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.
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?
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?
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.