Who Cares? Becoming Your Best Friend with Compassion, Care and Love
Monday May 24, 2021
We are quick to support family and friends in a crisis with words of comfort, encouragement, and affirmation, and practical acts to care for their wellbeing, so why are we so reluctant to give ourselves the same support? Abby White explores the difference between self-compassion, self-care, and self-love, how they are connected, why they matter so much, and how we can cultivate them.
From Self-Awareness to Self-Love
In April, I shared my personal experience of some techniques that help me listen to myself more closely as I navigate the challenging thoughts and strong emotions that arise from living and working with retinoblastoma. The heart and soul has a deep need to be heard, and daily self-enquiry strengthens our ability to recognise and trust our thoughts, feelings, and intuition, edit the negative stories we tell ourselves, and attend to our needs.
Listening to ourselves requires self-compassion, which can be hard to muster in tough times. Particularly when our sense of self-worth is low and we have no time or motivation to invest in self-care.
Being our worst storytelling enemy is easy. Becoming our compassionate, caring, loving, best friend takes time and attention, but it’s so vital to our wellbeing.
Below, I explain the difference between self-compassion, self-care, and self-love and how they are connected to one another, and why they matter so much. I highlight a common misconception about each that often becomes a barrier to practice, and offer simple ways to cultivate them in daily life.
I am no psychologist. I share from my own learning, understanding, and experience. I have desperately needed to develop these skills in myself, and the process continues moment by moment. Daily practice can be so hard, even when we understand the need and benefits. Writing this article helps refresh and cement the concepts in my mind, and I hope the explanations, suggestions and linked resources will be useful to you too.
Self-Compassion – Be Kind to Yourself
Self-Compassion is a state of being; a conscious choice to invest in our comfort no matter the events and emotions swirling around us. Empathy enables us to ask gentle questions and listen to our inner voice with the kindness of a friend, to accept ourselves and our situation as it is, and love regardless. To offer compassion, we must first be aware of ourselves enough to recognise that we need this kindness, and often at the very times we need it most, we instead disconnect.
Imagine your best friend has come to you for support after a terrible day. Perhaps many small things went wrong one after the other, or a major event has rocked their world. Or maybe they are in turmoil over a mistake or error of judgement they made.
What would you say and do in response? Your words would be reassuring and encouraging. You might give gentle, wise advice, offer practical help or a caring treat to relieve stress. A hug would likely soothe your friend’s soul – and yours.
Now consider what happens when you experience the bad day, major life event, mistakes or personal failures. Too often, we beat ourselves up with a tirade of negative self-talk, rapidly escalating events from negotiable experience to overwhelming catastrophe. This verbal bullying is the worst kind of internal storytelling, fuelling destructive feelings, lack of motivation, and depression.
Imagine treating yourself with the same kindness you give others who are hurting. Compassion is a caring awareness of a person’s distress, and motivating desire to ease it. We may relieve the suffering through understanding, non-judgment, or acts of kindness.
Self-compassion is simply caring awareness of our own distress, and a desire to ease our pain with understanding, non-judgment, and kindness. This is one of the best ways we can give ourselves emotional first-aid when life’s rough edges injure our heart and soul.
Research shows a strong link between self-compassion and psychological wellbeing. Benefits include improved body image, self-worth, happiness, resilience, and motivation, and lower risk of stress, anxiety and depression.
Being our own compassionate best friend can calm racing thoughts and help restore perspective. Using the same kind words we would share with a distressed friend, we acknowledge that we are experiencing something difficult, give ourselves permission to be gentle, to forgive our flaws and failings, accept our humanity and ask “How can I comfort and care for myself right now?”
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a leader in self-compassion research, identified three key elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness vs self-judgement: Being aware of our inner critic, and replacing negative self-talk with kinder words.
- Common humanity vs isolation:Recognising that suffering and personal failure are a universal human experience, not unique to the individual.
- Mindfulness vs Over-identification: Willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, without suppressing, exaggerating, or judging them.
Contrary to popular belief, self-compassion is not indulgent self-pity. Here are the main differences:
- Self-pity separates with obsessive egocentric thinking, self-compassion connects through gentle recognition of the shared human experience.
- Self-pity abdicates personal responsibility with stories of perceived bad luck, inability or injustice; self-compassion takes loving action to improve the situation.
- Self-pity says “I am a victim waiting to be rescued”; self-compassion says “I acknowledge that I am struggling, and I gracefully comfort myself”.
- Self-pity suppresses feelings in a negative story vortex; self-compassion gently validates them.
Being aware of your words and actions enough to respond with kindness can take time, especially if your habit is to deny yourself compassion. Remember that you aren’t the only person to face the challenges you encounter, and making a mistake or experiencing a failure does not mean you are a bad person or a failure. No one is perfect; we are all flawed human beings finding our way in the world.
