Self-Compassion for Hard Times
"In hard times, beauty can seem frivolous â€“ but take it away, and all you're left with is hard times." ~ Paul Madonna
One of the most powerful ways to navigate difficult times is to maintain a sense of connection to what you find beautiful. That might be sunlight filtering through trees; a song, poem, book or painting you love; the feeling of caring for a cause, or a person, plant or animal; or the sensation of your own breath and its movement into and out of your body.
Hard times can bring a kind of simplicity that shows us, often with brutal clarity, what our priorities are; what truly matters to us. And if something matters to you, it is beautiful.
Beauty doesn't make pain go away, and pain can't eradicate beauty. It can be easy to forget that beauty and pain can exist simultaneously and that staying in contact with both gives life a fullness and honesty. Sometimes we can get lost in a fantasy that if we just focus on what's beautiful, we won't have to feel pain. Or we might fear that if we focus on what's painful, what's beautiful will get lost.
I understand self-compassion as a willingness to be present with and responsive to the full range of your experience, recognizing that it all matters and it all counts. So, how do you stay in contact with what's beautiful when you're in pain? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Identify the specific things that are beautiful to you, and consciously give attention to them. We each have a unique sense of what's beautiful. Some people feel a deep connection with nature, and it is a resource for them when they face hard times. Others find beauty in practicing a particular sport or skill, or in art, films, books, or music. Or in taking care of a person, animal, place or object. Or in devoting energy to social justice. As I said above, if something matters to you, it is beautiful. Reflect on what matters to you, and give your attention there.
2. Experiment with saying "and" more than you say "but." This may seem like a semantic trick, but the words we choose are tremendously important. When we say: "The sky looks so beautiful right now, but I feel overwhelmed by the news" we are essentially telling ourselves that our pain/overwhelm trumps the beauty that we experience. See how it feels to say: "The sky looks so beautiful right now, and I feel overwhelmed by the news." Using the word "and" can help you remember that there's room for all of your experience; that it all belongs.
3. Remember what Mr. Rogers' mother told him. Mr. Rogers said that when he was a boy and he saw scary things on the news, his mother would say, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." He added, "I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers â€“ so many caring people in this world." When faced with challenging events, you can choose to acknowledge the pain, while also recognizing that there are people who care, who are responding with compassion and integrity. They are part of what's happening, too.
4. Focus your attention and breath on your heart. Sometimes, you just need a simple practice that requires no thought and can be done anywhere. If you feel lost in troubling thoughts, focus your awareness and breath on your heart. You can also put one or both hands over your heart, to help you stay connected to yourself in this way. Notice how you feel as you bring your attention to your heart. You can also notice what it's like to shift your attention to your hands as they rest on your chest/heart, and to your chest/heart as it's warmed by your hands.
5. Reach out and connect. When we experience hard times, we can fall into old patterns of isolating ourselves and pretending that we're "fine" when we're not. If you notice yourself doing this, you can experiment with interrupting these patterns. There is beauty in reminding yourself, in concrete action, that you're not alone. Call, email or text a friend or loved one. Maybe you want to talk about how you feel; how recent events have impacted you. Or maybe you want to just say Hello, or listen to what they have to say. Sometimes it's not so important what you talk about; being in contact is what matters.
There's no "right way" to navigate hard times. I hope these tools offer you a sense of encouragement and possibility as you experiment with finding your own, unique way to relate to yourself with greater kindness, curiosity and compassion.