How To Comfort Yourself
The other week, a patient of mine told me he’d recently come to the realization that he has a tendency to become almost embarrassingly needy in certain situations, something he attributed to several early childhood experiences. When he was three, he told me, his five-year-old sister died of cancer. He doesn’t specifically remember her dying but does remember being left alone with a maid for a year and feeling abandoned. His father, an alcoholic, left his family soon after. He counts as his first memory seeing his father’s suitcase lying open across a bed.
Recently, his son was forced to confront a potentially serious medical issue. Though it now seems well-controlled, for a period of time before he knew whether or not it would be, my patient told me he found himself in great need of comfort. He’s noted that when he’s felt this way in the past, he’s also felt himself to be too needy, finding his neediness driving away the very people to whom he’s turned for support. As a result of that, he’s found himself feeling resentful for not getting what he’s needed (he told me with a self-deprecating laugh). What he found himself thinking during this latest episode with his son, he said, was that he needed to find a way to comfort himself.
ARE WE ONE PERSON OR MANY?
Interestingly, investigations in both psychology and neurology support the idea that despite the persistent feeling we all have of a being a unified self, we are in a very real way multiple selves. At the level of the mind, for example, people often have diametrically opposed feelings about something at the same time. At the level of the brain, some patients who’ve had their two cerebral hemispheres surgically separated in an effort to control debilitating epileptic seizures develop something called the alien hand syndrome in which one hand will sometimes act of its “own” volition (e.g., unbutton a shirt the patient has just buttoned), suggesting that underneath the experience we have of an integrated self may lie several selves acting in seamless coordination.
This concept has a parallel in Nichiren Buddhism in which a person is sometimes envisioned as having two selves, the smaller self and the larger self. The interpretation of these two terms varies depending upon the context. The smaller self sometimes refers to the small-minded ego whose only concerns are selfish and at other times to the seemingly endless capacity we all have to believe wholeheartedly the various delusions that populate our thinking. The larger self, in contrast, is considered to be our best self, our most selfless self—our enlightened self.
What’s most interesting about this model isn’t that we all possess these different selves (most of us have experienced what it feels like to manifest our smaller self instead of our larger self and vice versa, at some point) but that we could separate them enough in our thinking to make possible the idea that the larger self could comfort the smaller self as if they were entirely separate people. This, in fact, is the idea my patient found himself stumbling across. If he felt—rightly or wrongly—blocked from obtaining comfort from, say, his wife, why, he reasoned, couldn’t he simply comfort himself?
THE BENEFITS OF SELF-COMPASSION
In a recent article in Well, a health blog on The New York Times website, Tara Parker-Pope writes that “research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight. This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards. ‘I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,’ said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. ‘They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.’”
My patient’s experience supports the notion that the greatest barrier to self-comfort isn’t that it’s so difficult (it is, after all, no more difficult in theory than comforting someone else); it’s that we often think we don’t deserve it. We’re frequently our own harshest critic, and that tendency to hold ourselves to a higher standard, while undoubtedly adaptive in many ways, also carries with it a significant cost: the inability to turn to ourselves for comfort when we’re hurting.
The beneficial impact that comforting words have on our suffering may have less to do with the words themselves than with the fact that they come from someone we perceive cares about us. While words themselves may ring hollow, having another person intent on providing comfort itself is often what makes us feel better. Knowing someone else cares and hearing an expression of that caring, makes us feel less alone. To make any efforts at self-comfort effective, therefore, we need to learn to conceptualize our larger self as an independent entity. The degree to which we can self-comfort effectively then would depend on the strength of our imagination—not only in our ability to compartmentalize our neediness but in our ability to imagine ourselves simultaneously as our own loving parent. One thing that may help in this kind of visualization is taking the time to have a real conversation with ourselves, to actually speak out loud the words we would speak to a good friend suffering in a similar way. Of course, if we’re full of self-disgust or dislike ourselves intensely, we’ll find the summoning up of compassionate feelings for ourselves even more challenging. But some research shows that self-care is a skill that can be learned, even for people who specifically don’t feel they deserve to learn it.
