Self-Compassion After the Storm
Recent events have left me wondering how people are coping with the unprecedented number of storms hitting North America. Certainly, we see reassuring humanitarian responses here and in the U.S. But how are individuals coping on the inside? What is happening in the hearts and minds of people as they realize the devastation? Kindness and compassion are helpful for others who are left stranded by the storms. But self-compassion is just as valuable and necessary. Have you noticed that it is easier to give to others than it is to yourself? It does not come naturally to most and yet it is key to resilience and healing.
This summer we have had ample opportunity to practice self-compassion as we grieve the losses that have come with these events. When the violent 15-second Microburst hit my hometown of Montreal last August, it uprooted 100-year-old trees and changed the face of my community – literally. Streets with heavily treed canopies are now open and vacant. Hurricane Harvey then drowned a big part of Houston, Texas, displacing tens of thousands. In British Columbia, whole communities continue to be evacuated due to record wild fires. As I write this today, Hurricane Irma is now threatening to make landfall on the U.S.
Have you been directly affected by a recent storm? If so, you may be feeling anxious, irritable, or sad. Having trouble sleeping and being easily startled are also understandable responses.
If you were not directly affected by these storms, but you have family or friends who have been, you are still being affected.
In either case, the feelings that accompany violent storms like these are not comfortable. Helplessness, fear, and vulnerability are powerfully disturbing. “Dealing” with them usually means numbing with alcohol, distracting with work, or pretending nothing is happening at all. Surely we want to feel better, not worse!
Ironically, the most effective antidote to feeling overwhelmed is to lean into the discomfort. To feel it. To allow it and respond with self-compassion. Every moment you practice how to allow your experience with kindness, you are expanding your capacity to bear whatever is happening in your life. Here is a way you can do that.
Four Steps for Grieving With Self-Compassion
1. Acknowledge What Has Happened
Slow down. Say “yes” to the fact that this has happened. You do not have to like it. You simply need to acknowledge that this is what has taken place. What you are focusing on in this step is the fact is that whatever was lost in the storm meant something to you and is no longer there. This could be the trees in your neighborhood, your home which was flooded, or faith you once had that the government would respond to global warming with common sense.
2. Allow What is Already Here
Allowing means noticing the facts about the situation and whatever feelings may be there. Allowing is about stopping to pay attention to your inner and outer experience, and riding the wave of the intensity – without judgment. Remember, feelings are not a sign that anything is wrong. They are simply energy in motion and the body’s response to a perceived event. If this is too difficult, take a deep breath or two while you tolerate what comes up. Notice how it shows up in your body. Perhaps it appears as tension in your face, throat or heart area. As you notice these sensations and allow the feelings, you will notice that the intensity subsides. As it does so, you will realize that you do have the capacity to be present with your experience.
3. Investigate What is Happening Inside You
When you are ready, ask yourself very gently what you are believing about this situation. The purpose here is to reveal what is causing any undue suffering. Are you believing that grief makes you weak? That nothing will be OK again? Respond to this place with deep compassion. Ask yourself what you need right now. Is it love? Safety? Reassurance? Now imagine giving this to yourself. Be the loving kindness you need. Notice how this changes your inner experience.
4. Non-Identification - Your Feelings Are Not You
Once you have allowed your emotions and investigated with kindness, you will notice a sense of openness inside you. Like expanding your chest as you take a deep breath, your awareness expands and shows you that what you are feeling is simply an experience. Who you are is not defined by any one experience, thought or feeling. It will pass just as clouds pass in the sky. The truth is that you are the awareness that notices the grief. When you witness the events of your life lightly without avoiding or changing them in any way, you increase your capacity to be free from suffering.
Are you able to respond to yourself with compassion when you are stressed? Perhaps it feels unnatural for you? This is common for many people but it does not have to be permanent. It is an ability that can be learned. Coaching is a gentle and effective process for cultivating this essential life skill. You may start off wobbly and unsure but, in time, you can count on self-compassion being there when you need it most.