(Check out this free, guided 5-minute Self-Compassion meditation for you!)
You likely experience a range of reactions when being told that it is a good idea to “carve out time to practice self-care” during the holidays. Some potential reactions include:
A) You ignore the statement entirely due to the underlying feeling that the concept is so far from the reality of your life that it obviously must not apply to you. You’re not even sure what “self-care” means.
B) You have a deeply resonant reaction, recalling the times when you did something nourishing for yourself, and you ache for more. This is often accompanied by guilt and overwhelm that you haven’t been continuing to do that thing which you know is good for you (walks in the woods, calling your friend, taking a long shower or bath, journaling, reading…). Self-care becomes another thing to add to an endless list of “to-do’s” and it often falls to the bottom of that list in service to the many wonderful things you do for others.
C) You smile and nod at whoever is telling you that self-care is a good idea, all the while experiencing an internal state of comparison and judgment. They must not know all that you have going on. A tone of “Well that must be nice” sets in. That must be nice that they have an hour to eat lunch, that they get to exercise regularly, that they make their own hours, that they don’t have as many responsibilities as you do, etc. This mindset is often accompanied by increased feelings of loneliness, disconnection and self-judgment.
Of course this is not an exhaustive list and your reactions to thinking about self-care will be uniquely your own. However, because all of these reactions are familiar territory for me, I propose that we move towards a lens I have found most helpful in managing overwhelm, self-criticism, and exhaustion that can be hallmarks of everyday life, especially during the holiday season. This is the practice of self-compassion.
At its heart, compassion is about turning towards suffering. Its Latin roots suggest that it means to “suffer with.” It is a practice. It is an active state. Self-compassion encourages you to turn towards the parts of yourself that are in pain and asks you to be curious about and actively inclusive of them. With practice, suffering becomes one of many parts of your human experience instead of something you have to exile from your life or judge yourself about.
Self-compassion is a central construct of Buddhist psychology, though you do not need to be Buddhist or identify as a meditator to practice it. Dr. Kristin Neff, an author, researcher, and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied and written extensively on the topic of self-compassion. On her fabulous website– filled with accessible tips, free meditation practices and exercises- she shares that Self-Compassion has three main tenets. Let’s explore them and see how they might support you through the holiday season.
1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
This element of self-compassion asks you to approach yourself with warmth. Please remember that for most, being kind towards yourself is a radically different way of being and it takes a lot of practice. A lot of people feel that practicing kindness towards themselves is a slippery slope toward self-pity or self-indulgence. Not so!
To evoke a state of warmth toward yourself, you might think about someone in your life toward whom it is easy to have feelings of warmth and kindness. Perhaps a family member, a pet, a mentor, or maybe a public figure whom you have never met. Imagine that you could encapsulate the feelings of warmth and goodness you feel toward this person. This capsule of goodness is a reminder to your conscious mind and unconscious self that you are capable of offering care and kindness. It is a foundational step for extending kindness towards yourself.
Where it may be more familiar to say things to yourself like, “Why do I always do this?!” or, “I am the worst _______,” try adding in words of kindness throughout the holiday season. Often these phrases begin with “May I,” like, “May I be at ease in this situation,” “May I remember that I did my best,” “May I experience patience,” etc. These phrases can be something you say to yourself while standing in line at the grocery store, driving, and before and during a social gathering. You can also write them down in a notebook or on sticky notes where you will see them in order to solidify self-kindness more fully into your life.
2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” – Dr. Kristin Neff
Dominant culture largely conditions us with high expectations of perfection and needing to know all the right answers. This type of conditioning doesn’t leave much, if any, room for making mistakes. Further, many people have been told that they are unworthy of love or (fill in any hyper-critical, emotionally toxic and abusive sentiment here). These factors can create feelings of intense isolation, and thoughts like “I am the only one who is experiencing this.” The complex reality is that you are not! It is an entirely human experience to suffer and experience feelings of failure.
This holiday season, when faced with feelings of personal inadequacy remind yourself to look around. Remember that there’s a very likely chance that others around you are experiencing some shade of what you are experiencing (or they have at some point in their lives). You are not alone!
3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification
While the other two elements of self-compassion take me to task, this element requires the most diligent practice and orientation shift for me. Mindfulness invites us to practice a state of mind where we are actively observant and welcoming of whatever experiences we are having. In other words, you are present to your experience with the world around and within you exactly as it is without needing to fix or change anything (!!).
There are a lot of thoughts and feelings that distract you from being present because you are human. Some people like to use this analogy: Imagine that a bus is coming toward you while you are about to cross the street. You have a few different options: (1) Jump in front of the bus and try to force it to stop (2) Get on the bus and ride it to the end of the line, taking in all the scenery and winding roads and ultimately getting lost (3) Stay where you are on the sidewalk and think to yourself, “Oh, there’s a bus.”
You likely know that forcing feelings away (i.e. Option 1) is a futile effort. The feelings often become more intense, trying to grab your attention. You have also likely experienced Option 2, where you might encounter a thought or feeling and follow its long and winding path into all sorts of stories, finally finding yourself in some other place entirely and perhaps quite lost and confused. With Option 3, you might imagine greeting the thoughts and feelings that are likely to arrive this holiday season with a type of curious objectivity. Imagine yourself like a scientist performing an experiment, simply noting what you observe. This can be more challenging that it seems and takes practice!
This element of self-compassion asks you to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts without suppressing OR exaggerating them. You can practice being mindful with a variety of tasks (those that are “lower stakes” like doing dishes and cleaning your house, and those that might be “higher stakes” like the way that you speak to your family and yourself. It is skillful to return to your practice of self-kindness phrases, or take a deep breath if it feels hard to be mindful. Ask yourself, “What would be supportive in anchoring myself to this moment, here and now?”
With the practice of self-compassion, perhaps you can return again to the idea of self-care for the holidays with a fresh outlook. Self-care does not have to be something that you “do” but rather something that becomes who you are because of your active internal practices. Perhaps self-care can be in service to you instead of you being in service to it, a practice that is with you in whatever you are doing (or not doing!).
May you find ease in all you experience this holiday season. We are all in this together!