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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mindfulness - Self-knowledge and compassion

Muffet, Flickr

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm
 we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage 
and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” 

One of my main findings, after two months of practicing mindfulness meticulously, is that I have been, in my life, ignoring (or downplaying) some very real aspects of who I am. By paying attention to my internal state (and the concomitant external circumstances), I am realizing that I still have much to learn and implement when it comes to respecting myself.

Throughout our lives, expectations are put upon us, and we internalize many of those expectations : this is how I should behave, what I should look like, the choices I should make, how productive I should be, etc. We internalize all of it so well that in some cases, we are not even aware that it is not "the real us".

Unfortunately, choosing to ignore (or doing so unconsciously) our true nature, our specific needs and our unique limits can only backfire. Simply think of an introvert who would force himself into more social gatherings than he can handle, or an extrovert who would fail to fulfill her social interaction needs, and you get the idea: both would feel miserable. 

Chronic limitations

Identifying our limits can lead to either one of the following: 1) it can lead us to renounce our goals altogether, or 2) it can lead us to set goals that are more realistic. Personally, I opt for the latter. For example, I have never let my - moderate - asthma get in the way of being active, and I even became a long-distance runner. But I have had to remain attentive to the limits that my asthma imposes, respect my own pace, and accept that no level of training will make me a super fast runner (my half-marathon PB is around the two-hour mark, while most of the same-age friends whom I trained with run it at least a couple minutes faster). 

If you have the same, or any other, physical or mental affliction, it is sometimes easier to deny it - after all, who wants to admit that they have health limitations, and that those health limitations get in the way of their aspirations, or even a "normal life"? The fact is, whether you acknowledge them or not, your limitations exist. They do not disappear through magical thinking. Another personal example: I have learned the hard way (despite all my initial resistance) that I have to address the first symptoms of a migraine vigorously, lest it turns much, much worse. Believe me, I do not enjoy cancelling plans or taking medication, but sometimes, it is a necessity.

Noticing and acknowledging our limits is not to be used as a pretext for giving up. I am all for pushing one's limits, and excessive self-indulgence definitely qualifies as one of my pet peeves. I know that in order to accomplish things and reach goals, hard work and discomfort is necessary. I am also all too aware that living and/or working with others requires compromise and good will - anything one person decides not to do ends up on somebody else's plate one way or another. However, I am becoming increasingly aware that ignoring one's limits often turns counterproductive.

Always pragmatic, I try and turn my self-awareness into a call to action to myself. Instead of sitting on my bum, I like to take matters in my own hands. For example, I have noticed that I can keep a lot of physical and emotional pain at bay by exercising regularly. I don't always feel like it, but time and experience has shown that it's worth it. I have also noticed that I waste my precious energy by trying to remain focused for a long time: with my short attention span, breaking down any task into smaller bits really is the way to go, whether I like it or not. The nice thing about it is that when I respect that particular pace and style of mine, I actually accomplish a lot.  

Temporary limitations

Sometimes, a given limitation is temporary. One of the best decisions I made when my father passed away, for example, was to allow myself to feel the pain, and to allow myself as much time as I needed to grieve. I did not give up my life and activities, but I cut myself some much needed slack, instead of insisting on "business as usual".

By knowing ourselves and our limitations better, by respecting our personal pace and style, we get rid of much frustration and guilt, and we end up getting more done, not less.

Get more done, feel better: it all starts with self-knowledge and compassion.

For more on knowing oneself:

Know Thyself
Who am I

Mindfulness this Week

I will be in sync with my optimal mode of functioning and any particular needs or limitations I may have. 

Tell us what you come up with.

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  1. Nice. Of course.

    Along these lines, I like to reflect on taking an obese man on a very challenging hike a few years ago. He thought he couldn't do it. His family thought he couldn't do it. Everyone was resistant to me taking him -- everyone but me.

    Because in life, everything we try to accomplish is subject to our limitations, but only inasmuch as those limitations are dealt with in relative terms.

    I took my overweight friend on a very slow hike up a steep hillside; 1.8 miles. It took nearly 3 hours for us to reach the top. BUT, we reached the top. A great lesson in working towards a goal in relative terms.

    You totally speak to that here, and I appreciate it!

  2. ahhhh as always Im shouting YES YES YES as I read.
    Especially (as you know) the piece about feeling the grief (and any "negative" emotion so we can embrace it and push through to learn from it and, perhaps, grow.

    1. Negative thoughts are unavoidable sometimes, but what we do with them is up to us! Loved your blog post as well, Carla (as you know). :-)

  3. This is an excellent piece, Julie! I don't think about this so much anymore as I set my sails years ago. I've always been one to push my limits or back off when I realize I can't go any further without the time invested not being worth the "inch" of improvement. I've seen others renounce goals due to their being competitive with others in their families rather than realize that their only competitor was themselves.

    1. Agreed, the time (and energy) invested has to yield results! Thank you for the kind comment.