With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain, while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation. -Dr. Kristin Neff
It turns out, I am terrible at self-compassion. A few weeks ago I took a self-compassion quiz that was linked to the book I was reading by Dr. Brené Brown. I failed miserably. In case you are wondering, failing the self-compassion quiz does not boost your self-compassion. Quite the contrary. I do not suffer from an “Oh, woe is me” mentality, but I am a ruthless perfectionist when it comes to examining my own performance. I rarely give myself even half the grace I offer my friends. My self-expectations are often unachievable. The very drive that led me to success in many areas of my life has also done a number on my emotional well-being. I could definitely benefit from a little more self-kindness, but I also need the kindness and help of those around me, which I rarely ask for or welcome.
In the past week I cried three times during workouts. I cried at work. I cried at my writing club. My children walked in on me crying on the floor of my bedroom. I have always been able to separate emotions and show up as a teacher, coach, mom, and daughter, but lately, I have found it increasingly more difficult to keep one area from leaking into the others. The result has been a false feeling of failure in all areas of my life. Like juggling, I have just envisioned all the balls falling from their perfect formation and scattering in all directions. I am left empty-handed panicking to regain order and control.
Running away to Montana for a life of solitary confinement was not an option, unfortunately, so I attempted to create my own self-imposed isolation. I shut down and withdrew. Guys, I am a former cheerleader, bounce off the walls, raging extrovert. I never hide in the shadows. I am a front and center, middle-of-the-action type of girl, so when I shut down it is serious. As I explained to a friend, “I always take care of everyone else: my students, my kids, my athletes. I just can’t take care of anyone else right now. I have to take care of me. I am drowning.”
There was my current state in a nutshell. I was not capable of helping one more person. My tank was empty to the point that my husband put his arms on my shoulders at the gym one day and said, “Don’t shut down. You are not talking to anyone. Don’t shut down.” He was not speaking out of anger or to force me to do anything, but I think he recognized the danger in me allowing myself to slip away from the group. Isn’t it always the wolf who removes himself from the pack who dies? My husband was calling me back to my tribe.
It was neither healthy nor helpful for me to shut down.
I would not want any of my friends or loved ones to shut down. I would scream, claw and shake them back to consciousness. If I was going to get better at self-compassion, I owed myself the same fight and proactive behavior. And as often happens, a friend came around with advice at just the right moment. I showed up to an event with my CrossFit community, even though I wanted to hide and sulk at home. Sometimes that is the greatest feat - showing up.
This friend shed light into my life in such an unexpected way. She gave the group some advice from her therapist. She told us to think of our problems in a straight line (or row) rather than a pile towering above us- literally the weight of the world on our shoulders. This analogy made so much sense to me. If I can see my sources of fear and pain in a row, I can compartmentalize and deal with each one individually. Instead, I tend to pile them up into a teetering, unstable massive load that crushes me into the ground. They build on each other until the magnitude of my problems blocks out all of my sunlight. I lose my ability to practice being present and grateful.
When my problems are lined up in front of me, I can still feel the sunshine on my face. I feel the dirt beneath my feet and the lightness of my life, not the immensity of my burdens. My heartaches and stress are temporary. I want to see them and face them head on, but I also want to be able to dance and go with the flow of my life without carrying my stress like an albatross about my neck. When my load is lined up before me, I can step back, look at the even playing field and decide what item or concern will take center stage at that moment. I will not worry that I cannot be a good mom when I am caring for my parents because those tasks are separate. I can step in and out of situations and call on support to help me face more daunting tasks. I can wear the different hats I need to get each job done without trying to be everything to everyone at the same time.
Most importantly, I have to be okay with realizing that I have a long and heavy line up of issues in my life at the moment. I need to learn to step back and ask for help without simply shutting down, even if it is completely against my nature and requires practicing humility and swallowing my pride.
My takeaway from this experience is realizing that showing up and allowing other people to help with my struggles might be my greatest act of self-compassion. I viewed the failed quiz as something else I had to fix and handle. Instead, maybe for me it is not about creating a solution but rather about opening up to others instead of opting to shut down.