The topic of self-care makes me a little uncomfortable, but I just listened to an interview with self-compassion researcher, Kristen Neff, on The One You Feed podcast, that helped me to frame it more positively.
Kristen defines effective self-compassion as: “Treating yourself with the same kindness, support and care that you would show to a close friend.”
She breaks it down into three parts:
- First, you have to acknowledge that you’re suffering—instead of avoiding, resisting or being swallowed up by the pain.
- Second, you take care of yourself as you would a close friend.
- And third, you recognise that you are not alone, that suffering is part of the human condition and that, whatever you are going through, is not a personal failing.
When I have experienced acute suffering in the past, I let it swallow me up. I aggressively pursued destructive habits. And I felt very alone. Boy, was I doing it wrong!
The third part of Kristen’s self-care model struck me most powerfully. When we suffer, we’re acting under the illusion that life is supposed to be perfect and that we’re the only one suffering. Realising that pain is an inevitable part of the human condition helps us to feel less isolated and to take a broader perspective.
One of the most incredible aspects of our current crisis is that we’re all in this together. We’re all suffering in very visible ways. And it is this shared pain and loss that connects us.
ASKING THE RIGHT SELF-CARE QUESTION
Kristen says the key question to ask when we’re struggling is: “What do I need?”
She gives us two options:
- Acceptance. In the immediate aftermath of acute suffering, you may need to allow yourself some time to grieve. If a loved one has died, a relationship has come to an end or you’re afraid that your business won’t survive the economic crash, it might be appropriate to loosen up on your daily routine and snuggle up in front of the TV with a big bowl of ice cream.
- Action. On the other hand, taking action might be the more compassionate choice. If you feel yourself sliding into depression, you’ve just been laid off or you’re suffering under the burden of empathy during this crisis, you may need to go out for a run, start looking for a new job or shift your focus onto ways that you can support your community.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we almost always know the most appropriate self-care strategy. Are we being lazy or do we need to rest? Is our behaviour self-indulgent or coming from a wise place? Are we speaking overly harshly to ourselves or demonstrating tough love?
This is my favourite part. Kristen continues, “When you don’t want to suffer, you choose healthy behaviours.”
You go to the doctor, practice safe sex, exercise and don’t drink or take drugs to excess. Caring for yourself requires that you don’t willingly participate in the exacerbation of your suffering. As Rumi says: “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”
Maybe you do still need to suffer. But don’t stay incarcerated a moment longer than you need to. Is it time to take action? To take personal responsibility? And to choose to grow stronger and more resilient as a result of your adversities?
SELF-CARE THE YOGI WAY
“Taking good care of you means the people in your life will receive the best of you rather than what’s left of you.” Lorraine Cohen
When you’re hurting, you can ask yourself, how would I comfort and support my closest friend? What tone would I speak to her in? How could I acknowledge that she is hurting? And encourage her to see that she is not alone?
Kristen then recommends that you address your physiology through touch and parasympathetic nervous system activation. This can help to relieve anxiety and re-ignite clear thinking. Here are three videos that you can follow, if you need some guidance with this.
4-7-8 Breath is a technique designed to calm the central nervous system. You can practice it if you’re anxious, afraid or having trouble falling asleep.
I learned a couple of foot massage techniques when I was on a bodywork training course in Bali a couple of years ago. These feel fantastic.
3. Gentle Yoga
This routine is designed to loosen up the neck, shoulders, upper and lower back—releasing tension throughout your body to alleviate areas of stiffness and discomfort. Move with your breath.
I’d love to hear what your most effective self-care strategies are and if this is an area that you struggle with.