As the weather turns cold and darkness comes earlier in the afternoon, many folks begin to lament the onset of winter, as it often brings with it increased pain. If you are anticipating challenges with pain this winter, it is worth paying attention to how you relate to yourself when you are in pain. How you talk to yourself and treat yourself can serve to amplify pain or turn down the volume. When winter weather brings more pain, self-kindness and self-compassion are literally good medicine.
There is a Buddhist teaching story of two arrows used to illustrate the difference between pain, an unavoidable part of life, and suffering, which we may have more of a say in. The first arrow is pain. It strikes us. Outside of our control, some crisis or calamity arises in our lives that we did not wish for but nonetheless have to navigate. The second arrow is suffering, which we often inflict on ourselves through our response to pain. Say you are cooking and accidentally drop a can of soup on your foot: Ouch! If you then berate yourself for it, it’s like purposefully throwing a second can of soup on your foot: Suffering! Self-compassion is a tool we can use to interrupt that second arrow born of self-directed blame, anger and criticism, and reduce our suffering.
In her research on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., clarifies that the reason to offer yourself compassion is because you are a person in pain in need of kindness. What does this look like in practice? You might place a hand on your heart or on a part of your body that needs some kind attention and allow a few full breaths, the way you might put your hand on the shoulder of a friend who’s having a hard time, to offer support and let them know you are there for them, acknowledging pain and offering kindness because it hurts: “Ouch that really hurts! Yeah, it really does. Things might be harder today. May I be patient with myself this morning.”
The science of compassion is teaching us that when we receive care, even from ourselves, we release endorphins and oxytocin, feel-good hormones that literally quiet the pain alarm, like a parent’s kiss on a skinned knee. Having our pain acknowledged, named and tended to with kind and loving attention, even briefly, can help us get back out to play — or bring in the wood, do the dishes, take the dog for a walk, whatever the need might be.
If you find yourself objecting that you wouldn’t get anything done, it’s worth noting that compassion does not mean indulgence. Being kind does not mean you ignore responsibilities. Self-compassion might be acknowledging that it hurts and you wish it didn’t, or acknowledging the task in front of you feels more difficult because of pain and that you will coach yourself through it bit by bit, pacing yourself with brief breaks as needed, or with the promise of something caring and soothing after — a heating pad on the shoulders, a warm cup of tea, watching a humorous video of kittens playing, before getting on with the next task on your list.
Like anything new, this can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Thankfully, compassion is forgiving. In any moment, even in the middle of harshness, you can pause and offer yourself the next kind word or gesture.
How we relate to ourselves when we are in pain or distress is one of the things we have a big say in this winter. We can amplify pain through self-judgment and self-criticism, or we can access our own medicine through compassion, offering ourselves kind attention, understanding and patience, like we would a good friend, even if we still have dishes to do.
For books by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., and many free self-compassion practices, including the “self-compassion break,” the website self-compassion.org is a wonderful resource.