‘Dump’ or ‘Craft’?

I’ve spent most of the last three months ‘dumping’ my thoughts onto the blank page, or in my case, blank computer screen. This is despite Louise de Salvo’s belief that we have a better chance of benefiting from

detailed, organized, compelling, vivid and lucid

(2001, p.49)

writing, otherwise known as ‘crafting’, than from simply writing what we feel.

I’ve been a ‘dumper’ for most of my life and owe a lot to the process. It helps me to: understand what is bothering me; clear my head; and constructively deal with my feelings, thoughts and anxieties.

But in my thesis, now almost five years old, I agreed with de Salvo. I asserted that autobiographical writing can be more healing if we reflect on our memories and turn them into readable, enjoyable, evocative material meant for public consumption. When I’m not stuck in a ‘dumping phase’ I can spend days and weeks ‘crafting’ my work, editing, reflecting on, and thinking through what I write. The result is occasionally  something I’m proud to share with others, and I find the crafting process as therapeutic as my ‘daily moan’.

So, which am I, a ‘Dumper’ or a ‘Crafter? Crafting is harder than dumping, but I’m not sure dumping is always beneficial. On the other hand, writing ‘Daily Pages’ is lauded by most writers as a preeminent example of ‘turning up at the page’, and a valuable source of raw material to shape into a polished piece of ‘creative’ writing.

In other words, a writer can, perhaps should, be both a ‘Dumper’ and a ‘Crafter’. The problem is, while writing my thesis, and more recently, my critical inner voice insisted I stop wasting time ‘Dumping’ and get serious about ‘Crafting’. Then, when I’m crafting a piece, my inner critic hisses, ‘This will never work,’ or, ‘why write a blog about dumping or crafting? Everyone knows about this, it will be boring, no one will read it. You are wasting your time.’

I was recently asked about blogging and gathering ‘likes’, the snare social media uses to keep us logged on-line. But what, exactly, is a ‘like’ worth and has it become a measure of self-worth? Can a ‘like’ substitute for ‘Well done,’ for an invitation to share coffee, or for a virtual chat about your blog? Is a ‘like’ less affirming than the ‘holy grail’ of a ‘comment’ because a comment implies a reader wants to engage with you on your topic or idea? And what are comments compared to high sales figures and literary prizes, bait that lures authors and novelists into believing they are the exemplars of the craft of writing?

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I’m not saying approval, credit and prizes are bad things but, to return to ‘dumping’ your feelings and problems on the page, I do suggest rereading these ‘rants’ can yield one of two insights: either the writer unwittingly created something remarkable and satisfying, or they are confronted by a vindictive, angry, suffering person who should either hide their aberrations and discontent or seek professional support.

Like writers, anyone is capable of being a demon and an angel, a saint and a sinner a ‘Dumper’ or ‘Crafter’. It depends on whether or not we choose to work on ourselves. The raw material we have to work with is the human creature we are. Sure, we can dump our rage on another person, as if they are a blank page forced to accept our negative thoughts, feeling and ideas. We can also ‘craft’ ourselves into a kind, affectionate, honest and honourable person, someone others want to engage with and by crafting the self it’s possible we can heal ourselves (and silence the inner critic). Crafting the self may also help us heal the world.

Dumper or Crafter or both? It’s up to you.

The Source

It’s too easy to let things slip, to think ‘I can come back to that,’ or ‘I’ll have time tomorrow for…’. Yet, when everything seems important, imperative or imminent, little feels rewarding.

In my very small garden is a tub of red geraniums. The petals, robust flags of red, clump comfortably together, the blooms, unhurried in their blooming, are languid in their display.

Elixir is nothing like my red geranium. It has not bloomed in my mind or heart for several months. It has failed, unlike my strumpet geranium, to grab my attention, and so I ask myself, ‘Why did I start Elixir? What did I want to achieve? Why, indeed,  write a blog?’

In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise de Salvo asks,

…what if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? p6.

writing-as-a-way-of-healing Elixir started as a blog about therapeutic writing. Then it changed and, perhaps, lost its way. What kind of blogger loses control of her blog?

Hauling Elixir back to its original premise, a blog about the power of writing to heal, feels right. It feels simple and significant and necessary and it feels like Elixir has returned to its source:

My interest has never been in end results, but in the process of creation and expression…(*)

What have you resurrected lately?

(*) Judy Clinton, in Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops, p. 217.

