as “I should not be feeling like this”(struggling) or viewing them as evidence of personal weakness (judging).
What works for me is to visualise a backpack containing these painful and difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions which I wear as I go about my business doing helpful and productive things. I would prefer not to have them on my back but given I can’t control much of what is happening to our world or what is in my backpack at the moment the next best thing is to choose to make peace with their presence and not let them prevent me from doing what matters.
My last words on this matter are to do with the origins of the word “crisis”. It originates from an ancient Greek word which means to separate or to sift out. It implies changing from having the whole to having the opportunity to separate the important from the unimportant and to keep only what matters.
At a personal level I am resisting the temptation to wish for a return to “normal” and instead hope that when we open our front doors and are reunited with our family, friends and colleagues we venture out into an environment that has changed into one that is more respectful of our environment and others and that we continue with the compassion, kindness, humour and creativity that has truly blossomed over the past month or two.
Murray Bardwell – Education Co-ordinator, Going Rural Health
ACT Therapist and Credentialed Mental Health Nurse