Self-Compassion–An Exercise in Freedom

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.Pema Chödrön

If you are a regular reader, you’ll notice that this blog is not quite in it’s proper place.  In fact, it’s a day late.  I had one of those days yesterday–the kind of day where you wildly overestimate how much you will be able to accomplish in the limited hours and minutes available to you.  I take my commitment to post here very seriously.  And I don’t like not completing my to-do list.  So, last night, I was in danger of ruining a nice time with friends by getting stuck in a “should have done” lecture inside my head.  And then, I decided to make a choice that I review with my patients all the time.  I decided to be compassionate.

Let me explore that a bit more.  I tend to be a duty-bound kind of person, which means that I can get sucked into the guilt and shame cycle pretty easily.  And one of the triggers for that is my “to-do” list.  If I am not paying attention, the list can become a powerful source of self-blame and feeling inadequate.  But, if I am compassionate with myself, I take a step back.  We’ll explore this more in the exercise below.

Being compassionate is not the same as ignoring my responsibilities.  Being compassionate is not a permission to blow off my commitments.  Being compassionate does not mean that I am not accountable for how I spend my time.  Instead, being compassionate is acknowledging that my list of goals may always exceed the time I have available.  Being compassionate is accepting that my plans may change to reflect circumstances and opportunities.

Most of all being compassionate means that I allow myself to be human, fallible, and able to grow–without having to add on layers of self-blame and self-criticism.  Because of compassion, I enjoyed a lovely evening with good friends, and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

Exercise: Applying Compassion to the “To-Do” List

Because so many of my clients are busy, high-functioning folks, I often hear about the tyranny of the “to-do” list.  Instead of an organization tool, for many people the “to-do” list has become a visual representation of failure.  It reminds them of everything undone, and can begin to feel like it will never be finished. For lots of folks, the list becomes a source of paralysis instead of a source of action–which leads to a spiral of self-blame and criticism.

I challenge my patients (and you) to apply some radical compassion to the idea of their “to-do” list.  I ask them if they can view the list as a set of intentions, rather than things that “must” be done.  I ask them to think about celebrating each item completed instead of focusing immediately on the things that are undone.

I have gotten good feedback about this exercise.  Folks describe a sense of freedom and movement.  They talk about being able to move toward their goals.

I know that reminding myself about this tool changed my experience yesterday–and today, the post is getting out to you.

I’d love to hear your experience with this!


Image Credit: Word Painting by Susan von Struensee via Flickr

9 thoughts on “Self-Compassion–An Exercise in Freedom

  1. Ann, I like JoAnn’s approach of keeping the list simple for the day. I think we often get overambitious and may even miss completing our most important tasks in favor of simpler or more immediate tasks that aren’t as significant. Then we beat ourselves up for being lazy! Not that I always succeed, but I define a top 3-5 “must-do” tasks for the day, and a separate list of optional things to accomplish if there’s time to spare.

  2. Dear Ann,
    I agree that it’s really helpful to focus on the accomplishments rather than on the remaining list. The idea of intention also lightens up the obligation without taking it away. Thanks for writing about self-compassion and distinguishing it from just letting yourself off the hook.

  3. Hi Ann,

    In my experience, setting an intention for the day is not just more compassionate, its also more effective than a to-do list. I am much more likely to follow through if I make a point of setting an intention.

    I really appreciate the idea of “radical compassion”. Its a wonderful way of thinking about it.

    All the best,

  4. Thank you for this post. Somehow it is so much easier to be compassionate towards others than to ourselves. I definitely feel the tyranny of the to do list and it is very helpful idea to think about it as a list of intentions. I will put that into practice right away and I will introduce it to my clients. Warmly, Allison

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