One of the most common difficulties people can have with self-compassion practice is remembering to make time to do it! "It doesn't occur to me," "It doesn't come naturally," or simply "I don't have time," are some of obstacles people frequently report when they are trying to be more self-compassionate. That's why one of the easiest ways to be more compassionate with yourself is to notice ways that you already care for yourself, and to try to carry out these activities in a more mindful, gentle way.
In his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer discusses how we can bring self-compassion into our lives by focusing on 5 different areas in which we are likely already practising some form of self-care activity:
Take a moment to think about how you already care for yourself in each of these areas, and whether there are some new things you might like to try. Here are some examples to get you started:
- Physically (soothing the body): taking a bath, sitting in the sun, doing some gentle stretching, going for a walk, having a massage, taking a nap.
- Emotionally (comforting emotional distress): cooking, writing in your journal, patting the dog.
- Mentally (reducing mental agitation): watching a funny movie, meditating, reading a book.
- Relationally (connecting with others in a way that feels nurturing): playing a game, phoning or writing a letter to a dear friend, being affectionate with a loved one.
- Spiritually (aligning with your values, engaging in meaningful activities): help others, connect with nature, pray, meditate, practice yoga.
Remember, the important point here is not so much what we do, but how we do it. Brushing your teeth can become a delightful, meditative self-care activity if it is done in a self-compassionate manner. So how do we do things in a more mindful, gentle way? Start by considering the following scenarios that might unfold as you take a walk:
In the first scenario, you force yourself outside for a walk because you know you need some exercise if you are ever going to lose weight or change your body shape. As you do so, your attention is fixated on the parts of your body that you find unsatisfactory, and your wish for them to be different. You ruminate on what you had for lunch, sadly telling yourself that you'll never have the self-control you need to have the body you desire. Although there are some twitches and pangs in your body as you move, you ignore them and carry on regardless. You return from your walk feeling tired, defeated and having barely notice that the sun is shining or that the people you passed were smiling kindly at you. You also feel irritated that you wasted time doing something so pointless when you have so much work to do.
In the second scenario, you go out for a walk so that you can spend time moving and stretching your body and enjoying being outside. You focus on the fresh air and the feeling of sun on your face. You notice that as you move, there are some twitches and pangs in your body, so you slow your pace and soften your body, using your breath to help soothe the pain. As you walk, you are also aware of the sounds of the birds, the vibrant colours in the trees, and the smell of spring in the air. You notice that the people you pass smile kindly at you, and you smile back at them. You return from your walk feeling relaxed and refreshed and go back to work feeling invigorated.
As you can see from these examples, the way in which we carry out everyday activities can have a significant impact on our physical and emotional well-being. The activity - going for a walk - is the same in both scenarios, but the approach - the intention and attention that we bring to the exercise - is markedly different.
When we practice self-compassion we motivate ourselves to do something because we find it pleasurable or because it is good for us - not because we are trying to fix ourselves or get rid of some part of ourselves that we don't like. In addition, being mindful and gentle in our approach means that we pay attention to what we are doing and how it feels, rather than letting our minds run away with our worries or grievances. The most wonderful massage in the world can become quite a stressful activity if you spend it thinking about the list of chores waiting at home or ruminating on being lazy, rather than enjoying the physical sensations. Focusing on all of the sensory aspects of the experience (the temperature of the skin, the smell of the massage oil, the sound of the relaxation music or your breathing, the feeling of the touch) is one way of anchoring the attention in the present moment.
If you do struggle to remain mindful while carrying out these activities, try to bring some self-compassion to that experience as well. First, notice where your mind is going and what feelings are present. You might say "this is really difficult. I am trying to relax and instead I am feeling impatient, self-critical, and irritated". Second, reflect on what you might say to a friend in a similar situation. For example "it's ok - your mind is trying to be helpful by focusing on the things you need to get done. We all have trouble relaxing some times, particularly when we've been working hard for so long.". Finally, try postponing anxious or repetitive thoughts until later. You might tell yourself "my list of chores will still be there in 10 minutes. In the meantime, let's focus on what I'm doing now".
Do you have ideas for self-care activities that you enjoy doing? We'd love to hear them. Use the comment space below to list any activities you're already doing, or set an intention for something new you'd like to try.