Self-Compassion

“We are what we believe we are” – CS Lewis

The concept of self compassion at its simplest is being a good friend to yourself. We often (but not always) know what we would say to a friend if they were having a rubbish time or feeling negative about themselves, but are often much more critical of ourselves than we are towards others. We don’t always say to ourselves things like “you tried your best” or “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time”. We often aren’t as friendly and warm when we talk to ourselves as we would be when talking to friends or others.

Self-esteem (feeling good about ourselves) requires feeling above average and this involves comparing ourselves to others. We start putting others down to feel better about ourselves and this can lead to us feeling judgemental towards others. We need to feel superior to feel OK, and to do this we blow others candles out in trying to shine brighter ourselves. It means that we struggle to feel happy for others when they succeed. And what sucks about self-esteem is that when you fail something, it abandons you and you’re left feeling rubbish about yourself – I’ve failed because I’m a failure.

According to Kristin Neff who has spent her career researching self compassion, you need 3 components to self compassion so that it doesn’t become self pity. These are

  1. Self kindness – treating ourselves with the kindness and warmth we would show to a friend
  2. Common humanity – the understanding that life is hard and that others are also going through hard things
  3. Mindfulness – an understanding of what we are feeling and experiencing

Common humanity is important because if we think it is only us experiencing hard times then we feel sorry for ourselves and experience self-pity. It needs mindfulness because we need to understand what we are thinking and feeling and to be able to sit with how we feel, feel the pain and have compassion towards ourselves. We have to be able to turn towards our feelings, and this involves knowing what we’re actually feeling.

What I love about self compassion is that you still get the benefits of having a high self-esteem, but it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what anyone else thinks of you. You don’t need to be better than anyone else. You can fail. Life can be hard or you can mess things up. It’s part of life that we all go through hard times and that we all will mess up. But self compassion allows us to say to ourselves “it’s OK”, “I understand”, “everyone feels like this sometimes”, “you’re not a failure because you’ve failed an exam”, “of course you feel like this, it’s so understandable”, “you’re doing the best you can”.

If we can allow ourselves to fail and to mess up, but then be gentle and kind to ourselves about it, we can learn and we can grow. We don’t become paralysed with fear of failure or fear of rejection. When a baby learns to walk we expect it to take a while and for them to fall over hundreds of times. We don’t pick them up and tell them not to bother anymore. And so is life. If we can be kind enough to ourselves that falling down is inevitable and trying again is the way forward then failure stops paralysing us. Self compassion isn’t about striving towards a perfect version of yourself, but about accepting yourself as you are.

How much is your inner critic really interested in your wellbeing? Where does the critical inner voice even come from? Whose voice is it? Maybe someone who judged you harshly when you were younger? A critical parent or teacher? Because if we’re honest, if we had a friend who was highly critical of us and kept saying mean things to us then the wisest thing would be to steer clear of them. And yet we so often allow ourselves to say such things and become so used to it that we don’t even notice how critical we can be to ourselves.

Compassion is about kindness, acceptance and non-judgement. How can you offer these things to yourself? Be kind to yourself because you’re doing the best you can.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – Dalai Lama

 

Angry Outbursts

Image © Disney

“Anyone can be angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” – Aristotle

I’ve had a lot of young people come to see me as a Counsellor whose parents are really worried about their anger issues. But when I ask the young person what is going on in life for them and if there’s anything they’d like to change they say they’re fine. They aren’t ready to do the work and to engage in counselling. Until it is their agenda then they often don’t see their anger as being a problem. It is only a problem for them because Mum or Dad keep telling them it is.

So the idea of this blog is that it is a starting point for those Mums and Dads, but hopefully it will be helpful to others too. In case this doesn’t come across in a blog in the way it would face-to-face, I want to start by saying that I’m saying these things without blame or judgement. It is not your fault that you have a child who has angry outbursts. And I invite you to read this with no guilt, self-blame or judgement. Try to read it with an open mind and take from it what you want to and leave the rest.

What is anger?

Anger is an emotion. An angry outburst is a behaviour. We might want to change the way that we respond when we’re angry, or the way that our child does, but we’re not setting out to get rid of anger because that’s impossible. Anger alerts us to something. When we get angry we have a good reason to be angry. It tells us when we have been hurt or when something isn’t fair. Never being angry would just be weird. So we’re not trying to eradicate it but to express it better.

Anger can be denied and suppressed, openly shown to the person who has affected us, turned on ourselves, turned on someone else or we can deal with the causes.

