2020: The Year to Invest in Self-Compassion

Written by: Phillip Dames

I recently sold a successful Financial Planning practice where I designed and managed nearly every facet of people’s financial lives. I came to know what makes a financial plan successful and what causes it to fail. Consistently, there were two factors that determined whether the retirement plan would succeed or require constant tweaking to avoid failure: time and discipline (sticking to the plan).

The earlier we invest for retirement, the more time we expose the funds to the incredible power of compounding interest. Clients who invest early have a higher likelihood of accomplishing their goals and a greater ability to enjoy retirement. Research shows it’s not about how much you invest, but how early, thus allowing the time necessary for the fruits of your labour to ripen.

As an advisor, one of my most difficult responsibilities was keeping clients on their path, sticking to their objectives. A client may spend too much or not save as much as planned, and it was my duty to make sure they knew. When the stock market gets volatile, emotions flair and fear often drives clients to hit the panic button, ready to sell everything, even though that would run counter to the long-term plan. As hard as it is to do, research shows time and time again, we are better off to keep money invested in a well-balanced portfolio and to avoid timing the ups and downs.  Yet, when the stock market declines, we often ignore the research, falling prey to the unchecked fears that prevent us from ‘sticking to the plan.’

Investing in Self-Compassion: Just like financial health, the same principles apply to emotional health: start investing as soon as possible and stay on the path. Self-compassion is a personal resource/asset that provides an unbelievable return on investment. I began investing by incrementally shifting my focus away from a trying to change things on the surface (habits, others, material possessions) to focus on cultivating unconditional positive regard for myself and others.  Ironically, from this new space, habits that no longer serve me are effortlessly falling away.

As I began investing in this self-compassionate process, I quickly realized that to offer unconditional compassion to others, I must first be able to offer and fully receive it to and from myself. I’m learning how to do this by reframing how I talk to myself through a kind, loving lens. Leading up to this shift I would often talk negatively to myself or question my ability as a father or husband. I wasn’t aware of the habitual negative dialogue until I could step back and offer myself a different point of view. The harsh discussions I was having in my head would sadly spill over into other relationships with those closest to me, especially my children. I would often catch myself talking to them like I was talking to myself and it hurt to realize that that negativity was spilling over to the lives of those closest to me. Something needed to change, and I had no idea it was so simple and so joyful.

As we learn to access our emotions, creating an environment where compassion is ever-present is vital. This allows you to sit with your emotions and view them as a valued messenger, not a threat, providing important information to consider. Once I can establish that they are just emotions, I do not feel threatened by it. Because I’ve created this safe home within, where I feel deeply grounded in love and acceptance for self, emotions now feel more like visitors to dialogue with rather than threatening strangers. Don’t get me wrong, the process is not perfect and it can feel messy and effortful, especially at first. However, with time and commitment, as with any new habit, effort wanes and soon we catch ourselves talking compassionately to the emotion, without having to consciously do so.

I’ve broken my process down into four steps in an effort to help you establish your own path:

Step one: Create a mantra. This mantra is deeply felt and believed by myself and affirmed by others close to me and it’s easy to remember. I had a professor in college once say “you should be able to easily recite your mission statement at all times, even if someone woke you in the middle of the night and put a gun to your head.” I wanted my mantra to be that simple and ingrained.

My Mantra:

“You are inherently whole. You have all the tools and resources to be an amazing father, husband, and friend”

Step two: Remind yourself of the mantra and practice on yourself.

I am a visual person and when I see things more and more it gets more imbedded in my mind. Once I came up with my mantra, I placed it in several places as a reminder…this way it was consistently on my mind. I put the mantra on my phone background (sad I know) and on my bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker. I rarely look in the bathroom mirror, but for this work, I find it helpful to really embody the mantra. In a household of two high-energy kiddos, I relish in the stillness of the shower, where thoughts and feelings can emerge uninterrupted. Often, before I get in the shower, I will look in the mirror and recite the mantra back to myself while looking at myself eye to eye. Sometimes I will say it with a serious, affirming face, and sometimes I will say it with a joyful, smiling face. When I recite it, I do so in a compassionate, loving way and it is delivered in such a way that I believe it. Then I can get into the shower and have a conversation with myself with a self-compassionate approach.

Step three: Practice talking to yourself through a compassionate lens and be open to who you talk to.

