A Year of Living Mindfully: 38 Compassion lets us see ourselves through the lens of kindness
We met on a train heading to Dublin. It was 16 years since I had seen her.
She remembered last seeing me just after the birth of her first child. And then she had moved down the country to be nearer her husband’s workplace.
I was heading home from a meeting in the west; she was heading to the capital for a doctor’s appointment.
She had had a tough year, one that included a hospital admission.
She spoke apologetically at first about her depression, as though I might judge her or be disappointed that she had succumbed to it.
Gradually we settled into one another’s company. We spoke honestly, in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way, about our respective brushes with the dark side.
She was a perfectionist and had always pushed herself relentlessly. The voice of self-criticism was never far away.
She had come by this voice honestly. Her father had high standards. He didn’t trust his children with the most routine household chores because they would never be able to do it quite right.
So, she had grown up in an emotional bind and the voice in her head said “anything you do must be to the highest standard” but “whatever you do – you’ll make a mess of it”.
In response to such a pressure cooker upbringing, she said she’d created a “very chilled atmosphere” in her own home.
This worked beautifully for her children, but in her own mind those voices persisted and haunted her.
Something had to give.
It had taken the pain of depression to help her see the impossible trap she’d been caught in all her life.
Depression, she said, actually helped her to develop a more compassionate way of relating to herself.
“I try to be kinder, softer and not so harsh with myself now, and that’s hard.”
Paul Gilbert, in his excellent book, The Compassionate Mind, talks about how, in a highly competitive society, striving and self-criticism seem to come naturally.
Compassion and kindness are more often than not viewed as a form of weakness.
In Ireland, we love teasing, banter and “slagging” each other, but I’m not sure that being kind to ourselves comes that easy.
We hide our dark moments. And when we do, we feel alone.
People may tell us, “we’re too hard on ourselves” but we don’t know how to ease up.
We can’t erase the self-attacking thoughts we learned as children.
But it is possible to grow a kinder inner voice that balances them and keeps them in check.
Compassion means we are present to ourselves as we would be to a child in distress.
We feel for that child’s pain, even if we aren’t able to do anything about it.
We trust that our presence, our warmth, our willingness to hang in with them is enough.
Compassion soothes us and calms us. It connects us with the inner strength we need to bear the unbearable.
Hard or easy
Compassion takes guts. Essentially it means that we turn towards what’s actually happening, whether it is good or bad, hard or easy.
We stop running away. We chose to be present to whatever is real rather than escape into fantasy.
We look at ourselves through the lens of kindness and not through the lens of criticism.
This is no easy task.
A compassionate mind allows us to see our destructive thoughts for what they are.
In their own way, they are trying to keep us safe. They are the language of our defence system, constantly shouting at us to keep it together so that we don’t get hit.
So that we won’t have to relive the overwhelming trauma of rejection we experienced as little children.
Entire dance floor
But understanding where these thoughts come from doesn’t mean we let them have the entire dance floor.
If we do then our lives will be lived with fear. We will find it very hard to trust that our future could be anything more than a grim repetition of the past. We will find it hard to give life a second chance.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health