Does Self-Compassion Matter?
Self-compassion and self-love are an uncommon concept for most of us. We are unkind to ourselves much more often than we realize.
Over 20 years ago, two weeks after I had proposed to my fiancé, Kathy, got a diagnosis of Thyroid end stage IV lung cancer. As a young person, surrounded by young and healthy people, I had never been around anyone with a serious illness. In my early twenties, one of my college acquaintances, died of a serious illness but I knew little about his disease or his final journey at that young age.
A Decision From My Heart
I inherited resilience from both my parents, and was ready to embrace the challenge and to do whatever it took to get Kathy well again. I have to admit here I had no knowledge of self-compassion. I felt that thinking about how this would impact me would be very selfish of me. I failed to realize that being kind to myself would allow me to be more empathetic to Kathi and others in need.
Instead, I didn’t have a shadow of a doubt that we would emerge victorious in this battle. I decided to do whatever it took take to get her the treatment she needed. I remember her parents who had come in from Butte, Montana in their RV being curious if I knew what I was getting into. I said I was not marrying someone with cancer, rather I was marrying someone I loved, who happened to have cancer.
When a Caregiver Becomes a Partner
A few weeks after her diagnosis, we got married in a court house. Her parents were the only guests given the urgency of getting her on my employer’s medical insurance plan. We found a Primary Care doctor who had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. She had dealt with a lot of AIDS patients and was an embodiment of both compassion and grace. She guided us to a young Oncologist who took a liking to Kathy’s unyielding spirit and her infectious laugh. Despite her grave diagnosis, she remained in high spirits and even had a sense of humor. She decided to go through whatever treatment was necessary to get back to her life.
Treatment with Grace
The 7-hour chemo treatments started right away. Soon after the attendant side effects started. I worked at the same hospital system where Kathy was being treated and visited her during her treatments. Being a very private person, I never told anyone at work that my wife was dealing with cancer. I kept up with my crazy work schedule while ensuring that Kathy was getting the care she needed. Her parents came to stay with us and took care of her and her day-to-day needs.
After her tumor had shrunk with a mix of chemo and radiation, she went through a painful lung surgery which would get rid of any traces of cancer. It was a long and slow recovery for Kathy. It was surreal to see someone who used to have several loads of laundry done, the house cleaned before I even woke up on weekends, struggle to move.
Over the next two years we had brief periods of joy as the cancer went into remission only to come back again. Through it all, Kathy kept up hope, almost until the very end when she realized she would lose this fight.
The Loss & Acceptance
I was numb with grief when she passed. My confidence in her beating this disease, given the advanced stage of the cancer had been naïve at best. I kept thinking if there was something else, I could have done. I regretted going to a movie once, by myself during her illness; 3 more hours I could have spent with her. It dawned on me that I was being harsh with myself. I was very focused on all my personal shortcomings and had no idea about self-care or self-love. I didn’t know how to forgive myself or stop my internal dialogues about an endless array of what-if’s. I have to admit that my ruminations were exhausting. I realized that I actually felt that if I took a breather it would mean I was being very selfish. Most of us confuse self-compassion with being selfish. I decided to shift my perspective offer myself warmth and unconditional acceptance.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
There has been endless research on self-compassion and its link to our emotional well-being. Research bears out that people who have self-compassion have better relationships, emotional intelligence and live far greater and fulfilling lives.
Treating ourselves with respect is a pre-requisite to others respecting us. This is how we establish patterns and standards when we are unkind to ourselves. There are many ways to start this journey and it’s never too late. Being kind to yourself is a good start, stay positive & accept your imperfections. Work with a coach who can guide you towards being positive and kind with yourself.
I went to thank Aline, our primary care doctor and wondered out loud if there was anything else, I could have done. To my astonishment she told me that many partners leave their spouses when they get a diagnosis of a serious disease. She applauded my care and commitment to Kathy and told me to remember that I did the best that I could under very difficult circumstances.
Soon after, in a conversation with my lifelong friend and my sister both asserted that I was being very hard on myself and in fact had been for most of my life. Upon reflection on their and Aline’s feedback I realized that I equated the notion of self-compassion with feeling sorry for myself. Given my core value of being there for a loved one, I had considered everything I did for Kathy as nothing more than being there for her. The feedback from these different sources made me realize that it was ok to honor and appreciate myself for living up to my commitment to my wife. Showing myself this tenderness, made me recognize how drained I was. To recharge, I took a vacation to Cancun where all I did was eat and sleep for four days. The sheer exhaustion from the last two years was finally expressing itself.
Self-Compassion Does Matter
My journey has taught me that self-compassion does matter. Over twenty years later, being self-compassionate is not my default action. By being mindful about it, I extend grace & kindness to myself. Meditation and yoga help me raise my self-awareness and enable me to be in touch with myself.
A few years ago, I started coaching leaders at all levels, C-suite to front line managers. It amazed me to see to see how hard these very accomplished people were on themselves. While having opportunities for development, they also had impossible expectations of the themselves.
One client, a senior leader, had very positive results from her 360 feedback. It surprised her when I suggested that we start with a focus on the glowing feedback. She felt that the (very few) areas of opportunity needed her immediate attention. As we started reviewing how the respondents respected and even cherished her, she cried and could not hold back tears over two sessions. With the best of intentions her mother had instilled in her the wonderful virtue of humility. She had taken this to such an extreme that any self-acknowledgement violated this value that was core to her personality.
I started reflecting on the lack of self-compassion among my clients. I realized that these people were kind and compassionate to others in their personal and professional lives. It was obvious that I was not alone in setting unrealistic standards for behavior, performance, patience, etc. for myself.
Through my work with numerous clients, I have helped them raise their self-awareness. They realized that self-compassion is essential for theiremotional and physical wellbeing and the overall quality of their life.