Every six weeks or so, I spend a Friday afternoon with my friend Brigitte. She’s French and has the most beautiful approach to life. Her home is filled with books, flowers and mementos from her travels (and she travels often these days, now that her children are grown). Brigitte loves many of the same things I do – literary novels, foreign films, the garden, discovering new cultures and learning about people. We both agree the best kind of food is the simple kind that is cooked with the highest quality, in-season ingredients and that one of life’s simple pleasures is a glass of wine at the end of the day. Our conversations are philosophical and deep, but we also laugh a lot.
Something we spoke about last week is the level of guilt people live with these days and how much pressure we put on ourselves about how we should be living our lives.
It seems to begin with the comparisons we make to other people. Social media has exacerbated this, but even when we’re offline we’re also exposed to messages about exercising more, cutting down on sugar, meat, alcohol, caffeine, dairy, gluten, fat, grains and carbs. We should be saving, donating, achieving and spending more time with family/ friends/ children – and most importantly, we shouldn’t feel stressed about any of this.
We spend so much time trying to get life ‘right’ yet we’re often focused on how much we’re getting it wrong.
It’s very difficult to make the right choices when the emphasis is on what we’re doing wrong. Feeling constantly guilty escalates our desire for the things that actually inhibit true happiness.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I’m beating myself up and comparing myself to other people, the feeling I have is one of ‘not being good enough’. And when I feel inadequate, it’s only natural that I will seek to comfort myself, usually in all of the wrong places (food, shopping, alcohol).
If I change my focus to be more mindful, noticing my experience without judgement and making room for my feelings and cultivating self-compassion, then I have the capacity to choose actions that are aligned with my values and in the best interests of my wellbeing.
How to cultivate self-compassion:
1. Notice your thoughts and your feelings
Choose one of your guilt points and become aware of your self-talk. ‘I feel bad about not being as slim /fit /sociable /as good a parent as I should be’ for example. Notice how you feel when you have that thought and name those feelings (I feel unattractive, I feel disappointed in myself, I am filled with self-loathing, I feel like a failure). The way we speak to ourselves is often incredibly cruel. We wouldn’t say the same things to a friend. This kind of self-talk is painful and unhelpful as it sets up a spiral of negativity.
2. Learn to be kind to yourself
One of the most important lessons is that of developing self-compassion. When you notice these painful thoughts and feelings, say ‘ouch’ in your own way. Change your self-talk to something like this: ‘This is really painful for me’ or ‘I’m being incredibly hard on myself ‘. Learn to be kind to yourself and become aware of just how much pressure you put yourself under.
3. Make choices from the basis of self-care, not deprivation
It takes time to cultivate self-compassion – possibly even years – but when you begin to change your relationship with yourself, you’ll discover a different way of being in the world. Instead of constantly feeling guilty and wrong, you’ll be able to make choices based on valuing your wellbeing, rather than feeling that you need to deprive yourself in any way.
4. Living with the consequences
You might choose to have a glass of wine each night and a few squares of chocolate despite being aware that the impact of those things might mean an extra kilo or two on your waist. When you genuinely care about your happiness, you can also make room for your imperfections. To others, they’re insignificant. They only matter to us because we magnify them in our own minds.