To my patient’s surprise, simply stumbling across the idea that he could comfort himself seemed to grant him the power to do it. He sat down one morning, grasped hold of a vision of his larger self, a supremely forgiving, compassionate, and wise self, and turned it on the part of himself that was afraid and needed to be told everything would be okay. Out loud, he spoke gently and lovingly to himself, let himself acknowledge that what was happening was awful, that he hadn’t failed as a parent, and that he cared that he was suffering so. And somehow, it worked. In fact, he reported not only feeling better but also ridding himself of the resentment he felt toward his wife for not comforting him in the way he wanted.
Could there be a better reason for us to take on the painstaking effort required to enlarge our capacity for compassion other than to be able to turn it on ourselves?
Next Week: The Faulty Premise Of Regret
Very interesting post. In my experience, it worked very naturally the opposite way round, that is, I was able to visualize my small self, the wounded, needy, hurting small girl. And then the “I” (presumably the larger “I”) quite naturally reached out to hold and comfort that small girl.
And she was comforted.
Heart-opening—thank you for yet another healing post.
I hope many people read this post and take it to heart, Alex. I know firsthand the beneficial effects of speaking to myself with compassion about the difficulties in my life. I use whatever phrases fit the moment. For example, if the effects of my illness are overwhelming, I might say, “My sweet body, working so hard to support me.”
The only suggestion I would add to your post is that, as people speak their chosen phrases, they try stroking one arm with the hand of the other or even stroke their face. Something about that physical touching makes my heart soften and all the self-judgment just falls away.
During difficult times I comfort myself. I take a “time out” and sit with “myself” and comfort the hurting part of me that is desperate for compassion and softness. I gently hold my arms in a loving embrace and tell myself it will be okay, and I may feel this way now, and that is okay (validate my feeling) but tomorrow brings new possibilities…and I instantly calm down and rest—as though a wave of peace rushed over me…I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but this article confirms that compassion toward oneself is so important! Thank you so much for this.
Thanks once again, Alex, for another thoughtful post. My first association was with the “voice dialogue” method of psychotherapy, in which the subject identifies different partial personalities (for example, the pleaser, the pusher, etc.) and discovers what they have to say and what role they have in the person’s daily life.
I was also intrigued by your remarks about being comforted by another instead of by ourselves. Maybe someone else’s comforting rates higher if we associate that with being “worth” someone else’s efforts. Finally, I was struck by Toni’s comment about stroking oneself for comfort. Shortly after my husband died I went on vacation alone. I arranged everything, which I’m good at, the journey went well, I arrived in Paris, did my best at speaking French getting into the hotel, put my luggage down and then just collapsed in tears on the bed. At some point I realized that I was stroking my arm with my other hand, and that I was feeling more calm. Interesting to read this comment several years later.
Thank you for this post. I have read your posts for some time now and have taken comfort in many. I have been struggling for quite some time now and recently have had a turn for the worse. I am unsure how to go forward after making many mistakes although acknowledging that I have tried hard I think I have hit a wall.
Am right where Evelyn is.
Seem to be finding every turn is a dead end & every choice a mistake. How do you then practice self-compassion? After all it is me that makes the choices that lead me where I am. So hard to forgive oneself then. So fatiguing and depressing is the struggle to reconcile with the choices.
Any pointers on how to deal with this? Does believing in destiny help?
Wonderful post. I have found this to be exactly true in my own life.
Through Vipassana meditation (including sending oneself meta-loving kindness) and personal therapy I was able to use my imagination to find the wounded or hurting parts of myself—the visions were quite vivid-—finding the abandoned little girl in a basement, the lonely part of me by the side of the road walking, etc., and my natural, almost instant, impulse was compassion. I instinctively wanted to reach out and comfort this hurting “being” once I could “see” her.
