The month of December is associated with gift-giving. Today I want to make a gift to you of this blog; I teach a workshop called Conscious Aging, and one of its eight sessions is titled, Cultivating Self-Compassion. I would like to tell you a story from my own life and highlight four practices of self-compassion that made all the difference to me during a difficult jorney in the hopes that you will accept it as a gift from me and put it to good use in your own life.
One of the ways we can help ensure ourselves of a happy old age is build self-compassion. In people who have learned self-compassion, studies have shown them to have less anxiety and depression, increased psychological strengths and positive emotions, a greater ability to forgive, and an increased ability to navigate difficult life events. Since our lives consist of successes and failures, self-compassion gives us a “soft place” to land each time we fall. It puts our mistakes and failures in perspective.
I learned this firsthand last January when my husband had a bad fall and broke both large bones in his left leg below the knee, along with multiple fractures of the small bones around his ankle. In an instant, he went from being independent and working each day to being someone in need of 24 hour care every day. He came home, after 3 days in the hospital following surgery that took 6 hours to repair his shattered leg, to days spent in a wheelchair, with a place on the couch to sleep, watch TV, and keep his left leg elevated continuously. The months that ensued were instructive for my soul, and gave me a depth of understanding of the challenges of caregiving. I would love to be able to say that I knew enough to love myself from the start of this long journey of recuperation, but it took me almost eight weeks before I was able to admit that I needed help, and support and a community of people that I could talk to, reach out to, and be helped by.
I had to learn to love the fool in me – the one who acts alone too much, talks too much, hurts and gets hurt, laughs and cries. In other words, I had to acknowledge that I am a work in progress and that I need other people and don’t have to be strong by myself, but can be strong by “leaning on others.”
The four practices of self-compassion gradually played out in my caregiving life…
1. Learn to recognize your own suffering. Once I saw myself clearly causing my own suffering by denying myself the ability to ask for help, I could begin building a support system that would help me get through a challenging period of caregiving.
2. Respond to your own suffering with kindness. I knew that my close friends would never talk to me with harsh judgments or criticism; they would treat me with gentleness, kindness and caring. I had to begin treating myself like that, and once I began doing so, the world seemed to shift and I let myself relax into my role as a caregiver without becoming brittle and resentful.
3. Understand that you don’t suffer in isolation. Compassion counteracts the critical harsh things I said to myself, and the isolation it tended to bring about. I began to see my common shared humanity in the interconnectedness and interdependence I had with others. Various friends told me about times in their own lives when they went through the same emotions and challenges I faced. I realized that I was not alone, nor did I have to be. Once I started allowing people to help me, I discovered that many friends wanted to be helpful, would bring lunch and eat it with us, and help give us support and love that fed our souls, not just our bodies.
4. Cultivate a practice of mindfulness. By being aware, making choices, acting on my values, I could create a helpful question that would guide my actions. The question was simple: how did I want to feel about myself once my caregiving crisis was over? Did I want to be able to look back and feel proud of how I behaved toward my spouse and myself? Did I do my work with a good attitude? Did I speak with kindness? Did I find humor in my mistakes? Was I able to laugh at myself? Would I be able to be happy with my memories and feel grateful for the many blessings I received during my struggles?
The Best Gift of All
By focusing on my inner wisdom, and coping more effectively and mindfully with change, worry and stresses associated with my challenging circumstances, I grew spiritually and emotionally. I became a better person. What was really the best gift of all – to love myself unconditionally in order to be a more loving and compassionate human being.
Peace be with you in this season of Light and Love.