I’ll start with a word that’s becoming increasingly familiar: mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to bringing your attention to your present moment experience, whether it’s something in your environment, or a thought, or an emotion. For me, its greatest value is that it helps me become aware of what’s going on in my mind. That awareness can allow me to see why I’m feeling down and, just knowing that, can start to make me feel better. That said, mindfulness is not a cure-all for feeling down. Despite the current internet chatter about how, if you can just become mindfully aware of a troubling emotion, it will vanish—poof—that’s frequently not the case.
In my experience, if I become aware that I’m feeling bad—maybe I’m sad or maybe I’m worrying excessively about something (the two examples I’ll use in this piece), that mindful awareness is helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily make the painful emotion go away.
In fact, it makes sense that painful emotions often persist because emotions have a mind of their own, so to speak. They pop into our minds based on causes and conditions in our lives at the moment. We don’t control when they’ll appear. Then, when they do show up, we tend to make things worse for ourselves by adding a negative self-judgment to what’s already a difficult situation. That’s our inner critic interfering with our peace of mind.
For many years, my inner critic was in charge of how I reacted to emotions, barking orders at me: “Feel happy, not sad”; “Stop worrying.” But I can’t control what thoughts and emotions take up temporary residence in my mind. If you’ve ever tried to control them, my guess is that you’ve been as unsuccessful as I have. This is because what comes up in our minds is based on our past experiences and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. We live in story, and our stories tend to include a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts—those barking orders I referred to: “I should feel this way”; “I shouldn’t feel that way.”
In my experience, when a painful emotion arises, it arises, and telling myself that I shouldn’t feel that way doesn’t work. If sadness is there, it’s there. If worry is there, it’s there. Yes, becoming aware of a painful emotion can be helpful—it can loosen its grip on you. But it doesn't automatically make it subside.
In my view, it’s okay if sadness or worry or any other stressful or painful emotion sticks around. When they do, rather than trying to force the emotions to go away, arouse compassion for yourself over the mental suffering that accompanies them.
And so, without adding a negative self-judgment, be sad if that's how you're feeling, but add to it self-compassion for the suffering that is sadness. Be worrying about something if that's what's happening, but add to it self-compassion for the suffering that is worry. (You can even do this with anger: accept without judgment that you’re feeling angry, but add to it self-compassion for the suffering that is anger.)
In other words, as the title of this piece suggests, comfort yourself when you’re feeling bad instead of blaming yourself for feeling that way. Blaming yourself only adds a second layer of suffering to the suffering you’re already experiencing as a result of feeling bad.
This past holiday season, I was sad. At first, I didn’t know why. With mindfulness as a tool, I soon realized the reason. We moved last March and, although I love our new place, I’d spent half my life in the little house across town that we moved out of. I was missing everything about it, even the holiday decorations that our neighbors on the block put up year after year. I knew what each house would look like.
Even though I became aware of the source of my sadness, it didn’t go away. Was there anything I could do to help myself out? Yes. I could arouse self-compassion for my suffering and, when I did, it helped—a lot. How did I go about this? Self-compassion simply means being kind to yourself—being as kind as you’d be to a loved one in need. So I talked silently to myself about my suffering, using words such as: “I’m so sad about not being in my old house right now. This sadness is painful, but I know it’s not my fault that I feel this way. It will pass. Let me find something pleasant to do while it’s with me.”
I’ve found that when I give voice to my feelings in this way, I’m letting myself know that I care about my suffering. This alone eases the emotional pain that accompanies worry… or any other stressful emotion.
Another example. I’m a worrier. I can worry about almost anything—from the state of the world to whether I’ll pass the written driver’s test (which is about to come up for me since I have to renew my license). That may sound like a crazy combination of worries, but there you have it. I’m a worrier.
I don’t know how I came to be a worrier, and I don’t find it fruitful to try and figure out what, in my distant past, triggered this tendency (if that type of self-examination is helpful to you, that’s fine!). What I do find helpful is, first, to become aware that I’m worrying (that's mindfulness at work). Realizing that I’m worrying often weakens its intensity. It may even go away… but, ah, it will come back because I’m a worrier. I can’t seem to order my mind not to worry!
So, when I find myself worrying, instead of ordering it out of my mind, I arouse self-compassion for the suffering that accompanies it, and it’s that self-compassion that makes the worry manageable. It allows me to patiently wait until it passes out of my mind, as all thoughts and emotions eventually do.
You can’t order your mind not to think or feel a certain way. If you could, you’d order it never to think about stuff that’s bothering you and never to experience painful emotions. So, see if it helps to let those painful emotions alone and, while they’re with you, speak to yourself in a compassionate voice.
Zelda Fitzgerald said: “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” By all accounts, she was a deeply troubled person. Even so, these words tell me that she understood the human heart. Repeating her words can serve as a reminder that our hearts can hold—as gently as a parent holds a newborn baby—everything about our lives—including its challenges and difficulties.
Thank you for reading my work. My piece on the inner critic might also be helpful: “A Sure-Fire Way to Silence Your Inner Critic.”