What do you think – what comes to mind – when I say “mindful self-compassion?” Maybe, like me, you picture someone on a mountaintop in the lotus position, their arms wrapped around themselves, smiling, blissfully peaceful. Even though I know better, that’s what comes to mind.
We tend to think of self compassion as soothing, nurturing, calming oneself, and feeling better. But that’s only part of the story. Dr. Kristen Neff, originator of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), talks about the Yin and the Yang of MSC. The yin involves being with ourselves. That part is comforting, soothing and validating. It’s the part we are most familiar with, even if we’re not very good at it.
The yang of MSC focuses on acting in the world. Protecting, providing, and motivating. It is a long way from our vision of the blissfully peaceful person on the mountaintop.
What does Self-Compassion have to do with doing dishes?
Let’s look at Sara’s story.* Sara came to coaching because she “just didn’t feel motivated” to do some of the things she thought she should do. Like the dishes. She said, “I know I need to do them, but then I just don’t. I’ll be running late to go to work in the morning, then I come home and I’m hungry so I fix dinner for my daughter and me. By the time we get through eating and I get her ready for bed, I’m exhausted. So I’ll lie on the couch and watch Netflix when I know I ought to get up and do the dishes.”
When that happened, she would get upset with herself. She’d think:
I don’t know what’s wrong with me – I guess I’m just lazy.
It’s no wonder my life is a mess, I can’t do anything like I want to.
I guess I don’t really want to succeed if I can’t even do these simple things.
Sara knew those things weren’t rationally true, but it felt like her inner critic was waiting, ready to pounce to tell her how inadequate she was. It felt like she was attacking herself from the inside.
After she’d felt bad for a while, she’d try to add self-compassion. “It’s ok,” she’d reassure herself. “You’re not lazy, and your life isn’t a complete mess.” To distract herself from all the mean things she’d been saying to herself and feel better, she might watch five more episodes of her current favorite show, eat a bowl of ice cream, drink a glass of wine, or talk to her best friend.
She’d promise herself to do better. “I’ll do them first thing tomorrow,” she’d think. “I’m tired. It’s not a big deal. They can wait.” And she would feel ok again.
But the next day, the whole process would start over.
Sara would eventually do the dishes. She’d feel wonderful then, after she finished, and she’d realize, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad, I’ll do them right away from now on.” But then she’d be tired and wouldn’t feel like it… and the cycle would start over.
Not motivated > > Don’t Act > > Feel Bad/ Attack Self > > Soothe Self/ Distract > > Resolve to Do It Soon > > Feel better…
Of course, when you’re caught in that cycle, nothing changes. Sara was going round and round, wondering why she wasn’t making any progress. She thought she was being self-compassionate when she soothed and distracted herself, but was she?
What was her goal? Did she want to feel better about the dirty dishes or get the dishes done?
Sara realized that she actually felt better when the dishes were clean. She realized:
If I like having clean dishes, it is an act of kindness and self care to do them. Doing the dishes is a way I can express self-compassion.
It took Sara a minute to absorb that idea. But then she thought:
If doing dishes is an act of self-compassion, why are my dirty dishes still in the sink?
So why isn’t Sara already doing it? If she likes having the dishes done – what keeps her from doing it? Investigating this question, with kindness and curiosity, is at the heart of the next step.
Sara realized that part of her reluctance to do the dishes was connected to old battles with her ex-husband over housework. Her firmly held beliefs that “We should share housework,” and “I shouldn’t be the only way doing dishes,” made sense at the time. And part of her was still fighting that battle. Of course, her ex-husband was gone, so she was fighting with the part of herself that actually wanted to do the dishes.
When Sara realized she could let go of that conflict, she began to look at what she needed. Applying the yang of mindful self-compassion, she asked herself:
What do I need to provide for myself in order to do the dishes?
What part of my life or aspect of myself do I need to protect?
What do I need? What do I really need?
With coaching, Sara found her answers to those question. She decided that she needed to protect some energy to put into this task. She also wanted to provide herself with tools for time management. She was able to problem-solve, and developed a realistic plan to keep herself out of the cycle she had been stuck in. She quit fighting with herself and was able to get the dishes done.
I read what I’ve written here and think, “Wait a minute. How is that different from any other way of accomplishing one’s goals? You identify the barriers to doing it, figure out how to overcome them, and then just do it, right?”
But this approach is different because it changes your relationship with yourself in the process. It’s not just about getting the dishes done. It’s learning to tame your inner critic. It’s learning to befriend yourself so that you can provide what you need for yourself.
Where do you get stuck? What aspects of your life are a struggle for you?
Everyone has their own answer to those questions. Whether you struggle to write a blog post, network at events, or do your paperwork on time, approaching the issue with the yang of self-compassion can make the difference between fighting with yourself and befriending yourself. It’s a powerful practice to build the life you want.