A key to developing compassion and empathy was at the same time developing it for myself. I’d always been quite hard on myself. Anything else seemed self-indulgent and selfish. I’d been brought up to think of others and put others first. And as a result, at times I think I was a bit of a doormat, a pushover, and lacking confidence. So it was tough to allow myself to feel some self-compassion. But it made a huge difference.
The peace of mind that is possible after developing some self-compassion and self-acceptance was life-changing. Previously, I had spent untold hours, days, weeks feeling bad about myself, filled with guilt or imagining what others were thinking or saying about me. Of course, these were always the worst case scenarios. But when I learnt to be kind to myself, I learnt to deal with stress more easily, I learnt to relax, and I learnt to be kinder to others too.
“But that’s easier said than done!” I hear you say. So I'm going to share a mental exercise that helped me for the first time to feel some real self-compassion. It was at a time when I was weeping over the loss of my second ectopic pregnancy. I was in such pain. The pregnancy had come so close to the uterus, but not close enough. And it was now potentially life-threatening, or at the very least threatening to take many months to resolve. I was grieving and upset. And yet I found it hard to give myself any compassion.
Until I read or saw the advice simply to step outside of myself. To imagine the Mali who was sobbing on the floor as a child, as Mali-the-child. And as I did, I wanted to hold her, to tell her she was allowed to feel sad, to agree that life sucked, and to comfort her, to reassure her that it would get better. To let her know she was loved, and that she was enough as she was. I felt the love flow into me, and it helped. I was still grieving … but it helped.
Over the next months and years I needed to rationalise this idea, I needed to fit it into my real, everyday life. I couldn't go around treating myself as an eight year old! I realised that if I had seen any of my family or friends in the pain that I had been in, I would have stopped and comforted them. I wouldn't have told them that they deserved this, that maybe they weren't good enough, that maybe they were being judged. I would have held them and loved them and told them they were enough.
Logic of course brought me to this. After all, didn't I deserve to feel some of that love, some of that compassion? Why did I think that I deserved less than any other person I knew? Logic answered: I don’t deserve less. I shouldn't treat myself worse than I would treat strangers, people I was counselling on the ectopic site, friends, or members of my family.
And so I developed some self-compassion. Which is not to say I go easy on myself, ask nothing of myself any more, tell myself that any sort of behaviour or thinking is okay, let standards slide. No, sometimes still I am far too hard on myself. But I don’t beat myself up for things I can’t control any more, or for mistakes I might make. I practise self-compassion. It helps.