 

Lessons Learned in Perth

I left Perth over three weeks ago and each day since has been a challenge leavened by jubilance and flavoured with  regrets.

Jubilance, because that’s what it is to sleep in one’s own bed, eat at one’s own table and catch up with friends and family. Regrets because as the Zen saying goes,

Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.

Not that I experienced anything near enlightenment while in Perth. There were, however, many useful lessons being left to your own resources and wresting with inner demons can provide. I find it difficult, however, to meaningfully share the lessons I learned while in Perth because I am still working through what my time alone taught me. The following list may fail to convey the insights gleaned from spending five weeks alone because such experiences are personal and profound only for the individual involved, but perhaps this list and the questions attached will give you pause …

  • It is easy for me to be alone. Sometimes too easy. (How easy or difficult is it for you to be alone for a long period of time?)
  • I am braver than I think but not always, and that is okay. (When was the last time you felt brave?)
  • I can be stressed, unhappy and exhausted but I can still examine, analyse, reflect, plan and problem solve … though exhaustion slows the process. (How do you work through the hard times?)
  • My family and friends have a unique knack of saying and doing the right thing at the right time. (When was the last time a friend or loved one came through for you just at the right moment?)
  • Relative strangers are a felicitous blessing. (How has a stranger helped you?)

One of the highlights of my stay occurred at the end of the five weeks. I was invited to lunch by a family member (by marriage), a woman I admire but don’t know well. Two other couples made up our party of seven. The three men sat outside, on the patio, the tenor of their voices a contrast to the gentle, determined chortling and harrumphing that accompanied our women’s way of poking fun at life and our shared experiences. We laughed together, knowing that unmentioned tears were shed in the past and more would flow in the future. Those unmentioned, implicitly acknowledged, tears nuzzled against our mirth adding a salt to our tales of family, friends, cities and countries loved and left.

These women, these couples, have known each other for decades but they welcomed me into their world and I  was fed, respected and accepted for who I am. Every woman present that day is a grandmother; magic happens when grandmothers break bread together. Superficial barriers melt, lives are celebrated and we are blessed by mutual respect and compassion. On that day we did what grandmothers do best: we cast a strong thread around our circle, a thread coloured by our places of birth, our religions, our lives, our triumphs and our losses.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The lesson I had that day is one I will never forget.

 

On a (Not Writing) Retreat: Somewhere in Perth Part 4

In the first post of this series I wrote, ‘Part of my plan is to “report”, via Elixir, my progress… to… share what challenged me… how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track…’. I can, this week, share that I’ve haven’t achieved what I set out to do. I have, however, started another utterly unexpected quest. My writing dried up, but I unwittingly began a deeply personal, psychological and spiritual investigation.

‘Retreats’ writes Jules Evans in his recent blog,

are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Alone in the silence, bereft of ideas for my novel, let alone the motivation or inclination to work on it, I devoted myself to writing my Daily Pages. As a result I fell, like an aged and jaded Alice, into a rabbit hole of profound introspection, personal assessment, and discovery.

pexels-photo-268092Evans is right; the time, space and silence integral to a retreat invariably confront participants with the imperfect, often monstrous and usually querulous inner self…the being we hide not only from others but from ourselves. Such a confrontation is no task for the faint hearted.

I won’t go in to the grisly details of my ‘adventure’. I will say I’ve been, at times, angry, anxious, and acutely aware a change in attitude…in my attitude and my perspective… is needed.

Here’s some of what I learned in the last week:

  • The support, in the form of phone calls, text messages and emails, from several women in my life has been astonishing. While none were aware of what I was dealing with, they all contacted me at the exactly right time. I am grateful for their sensitive, generous and compassionate spirits. They each, in their own way, helped me get through the difficult days,
  • Over the last few months I’ve tried to build a regular meditation regime. During my stay in Perth I’ve explored and practiced familiar and new meditation techniques. I read a book and several articles about self-compassion and started reading a book about women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, and my hopes and dreams concerning my writing.

During the difficult times I consoled myself by:

  • Listening to women jazz vocalists and exploring classical music (something I neglected in my youth). It’s a marvelous way to soothe and uplift the troubled ‘retreater’,
  • Getting out of the house even to just go shopping. My trip to Perth’s Art Gallery was an enormous boost to my troubled spirit,
  • Writing my ‘Daily Pages’ helped me explore my experience and gave me the means to express it coherently. I returned to journaling, after a long break, late last year and I approach it differently to when I was a young woman. I start each day’s journal entry with ‘what made me happy today?’. This supplies a much-needed perspective, while reading back over happy or pleasurable moments keeps me balanced,
  • Planning and writing blog posts helped me stay mindful and grounded and,
  • Reading the biography of Mary Shelley, and a novel, helped me appreciate different perspectives and allowed me to stop focusing on my problems.

