A few years ago a new blog site asked if I would share my best advice for divorced and single moms. It was an easy ‘yes’ to pass on the best divorce advice I received:
Be gentle with yourself.
In fact, this is great advice no matter what challenges I’m facing. I fall back on this short sentence often, especially when I start criticizing myself for feeling overwhelmed, afraid, angry, resentful, or just plain exhausted.
Hearing “Be gentle with yourself” – just thinking it inside my head – is balm for my soul. I breathe deeper. My shoulders fall away from my ears. Warmth floods over my body like a burst of sunshine on a cloudy, cool day. I remember other helpful thoughts then, like “This, too, shall pass” and “How important is it?”
“Isn’t being gentle with yourself self-indulgent?” I’ve been asked. It’s so contrary to the messages most of us have learned since childhood. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “Big girls don’t cry.” “Get over yourself.”
The short answer is: No
Self-compassion is never wrong, and being gentle with yourself doesn’t mean being irresponsible or lazy or making excuses to let yourself off the hook for a mistake. It simply means acknowledging that a particular situation is hard or uncomfortable or challenging and allowing yourself to be human enough to feel whatever you feel about it. If, instead of beating ourselves up, we treat ourselves kindly, it’s likely we’ll find it easier to take the next steps toward handling whatever it is that needs to be done.
At least that’s been my experience so far.
The first time I heard “be gentle with yourself” was when I was struggling with the decision about whether to divorce. I was angry with myself for my lack of clarity, and I assumed my friends were sick of listening to me complain. I was sure I had some fundamental flaw that kept me from making a decision, and I knew that my indecision was keeping me stuck.
My friend Carroll gave me the words “be gentle with yourself” and shared her own – similar – experience with indecision around divorce. She said I’d know when the time was right, that trying to force a solution was part of my problem, and that I should relax and trust that things would become clear. After that lunch meeting I felt a sense of peace I’d hadn’t felt in years. And she was right. Things did become clear in time, and I did decide to divorce.
Since then I’ve passed on that advice to dozens of women, and most of their responses are similar to mine. I remember telling one woman with four young children to focus on her priorities and be gentle with herself about the rest (things like getting back to her pre-pregnancy weight and keeping the house clean). This advice was born out of my own experience of doing the opposite, much to my regret.
I saw this woman, Andrea, last week, and in the course of our conversation she mentioned how grateful she was for those words of advice. She’d taken them to heart and is cutting herself a lot of slack about not exercising like she thinks she should. Instead, when she’s not working (she’s the breadwinner for four children), she’s enjoying those kids. I felt grateful to have passed on what had been freely given to me.
A few days later, I had occasion to be even more grateful. I’d written an article about divorce that was published on a popular website. I was reading the comments, the majority of which were mean-spirited, judgmental, ugly or unkind. I could feel hurt, shame and defensiveness rising up, along with the desire to respond in kind.
What goes around comes around. That conversation with Andrea popped into my head, and I remembered to be gentle with myself. I’d written something that was true from my own experience, and there was nothing to defend or feel ashamed of. It was a good article, too. Those people hadn’t walked in my shoes, and they don’t know me. Their comments were a reflection of their beliefs and experiences, not a commentary on my worth. And so I could be gentle with myself as I shrugged off the comments, and I could be gentle with them as I let go of my urge to respond unkindly. As a result, I enjoyed the rest of my day and slept well that night.
I’m so glad that what came around was the best divorce advice I’ve received – from my friend Carroll to me, from me to Andrea, from Andrea back to me – and now from me to you. Life after divorce isn’t always easy for us moms. So be gentle with yourself. It will make things easier no matter what comes your way.