I first read about self-compassion in an audiobook I listened to entitled ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ by Dr. Brené Brown. One of the guideposts in the book was entitled ‘cultivating self compassion: letting go of perfectionism’. At that time, I fully needed to read this chapter and try to live by it, as I was very, very hard on myself – to the point where it blunted my progress and it wasn’t unusual for me to regularly feel inadequate.
Since then, things have changed for the better alhamdulillah, but even as I sit here to write this tip, it is first a reminder for me after a rough afternoon and evening with my preschooler. Our interactions were not great: mine were reactive, he was napless and I am on broken and little sleep, so add those together, heightened emotions, and the concoction in terms of interactions just isn’t great. And after he went to sleep, I felt the ‘feeling bad’ feelings kicking in. And the voice in my head began to run the bad mum tape. You know the one. The one that doubts if you can be a good Mum. The one that says you are failing your kids and tries to run the bad interactions in your head. And then I remembered self-compassion – which can really be a soothing balm.
I went on to read the book ‘Self-Compassion’ by Dr. Kristin Neff. It was hugely helpful in how I related to myself (with kindness and compassion and encouragement), and in how I related to my children and my days at home with them; though I still inevitably – and often – fail.
What Is Self-Compassion?
So, firstly, what is self-compassion? On Dr. Neff’s website (www.self-compassion.org), it states:
“Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”
“Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
“Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”
Actualising Self Compassion in My Life
Wow. This was such a shift from how I usually thought; I knew intellectually that it made no sense to beat myself up over something that had already happened, a personal failure or some sort of perceived inadequacy in myself . But I found it so much harder to actualise this in my life. In time and with effort, I began to accept my humanness. And I couldn’t imagine what motherhood would be like without self-compassion, subhan’Allah. It means that when we fall short, overreact, get frustrated, or it gets too much, we can practice self-compassion when we remember it.
When we’re not busy berating ourselves, though the taunts of the Shaitaan to go to that place can come up, we can be a friend to ourselves; we may tell ourselves something along the lines of ‘but it happened; everybody messes up, what can we do to clean it up? And what can we do better next time, insha’Allah?’. When we can do this, as our head space isn’t consumed by berating ourselves, there’s actually mental space to think of what we can do better next time. And because of self-compassion and the breathing space that it provides, we can roll with that plan of action, knowing that if amends need to be made, we will try to do so sincerely insha’Allah, taking full responsibility where need be. And with a plan of action, we will be more likely to implement at least some of it, insha’Allah.
What’s key here is that I personally feel I couldn’t have done any of it had I listened to the whisperer that wanted to keep berating me. It’s good that the errors don’t rest well with our hearts; these are signs that we want to heed so that we may, whilst in full acceptance and nurturing of our humanness, see the flag and begin to adjust. But to almost indulge in our shortcomings – that doesn’t produce any productive action for me; it just makes me feel bad without making any changes because ‘oh no, I’m so bad’ – and that would be kind of letting yourself off the hook, I think. As that wouldn’t be facing up to our actions, taking responsibility for them, making amends where need be and moving on: which, I think, requires far greater skill and maturity.
The Three Components of Self-Compassion and How I Use Them in Motherhood
Self-compassion has three core components: self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity. The one that serves me the most in motherhood is self-kindness.
When I overreact, or I hear myself speaking harshly and critically, I immediately try to go self-kindness. I sometimes forget to, or my inner shame voice seeps in, but whenever I can, I go to self-kindness. So when I sometimes tell my son something harshly, perhaps set a limit, and my annoyance is apparent in my voice, I have a few choices (some of which are not helpful, but are indeed tempting, and which I have indeed done in not-so-great moments): a) I can blame him for it, even if only in my thoughts; we all have unhelpful thoughts but I mean I could choose to unhelpfully linger in and believe such thoughts; thoughts such as ‘he was out of line, so really he started it; my action was a reaction to his!’; b) I can begin to toy with the thoughts that I am a bad Mum or wallow in some Mum guilt (eek, aren’t those both oh-so-tempting and oh-so-unhelpful) c) I can kind of just ignore it, though when we do something we know we could’ve done better, it doesn’t feel good, and that discomfort is there until we own it, make amends and/or make tawbah d) I can begin the thought process towards cleaning it up, which starts, for me, with self kindness, and acknowledging my imperfection; taking heed of the ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ pang’.
The Prophet (SAW) said ‘All of the children of Adam sin/make mistakes, and the best of those who sin are those who repent’ (At-Tirmidhi). So, what now? Follow up a bad deed with a good one, insha’Allah, which in this case would mean saying to my son: “Hey, I’m sorry honey, that I spoke to you unkindly; it wasn’t your fault honey, I was just feeling overwhelmed”. And then think about what to do next time if a similar moment arises, so that I don’t snap or lose it again.