I’ve always wanted to go on a ‘proper’ retreat, one run by an experienced meditation practitioner. Part of me, however, has been afraid of what I might learn about myself. Because the intended focus of this retreat, working on my novel, didn’t work out as planned, my time alone has morphed into a rich, confronting and rewarding discovery of the ‘inner woman’ who dwells in the very heart of my writing.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you ever started one task only for it to become something completely different? What prompted the change and how did it feel?

Have you been on a retreat? Do you agree or disagree with Jules Evans’ comment and why?

Writing on Writing? Somewhere in Perth, Part 3

In response to last week’s post, a friend made the very reasonable suggestion that readers may be more interested in my retreat than my reaction to Miranda Seymour’s biography of Mary Shelley.

While I agree,  work on my novel has stalled due to recurring anxiety and another problem I’d rather not have to deal with. While I can handle both, they have interrupted my work. In the meantime I’ve diligently maintained my version of a writer’s most important tool: the ‘Daily Pages’, or my version of it.

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

In 1992, Julia Cameron published a book recommending artists practice various techniques and exercises to help them become more self-confident and access their creativity. Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’ are ‘stream of consciousness’  reflections written in longhand, on any topic that may help an artist

 

 clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the [working] day at hand.

Cameron was not the first to recommend this practice (nor did she claim to be). Writers in particular use various methods to ‘kick start’ their writing sessions; open any book on writing and you will invariably find a section on keeping a ‘writer’s notebook’, ‘writer’s journal,’ or similar. My own journey as a writer was encouraged when reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters when I was still a teenager. Maybe that’s why I find writing about writing easier than writing a novel?

There is no one way to keep a writing diary, morning pages or daily pages; my problem, born of writing a personal journal for over thirty years, is my daily pages often lack any reference to my novel, how I structure it, develop my characters or explore my themes. I tend to focus on my private life when I’d be better served planning and shaping my work, and thinking about what I am doing and why. This is important during the writing process, and more so at the editing stage.

What I needed was ‘technical’ prompts to help me think about my novel and how it might develop. Earlier this week, while struggling to work on my novel, I created the following list of prompts to help stimulate my process:

Record of Current Writing Project: ideas, influences, inspirations, mythological themes or structures to explore; prompts used; proposed and modified schedule; which stage I’m in (in terms of pre-writing, planning, drafting, crafting, structural and micro editing); work to do on genre, plot, conflict, character, setting, theme, dialogue, symbols, sharing/seeking feedback; time frame (drafting, editing, ready to read, ready to go); feedback from readers…

I now have a focus for writing about my writing. For example, the theme I want to explore is that of the lost or wandering child: what or who does she encounter that helps or hinders her journey and how am I expressing that? Where am I in terms of my time frame and do I need to return to the planning stage before I can continue?

woman wearing beaded white necklace
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

I hope these prompts will ensure my daily pages won’t just be a rant about my current problems but a way to think about and re-engage with the work I’m here to do.

 

Your comments: I’d love to hear from other writers on how you reflect on your work in progress. Do you keep a writer’s journal? If so, why? If not, why not?

The Rights of Women: Somewhere in Perth Part 2

The first week of my retreat did not go as well as I planned or imagined. This is understandable. Very little in life meets our expectations; one of life’s crucial skills is learning to adapt and be content with what we can achieve. In my case I managed over 4,000 words, not bad considering I failed to stick to a writing routine. Perhaps I am not a writer who can follow a routine? Then again, if I stick to my routine in the coming week I may achieve more in terms of word count. The point is, I have been writing. My novel boasts more words today than this time last week, though their quality will be tested during the first edit.

I have also been surprised to learn that my imposed solitude has not been as pleasant as I hoped. My accommodation is excellent, I am eating well, I have access to the internet and a mobile phone but I never sleep well when alone and this week has been a challenge for me. I am positive this will settle down, but in the short term those 4,000 plus words might be the result of a tired and occasionally overwrought mind. I’ll let you know how I have coped with this challenge next week.

The real pleasure of this first week comes from reading Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley. It’s been on my shelf for years and I am glad I had the sense to bring it with me.