This step can unfold however you are most comfortable. For me, it is important to be alone when having these talks with myself, or whoever I am talking to. I need to enter almost a meditative state to step back enough to have these conversations inside my head, so it is important for me to not have distractions. When I started practicing, I would visualize myself (today) sitting across from myself (20 or 30 years later) somewhere outside. Often, we would sit on two stumps in the forest looking eye to eye or just sitting side-by-side, looking into the forest. I wanted to have these conversations in an area where I felt myself, and I feel myself most in nature.

It is important to be open to talking to someone other than yourself. To be witnessed and to practice receiving unconditional positive regard by another is powerful and empowering. This could be a relationship in your life with someone who provides you with compassion, comfort, and safety. It may be God, a mother, father, brother, sister, friend, or grandparent. Regardless of whom you choose, it is important that they are capable of providing kindness and compassion when you need it most.

Early on when I started having these talks with myself, I would ask my older self to recite the mantra to my current day self while we sat in the forest. Sometimes he would recite it several times, but whenever he said it, I could feel the truth behind it. I would sit, listen, and think about it. By my older self reciting the mantra, it would often spark a discussion between the two of us and in the beginning, I would often question my older self and the mantra out of guilt, shame or fear, but my older self kept loving and affirming until I was convinced it was true in that moment. In that moment I know I am whole, by offering myself unconditional compassion, I can then offer it to others.

As these discussions with myself evolved, I would venture into asking my older self questions to check in and see how I was doing. By asking myself these questions, I was subconsciously testing the container with myself, making sure it really is a safe environment to express emotions that long to be felt. It is similar to a relationship with a new friend you want to get to know on a deeper level; taking small steps to lead to a deeper relationship, rather than huge dramatic steps that might derail the relationship.

In my current relationship with self, I try to do at least one check-in per day, usually in the evenings before I fall asleep or while I shower, or both. I find those times are a peaceful way to connect with myself. If anything is worrying me, it is an excellent time to process it through a lens of compassion. Some questions I will often ask my older self or a topic of conversation are:

  • How am I doing as a father?
  • How am I doing as a husband?
  • I am feeling (insert emotion or physical sensation), can we talk about it? In these conversations I find it very helpful to explore how my physical body is feeling before I focus on emotions.
  • I have had this thought on my mind a lot and I would like to talk about it.
  • I have had a rough day and feel bad about how I reacted to something someone did and I didn’t treat them kindly. Can we talk about that?

Regardless of the questions I ask or things we talk about, my older self (or whoever I am talking to) typically brings things back to my mantra: You are whole. You have all the tools you need to be an amazing father. By starting with my mantra, it allows us both to view things through a compassionate lens while we discuss it. When I feel grounded in low stimulus setting, a dialogue between my current self (CS) with my older self (OS) sounds like this:

OS: Hey bud, is there anything specific you are feeling right now that you want to talk about or has anything been on your mind quite a bit lately?

CS: I am feeling shame and guilt right now.

OS: Where do you feel it and what does it feel like?

CS: It feels like a knot in my belly and then my heart races and I start to sweat. The shame and guilt often evolves into fear.

OS: What do you think it is related to?

CS: Earlier today when I asked the kids to clean up the entry way, I had to ask 4 times before they responded. I yelled pretty loud, and it scared them. Even after they took action, I was not kind and I feel ashamed about how I treated them. At times like that, when emotions are that raw, I worry I’m going to damage them and that scares me. After I settled down, I apologized for raising my voice and my lack of kindness. It was an opportunity to show that I make mistakes too, quite a lot actually.  I am learning how to own my part, learn from the past, release shame, and do my best to make amends whenever possible.  I can now see that mistakes are an opportunity to provide grace, forgiveness, and encouragement when I, and we, need it most.   

OS: How do you feel after you offer an apology to them and talk to them?

CS: I always feel better. It diffuses a lot of the shame I feel, but often the shame comes back at night when there is silence, which is why I like having these talks at night. 

OS: Bud, I want you know something. I have been observing you with the kids and the personal work you have been doing and I could not be prouder of you. Please know that I see the work you are doing. I did also see you snap at the kids and it was a little unnecessary. Maybe you could slow down and take a deep breath before you ask them for a 3rd or 4th time to complete their task. Kids easily get distracted and you operate in an ultra-efficient manner and hold others to that standard. It‘s hard for a kid to meet that standard. I know you are working on this and it’s awesome that you love your kids so much that you are efforting in this way. Everyone will express their emotions and from time to time those emotions may come out in a fashion not everyone likes. In that moment, you are choosing to do the right thing though. You are teaching your kids the value of making a wrong right. You are modelling a level of vulnerability that they will mirror back to you, promoting deeper relational connection. I appreciate you sharing that with me and remember to keep coming back to your mantra…you have all the tools you need to be an amazing dad…and you are using these tools and I see the changes happening. Keep it up man, I am proud of you! Anything else you want to talk about?

