The last time I wrote anything for this space, I wrote to you about kindness. I wrote about falling apart and asking, “What’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. I wrote about starting there, about doing that.
Here’s the thing that happens when you start asking yourself this question: you get some unexpected answers. In the month since my last blog post I’ve learned a lot about what kindness is (and about what kindness isn’t).
Pop quiz: What comes to mind when you think about kindness?
I think of some kind of warm, gentle, mother-figure come to swoop me up and hug my hurts away. I think of generosity and tenderness and baths and soft blankets and space to call my own.
And, hey, sometimes a bath really is the kindest thing you could do for yourself right now.
But most of the time kindness is less obvious. Kindness might also be hard, overwhelming, or scary.
Because it turns out sometimes kindness looks like this:
- Not procrastinating something stressful because it would be kinder to get it over with.
- Speaking up for yourself and having a difficult conversation because it would be kinder than letting your emotions fester.
- Cancelling on a friend if it would be kinder to risk disappointing them than it would be to make yourself go.
- Taking a crazy risk because it would be kinder to risk failure than to live with the regret of never daring to find out.
- Saying no to someone who wants your help because you can’t help them and take care of yourself at the same time.
Sometimes kindness asks really difficult things of us.
As I navigate this exploration of kindness, the metaphor I keep coming back to is about baby birds. There comes a day when a baby bird has to leave the nest and fly if it wants to survive. There will come a day when the kindest thing is to try and fly, no matter how unsure that bird might be. (And if you think baby birds swoop gracefully out of the nest on their first try, I’m afraid that’s not how it works!)
Sometimes this will end disastrously. Sometimes it will end wonderfully. Either way, trying was still the kindest thing to do.
Sometimes the hard things kindness asks of us turn out much better than we’d feared. Sometimes the hard conversation goes more smoothly than we’d imagined. Sometimes our friends understand when we cancel on them. Sometimes the person we said no to is really nice about it.
And sometimes this doesn’t happen.
When things go as badly as we’d feared, it doesn’t make them less kind.
Which is why kindness is key, but I think there’s a second piece to it that’s equally important and that piece is willingness.
You have to be willing to have the hard conversation.
You have to be willing to feel like a disappointment.
You have to be willing to have it all turn out exactly as you’d feared.
You have to be willing to have the whole experience — glee and fear and sadness and frustration and everything in between.
You have to be able meet that experience with kindness and compassion.
Being kind to yourself isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s hard and scary and asks you to be braver than you’ve ever been.
And that means that if you want to be kind to yourself you have to be willing to be kind with yourself, too.
You can learn to extend kindness even to the parts of you that are angry or scared or uncomfortable, the parts of you that maybe you wish would go away. You can to learn how to be okay even when you’re uncomfortable. You can learn how to witness your discomfort, to sit with it, and to hold gentle, compassionate space for yourself in the midst of your discomfort. You can to learn to have patience with yourself when you notice how unwilling and uncomfortable you are.
If you’re like me, this won’t come naturally.
If you’re like me then there’s a part of you that is scared and small and hurting and it staggers about in you like a two-year-old having a tantrum when you ask it to stay present with any kind of discomfort. (You get to learn to be kind to this part, too.)
So if you’ve been struggling to be kind with yourself in the face of life’s upsets and disappointments, then here’s something to try.
I’ve been reading True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Brach, which I’m finding to be one of the more helpful books I’ve read in awhile. In it she writes:
“Many students I work with support their resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. For instance, you might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes,” or experience the swelling of deep grief and whisper “yes.” You might use the words “this too” or “I consent.” At first you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Or you might say yes to shame and hope that it will magically disappear. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain. Your entire being is not so rallied in resistance. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of yielding or opening to waves of experience.”
Brach, Tara (2013-01-22). True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (p. 63). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
“I consent” is something I’ve been playing with, and it’s one of the most powerful tools I’ve found.
When I feel scared or overwhelmed or angry or hurt, “I consent” is a gentle reminder that I’m choosing this, that I’m willing to have this experience — no matter how difficult. “I consent” is a reminder that I want even this — because I know it to be the kindest thing I could do for myself right now.
“I consent” allows me to find the willingness I need to keep going, to keep choosing and trying and failing and falling.
“I consent” helps me to feel my hurts and my fears and my shame and to be kind with myself through the whole of it.
“I consent” reminds me that it is enough to show up and allow the truth of what is here and now, to greet myself in this moment with all the kindness and compassion I can muster.
Because life is hard and messy and beautiful and brilliant and there is no part of it that is not ours to experience — and the miracle of it is that even the hard and messy bits take on an air of grace when we learn to open our hearts and stay present with the truth of what we’re feeling in each moment.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE:
If you are dealing with unresolved trauma, then this may be too much for you right now. When we are coping with trauma our emotions and the physical sensations in our bodies can be so overwhelming that making contact with them might feel profoundly unsafe. It is important to realize that this is totally okay. It just means that you may need to relearn how to feel safe with yourself before you are ready to practice anything else.
It is also important to realize that you may be dealing with trauma even if nothing really “bad” has happened to you. I believe that a lot of my trauma stems from experiences of physical pain that I have no control over. My pain isn’t anyone’s fault — no one beat or abused me — but physical pain in many forms has been a part of my life since I was very young, and I’ve been living with chronic back pain and headaches for roughly five years now. The near-constant presence of physical pain eventually left me feeling unsafe in my own body. This is still trauma even though nothing that happened to me was particularly “traumatic”.
If you are struggling with trauma it’s important to realize that you may not be able to move past the trauma without help. Being traumatized separates us from our innate sense of safety and it may be difficult to find our way back without someone to guide us. When we don’t feel safe in our bodies and able to stay present with ourselves even in calm moments, trying to stay present with uncomfortable physical sensations or emotions may do more harm than good.
Please don’t do this to yourself.
If trying to stay present with uncomfortable sensations or emotions is overwhelming, then go back to the beginning and ask “what is the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. If the kindest thing you could do would be to stop pressuring yourself into doing something that scares you, please start there.
If you think you might be struggling with trauma and want to know more, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to talk with you about what kinds of resources are available and help you figure out how you can move forward.
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