Mary Shelley, nee Godwin, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, a political philosopher. Godwin_Wolstonecraft

Best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley started writing the book when she was only eighteen, barely two years after she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in July 1814. Percy Shelley, mercurial and impulsive, declared his love to the sixteen year old Mary, a love she ardently requited, despite his marriage at nineteen to the then sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Harriet had one child, a daughter, and was pregnant with her second child when Percy ran off to France with Mary and her sister Jane (also known as Claire Clairmont).

When Harriet committed suicide in 1816, Mary and Percy were free to marry, albeit reluctantly. Early in their relationship Percy Shelley hoped to create a commune ‘in which sexual freedom could be practiced,’ and, like Mary’s parents, they were both religious skeptics.

Mary and Percy were together for only eight years. From the begining the relationship was severely tested, particularly prior to Percy’s death in Italy in July 1822. The couple were always short of money. Percy Shelley’s aristocratic father refused to support him and they had to move constantly to avoid their debtors. Mary gave birth to four children, three of them lost in early infancy, but despite this Mary wrote and published one novel, started another, made ‘fair copies’ of Percy’s poems, taught herself Italian and Greek, entertained her husband’s many literary friends and endured the tantrums of her intemperate sister Claire.

A well-educated, erudite woman, Mary was stoic despite, like her mother, suffering from periods of depression. It was not being Mrs Shelley, however, that gave Mary cause for grief, it was her husband’s continual philandering. It is almost certain Percy and his sister-in-law Claire had a passionate love affair, which possibly produced a child. There were several other ill-conceived passions on the part of the poet, mostly with younger women, women he expected Mary to welcome into her house as friends.

Seymour’s detailed biography is scrupulously even-handed. Where facts about, for example, Percy’s love affairs or Claire’s antics (incuding a brief affair with Lord Byron, another famous poet and pursuer of women) are not known or lost, Seymour suggests plausible scenarios. This allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions about events and Mary’s attitude towards them. Seymour is also searingly honest about Mary’s depression and occassional bad temper while at pains to demonstrate Mary’s extraordinary intelligence, warm humour and her love of learning and the theatre.

As a result of reading Seymour’s biography I decided to adopt Mary Shelley as the patron of my small retreat. Her resilience, love of literature and witty, intelligent conversation, plus her moments of dissatisfaction and despair at the thoughtless, lascivious behavior of her husband, are admirable. I do not see her as a victim, despite the fact that well after his death she championed a man who did not deserve her. Mary Shelley raised her son alone and supported her aging father with her writing. While in later life she may not have been accorded the respect she earned with Frankenstein, she never gave up doing what she loved.Mary_Sh

And neither will I

Retreat to Advance: Somewhere in Perth Part 1

I flew to Perth, Western Australia, late last week for a writing retreat and to house sit for one of my sons and his wife while they are overseas.

It’s an interesting combination. To retreat is to pull back or move away for privacy, as well as to withdraw after a defeat. House sitting involves accommodating oneself to different household appliances, neighbourhoods, shopping centres and traffic conditions. Together they imply  domestic, personal and social restructuring, albeit temporary.

I chose to combine the two because a novel I’m working on has stalled. I also need to step away from my ‘normal’ life, to reflect on my feelings and thoughts about many complicated but essential aspects of my world.

On arrival in Perth I immersed myself in the pleasure of catching up with my loved ones and helping them with preparations for their trip. Then came the reality of an unfamiliar, suddenly quiet and seemingly empty space.White_room

Except it’s not empty. I’m here, and although I’ve not started writing I have planned my ‘program’, organised a writing space and learned to understand the suspirations and limina unique to this house.

Part of my plan is to ‘report’, via Elixir, my progress. Every Sunday I will share what challenged me; what I achieved; how I achieved it; how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track and what I did when I took time off.

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Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Writing is a solitary activity; retreating from the demoralising interruptions of daily life, combined with facing down the inner (and outer) demons that sabotage a writing practice, needs time and a comfortable living space. Thankfully I have both, and find the prospect and challenge of the coming weeks daunting and beguiling.

Footnote: I contacted my Facebook Writing Group for tips, hints and ideas for getting through a solitary writing retreat and received some amazing support. If you have any tips about writing while in retreat, I’d be delighted and grateful if you could share them with me and my readers. Thank you.

An Unexpected Lesson

Window_mugEarlier this week I unexpectedly spent an hour or so reviewing Elixir. In addition to searching for examples of my Flash Fiction to determine which of my ‘story shards’ I am unable to send to competitions (because many publications consider posting a piece on one’s personal blog  is ‘publication’), I found myself reading through random posts.