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have right now, and you deserve kindness. Keep going back to the imaginary conversation with your best friend as a guide. A brief evening check-in to ask “Was I kind to myself?” can identify where you need to be more gentle with yourself, and help build a natural habit of transformative mindful self-compassion.
Self-Care – Attend to Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Needs
Self-Care involves the things we do to support our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, such as personal hygiene, exercise, rest and recreation, healthy eating, journaling, meditation and mindfulness, creativity, and socializing. Acknowledging and tending to our needs empowers us to cope better with the daily challenges we face. Many people routinely practice elements of self-care without recognising it as such, and struggle to do others.
Some people think self-care is simply avoiding the problem, but that is what psychologists call “self-soothing”. Primarily non-urgent, but important activities of self-care help build the individual up to better cope with life’s complexities and thrive. Here are some key differences between self-care and avoidant self-soothing.
- Avoidant self-soothing numbs, ignores, or escapes from an unpleasant task, situation, thought or feeling. It may soothe in the moment, but increases pressure when the impacts of avoidance and the avoidant behaviour emerge. In contrast, self-care is positive action to meet a specific physical, mental, or emotional need that will boost overall wellbeing and fuel motivation for growth.
- Self-soothing is egoistic and doesn’t consider consequences for other people. Self-care seeks to fill the personal cup first in order to serve others more effectively.
- Self-soothing is always comforting, while self-care may take us beyond our comfort zone as we seek to look after our wellbeing (eating healthy, exercising, resisting the urge to scroll social media before bed, for example).
Healthy daily self-care practice includes activities that nurture body, mind and spirit. The specific approaches will be different for each person because we are all unique and our needs, tastes, interests and habits differ. Here are some key activities for each category of self-care: physical, mental and emotional.
Physical self-care (body) involves activities that support our physical health and personal environment. For example:
- Stay hydrated – aim to drink at least 2 litres of water daily.
- Eat a balanced diet with plenty of protein, fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Seek help to break unhealthy habits and addictions that harm you and others.
- Go for a walk/run, practice yoga or do another form of daily exercise to unwind.
- Declutter and decorate your home and work environment so it feels right for you.
- Take regular time out from digital devices (computer, TV, smartphone etc.)
- When tasking, use the Pomodoro technique to manage energy and time.
Mental self-care (Mind) involves activities that support personal and professional development, personal reflection and self-awareness. For example:
- Use mindfulness and meditation to connect with yourself.
- Keep a thought journal to record and rationalise your thought process.
- Write down your strengths and the compliments others give you.
- Ask for constructive feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.
- Journal about what makes you happy. What brought joy as a child?
- Journal about your aspirations and goals, and prepare a to-do list to take action.
- Prepare and use daily affirmations that reflect your unique needs and goals.
- Learn something new; consider enrolling in an online learning course.
- Relax with mindful colouring, handcrafting or another form of creativity.
- Seek counselling, therapy, coaching or professional supervision opportunities that offer positive space to reflect, learn and grow.
Emotional self-care (Heart and Soul) involves activities that support psychological, spiritual, and relational wellbeing. For example:
- Set clear boundaries on your time and energy.
- Use emotional boundaries when supporting others.
- Keep a feelings journal to acknowledge all feelings.
- Communicate with friends and family about your feelings.
- Spend time with people who care about, affirm and inspire you.
- Recognise toxic relationships, and take steps to remove them from your life.
- Keep a gratitude journal, and remember to honour yourself with gratitude.
- Show appreciation: write a gratitude letter, give a compliment or small gift.
- Take time for meditation, mindfulness, or prayer to help let things go with peace.
- Address issues or problems so negative emotions don’t build up.
- Spend time in nature.
Self-Love – Honour Your Worth Just As You Are
Self-Love is a feeling, a personal sense of value and self-respect that emerges from our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. Self-love requires us to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, holding our complete self in high regard. Self-love doesn’t allow other people to subjugate our wellbeing, but asks with respect for all that we deserve, and motivates us to invest in self-care to meet all our physical, mental and emotional needs.
A high sense of personal self-worth will usually be evident in outward actions and relationships, and boost natural self-care practice. But at times of high stress, self-love may dip as sacrifices are made and levels of wellbeing decrease. This is why nurturing self-love is especially important when stress rises.
Self-love is not narcissistic, selfish or arrogant. Here are some key differences.
- Narcissism is egotistical, arrogant and loud; self-love is empathetic, humble and quiet.
- Narcissism seeks admiration; self-love gives validation.
- Narcissism inflates the best parts of the individual; self-love acknowledges the reality of strengths and flaws alike.
- Narcissism uses others to satisfy the individual; self-love nurtures the individual to connect well with others.
- Narcissism craves more and in so doing, pushes people away; self-love says *you are enough” and the resulting growth draws people into its light.
It is easy to see why so many people confuse self-love with egotism. From early childhood, we are conditioned to be more, do more, and achieve more. Those constant messages subtly engrain the belief that we’re never good enough as we are; that we must be something different in order to be worthy of approval, love and belonging in this world.
