This morning I listened to an inspiring story on the radio. It opened with an elderly woman who approached a young man on a train platform. The man was wearing only a thin T-shirt even though it was the middle of winter in Sweden and so she asked him why. It turned out he was a lost Afghani refugee. In that moment the women recognized she had a choice, she knew she could choose to help this man or walkaway into the crowd. Fast forward four months later. The man was living in her home, working as a forester’s apprentice, his wife and daughter were on their way from Afghanistan to live with him in Sweden. She had chosen to help.
We are given opportunities to help everyday. It seems the world around us is never lacking in people who could use help.
But I’d like to point out there is someone whom we often neglect to help. This person is so close we’ve become blind to their pleas.
This person who’s asking for your help is the one you’re with.
I’m not speaking of your spouse, significant other, children, etc.
I speaking about You. Yes, helping You!
You are the one you’re with. (A favorite author and teacher of mine, Byron Katie creator of The Work, will often say, ”You’re the one you go to bed with, you’re the one you wake up with, you’re the one who likes your favorite movies, you’re the one who likes your favorite food. You might as well love the one you’re with!”)
And still for many of us, loving ourselves or even just helping ourselves, isn’t as easy and straight forward as it sounds.
Enter your ability to help others.
Now, if a friend came to you in need, confused, or down in the dumps, how would you treat them? With anger and criticism? Are they bad? Are they a failure? Are they less intelligent because they’re upset? Or do you see them as courageous, do you feel honored they would come to you for help in a time of need?
Yet when it comes to ourselves, rather than helping, we usually become more judgmental and critical internally.
And still, we all have the ability to help, to be compassionate, to comfort. Because of this ability, when I encounter periods in my Life that really challenge me, I’ve begun to use these skills and desire to help others, to turn it inward and help myself.
(If you bristle at this idea, take a deep breath and simply let yourself be aware of how uncomfortable it is for you to think of helping yourself. Remember how you would treat your friend, You deserve nothing less from yourself.)
How to help Yourself.
This “help yourself” is not like pigging out at a buffet with lots of sweets. No, this “help yourself” is much more close to home.
It’s about providing yourself the simple specifications that can assist you in being the most peaceful, kind and compassionate version of you…towards you.
Why is it necessary to help yourself by creating this environment of compassion?
Because when we are moving in a direction of anger, frustration, depression, or negativity, our internal dialogue begins to mirror these emotions. Rather than slowing down the negative process, our internal mental chatter ramps up and begins to build up stream. Before we know it, we’re yelling at our spouse or our coworker or the driver in front of us. Maybe not out loud, but internally.
Steps to begin helping yourself.
First, know a few tools that help you create this space of compassion within you.
“Space” being the operative word here. All the wisdom teachings seem to offer a practice of space, be it prayer, meditation, inquiry, nature. (My favorites include journaling, walking in nature, playing an instrument and doing The Work of Byron Katie to name a few.)
Second, trust the tool (the help) and accept your own willingness to help.
True help, compassionately offered does not blame, shame, judge the one who is seeking the help. Let yourself step into this help, especially when it’s coming from you. Many times we try to talk ourselves out of deserving or needing any help in moment.
Third, as much as you can, allow the tool of help to work you rather than you use the tool.
This is how transformative changes happen rather than just covering up the situation.
Here’s a personal example:
A few nights ago it was time for my kids to go to bed. Even after having been given an extra 30 minutes past their regular bedtime, they weren’t ready to get in bed. Our daughter was being particularly vocal. I began to notice a familiar feeling arising in me, accompanied by thoughts such as, “She shouldn’t be fusing about bedtime, she should be grateful to have been allowed to stay up later!” As this began to arise within me, I looked to my wife and indicated, non-verbally, “I need space!” I knew I needed to help myself.
I went downstairs, put on my sandals and went for a walk on the beach. I know from trial and error that this is a very effective tool for me. Physical space, especially in nature, eventually helps me find mental and emotional space.
For me, it’s not enough to get my daughter to bed “on time” and without fusing. I want to know can I do it without adding to the drama already playing out in the house? In the past I would have stood taller, raised my voice, eventually shouting and perhaps, punishing her. For what purpose? To be right? To support my beliefs that she should be grateful and go to bed without fusing? Yet what do I teach her, and myself, by yelling and defending these beliefs? Do I show her she’s not allowed to have an opinion that differs from her father’s? That her needs are less important than mine? Or how about, when you get angry, get louder or be bigger to win?
Another line I love of Byron Katie’s is, “It only takes one to end a war and you’re the one.”
Now contrast that old approach with me helping myself. She’s sees there’s important to take care of your own needs compassionately. She witnesses me return 20 minutes later, more calm and more peaceful. She now has a reference of her own in how to take a moment to create this internal space.
You might be asking, “Well, what about rules and bedtimes?”
Here’s what I’ve found in our home. As I lean into and trust myself to act compassionately towards myself in these difficult and challenging situations, I’m much more available for my children when their own challenges arise. I’m more able to clearly communicate with them because I’ve experienced it for myself.
So, let’s say the next night it happens again, but this time I notice I’m not triggered. I stand calmly, loving repeat my rules about bedtime without shame or verbally attacking my daughter. I’m available for her because I know I’m available for myself, I can go down that road without fear.
She might say, “No, I’m not going to bed and you can’t make me!”
“I hear you would like to stay up later and I’m saying no. Would you like me to rub your back?”
“You’re the meanest Daddy ever! Go away!”
So now I know where to go and I know her mind, she’s been very clear. I say goodnight and leave the room. I’ve been very clear as well. I’m present enough to see she’s dealing with a very difficult situation in her world. I trust her to find her way because I’ve found a way to peace. And I’m right there if she needs me. Perhaps later, I might mention that she can always use kind language even when she’s upset. But for her, in that moment, I was the meanest daddy in her world.
Eventually, I’ll go back into her room and usually she’s calmed down and ready to connect again, ready for a back rub and a kiss.
What's been my experience from helping myself?
I’ve seen that helping myself, always and in all ways, reduces the amount of victim-hood and blame I put out in to the world. When I help myself, I come to realize that the other person isn’t in charge of my feelings, I’m solely in charge of how I react. And this is really good news! This is how I learn and experience compassion. This is how I make real strides in the world. This is how I can come out and help at the level that the elderly woman was able to help that refugee. It’s how we dream of helping others in the world. And yet it is not rescuing, which doesn’t empower the other person or yourself.
So offer compassion to yourself first. Can you help yourself to freedom from suffering?
This is a lifetime’s work. I know this is my one job, helping myself to freedom.
Now is the time we begin.
We’re ready for you to help us in the world with your gifts.
But first, please, for our sake, help yourself!