I think I’ve broken most of the rules of blogging. Elixir began with a specific focus but I deviated, after the first year, from sharing my research in Therapeutic Writing to writing posts on a range of issues including holidays, local weather events, my creative process and examples of my work. I don’t post regularly and I’m not good at looking after my readers (aka, I don’t often reply immediately to comments) and I regret to say I find connecting with other bloggers and nurturing my blogging network a challenge, mostly because of time constraints.

So my unplanned review taught me several things:

  1. Blogging is hard work, much harder than I imagined,
  2. Elixir has, at times, languished,
  3. I’ve announced, at least once, that I am going to quit blogging,
  4. I have created posts that are clear, evocative, logical and well written,
  5. It’s impossible to write a post that interests, inspires or engages everyone,
  6. Most posts have been important to me as an individual and as a writer.

In other words, quality is more important to me than quantity, which is why blogging has taught me a lot about being a writer.

I have decided starting Elixir was one of my better ideas and so I will continue to write unscheduled posts about the things that interest, excite, intrigue or annoy me. And I will be more relaxed about what I write, though not how. I’m looking forward to discovering what else Elixir has to offer me and my readers (bless you all).

Have you looked back over your previous blog posts? If so, what did you learn about yourself and your writing? If you have considered giving up, what prompted this thought? Why did you decide to continue blogging?Yeah

Footnote: Thanks to my friend Cate who pointed out today how much I enjoy communicating and connecting with friends through this blog and other social media, and who, therefore, inspired this post.

A Certain Pride?

She thinks it’s here again. The signs are familiar: sleeping well but waking up exhausted; not eating properly; not exercising; refusing social invitations. She promises herself she’ll resume a regular working routine, but sits at her computer for hours, playing Solitaire or reading blogs about  … depression.

She can’t remember the first time she thought, ‘I am depressed,’ but she remembers the first time she knew she’d beaten depression. She was eating dinner with friends, women friends, and she laughed at something one of them said and was surprised by the feel of laughter deep in her stomach where the depression once lodged.

This is a lie, of course. She had postnatal depression once, but she never counts that because, well …  hormones, the middle of winter, one small child and a baby that cried a lot, a cold house, her mother visiting, not to help but to sit at the kitchen table and reassure her, ‘everything will be fine as soon as you establish a routine,’ before demanding coffee, cake and attention.

People always want her attention.

She gives them what they need.

So, this new incarnation: depression number four. Or maybe five. Six? Why bother counting. It’s best to deal with it (she has learned not to say ‘cure’). She’s had counselling. Three times? Four? CBT the third time, mindfulness-based the last time. That helped. And for postnatal depression, hypnotism, which worked well. For a time.

She refuses to take drugs. Both she and her mother appear genetically compromised by antidepressants. They aggravate the malady, in her case to the point of paranoia. The doctors tell her to give it time, let the drugs work, but she throws them away. She knows people who have been on antidepressants almost their entire adult life.  She does not condemn, simply knows drugs are her highway to mental incapacity.

Maybe she’s learned to be a functioning depressive the way addicts function on a diet of alcohol, a load of cannabis or a needle full of heroin?

Maybe depression is her drug of choice?

She’ll stick to meditation, mindfulness, start exercising again, eating properly, call a friend and share lunch with them.

Or not. She learned to be quiet and read while her mother wept in the bedroom. She learned to disappear into her head when her mother raged at her, told her she was a naughty, ungrateful, undeserving, selfish monster.

But she could never completely vanish.

She takes a certain pride in surviving bouts of  depression. She thought of suicide once, when she lived close to the railway and decided to take a blanket, lie across the rails and sleep, let the 5:00 am from the coast finish her off, but she knew she’d hear the rumble of the coming train, change her mind, struggle with the blanket and the stones between the rails, scramble up in an undignified pyjama-clad effort to live and the train wouldn’t stop. She gave the idea away.

If depression is a function of the mind (or is it the brain?), then she uses her mind/brain to solve her problem. She knows the systemic causes of her depression: being a woman in a patriarchal society; the insidious backward bend of world politics to Fascism; the lack of gainful employment.

And knowing she is never good enough or clever as, witty as, compassionate as and as careful as everyone she knows, and thousands more people she will never know.

