I said, be gentle with yourself.
What does that even mean? He replied. How do I do that?
If our here-and-now experience contains painful emotions or discomfort – as each one of us experiences at times – then meeting ourselves just as we are can feel counterintuitive. A common response to emotional pain is that we want to immediately get rid of it. Hide it. Run from it.
Of course. Pain is… painful. Uncomfortable. Icky. But when we are so desperate to escape our pain, we can sometimes miss ourselves in the process.
We can fantasize about what we would be doing if we or our circumstances were different. We can throw ourselves head first into other projects or obsessions to distract ourselves. We can put up walls to protect our hearts and our egos from ever getting hurt like that again. Or we can get so lost in the story of our pain that we’re more preoccupied with cycling through what happened, rather than sitting with what we are actually feeling.
All of these reactions are entirely normal – avoidance of pain is ingrained in our human evolution, after all. Yet, in such moments of emotional pain, what we need most is our own compassion, kindness, and loving embrace.
Being gentle with yourself means turning towards your experience with kindness. Especially in times of suffering. And in order to have an attitude of kindness and acceptance to what’s uncomfortable, we first need to be aware of what we are experiencing.
First step: pause, listen, take a deep breath. Feel.
What am I feeling? What are the sensations? Does it move or is it stagnant? Does it have a contour, shape, texture? Could I put a name to it, such as ‘anger’, ‘fear’, or ‘grief’? Exploring our experience with open curiosity helps soften the edges. It helps us become familiar with what we hold within us, so our pain doesn’t become like a monster in the closet that we are sure exists, yet haven’t opened the door to actually confirm its presence.
Becoming aware and accepting of our experience does not mean condoning what is happening. In the West, fear-based ideologies have often equated gentleness, acceptance, and compassion with being soft or weak. And this can contribute to our cultural inclination to reject challenging emotions when they arise.
However with compassion and gentleness also come courage and strength. An inner warrior quality of strength emerges when we can meet all of our experience – the pleasant and unpleasant – with the same embrace. When we can open up to our painful experience with a sense of curiosity and non-judgment – even if just for a moment – we become larger than that experience. Our experience is welcome, but it doesn’t own us.
Becoming mindfully aware of the fullness of our painful emotions may hurt. It may be extremely uncomfortable, in fact. But there’s also a relieving honesty that comes from letting go of needing to control, suppress, deny or make “wrong” what we are feeling. We can drop the trying, and embrace our being. When we allow ourselves to be with what is, we can be with our whole selves.
Second step: See your pain, and meet it with kindness.
Once we’re aware of our pain, we can meet it with love and kindness. In the midst of a difficult situation, rather than saying to ourselves, “why aren’t you over this!?” or “it’s not that big a deal!”, we can meet ourselves with the kindness and compassion that – at the root of it – we all crave and long for.
Self-Compassion isn’t meant to be a quick fix process, but if we continually turn towards our suffering with kindness and care, we can begin to shift our entire relationship with ourselves.
At the heart of it, being gentle with yourself means giving yourself permission to feel all the human emotions – be it hurt, embarrassment, shame, sadness, or whatever else arises in the moment. In the midst of personal darkness, we can learn to say to ourselves, “I’m here for you.”
Leonard Cohen famously sings “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” By following the inner fault lines of our painful experience, we can come to know ourselves as not just a person who feels pain, but also as someone who is full of love, tenderness, and goodwill.
The love and kindness we can show ourselves through being gentle and compassionate during difficult times is the light that fills and surrounds the cracks of suffering. Light and dark, there’s a place for it all.