Understanding

Firstly, try to see the child behind the behaviour. What is the behaviour trying to communicate? What are they trying to say? What are they experiencing? What’s underneath the anger they’re showing? Anger is sometimes about anger, but often is about something else. Why are they whinging? Why are they smashing things around? What’s going on for them? Underneath it all they might be feeling rejected, scared or feeling vulnerable. They might be hurting. They might want attention. They might feel powerless or may not know how to communicate. Anger is what shows on the outside. But often what we are feeling on the inside is hurt, fear, shame, guilt, sadness, frustration, annoyance, jealousy, loneliness, disappointment.

Control?

So often we parent from a place of trying to control our child’s behaviour. An example is something that happened with my youngest son this morning. He woke me up really early this morning with a dinosaur construction kit and an instruction booklet in his hand. Last night he had asked to construct a new dinosaur and I had told him he could when he woke up in the morning. My (still a bit sleepy) response to him was “go back to bed or I won’t make a dinosaur with you.” I was trying to control his behaviour by bargaining with something I knew he wanted. But I could have said “I love how excited you are about building a dinosaur but it isn’t time yet and your body needs more sleep.” Instead of recognising his excitement I wanted him to do what I wanted first. And so often we parent from this place of “if you…. then you can have or do….” or “If you don’t… then I’ll….” Or is it just me?

Connection

We all need to feel loved, accepted and connected. It’s not about how well you’re loving them. I expect you’re doing that well. It might involve driving them all over the place and spending lots of time feeding them and planning your life around them. It’s not about how hard you’re trying or how much of your life you dedicate to them. It’s about how loved and connected they feel. This is likely to change over time. You could spend hours a week standing at the skate park watching them go down ramps, but it’s actually that 5 minutes you spent reading a book with them or talking to them about something important to them that made them feel more connected.

If they don’t feel connected to you then you won’t have that much influence on them. Do they feel safe and loved? It’s not about what you do for them or whether you are giving them what they want. It is about whether you are connecting with who they are. How do they feel with us? You can spend all day every day with someone but not feel connected. Feeling connected can just take 10 minutes of being present and trying to understand what is going on in their world. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t listen to what is important to them when they are little (which often seems trivial) then they won’t share with you what is important to them when they are older.

One of the quickest ways to connect with someone is to repeat back to them what they are saying. It shows that you are listening and that you understand. We all want to feel understood. What you can do is to accept your child and empathise with what is going on for them. It can be really helpful for them to hear things like “it’s OK to feel angry”, “it’s so understandable you feel like that” or “I would feel angry if I experienced that.” If you dismiss them then they may turn to someone else.

Cause

Has the anger come in response to a life event like changing school, a divorce, a death or bullying? Did something happen that they haven’t found a way to express or adjust to?

It can be so easy to want to rescue them from painful things but they need to live through pain to adjust and to grow. It might be hard hearing them say that they’ve found it hard moving house or that you separated with your partner, but hearing their pain helps them express it so they can move through it and grow. When feelings aren’t expressed they build up. And can stay inside until they sufficiently build up to burst out. Or to come out sideways.

Expression, Mountains and Molehills

We all have emotions that we are able to express more readily and ones that we struggle more with. Unless we grew up in a highly emotionally intelligent home then we probably have learnt rules about what it is OK to feel, and what it isn’t OK to feel. In some families anger is the preferred emotion to express and everyone shows their anger freely. Maybe at the expense of crying or showing hurt or vulnerability or insecurity. In other households anger is deemed scary and out of control and it is safer to express the underlying hurt or fears. In these households it feels more acceptable to be sad or anxious than to be angry.

Some people will hold everything in and be on their best behaviour, say, at school, but they are like a coke bottle being shaken up with everything they experience. Then they come home and feel safe and the lid comes off and all the emotion they’ve been feeling fizzes out. It feels out of proportion to what has happened, because it is. It is emotion relating to things before what has just happened in the moment. Or for others something triggers a thought process in us and taps in to anger we’re already feeling about something else and we react. Again this anger seems out of proportion to what is going on in the moment. For others it is like the inside of a volcano where you can’t see what is going on inside as it is building up until it is too late and the magma is pouring out.

When anger feels disproportionate to the situation and the reaction feels too strong, it is usually because it is. It has usually tapped in to anger or hurt about something else. Often we’re taking our anger out on the wrong people. We haven’t expressed it in the moment we felt it to the person or situation we felt angry with and it’s stayed with us to come out sideways at someone else in an unrelated situation. If your child is angry often with you, it could be anger directed at you, or it could be that you are a safe person so they trust you enough to direct their anger towards you. They know you’ll still love them and that your relationship with them can handle it.

You might not be able to persuade your child to get counselling or to get the help you feel they need. But what you can do is to try to connect with them, try to understand what they are experiencing and what life is like for them. Accept their feelings even if they are expressing things you find hard to sit with and not be able to fix. Being able to express how they feel will help them to express things in the moment and to limit things building up.

