There's nothing wrong with treating ourselves, but it shouldn't be the default means of making ourselves feel better.
My understanding of self-compassion has changed dramatically in the last three months or so.
Up until I really started learning about it, I believed that self-compassion and treating myself were the same thing. They’re not. There’s a world of a difference between the two. Self-compassion is defined by two key features:
Over the years, self-compassion (as I understood it at the time) usually took the form of junk food, alcohol, staying in my jammies for half the day, staying up late with Netflix...you know, the easy distractions.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with treating ourselves, there absolutely isn’t. It becomes problematic though when it’s our default means of trying to make ourselves feel better.
I think the easiest way to describe this would actually be to tell you about how I managed a low mood last Tuesday. I woke up in the horrors. It was one of those days where from the minute I opened my eyes, everything felt wrong. I didn’t get up, but I didn’t get back to sleep either. I just lay there, thinking about all the things I should be doing – I should do some yoga. I should do my breathing exercises. I should just get up! The kids are watching television again, it’s the last day of the holidays, I should be spending time with them, and on and on it went.
At the back of my mind throughout this delightful monologue was a phrase I’ve found really useful recently – activation precedes motivation. In other words, sometimes we have to just get up and get moving before we want to. If we wait for motivation, it might never come. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Tuesday was one of those times that it wasn’t so effective. Every time my little inner-voice piped up with this phrase, I resolutely ignored it. It just felt like too much work, and sometimes I really, really resent the level of effort I have to put in to keep myself relatively well. It didn’t help that I was genuinely tired anyway, which always skews my perspective and makes everything significantly harder.
Anyway, after much internal berating, I eventually got myself out of the bed. I didn’t get dressed, I didn’t get the kids to turn off the tv, but I got myself upright. I had two choices for breakfast – the one I wanted to go for, which was the bowl of cheerios, or the one that I needed to go for, which would ultimately make me feel better but would take a lot more effort. I went with the latter and made myself an omelette.
It helped, and what also helped was knowing that I had made the best decision – I was actively doing something to alleviate my suffering in that moment. Given the frame of mind I was in, the cheerios would definitely have been more enjoyable and far easier short-term, but I know from bitter experience that they always, always make me feel worse within half an hour.
After I got myself fed, I took my time about showering. One of the things I’ve learned since working with a psychologist is the importance of self-soothing, in whatever form that may take. Something that works for me is feeling like I’m pampering myself a little – a nice moisturiser after my shower. Doing my nails. I realise this probably sounds completely cracked, but it works for me.
Allowing myself those few extra minutes to just look after me gives me so much more breathing room in my head.
I must admit, as I write this I’m very aware that if someone had shown me this article a year ago, I would have gotten intensely frustrated, and that is the last thing I want anyone reading this to feel. How can a catchphrase, an omelette and some moisturiser make everything better?
The truth is, they can’t, not on their own. But over time, the little things slowly start to add up, and that’s when the change happens.
Having said of all that, there are two crucial elements in this. The first of these is an acceptance that we can and must take responsibility for our own mental well-being. The second, and probably the more important, is that we need support to do it. I have learned so much over the years, from the therapist who supported me through crisis after crisis to the psychologist I’m now working with, and have come to realise just how much of the difficulty we all face comes back to basic human physiology and evolution.
I cannot do the subject justice; I’m not a psychologist and this is just one short article. But, it's important to underline that the progress I’ve made in the last six months isn’t down to medication (although it has played a part), it’s down to understanding.
I’ve learned about how our emotions impact our brains and bodies, and so influence our behaviour. I’ve learned about personal responsibility - that ultimately I’m the one who has to do the work that will help improve my quality of life. And I’ve learned the true meaning of self-compassion. It’s not all candlelit baths, tea and cake, and soothing music, even though those things do have their place. It’s about doing what’s best for me, in any given moment, even if what’s best is the exact opposite of what I want to do.
Yes, I’m doing the work, and I’m finally starting to feel the benefit of it. But I could not have done it alone, and I’m painfully aware that the support I have is beyond the reach of many.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie