Mary Cleary Kiely: Compassion can be key to personal change
In the winter of 1978, when I was a junior in college, I fell in love with a man who loved to smoke cigarettes. I had always been athletic, and so had never picked up the habit. During the Great Blizzard, however, when we were stuckindoors for days on end, I thought I would try just one.
The relationship fizzled soon after. My new addiction to cigarettes did not.
For years afterwards I tried to quit. I remember being embarrassed that I had ever been dumb enough to light up in the first place. I also was angry with myself for not having enough of what seemed like the necessary preconditions for packing it in: willpower, perhaps, or self-esteem.
Many of us have a tendency to beat ourselves up in that way. Gritting our teeth and muscling it through, we feel sure, is the right road to making positive changes for ourselves.
Except when it’s not.
The day I was able to give up smoking for good was the day when, fresh out of any other ideas, I decided to cut myself some slack. It was quite out of character for me, really. But my father had died six months earlier. I’d been thinking a lot about some things he’d taught me in the last few years of his life, after he’d sobered up from a decades-long battle with alcoholism.
My father had been greatly helped by a 12-step program he was involved with during his recovery. Central to that program is the notion of turning over one’s struggles to a higher power, in effect finding a little humility about the limits of our abilities to help ourselves. My good friend has a slightly different version of this; she calls it “putting it in the drawer.” When she has done everything she can to deal with a challenge and it is still unresolved, she mentally goes “hands off” for a little while, and gives herself a breather.
Humility is implicit in both of those approaches, but so is self-compassion. Self-compassion is not synonymous with indulgence. When we show a little mercy to ourselves, when we in effect say “Hey, welcome to the human race,” the tough stuff doesn’t go away. We still have to look afresh at old certainties, negotiate difficult situations, form new habits of thought and/or action, and do lots of other uncomfortable stuff on the road to personal change.
Here’s what I found was the difference, though. In acknowledging my personal limits and for once being sympathetic to my own cause, I felt as if fresh air had come into the room, metaphorically as well as literally. I could be more open to ideas that hadn’t occurred to me before, perhaps because I was in effect opening the floor to discussion. For example, I came to realize that two of the things that I most loved about smoking were that it forced me to take a break, and it forced me to take deep breaths (albeit ones filled with unhealthy chemicals). Both were needs I could meet in other ways in my life.
And suspending critical judgments of my prior efforts gave me more energy. When I came to feel that I was in effect on my own team, that I was not a house divided, I could devote my energies to constructive action rather than to grinding self-criticism. Beating oneself up, it seems, often is quite inefficient.
Few lessons are learned once and for all, of course. I still sometimes have to peel myself off problems I am trying to solve, including issues with my kids, and remind myself to hand it off psychically. I also sometimes set standards for myself that are unrealistic.
But at least the experience of self-compassion now is part of my world. In my dad’s life and in my own, I have seen its surprising power. When I think about all the years with my father, some of them quite terrible, those final lessons feel like the gold that survived the fire. I’m grateful for those last things he taught me about humility and surrender and befriending oneself, even or perhaps especially in times of brokenness and failure.
Out in the yard the other day with the youngest of our three children, inspecting the emerging daffodils, hyacinths and tulips, I was thinking about the tremendous pressures that our kids face. One of the hardest parts of parenting is to keep company with a child in distress, without either dismissing their pain or inappropriately fixing it for them.
May our children develop thick skins to help them deal with the wintry challenges of their lives, be they social, academic, sexual or economic. May they reach for the sun when they need it. But may they also, like flowering bulbs, find within themselves reserves of staying power and means of nourishment.
Mary Cleary Kiely’s column appears on the second Tuesday of the month. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.