Struggles with Self-Compassion

Trifolium repens ?
Trifolium repens ? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My sister finds four-leaf clovers.

I can search a patch of clover for an hour and not find a four-leaf clover, and my sister can walk up and, without hesitation, just pluck one from right next to my knee. She’s always done this.

A week ago, I was pretty convinced that self-compassion was not for me.

The first couple of days I did the self-compassion journaling (see Self Compassion: How Thinking About Bad Experiences Can Make You Happier and More Compassionate), I loved it. I felt blissful and calm during the day and fell asleep easily at night. After about a week, though, that began to change. Each evening, I would write about how I’d snapped at the kids that day or yelled at my husband. I wrote down my feelings and it was always frustrated, angry, scared. Every night: frustrated, angry, scared. Scared, frustrated, angry. Angry, scared frustrated. Finally I got to the point where the worst part of my day was journaling about the worst part of my day.

One of my least favorite questions is, “How does that make you feel?” For one thing, nothing can make me feel one particular emotion over another. What might annoy the heck out of me might cause squeals of delight in someone else, like television sitcoms and children in wedding ceremonies.

But even without the “make” part, I hate that question. When someone asks me how I’m feeling, I go blank. If they’re asking casually, I usually default with “fine” or “I’m well,” which almost always allows us to move past the question. If they’re asking seriously, I dutifully scan my being trying to find some clue to what emotions might be swimming in there. When I can’t come up with anything the problem is solved because I feel angry at the person who asked and annoyed at myself that I’m so emotionally blank inside.

In the evenings when I would ask myself this question, it took so much effort just to come up with an answer. I proceeded on a tentative faith that the scientific experiments attached to this torturous process were sound and that I would be able to tap into the positive outcomes reported by others and end up happier and more compassionate. Then when I kept yelling at the kids and when the emotions I wrote down were the same every single night, I just wanted to give up. And I pretty much did. Not only did I give up the self-compassion exercise, but I gave up journaling and for the most part blogging, too, because I knew I had to write an update  and I didn’t want to write about how I’d failed the self-compassion experiment.

Then last night I had something of an ah-ha moment. I was lying there in bed in the middle of the night thinking all kinds of mean things about myself and feeling worse and worse (and less and less able to fall asleep) when I just hit pause.

“Okay,” I thought. “I’m feeling worse and worse. So, what is it I’m feeling?”

I listed a couple of the loudest emotions, the ones I could hear over the constant criticisms running through my head. I took a deep breath and marveled at the moment of calm before the wave of criticism and “you shoulds” overtook me again. Then I stopped myself again.

“No,” I said to myself, with a gentleness that surprised me. “Telling myself I ought to start running again isn’t an emotion. What emotion is behind that suggestion?” And I identified another emotion and breathed in that calm moment again.

I did this over and over again until I just started laughing to myself at how predictable I was and how persistent that critical voice was. Then I got tired and fell asleep. This struggle was a lot of work.

I say I’m cool with incremental change. I say I understand that something is going to take a lot of hard work. I claim that I understand that changing ingrained thought processes is going to be a long and difficult road to travel. But when it comes right down to it, I want the easy road. I want the magic bullet. I want the quick fix.

And really, this is what so many self-help-type books and websites promise, isn’t it? Change your perspective, change your life. Easy-peasy.

While this statement might be true, it’s not easy.

I know that last night was not the last time I’ll engage in the struggle between my critical mind and the tentative whisper of my long-ignored emotions. But it felt like an opening. I feel like I know now what’s possible. I know what to look for now, and I have faith that it’s there. With time and practice, maybe I’ll be able to find self-compassion as easily as my sister plucks four-leaf clovers from a suburban lawn.

But I still don’t think I’ll be journaling about it anymore.

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