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) taught us on this same topic when he said:
“Have consciousness of Allah wherever you may be, and follow up a bad deed with a good deed which will wipe it out, and behave well towards the people.”(At-Tirmidhi)
Common Humanity in Trials and Motherhood
Another facet of self-compassion that I find helpful in motherhood is that of common humanity. It is remembering: ‘It isn’t just me. Everybody experiences some level of suffering in this life; of testing. Every mother has likely felt this way, had this thought or experienced this at some point’. Experiences of sleepless nights, testing times, losing it or feeling pinches of guilt from time-to-time. This really makes you feel like you’re not alone, and Yaa Rabb, this is the truth.
Allah says: “Verily We have created man in toil.” [Al-Qur’an 90:4]
So Allah tells us that man, all humans, were created in toil; in struggle. We are all tested. Common humanity in this regard can allow us to have compassion for other people because we remember “We’re all part of a whole” (that of humanity); and when we ‘use’/remember common humanity in a hard parenting moment, it can move us to make du’a for ourselves and others; for us all to be helped and forgiven.
Allah, Most High, tells us: “Indeed, your wealth and children are a trial.” [Qur’an 64:15]. Shaitaan tries to pull the isolation agenda on us when we have testing moments, but our trials are in fact what unite us, not what separates us. How we respond to those tests can perhaps be said to be what separates us.
Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried?
But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. (29:2-3)
Self-Kindness in The Things That Feel Hard for Me
I use self-kindness in many areas of my life (coming back to editing this piece a year or more after I initially wrote it and I realise how much I need it). I used to use it at Fajr time when that voice kicked in; the one that tells you to snooze for the third time. “This feels hard for you. But why don’t you put just one foot in front of the other. Slowly does it. Use the bathroom. Okay, next step. Open the tap. Make wudu. Done. Alhamdulillah. Walk to the prayer mat. Say your takbeer. Pray. Complete. Alhamdulillah”. My self-kindness voice helped me pray many a Fajr salah when I was newly postnatal, alhamdulillah.
So, in our motherhood journey, how can we use self-compassion to assist us? (My tips will be based around how I have used self-compassion in my day-to-day life)
Actionable Steps In Implementing The Tip
1) Try Self-Compassion! Next time you fall into a situation where you feel you’ve messed up, speak to yourself kindly and see how you feel. Try harsher too…Observe: how does the kind voice make you feel? And what about the harsh one? The kind one could be ‘This feels challenging for you, my dear. What do you need right now? Why don’t you try and ask Allah for help and do *blank*? How can we fix it?’ The harsh one might sound like ‘You’re always doing that! That’s dumb’ etc. The harsh voice feels…heavy for me (no good deeds stemming from that place). As Dr. Brené Brown says: ‘talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love’.
2) Remember that as insaan (humans), falling is inevitable; getting back up is optional. We should strive for ihsaan (excellence). And accept and work with our nature (we are imperfect) rather than against it. Unless we are just shrugging our mistakes off altogether, without regard for Allah, ourselves and the feelings of others, there can be beauty and growth in them, if used productively.
3) Use Self-Compassion When You Mess Up (and When You Make Repairs). When we naturally fall off the high road, let’s nurture ourselves. And also use self-compassion to make a repair. Here’s how:
a) Accept the mistake. Then, douse the inner critic with a kind voice,
b) Ask Allah for help
c) When we have some headspace, think of where we went wrong (e.g. I waited too long to enforce a limit so I got annoyed)
d) Come up with something you can do differently next time insha’Allah, and set the intention to do so (e.g. set the limit earlier so I can hold the limit with kindness and empathy, and feel calmer inside – as opposed to flustered).
e) Make amends and/or tawbah if the situation calls for it.
4) Self-Compassion in Hard Moments: In hard moments where things feel intense, it can be helpful to pause, be mindful of how you feel, and ask yourself what you need in that moment. Dr. Laura Markham says give yourself even 5 minutes of what you need. So if it has been super demanding all day and you find yourself feeling flustered, you could ask yourself what you need: is it a cup of tea, pouring your heart out in du’a, reading for 10mins, calling or messaging a loved one? Or, as Dr. Laura says, if you can’t fill yourself up in that moment for whatever reason, make a promise with yourself that you will as soon as you can/when the kids go to bed.
5) Self-Compassion and Ibaadah (Worship). I talk about self-kindness when wanting to establish certain worship habits like reciting the book of Allah every day here, in the subsection entitled ‘creating ibaadah habits: self kindness’.
6) Self-Compassion in Letting Go Of Some To-Dos When Necessary. On the days where it’s been uber testing, it can help to drop expectations for the next day, especially if there isn’t someone else to help much during the day. And by that I mean the next day is about the essentials and nurturing ourselves so we can shepherd well insha’Allah; not doing from a place of ‘must do this, must do that, must do it all’ – at the expense of ourselves and our wellbeing. But rather, taking the opportunities to do whatever we can whilst being mindful of our wellbeing, too.
So in busy/demanding seasons also, it may help to give ourselves permission to let certain things go (for me: elaborate meals in this season of home educating with young ones, for example) or to seek help in some way.
I hope some of these tips help insha’Allah, and I wish you khair-filled days with your lovelies 🙂
Does self compassion mean letting ourselves off the hook? nope; you can check out why here and see if it resonates for you.
You can test how self compassionate you are here.