It is such good news to find that once we are able to put ourselves imaginatively in the presence of a someone hurting (even if it is a part of ourselves), that our hearts are designed to feel compassion and reach out. This practice has made me a much gentler soul… more available for EVERYONE.
Excellent post. If only we treated ourselves the way we treat our good friends, i.e., with respect, gratitude, forgiveness and patience.
There is a parallel in the Hindu philosophy. It is the concept of the Jeevatma and Paramatma, the Latter being the Bigger Soul.
Thank you, Alex, for introducing me to this concept. It’s worth a careful 2nd read and some quiet thinking. I consider myself very fortunate that I don’t believe I need comforting but life being what it is, I likely will at some point. I think I am empathetic and good at comforting others. I see myself as resilient and emotionally strong.
Q—Does one only need comforting from self or others if they perceive they NEED it? Or can it be needed without realizing it? (Emotional blind spot.)
Q—The only “risk” I can see to self-comforting is becoming overly self-absorbed (self pity) and perhaps less likely to reach inside for the strength & fortitude (vs. comfort) to move ahead.
Very interesting and timely for me. Something new to think about. Great ideas and post.
Your essay and your reader responses are spot on with loving ways of navigating a path to forgiveness.
Here’s my contribution to the “lesser/higher/forgiveness” discourse, via poetry.
In Spite of This Lesser Self
Giselle M. Massi
© January 16, 2011
In spite of this lesser self
into new tasks
old problems that face all
reflecting a collective heart
pulses with a desire for our life
in spite of this lesser self
what is of value
what is rich
as memories replay
each act of valor
that may be disguised as perfect imperfection
yet is the better self.
Alex, this topic has been very timely for me and very helpful. I also appreciated Toni Bernhard’s comment. When you mentioned her book last year, I checked it out from the library. I’ve just bought a copy. It should arrive soon.
It seems to me to be another version of the liberal mindset that has taken hold today. The one where every child gets a ribbon for entering the race even if he never took a step onto the track, every child’s picture he drew is beautiful even if he was angry when he made it and its full of scribbles and slashes. The one where each little girl is a princess no matter how hatefully she acts?
And I am not so sure that if you’ve never had anyone who cares for you in that way that you would have the knowledge of first of all if it were appropriate and secondly how to do it.
Interesting concept but I remain skeptical. And then there’s the fact that, if I think of myself trying to do this, the thought that comes to mind of how ridiculously pathetic it is, you haven’t any friends or loved one to soothe you and so here you are indulging yourself when no one else in their right mind wants to. How believable is that?
Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I was raised by a narcissistic mother who demanded (and still does) constant attention and care. So I was conditioned to care for others, never myself. Even after years of therapy, comforting myself is still a struggle. I love the comment Dr. Harpham made—why can’t we be as kind to ourselves as we are to others? I suppose my experience is part of the answer—we are taught not to. It is a powerful lesson and unlearning it is a challenge.
About her book, How to be Sick—I’ve been reading the library’s copy for six months. I need my own copy so I can underline and highlight things. I’ve found it very helpful, as I do your blogs. Especially comforting myself. That’s something I will work on.
Some people might view comforting yourself as a weakness, that you are flawed or unfortunate, lacking someone else to do it for you. Yet, who but you would know what would truly comfort you, if you explored this? If you are fortunate to have others who can also comfort you, that is wonderful. But we don’t always have another to reach out to for this need. We do always have ourselves I think it is a great strength to be able to feel self-loving in this way, for yourself, and then for others.
I had a time in my life when it was very difficult to move on from remembering and feeling bad about a very tricky relationship. I believe what finally helped me move on was some challenging questioning of myself in the mirror, e.g., “What did you get out of this relationship that compelled you (me) to stay in it?”
The sort of tough questions you ask a very close friend. After answering honestly and fully and looking myself in the eye, I moved forward, engaged in the present, and found I was no longer preoccupied with the past.
I have had many times when I needed some comforting and did not feel comfortable asking friends or family for it. I am so glad to hear this articulated! I have also found that getting a massage or acupuncture treatment is also therapeutic. I often find myself with tears in my eyes on the massage table, and realize how much I needed that comforting touch and presence. Being able to comfort myself will be of much value, and I will practice it more.