CS: I pause for a moment and think before I answer. I take a deep breath and then talk. You mentioned how I hold others to a high standard. That is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I feel like this relates to how I frequently beating myself up emotionally for small little things that come up throughout the day.

OS: When you talk about emotionally beating yourself up, how does that feel?

CS: I feel sadness.

OS:  When you feel sadness, where do you feel it?

CS:  In my cheeks and in my chest.

OS:  Physically, what does it feel like?

CS:  My cheeks feel heavy, almost saggy.  In my chest, the feeling spans across my shoulders and down about 6 inches. It feels heavy, like there is a rock in my chest.

OS: What do you think you feel sadness for?

CS: I feel sad for myself. That I would be so hard on myself for making a mistake. For berating myself for something as small as spilling a cup of coffee. There is not much grace there.

OS: What about when the kids make a mistake or when they don’t meet your high standards? Is your reaction to self similar to your reaction when the kids make a mistake?

CS: I squirm in my seat a little…Hmmm….great question. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. But in certain situations, yes my reactions have been harsh with shaming undertones and they absolutely do not deserve that.

OS: Do you see how the two are related? If you are kinder and more compassionate to yourself, then that compassion will naturally spill into the relationships with those close to you. If you talk to yourself with a compassionate voice, you will use that same voice with others too. The really amazing thing is you are already working on this. This is all part of the process. Us having this talk is exactly the process and I am so proud of you. Keep it up man, I can already see some big changes.

CS: Thank you for the encouragement. I can genuinely say that my interactions with the kids and my partner have drastically changed since we started these talks. It’s strange and hard to describe, but I feel a level of compassion and patience with the kids that I didn’t know was possible.  These conversations are now the lubricant keeps me connected, fulfilled, and motivated to live wholly, inwardly and outwardly. Thank you for always being here for me.

OS: I am here for you man…whenever wherever. What else, anything else you want to talk about?

CS: I sit and think for a few seconds and answer…I think I got everything off my chest that I wanted to for today. Thanks man.

OS: You bet.  I so enjoy these talks.

Step Four: Integrate the discussions you have with yourself, or whoever it is you talk to, into everyday life

I now find I am spontaneously initiating conversations with myself, making me more self-compassionate throughout the day. I practice by noticing when I go down a rabbit hole of negative self-talk. I then counteract it by reciting my mantra. By doing this, I remember that I am whole and I am doing my best with the tools I have in that moment. By reciting my mantra, it creates a space of positivity and compassion, rather than negativity. In this space I can step back, gaining the objectivity necessary to consciously and kindly shift the thought pattern.

Since I started these compassionate conversations with my wiser self, it’s transformed how I relate to others. I naturally began holding space for these same compassionate conversations with others and at times, I get to then see them mirror it inwardly and outwardly. This is particularly evident with my partner and I, and in how our kids are relating to themselves and to each other. It is infectious! Those near and dear draw closer and in that new deep connection is a richness, joy, and capacity to heal that I had no idea was possible. All this by simply changing the conversation I have with self.

The challenge: Create a space for yourself to explore your relationship with you. Envision a comfortable location where you can settle in as your real self. Imagine an environment where you can let your guard down. Step back from the space, exploring it as a more objective observer. Ask yourself, does this container, this conversation feel safe enough to express my emotions freely? If not, then my challenge to you is to follow the four steps above for four weeks. Follow the steps and create a path to self-compassion that embodies a felt sense of unconditional positive regard. Once your inner home (you) is at peace and full of compassion, you will see a spillover effect onto your outer home (others). Empathy, compassion, and joy will become a rewarding norm where it was previously a struggle. This path is not easy, especially at first, but the joy, compassion, and connections that emerge are more than worth the effort. For me, this small act of showing up for myself and choosing this new path I am on was one of those small tweaks that is and will continue to have dramatic positive ripple effects.Just like our finances, small changes early in our emotional health and well-being has a rapidly fast compounding effect that eventually enables us to shift. These compounding effects will unfold before your very eyes and will be some of the most beautiful instances you will ever see and feel. As you move along this beautiful path, each foot you place in front of the other is an investment in yourself and those around you. These steps may seem small and challenging to you now, but the changes you are making will impact generations.  Much gratitude!

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