What I learned from cultivating self-compassion

When I was just slightly younger, I had this impression that I was someone who was open-minded and I saw the world in shades of grey. I often judged people for being too absolute, too black and white.

It turns out that I was only open-minded to what I wished to be open to, and very judgmental otherwise. I had a perception (or conditioning) of how a human being should be, so I judged people based on that. Whether one is dishonest, selfish, short-sighted, susceptible to vanity or social pressure, etc.

What was less obvious to me, was that I judged myself the most. I just really, really didn’t like myself. I wasn’t doing enough, sharing enough, doing good enough, maximising my time enough, being a good friend enough, worked hard enough, capable enough, strong enough — I failed in all the categories that mattered to me.

This had a symbiotic effect on how I treated other people. When people came to me in times of hardship — broken relationships, addictions, admissions of moral failings — I was still too non-confrontational as a person to express my judgement directly, but I would insinuate it:

“Why do you keep letting yourself be hurt by someone who has cheated on you?”

“Why is he so short-sighted with his business decisions?”

“Why do you still keep doing the thing that makes you feel like shit”

“Why did [person x] have the heart to let me suffer?”

Life has a way of biting you in the ass. I found myself in situations where I didn’t have control over my decision-making. I fell in love with people who kept hurting me. I too, was short-sighted over so many decisions. And I, can’t even stop myself from doing plenty of things that I know will make me feel like shit. When I am hurt, tired and depressed, I would hurt people too, even if I didn’t want to.

I just hated myself, over and over again. I hated the world too.

A short-while ago, I started to learn how to have self-compassion. It wasn’t an altruistic act for myself. To me, it was pragmatic. I can’t just keep pushing myself to the brink all the time. It is not fun to constantly be suicidal and yet be philosophically against it. The desire to have self-compassion came from a desire to be more alive, to feel less numb.

Then something unexpected happened.

The more I developed self-compassion, the more compassion I started to have for people, including the ones who had inflicted hurt on me before. Compassion is not the same as condoning. It isn’t absolving blame or responsibility, but to attempt to understand why someone might act a certain way.

I am now in my mid 30s, the same age as some adults who may or may not have intentionally inflicted pain on me as a kid. As a kid, we think of adults as omnipotent. Adults shouldn’t do anything wrong, they should know better than to be callous and careless with the fragility of kids’ hearts.

But now I am too, an adult. In reality I feel like I am mostly fumbling in the dark about how best to live my life and how to interact with people. I am a work-in-progress. I have lived long enough to be put in situations where I am the one who may have hurt other people, and again, I am not trying to absolve myself of responsibility, but it is now with the lived experience that when human dynamics are involved, things are never simple or binary.

So I do a little bit of time travelling back into my history, to look at the adults with the lenses I have now, not with the ones I have as a kid. I am able to feel compassion for both the kid I was, and the adults. I now know how hard it is sometimes to interact with kids (I avoid it as much as possible even till today) because their psyches are so malleable and their sizing of magnitudes are so dynamic, for better or for worse.

I try to apply this sort of thinking to other situations, apart from my childhood. I look at people in my past, along with my past selves. Could this person have done otherwise with the variables they may have had? Could I have done better with the variables I had? Could I have done better in this person’s shoes, with the variables they had, with all the experiences they have gone through in life?

Why should we attempt to understand? Again, to me it is not altruistic but pragmatic. Life is too short to live brimming with so much resentment. It is one thing to deal with anger healthily, another thing to let it eat us up inside, poison us, control us.

We see the world as who we are. Yes, the world is in a terrible state now, but there is a lot of goodness too. But we give so much more weight to anger, why?

I try to allow myself more room these days to learn and make mistakes instead of tying myself to impossible expectations. When we cannot afford ourselves to make mistakes or endure failures, we are inevitably paralysed. When I end up doing something I regret, I try to listen to myself, to understand the psychology and neuroscience behind it. I journal fervently, making notes of what impacts my actions and expressions. It becomes surprising when I find out just starting the day on a slightly wrong foot can impact the entire day, someone’s careless remark can result in a depressive spiral. Assessing myself is no longer binary, but multidimensional. I become less clouded by anger. I admit that I am very flawed: while I can be generous in many ways, I am also selfish and petty in others. I have done a lot of good, but inflicted a lot of damage too, along the way. I try to learn from mistakes, and have some self-compassion when I repeat them again, reminding myself that lessons are cyclical, not linear.

With all of that, I started to see people better, with wider, deeper lenses. Someone can be flawed and have made questionable decisions, and yet do a lot of good. In many cases, people are simply trying their best, in the way they know how. Could I try to learn to see people wholly, instead of fixating on their failings? Could I learn to see myself wholly?

And yes, there could be people who are truly reprehensible, and I am not saying that I am trying to be a saint by applying compassion on everyone;

but just learning to see people around me and myself with our complexities and dimensions instead of being so quick to judge, anger or hurt or be hurt;

it has infinitely made my world better.

I am still at the beginning, I am a work-in-progress.