I was walking on the fire road near my home a few days ago, being mindful of the need for social distancing — moving far to my side if someone was walking the other direction. Suddenly, four mountain bikers came at me at high speed, all only two feet from each other and me, I jumped off the trail (into poison oak) to avoid being too close.
Immediately I could feel the cortisol in my body, my heart beating, my jaw clenched. I felt resentment, anger and a bit of fear. Did I get far enough out the way? Will I get poison oak on top of everything? Who are these jerks?
I’ve been writing a lot lately about positivity, the need to still see good in the morass, to notice what you’re grateful for. But in that moment, and for a full hour after, I was in full on resentment mode. There was nothing good going through my mind.
We are in unprecedented times, and that’s stressful. But on top of being angry at the bikers, I was also beating myself up for letting people I cannot control affect how I was feeling. I cannot control what others do or don’t do. But I can approach their behavior and my reaction with compassion.
Maybe they were 4 roommates so didn’t need to distance. Maybe they didn’t see me. I can see now that I’ve calmed down that they certainly didn’t wish me harm.
But even if they were clueless about social distancing and saw me, I can still have compassion for myself and my reaction. I can come back to center and remember I am the only person I can control.
We are all going to have moments that make us scared or angry or resentful or sad now, and even during normal times. But we can use compassion as a tool to help ourselves and others to be calm and caring, come back and try again.
Compassion as a Tool for Resilience
Giving and receiving compassion both have tremendous benefits for our well-being. Think of compassion as offering or getting a helping hand to find your footing again, to breath and become calmer. Compassion is a tool, an inner strength that we can access when we need it, yet many of us (myself included) think of compassion as something we give to others.
Indeed giving compassion to others, especially now, is a gift and helpful, but we can also use compassion to help ourselves when we have negative thoughts, or make a mistake or lash out in fear or anger.
Most of us get that being compassionate to others is a great idea, but we may also have thoughts that taking care of ourselves, giving ourselves compassion is selfish. The ancient rabbinical scholar and sage, Rabbi Hillel asks: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
Taking care of you means others don’t need to do so. In that way taking care of ourselves is a gift to others. So try to think of self-compassion as a gift to you and those around you.
Self Compassion – A Letter to Yourself
Sometimes regret and anger linger longer than I want. I’ve found that writing a letter of self-compassion can be soothing and healing. This may seem awkward, but I promise it’s worth trying. When we give compassion we feel calmer, when we receive it we become stronger. In a letter to yourself you get to experience both giving and receiving. It’s powerful.
The key is to write to yourself in the same loving and caring tone that you would use for a friend or a child or someone you love. I invite you to try this exercise
How to write a letter to yourself
When you find yourself regretting your behavior or even your thinking, write down what happened, how you were feeling at the time, and how you’re feeling now (embarrassed, angry, sad, alone, longing, something else…).
Next think about what you would tell a dear friend who was experiencing your struggle, imagine the loving tone you would use. Now, using that tone, write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, acceptance and/or forgiveness. Read your letter and know you are being for yourself, giving yourself the care and respect you give to others.
How did it feel to write? How did it feel to give yourself compassion?
Cultivate Compassion and Build Your Toolbox
Compassion, like gratitude, is something you can cultivate. The more you practice compassion for others and self, the easier it gets. That doesn’t mean you won’t still be thrust into anger, embarrassment, sadness, frustration or some other emotion that rages through you. It means that you will be less likely to get stuck there, because you will have the tools you need to get your equilibrium back.
Interested in learning more about the power of your stories to create a life of resilience, connection, and meaning? Check out my Write Into Joy workshops to learn how to build resilience and joy through journaling & reflecting. Click here to see a list of upcoming workshops.