Thanks so much for that. I find myself in a similar situation and when I honestly try to answer the question, it seems to make sense. I am seeing me put on rose-colored glasses and have to challenge that kind of thinking many times a day. Very tiring and for me brings up fear. I’m working hard trying to silence the out-of-control critic I have become [in my head] over the length of this relationship. I do wonder if it is a personality type or illness that makes certain people take on unhealthy relationships and try to make them work or is it just the very human need to want a partner? I have been reading Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening. The March 8 entry was, for me, a moment. Anyone out there interested in a incredible day book, this is it!
Again thanks, gives me courage to begin my day.
I appreciate the blog and all the comments. My challenge has always been constant negative thoughts, even after very positive experiences. An example—I was helping my business communications org. judge entries for an awards program. As I drove the mile home, all my thoughts and feelings were negative, because of negative experiences in the past. I’m getting stronger in dealing with them, but plan to use these ideas as well.
What if you merit no comfort? What then? What if your mind torments you beyond what you think you can bear and no one understands and what if you know how terribly you failed. What if you know you deserve no comfort but still you cry so easily so you try to say.
But what if no one can comprehend the pain.
I cannot comfort myself in this thing because I deserve no comfort. Because of terrible consequences 25 years later I still cannot forgive myself. The only possible comfort is imagining if there is a heaven and I get there somehow, that she will be there, only when I can hold her again will I be able to let go. I can still feel how it was to hold her close to my heart. She was in my heart, a part of me. A little tiny black dog. Maybe you think how can I be so overcome about a dog? She was more than that. From the very first day she was more. I failed her and I will never have an answer what happened to her and so at night or even in the daytime I wonder what happened but, here’s the catch. I think (and my son agrees) maybe I am better off not knowing. But the not knowing holds me captive. There IS NO ANSWER, no relief, the biggest failure of my entire life beyond everything else I failed this little precious black dog who weighed 7 pounds and had a crook in her tail. I cannot let go of her memory because she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and there is no answer. When I look at her picture she’s looking right at me. Her warm brown eyes, it torments me what happened, did she know, did she wonder why I was not with her, how could I have let this happen? I never got to say goodbye. I cry for her but I do not deserve to because I am sad for me that I lost her but it is my fault and so I have no right to cry. But I feel sorry for her and for myself too and sad forever because there is no answer and sometimes I wish there is nothing after you die but then I think of her and I hope there is and she can forgive me. I can hold her again like before. You can’t know how special she was. That’s the thing though, there is no answer ever, this little girl I was so close to, closer than many people get to anyone and I will never know. I don’t know how parents who lose a child can stand it, not knowing where they lay. And wishing you could have saved them.
There is no comfort, that is my hell. There are no answers and there is no comfort. Her name was Heidi and there is no answer. The only thing I can do for her is not forget because she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
I’m sorry, I just had to say that sometimes there is no comfort.
This is a reply to Anne Tyler:
It is understandable why you must feel the way you do, I have felt the way you do—”sometimes, there is no comfort.” I lost my own father without saying goodbye, so yes, in a way, it can be a personal hell…when you keep looking at it that way. I lived it for years. But have you ever tried forgiving yourself? Forgiving does not mean forgetting, but it can give you the peace you need. It takes time, however, it helps, and is in a way…comfort and compassion. We are not meant to beat ourselves up forever. We are human.
Thank you Kassandra for sharing your thoughts.