She decides to research the Four Temperaments (she once dabbled in Astrology – an ancient gesture towards counselling) and believes she can, occasionally, be Sanguine or confidently optimistic and cheerful. She’s more often moved to anger, so she’s probably Choleric and certainly Phlegmatic; she is rarely composed and willingly displays and shares her emotions.  Maybe, she thinks, expressing emotions and Melancholia go together? Is that why some friends, family, and colleagues prefer she not ‘wear her heart on her sleeve’.

But why have a heart if you cannot display it?

Like everything, Astrology failed to provide an answer her mind could accept.  Astrology is the art of variables. She loved its subtleties, how it drew her down wondrous paths to glorious revelation or dry dead ends. But Astrology couldn’t answer all her questions.

Like an aesthete revisiting her favourite cathedral or a beloved painting, she decides to embrace Melancholia. To hold the child she was, she is, in loving regard, to soothe and indulge, to wipe away and store each tear in her cask of wisdom.

She knows it’s here again: depression. She  must welcome it, absorb its lessons, let it fold her in a mutual embrace.

Today’s Footnote: ‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’ Charles Baudelaire


Please note: The above is a work of fiction and this blog in no way argues against the taking of prescribed antidepressants. If you suffer from depression, seek help from your doctor, counselor or local Lifeline or Mental Health Agency.

Footnote to Self-Compassion

Experts suggest there are six emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Buddhists believe the best response to another’s sadness, fear and even anger is compassion, the ability to understand another person’s suffering and to ease their distress. For Laura D’Olimpio, empathy,

feeling the feelings of another or imaginatively reconstructing the feelings of another

and sympathy, the ability to identify

with the other based on feelings of common humanity,

are both components of compassion, but they can also be problematic. Empathy risks triggering self-misery, while sympathy assumes it is possible to experience the feelings of another. Neither guarantee mercy nor aid. It is too easy to stand by and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I know what you’re going through,’ or ‘poor you, my condolences.’ girl phoneReal change, the kind of change that reduces human distress, takes effort. A compassionate individual refuses to stand by, wring their hands and offer meaningless platitudes. Compassion is ‘fellow feeling’, understanding the misery, fear or anger of a fellow human. It calls us to end or relieve suffering. More importantly,

everyone has the capacity to be compassionate: to treat others as you would wish to be treated. To be kind and tender, generous and forgiving, hospitable, helpful and attentive, curious, listening and present, empathic and connected, respectful, understanding and acknowledging. It takes courage, self-reflection and self-compassion.

https://charterforcompassion.org/images/menus/Healthcare/PDFs/CompassionforCare.pdf

For Dr Kristin Neff, compassion is

feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Why, then, was self-compassion mentioned in the definition from The Charter for Compassion? Self-compassion, according to Neff, is

acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

So, while compassion requires change on a communal, collective and global level, self-compassion implies a willingness to change on a personal level.

One way we can be more compassionate towards our self, is to learn how to regulate the six emotions listed above, a process of checking in on and altering (not repressing or denying), one’s feelings, thoughts, actions, words and even physiological responses. Emotional regulation also allows us to interact and communicate with the rest of society in a healthy, peaceful and meaningful way.

Emotion regulation (ER) is regarded as a crucial factor in well-being, in the popular literature, clinical psychological practice, and scientific research alike.

Nyklícek, Ivan, Ad Vingerhoets, and Marcel Zeelenberg. Emotion Regulation and Well-Being. New York, Springer, 2011, p. 2.

Neither emotional regulation nor self-compassion can stop us from feeling sad, angry or fearful. Emotional regulation will (particularly if combined with mindfulness), help us to recognise, understand and accept difficult situations and deal with them rationally.

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Photo:B Mewett

Self-compassion combined with emotional regulation soothes and comforts the inner self. It can help us find appropriate and loving support from those around us, but in our worst moments, when we feel utterly abandoned, self-compassion, self-care and mindful awareness is a powerful, healthy and humane response. Why? Kristen Neff believes compassion for others begins with self-compassion. Humanity is not ‘us and them’, it is just us’. If we fail to care compassionately for ourselves, how can we begin to care for others?

Today’s Footnote: Do you yell at the television because you’re irritated by the politician being interviewed? Do you turn away from your partner and refuse to speak to them for a week when they question your decisions? Do you slam the door to put a full stop to your arguments? Do you hang out the car window and hurl thunderbolts of rage at the driver of the car in front of you?  If so, maybe a hearty meal of emotional regulation served with a side of compassion and topped by the sweet sauce of self-compassion will give you the perspective you need.