Doing it today

So how can you spend 10 minutes connecting with your child today? Or yourself today? Think: no phones or other distractions. How can you be fully present and trying to connect heart to heart? Use your intuition. You know your child better than any professional or anyone else. This isn’t about a prescriptive set of things to do. All children are different. We’re all human and doing the best we can with everything else we’ve got going on.

It might be helpful to check in with yourself – how do I express my own anger? Does my child being angry trigger my own anger? Do I prioritise being right and holding the line even if it causes an argument with my child? What are acceptable emotions to express in the household in which I live? Or in the household you grew up in? We all have our own ways of expressing our anger. For some people it is passive like always being late, forgetting things, always joking, being cynical or sarcastic, scapegoating others. Some people express their anger very outwardly. Have a think about how you do anger. What are you showing your child about anger?

If you feel like you need to work on how you express your own anger, then you might want to check out mindfulness as a way of learning to be present with yourself and with others, and as a way of learning to recognise how you are feeling in the moment and being able to turn towards it. Recognising what is going on for you in the moment can help you recognise more quickly how you are reacting and why and can give you a choice about how to react rather than immediately being reactive and feeling like your reaction is out of your control and is happening automatically.

Self Care

“The time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted time” Bertrand Russell.

When life is at its hardest, for whatever reason, sometimes the very things that can help us feel better can feel like such massive hurdles to accomplish. I might know that spending time with others really helps me feel like I’ve had a good day, but the times when I need that most are the times when it is much easier to isolate myself and to not get in contact with anyone.

Sometimes self care is about reaching out to others when I’d rather hibernate. Maybe it’s choosing to relax and be late instead of being on time and totally stressed out. Or taking the time to have a shower and start my day as I’d like to. Motivating myself to go for a run, knowing that I’ll feel good afterwards, even if I don’t want to do it right now. Sometimes we only have the energy to focus on tiny steps forward and anything else feels too much and too overwhelming. Sometimes these little decisions can feel big, but they make us feel like we matter and that we’re taking care of ourselves. Like we have a purpose and are heading towards something better. So why does doing things for ourselves feel selfish? Or like it is time wasted that could be better spent.

If your car is running out of petrol or your phone is running out of battery, you know what to do. We usually don’t wait for them to totally run out before we buy petrol, or we plug the phone in to charge. Also, a car uses more fuel when it is heavily laden and a phone uses battery more quickly when lots of apps are running. And the energy we have is the same, even when it doesn’t feel quite as simple. If we don’t look after ourselves, we burn out. Self care is really about living and building a life we don’t need time out from. As we look after ourselves we connect with our authentic self and can experience a sense of peace and calm.

When life isn’t hard, these things barely need a consideration, but when life is hard sometimes we overlook our needs and it feels impossible to do the very things that help us. Maybe the needs of those who depend on us take up what feels like all of our energy and we feel like we have nothing left for ourselves. Sometimes self care is about adjusting expectations about what can be achieved in a day or putting things off for another day. At a time in my life when I was experiencing severe sleep deprivation, my expectations of what I could achieve had to be drastically culled.

Sleep is so fundamental to our wellbeing – to our health, our happiness and quite simply, our functioning. I would advise that you don’t google ‘can I die of sleep deprivation?’ because it is pretty depressing reading that lack of sleep can cause quite a lot of things that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There’s a good reason that it is used as a form of torture. And so many articles that I read when I was in the haze of sleep deprivation talked about it as if it was a choice and that it is just a case of not working too hard, needing to spend a bit more time relaxing and going to bed earlier to prioritise sleep a bit more. If only…

But what about if you have insomnia? Chronic pain? Young children? You are racked with grief? Or in my case, I had a son with such severe sleep apnoea that my husband and I took it in turns to hold him in a position where he could breathe. All night long some nights. When there isn’t enough sleep available to function on, and there hasn’t been for years, then no amount of bubble baths or relaxing before bed can help. Life becomes about pure survival, and all the things that supposedly help feel trite. It feels impossible to find time for yourself, and you don’t have the energy to make the effort anyway.  It feels as though no one understands how hard life is and how overwhelming simple tasks like unloading the dishwasher or cooking a meal can feel. Things that you normally enjoy feel like a whole lot of effort.

Self care is a choice, but is one that feels monumentally hard at the times we need it the most. But there’s no point waiting for the future or for when things change to get the life you want. Whether or not life is hard currently, how can you give yourself a break today? What you might feel like you need is 2 weeks in the Maldives but if you had an hour to yourself today and could do whatever you want to (no work or chores allowed), then what would you choose? If you don’t have an hour, how could you get some of that in 5 minutes that you know you’d appreciate? What can you start today that your future self will thank you for? How can you make little steps towards living the life you would love to be living even if life feels hard at the moment? Because time you enjoy wasting, isn’t wasted time.