I know on the one hand nothing is accomplished with the way I feel; it just like a door left open that you can’t close. Sometimes when I least expect it I remember and my mind starts working, trying to imagine how she felt because we were so very close from the beginning. Whatever happened to her she is gone certainly and so what can I do about it? Nothing. But it is my sense of failure to protect her. I would have loved to have her with me always and never should have left her in someone else’s care. We spent that last weekend together and I loved her the whole time loved every minute. We got a blanket and sat outside and enjoyed the day. If I had known at all she was in danger I would not have left her there any longer, that I know. She was and is a part of my heart, she believed in me, she trusted me, and that’s the part that hangs me up. She believed in me when so few people do and I failed her. She was such a good little girl, so full of love and she deserved good things. No matter how much I think about it I can’t go back in time but I can’t forget that I FAILED HER. She trusted me and there is no closing the door because I don’t know and all I can do is imagine and in my mind she’s crying for me, looking for me to help her and I’m not there.
We have all failed someone else, if not ourselves, at some point. We are all flawed and make mistakes. Hopefully, if we have somehow failed, we can forgive ourselves (can you forgive someone else for the same thing? If so, why not yourself?).
Many people who have lost a loved one or done something bad feel better by doing something constructive in response. Perhaps helping with animal protection issues by volunteering at your local animal shelter can help you to overcome your regret. There is no one more forgiving than a dog, after all.
Anne, your messages are so touching. I had one cat, Princess (since my name is Diana) for 10 years, then began rescuing the many cats and kittens left behind or living in the park nearby. Someone left an 8-week-old kitten outside my apartment, so I kept it. It jumped on Princess a lot to play. My Princess died a few months later, I think of a heart problem, but I still feel very sad that I didn’t treat Princess better. That kitten, Emma, is now 14. I’ve kept 4 other rescues, though rescue groups helped place many others. A feral female had several kittens—with the help of a rescue group, she and the kittens were spayed/neutered. I kept one, Pearl, to keep Emma company. A black one was returned to me by the rescue group, too scared to be adopted. I kept her. She’s now 13, very affectionate and loves Emma. Then while at a new job, I was too preoccupied to realize Pearl was in pain. She’d bitten a rubber ball, swallowed half of it. Finally I took her to the vet—he found a lump, but sent her home with me. A few days later, the half-ball came out as she used the litter box. The vet operated on her, but couldn’t save her. I still feel very sad and responsible for not noticing her pain earlier. In 2002, a friend walking her dog found 11 3-1/2 week old kittens in a box under a tree in the park. We took 6 to the humane society and buried 5. At 7 pm another neighbor told me about a 12th kitten. We found her, and I kept her. Jewel is now 9. That makes me feel a little better about losing Pearl, since I could save a kitten. I also feel bad about the feral mother—I was so new at rescuing I didn’t realize I should continue feeding her. Someone found a dead cat in the nearby field. I couldn’t go look at it. I do have Olive, one of her black kittens. I just moved and 3 days later, the cat that used to live here, but was left behind, started sitting at the screen door. We had her and other left-behinds fixed—this one is waiting for a Petsmart location through a rescue group. I can’t change my earlier actions, but I can help cats who need homes now. Your final days with your dog were wonderful.
Wow, Anne. I totally know where you’re coming from as I did something that I consider so awful…my husband had a pit bull and a couple of pointers. I had a cute little black mutt who adored me. At the time I didn’t believe in dogs sleeping in the house (learned from that one). Phoebe (my dog) and Banjo (pit) were “friends” and slept in the basement together, but my husband wanted them out in the shed with the other dogs. I finally relented. The first night went ok. The next night Phoebe kept trying to get out the door as I was leaving. The next morning she was dead, killed in a very vicious way.
Can I ever forget this? No way. Never. Have I forgiven myself. Yes. To not forgive is to torture myself forever, and what use am I to others, people and animals, if I spiral down into self loathing, never giving myself permission to say “wow did I mess this up but I didn’t do it on purpose?”
I became a dog trainer. I spearheaded the first “positive method training” in my area. I tried to improve as many dog lives as I could. I learned.
Do I wish that nightmare had never happened? Oh boy you better believe it. Yes I still feel guilty. But I did find an “answer,” as you can see.
I did respond to the statement that I am “wallowing” (excuse me) in my pain instead of doing something.
I left an example of the work I do to try to help.
