Sondra Malling, LCPC, BC-DMT, GL-CMA
One of the hardest lessons I have learned in my life is to be kind. That may sound very strange coming from a therapist, but I will explain. I have always been a caregiver type, extending kindness and compassion towards those around me and always wanting to be helpful to others, even if it meant quite a bit of self-sacrifice. I’m sure many of my fellow therapists can relate! What has not always come as naturally was being kind towards myself.
In my youth, I came across this quotation: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quotation has been widely misattributed to Plato, but more likely originates from 19th-century British writer and theologian Ian Maclaren. In my young mind, this was evidence I had been living my life on the right path: kindness and compassion towards others at all costs, even at my own expense. After all, this piece of wisdom posits that their life is hard, probably harder than mine right now, right?
But with time, life experience, and a little of my own therapy, I have come to realize this sort of thinking does more harm than good. If I cannot be kind to myself, I will deplete my own resources and not be available to be of service to others in the first place. If, on the other hand, I can be self-compassionate, I feel more able to move through the world from a grounded place and interact more authentically with others. Then, I can choose to help when I am able or to focus on self-care when I am not.
In my work as a therapist, I have found this kind of thinking to be common among trauma survivors. Almost every trauma survivor I have ever worked with engages in a game of comparison, believing they are not worthy of care and compassion because someone else has it worse, because “everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Even those who have experienced some truly disturbing physical, sexual and emotional injuries believe this.
In this time of COVID-19, many therapists believe we are experiencing a collective trauma. Whether you are social distancing at home or acting as an essential worker, this pandemic is affecting us all. It would be easy for some of us to believe that, because we aren’t on the front lines in the ER or in the ICU, we aren’t worthy of kindness at this time—that compassion should be saved for our first responders or for those suffering from the virus. Aren’t they fighting the hardest battles right now?
However, I argue self-compassion is the first step towards healing this collective trauma. Kindness is not a finite resource. Be kind to yourself in quarantine, at the grocery store, or on your I’ve-gotta-get-out-of-this-house walks around the block. When you feel a little extra stressed by more bad news from the latest press conference or from yet another event you were looking forward to being canceled, take a few moments to say some kind words to yourself. This will train your brain to show kindness in general, including having compassion for those essential workers. You can even kick it up a notch by practicing a lovingkindness meditation wherein you extend compassion to yourself, to others, and to the whole world. Because we can all use a little kindness right now, even if it’s only from ourselves.