I recently wrapped up my reading of Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found myself introducing my clients to ideas and exercises that I read about as I went through the book. Neff has a gift for writing and I particularly liked the way she combined her research with her personal experiences in a way that made much of the book both relatable and rooted in the scientific process.
One idea that seems to be coming up for me repeatedly, and which this book reinforced, was the importance of shifting from a “we’re all incredibly unique” mentality to a “we are all largely alike” mentality. Perhaps as a result of the time in which I was raised, I have always believed that we are all different, but I am coming to see the truth and value of the fact that we are really all similar. We all want to be happy, we all have skills at which we excel, we all deal with the same landscape of emotions, and we all must contend with life’s challenges on life’s terms. We all are wired for connection and tend to feel happier when we are in a state of connectedness, and we suffer when we feel disconnected from others. When I first came across this idea, I cringed, but the more I am exposed to it the more it makes sense to me: we are not really that unique after all.
Another idea that Neff explores is the myth of self-esteem. Once known as the holy grail of success, Neff accesses the inherent flaws with the pursuit of self-esteem and espouses the idea that self-compassion is a far worthier pursuit (a sentiment with which I agree).
Many of the exercises are relevant to myself and those with whom I work in my private practice. Anyone who struggles with a strong inner-critic or inner perfectionist would benefit from some of the tools Neff shares. My personal favorite is a manta to be utilized in moments of suffering and it goes something like this:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is a part of the human condition.
May I be kind to myself in this moment, in the face of my own suffering.
What can I do, in this moment, to express care and compassion for my own challenging experience?
I highly recommend this book. Have you read it? What did you like?
I am currently in the process of reading Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion and just came across, seemingly for the millionth time, the reference to “putting on your own oxygen mask first.” In case you haven’t heard this frequently used in-flight instruction demonstrating the importance of self care, I am here to break down why it is simply the greatest psychology metaphor of all time.
Psychotherapy and Exploring The Self
So much of what we psychotherapists are doing with our clients is exploring The Self: the self as separate from family of origin, from partners, parents, friends, children, and siblings. So often, the reasons that elicit the need for psychotherapeutic services are relationships gone wrong. Early childhood trauma, parents that were too self absorbed or uneducated on the basic needs of infants and young children or the lifelong impact of not meeting those needs, and unsatisfying or abusive adult relationships often leave individuals feeling confused, stuck, and anxious and lead people to seek help.
As we look at what has transpired within these relationships, and how they have become sources of pain, we also begin to look more closely at the self of the person who has sought our help. Together, we begin to inquire. Who is this person? What are the needs of this separate self?
What we often find is that the self has needs, desires, and ways of being that are distinct and unique. Taking good care of that separate self is one of the chief tasks of adulthood. Hence, the analogy.
We, as adults in relationship with others, must become good stewards of our own experience so that we can, in turn, be good caregivers to others.
An Experiment for Cynics
Don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: for the next week, avoid doing anything simply because you enjoy it. Commit only to doing things that are in the service of others: your kids, partner, friends, colleagues, etc. Notice how you feel at the end of that week (if you can make it that long!). Exhausted? Irritable? Angry? Resentful?
How are the relationships themselves? Strained? Tense? One-sided?
When we care for others at the expense of caring for ourselves, ultimately, relationships suffer and everybody loses. A burned-out, overworked and anxious employee is hardly in a position to offer the same level of clarity, creativity and critical thinking as someone who has a balanced work/play/rest lifestyle. An exhausted, energetically depleted mother can not give the same level of presence and empathy to a struggling child as a mother who is rested and well cared for.
Back to The Metaphor
The instruction given at the beginning of every commercial flight states “in case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting someone else.” This clearly illustrates how caring for yourself is paramount in order for you to truly care for others. Breathing is a symbol for life, for being. Inhabiting a human body requires regular care and maintenance: rest, food, water, touch, movement. If we don’t tend to the needs of the body we get sick. Tending to the needs of the psyche/soul also sustain life, infusing it with meaning and understanding, allowing us to make connections, grow and evolve. Taking a holistic perspective requires that we view ourselves as consisting of many parts: mind and body; soul and spirit.
As adults, we afford ourselves and those in our care the opportunity to experience true generosity and abundance when we are able to tend to our own metaphorical gardens. Otherwise we run the risk of showing up for relationships empty handed, without resources and craving that someone else will fill us up. Not only can this lead to disappointment by expecting from others what they may not be able to give, but this caring for ourselves also serves as a protective function. When we do show up for relationships in desperate need for affection and attention, we open ourselves up to victimization by predators who may give us something, but ultimately take more than what’s offered.
Essentially, this metaphor encourages us to help others. It stresses the importance of being able to be there for others in their time of need. But who are you going to help if you can’t breathe?
Over the holidays I was exposed to the documentary film Minimalism, which is about simplifying life through letting go of material things. This film has since come up in quite a few conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks and the concept of finding more happiness with fewer things seems to be striking a chord with many.
After seeing the movie, I recalled that the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo had been recommended to me last year, which seemed to be in alignment with the values set forth in the Minimalism film. Additionally, the book offered the promise of a life transformation along with some practical ‘how-to’ instruction. I tore through the book last Friday, and truly enjoyed its readability and simple instruction. I would suggest it for anyone looking to make a little space and/or a big change!
In addition to the clearcut instruction: “discard first… keep only things that will spark joy in your life,” Kondo also invites us to consider the meaning of our possessions in our lives – both at the time of procurement and in the present moment. As a way to further explore any resistance that we may have to letting go of certain items, we are instructed to inquire what is the item’s true purpose, and has this item already fulfilled its role in your life?
One of my favorite passages is this one in which Kondo reflects on her relationship to her things, and her early challenges with trust and sharing her emotions: “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” I wondered as I read these words how common of an issue this is for us in today’s society when hoarding has become a phenomenon affecting as many as 5% of the world’s population.
Another element of this book that is near to my heart includes cultivating appreciation for our belongings, honoring them for the beauty, protection, or efficiency that they bring to our lives. As gratitude is a practice scientifically proven to combat depression, including our belongings in this process can help us to further strengthen the neural pathways of appreciation and boost our serotonin and dopamine, which ultimately can improve our relationships with ourselves and others.