It’s disappeared so I guess my attempts to show that I am trying to do the best I can and do something worthwhile will remain a secret and so will this note as well probably.
It’s the price I pay for commenting on someone else’s blog who has control and can leave out if they choose that might be helpful. I wanted to say I am doing something but you’ve chosen to keep that a secret. I guess its more entertaining to merely let people think I’m totally self-absorbed with no redeeming social value.
I won’t trouble you in the future but if you accuse me of wallowing in my pain instead of doing something constructive and then when i try to explain that I am trying to do something that information is kept private tells me I have overstayed my welcome and so i apologize and take my leave.
Thank you for your very insightful blog.
Now what we have is an endless parade of people who can show me how they have succeeded where I have failed. Probably because they are proactive unlike me who just chooses to flounder. It seems I’ve been chosen as the earth worm under the microscope for everyone to advise how they have risen above their former earth worm status whereas I have chosen to stay in mine.
I do say too much, reveal too much and I’m sorry, some day I will learn. Much as I need to communicate I am reminded again and again that nothing good comes out of it so I really must admit that I am not the brightest star in the sky. Anyone else would have learned what I have not.
KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.
I know that none of this will be approved and I don’t blame you I guess. It’s your blog and that means you can do as you please.
I do get the score and now I understand what is necessary I will do so in hopes that I finally do something intelligent for a change.
Doctors of medicine take the Hippocratic Oath, which states that medical practitioners aren’t allowed to share patient information with other people. I’m confused now.
I know that this is an anonymous patient, but the publication of personal information puzzles me.
I mean, it’s great to get to know the human psyche in any way, and even maybe to find yourself in some other person’s situation.
I believe it is worth mentioning that one does not fail until we stop trying to overcome our personal obstacle, small or large as they may seem. Just the mere fact that everyone who has blogged here is seeking some sort of answer to improving our understanding of our own behaviors leads me to believe we will not surrender to this battle and will become the greater people we seek to be.
Where there is no comfort you can hope to get, just accept it then. Accept the fact that it hurts beyond belief and that the pain will not stop your heart from beating. Accept the reality of the situation and the fact that you feel like you failed. From here all you can do is try to learn from the situation, and if you don’t feel like learning just settle for getting out of bed in the morning and fixing yourself up a cup of coffee. Small steps forward. If you find yourself guilty, accept that you are guilty but also accept that to err is human. Hopefully sooner than later you will find peace.
As for me, I presently feel beyond consolation. I am completely confused as where to go from here, and I don’t know what will become of me. I have lost sight of those things that made me happy and right now I am blogging while I should be working… But atl east I am at work and will come again tomorrow.
I like this concept of self-comforting because I think I am too needy as well. I will give it a try and thank you, Alex, for sharing your insight and doing so in a very relatable manner.
Still in the throws of grief over unexpected death of husband of 44 years…the loss of him…of the dreams and hopes for the future…the memory of those things not resolved or said as a result of sudden loss. So very afraid and alone and no one to really understand…alone and not able to comfort myself because of the pain and longing….but somehow I know I will find that bigger self to comfort the lost little person who has no idea how to move forward or how to move at all…stumbled on this website and will do some gentle self talk tonight again. Thank you…never thought to hold my own arm, etc., and I will do that as the thing I miss the very most is not being touched or being able to touch someone in that special way.
Very interesting idea, self-comforting. I’ve been working on this for years; most recently when a six-month relationship ended. Within a two week time period I also moved my aged parents out of my home into a nursing home and my son went away to college. I went from a busy, full, loved state of being to a lonely house, and lonely life. While I crave the comfort of having people around, and especially a partner, I am taking time to learn to comfort myself, to be by myself, and to love the sweet part of me that deserves to be loved and appreciated for all she has done for others. It’s so very hard to feel unloved, knowing in my mind it is not true but in my heart feeling unloved… what an interesting paradox—to know one thing and to feel another. I believe learning to comfort myself will allow me to go into future relationships with less fear of losing myself to engulfment or being abandoned. Thank you for this.