We always hear about how exercising compassion for others and being of service to others can be healing and transformative. It promotes happiness, helps with stress relief, reduces symptoms of depression and so much more. Hence, when you exercise compassion for others, you can’t go wrong. It’s a win-win situation.
But, what about exercising SELF-compassion? It’s just as important because to BE a compassionate and giving person, we must feel and experience that same humanity for ourselves. Sounds simple, but it’s not. For some of us, giving ourselves a break, even once in a while, is actually difficult to do.
Why is that? Perhaps over the years we have unknowingly etched a template of disapproval about ourselves — an indelible image of unworthiness. We call that an organizing principle. Organizing principles are the blueprints, so to speak of our inner dialogue. They are decisions that we make or conclusions that we draw about ourselves early in life that drive our existence. An example of an organizing principle might be that “I will always be a bad person or I am an unintelligent person.” Or “I am flawed so I am undeserving of kindness.” Or, even more specific, “Because I am inferior, others are allowed to make mistakes, but I am not.”
So that means that we always see our lives through that prejudiced point of view. Hence my view of the future, my view of the world is colored by this biased view of myself. Now, changing that is not always easy to do.
However, through mindfulness practice and heightening our awareness to how negatively we think about ourselves, there is hope. Through mindfulness practice, we can alter our knee-jerk response of being so self-critical. For example, when we are instantly harsh on ourselves for making a mistake or when we fail to live up to an expectation. Or when we automatically beat ourselves up for disappointing someone. Or when we instinctively deprive ourselves of compassion while going through a difficult time with a mental health condition, or a chronic illness. Others get that compassion. But we don’t.
But exercising this daily practice of self-compassion requires us to learn how to forgive ourselves first. If you can’t learn how to forgive yourself every now and then, self-compassion is impossible to practice.
So, mindfulness as we all know helps you develop a different relationship with discomfort. In this instance, the kind we create when we are unable to forgive ourselves for something we did or didn’t do. Mindfulness can help to increase that compassion by raising our consciousness about it and most importantly, by changing our negative inner dialogue.
Here’s a mindful-meditation for cultivating self-compassion and self-forgiveness, which is one way of accessing this benefit but also by using disciplines of traditional meditation as well. It’s not a technique that is easily acquired, but more of a lifestyle practice that in the long run will teach you how to be kinder to yourself.
Remember, meditation is sometimes believed to be a process of reaching a state of mind in which the body is totally relaxed and the mind is free of all negative and distressing thoughts. Hence people believe that successful meditation is only achieved by reaching this state of nirvana. This is not only incorrect but impossible to manifest.
What IS possible, through mindful-meditation, is to strengthen the mind’s ability to tolerate and endure distress states brought on by negative thoughts. Not necessarily to be rid of these negative thoughts. In this case it’s the negative “inner voice” thoughts of shame and unworthiness, which are cornerstones of our inability to be self-compassionate.
So let’s begin the mindful-meditation. First, think of a safe place in your mind. Your safe place could be a simple memory of a happy time in your life. It could be a time when you felt loved and cared for, it could be a fun time with a family member or friend, it could be a physical place like a beach, a lake or in the mountains, it could be playing music or doing art work, doing a hobby, whatever situation you have experienced in the past that has brought you a sense of calm and safety.
Next, relax your muscles. Try to sink into the chair or couch you’re sitting in. In other words, try not to hold up any of your muscles. Imagine them drooping over your entire skeletal system. You can also do this by imagining releasing the muscles in your entire body. Start with your toes, feet, legs and slowly working your way up to your lower torso, your upper torso, your neck and up to your head. It’s important to remember that you are NOT putting any effort to hold up any part of your body in this moment. Just melt into the chair as best you can.
Now let’s talk about breathing. Focusing on your breathing is key throughout the entire exercise. It’s your default awareness base. It’s the bodily function you will always fall back on to ground yourself with. Use the 4-7-8 breathing method: Inhale deeply for 4 seconds. Hold that breath for 7 seconds. Then exhale very slowly out of your mouth for 8 seconds. Keep repeating that.
As you breathe, imagine the air going through your nostrils and exhaling out of your mouth. Picture your lungs filling with air as they expand and contract.
Imagine your thoughts are like a helium balloon attached to a string. Imagine you’re holding on to the string and if you let go a little bit, the balloon floats away. Imagine that your thoughts float away the same way. So if you’re thoughts start to wander like the balloon, refocus your attention to your breathing and pull the balloon back. Remember your thoughts will constantly want to float away without your consent. Simply accept that and bring it back.
After a few minutes of imagining yourself in the safe place and feeling relaxed where you are sitting, and you have begun focusing on your breathing, you are going to do the hard part. I want you to allow yourself to be present with your deep feelings of shame that you’ve been holding on to for years. You are also going to be present to your feelings of unworthiness. Allow those thoughts and feelings to wash over you. Let them enter your consciousness and observe them like a cloud passing above you from horizon to horizon. Try not to judge them. Just observe them. Notice where you feel the distress in your body too. Is it in your neck? Is it in your lower back? Is it in your digestive system? Just continue to notice and observe.
Then, I would like you to imagine that these thoughts you are thinking are simply abstracts, unverified stories that you made up about yourself throughout your entire lifetime. They are in a sense the organizing principles you developed that have been ruling your existence. But, they don’t serve you any purpose anymore.
As of today, whatever you feel ashamed about, it’s NOT your fault. Whatever mistakes you made are all part of being human. You probably did the best you could at the time and you have been punishing yourself about it forever. As a result, you have deemed yourself as unworthy and undeserving of forgiveness and compassion. It’s time to cut yourself some slack.
So, I would like you say to yourself out loud, (you can even whisper it if you feel more comfortable) “I am worthy of kindness and compassion just like everyone else. Starting with today, I forgive myself.” Repeat that affirmation at least three times during the exercise. Or you can choose something specific you’ve been beating yourself up about recently and forgive yourself for it. Then repeat that affirmation at least three times.
If you practice this for 5 to 10 minutes per day, it will positively change the way you talk to yourself and will alter your often unforgiving inner voice. You’ll find that your view of yourself will start to transform.
So let’s do a recap. Follow these steps,
Number 1. Relax your muscles, do a complete body check in your seat. Allow yourself to sink into the seat. Let your muscles sag over your entire skeletal system.
Number 2. Established a safe place in your mind that you will refer to often in this exercise.
Number 3. Begin the breathing process. Think of your negative thoughts as a helium balloon tied to a string you are holding on to.
Number 4. While you are focusing on your breathing, acknowledge that your goal today is to let go of any shame and unworthiness you are feeling and allow yourself to be forgiven. Repeat again, “I am worthy of kindness and compassion just like everyone else. Starting with today, I forgive myself.”
Try to perform this entire mindful-meditation protocol for 5-10 mins per day. It’s best to do it in the morning and once again in the evening.
I hope you can give this mindful-meditation a chance and see how much better you can start feeling about yourself. It’s time to choose self-compassion over self-deprecation.