I thought this would be a quiet week. I would get caught up with reading and have time to spend sorting out my new website. Then, a flurry of requests from friends, relatives, colleagues, and students. I felt unappreciated and overcommitted,unable to have self-compassion. This is a common issue, particularly for people with elderly relatives, children with special needs or other family responsibilities. For some of us, it is because we don’t know how to say no nicely, so we say yes.
Some of us feel guilty putting ourselves first. We know that we should look after ourselves, yet struggle with the whole concept of self-compassion. The well-known advert tells us “Because you’re worth it!” However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. You may have people who really need your help or who continually ask for support, and you feel that they need your time more than you do.
Why self-compassion isn’t easy
- Depression or low self-esteem Research shows that people who are depressed or have very low self-esteem find it hard to “love themselves”.
- Conditioning As children, we were taught that being selfish was bad. Generosity was good. Think of all the fairy tales and fables that reinforce this.
- Compassion for others Many of us are in situations where if we ignore the calls on us, others suffer.
- Our values Those in the caring professions value our ability to put others first and find self-compassion very hard. In other situations, it may be seen as weak or wrong to admit vulnerability or express a need.
- Reverse psychology. Being told that you should love yourself often has the reverse effect–as all the great romance stories show.
In my work with long-term unemployed with very low levels of self-esteem, helping them realise how much they did for others and encouraging them to do more worked wonders. For others, the problem is that we want to look after ourselves, but we also care for others.
So are we stuck then, either feeling selfish, guilty, exhausted or resentful? (Unless, of course, you are a saint).
No, there are solutions. The first step is to replace the but in the first sentence with an and. There are at least three different ways you can uphold your values and look after yourself. I call them “Poor Aggie”, “Mortality” and “The Gift of Receiving”.
My mother had always been a doer, a nurse, a midwife, an organiser. Mum’s name was actually Agnes, but everyone called her Nancy–often Nurse Nancy. For others, she was full of compassion; always ready to support, encourage and console. Yet when she in her nineties, suffering incontinence, deafness and failing vision, she forced herself to do more than she was able to do. She castigated herself for her failings despite being surrounded by people loved her. Until one day, when she said to me, “I suddenly saw myself as one of my patients–this poor elderly woman who was doing her best and I was like one of those horrible nurses who shout at them. I realised if I thought of myself at Poor Aggie, as Nurse Nancy I had to be kind to her.”
Think of yourself as a small hurt child–would this change how you treat yourself? Is the way you treat yourself consistent with your values of compassion? If you want to be compassionate to others, you need to start by nurturing yourself. Before you can pour out the milk of human kindness, you need to fill the jug.
Stop and think for a moment what would happen if you took some time off. Now if chaos would ensue, what does that mean? None of us is immortal, yet we often fail to take this into consideration. We tell others to take it easy, worry about their health–yet ignore our own advice. Stop for a minute and look at the logic of this. If you are so essential, it is even more important to look after yourself! You owe to others to have some plans in place as you will not always be there. And it is best to plan for this in small steps. So, if you really care about those you are helping, start looking after yourself.
The Gift of Receiving
Is our desire to keep giving actually a selfish one? Do we like the power? Perhaps others would like a chance to be the giver. Do you find it hard to ask for help? Perhaps you can let someone else have the pleasure of giving.
I hope this has helped you look at self-compassion in a different way. If you would like a free 15 minute confidential chat to explore how you can make life easier for yourself and those you care for, email email@example.com.