Over time, we mould ourselves with layers of artifice and inner storytelling into what we think the world wants from us. The more we sculpt, the more we move away from the masterpiece we truly are. We ignore our inner wisdom and intuition, sacrifice our dreams and wellbeing, and accept less than we are worth. We seek love from others to validate ourselves, but when it comes, we can never fully embrace it if we don’t love ourselves first.
Self-love is the ultimate salve when you’re feeling unloved and unsure about yourself. Imagine the comfort of your best friend’s words appreciating your whole self every day. Self-love enables you to be complete without another person’s love or approval. You can still delight in that love and appreciation, but your value and wellbeing no longer depends on someone else – you hold the power within.
Acknowledging ourselves, rather than running from our struggles, opens the way to unconditional love, even when we are suffering. Even when life seems utterly broken, we can be empowered with urgent, fervent, radical self-love.
Cultivating self-love requires daily practice to become truly aware of ourselves so we can respect our needs with actions that nurture body, mind, and spirit. Start with questions that honour you, such as:
- Am I paying attention to my needs?
- Am I treating myself with respect?
- Am I talking to myself with compassion?
- Am I allowing myself to feel all my feelings?
- What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?
Love letters are beautiful, timeless expressions of love, and writing yourself a love letter to treasure or a list of 10 things you love about yourself is a wonderful way to nurture self-love. Writing can dramatically slow down racing thoughts, release tension, and allow the mind to reabsorb positive messages.
You don’t need to be a skilled prosaic writer; your heart and soul knows what you need to say. Just give yourself permission to hear and create. Find a quiet space and time to write, turn on some calming music, take some deep breaths, and begin. What would a love letter do for you today?
Let Your Light Shine Brightly
As we grow up and shape ourselves to fit into the world around us, we gradually lose sight of who we truly are. We compare ourselves negatively against other people; our appearance, family, relationships, children, friends and social network, lifestyle, career, possessions, wealth, success…
Social media dramatically amplifies the habit of negative comparison. People put their best side on display, while we compare the content of our newsfeed against the worst parts of ourselves, and what we perceive to be lacking in our lives.
Comparison is natural, but like most things, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to approach it. Negative comparison leaves us feeling envious, inadequate, and depleted. Positive comparison generates gratitude, contentment and motivation.
As we become more compassionate and self-loving, space for positive comparison expands, building up rather than breaking down. Knowing how to compare yourself to others in a healthy way is very freeing.
The radiotherapy I had in infancy stunted growth of my orbital bones, caused the tissues in my eye socket to atrophy, and damaged the cornea in my left eye. So today my small right eye socket and shrunken eyelids struggle to hold my tiny prosthetic eye securely, while the vision in my left eye is decreasing.
When focusing on these issues, it’s easy to become intensely jealous of other survivors’ beautiful prosthetic eyes, of good vision, of surgery that can correct a drooping eyelid without exposing the seeing-eye to more damage. All those comparisons come from a place of lack – you have something I want and can’t have.
In those moments, I can choose to recognise that I am sad about my eye and sight, and give myself comfort rather than abusing myself about things that were not my fault and I cannot control. I can feel gratitude for the prosthetic eye and sight I do have, find other ways to feel beautiful, and take care of my remaining sight (and my whole self in the process). I can value and respect myself even though my eyes look the way they do and my sight is poor.
Life is a two-way street, and it’s safer to look in both directions when crossing the comparison highway. I have removed my eye in Africa to ease the aching heart of children who had none. I have marvelled at the glory of a sunset alongside friends who could only experience its delight through my descriptions and the fading glow on their skin. I am thankful for my prosthetic eye and my sight, despite all the troubles they bring. Sure, I wish they could be better, but when I look both ways, I am less inclined to base my desires and decisions on comparison of what I lack, focusing more on what is truly right for me.
Having the compassion and love to let go of negative beliefs and comparison is an important step to finding ourselves again, or perhaps for the first time. Stripping back all the “Should” and “Must” stories, and the layers of pretence with which we cloak ourselves, so we become familiar with our core personality, and what makes us feel truly alive. How can you shine brightly by simply being you?
No one will give you permission to take care of yourself. Compassion, care and love are courageous gifts to ourselves in a world that says prioritising our wellbeing is egotistical and selfish. The vital question to ask is not “Is this selfish?”, but “Can I really afford to wait until I become ill to give myself the rest and replenishment I need RIGHT NOW?”
Before we can care for those we love or the wider world, we need to take care of ourselves – just as the flight attendant instructs us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others. Refilling ourselves is not an optional extra when we happen to have a little time. It is a daily essential, especially in tough times when our internal resources drain faster.
Be kind to yourself, and acknowledge that you need your own grace in this moment. Make good time to truly listen to what your body, heart and soul are crying out for, and love yourself by taking care of those needs so your true light can shine.
About the Author
Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.
Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries. After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.
Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.