As I write this, I am feeling the loss of a treasured colleague and friend who lost her long struggle with cancer. She was fortunate in her life to have a right livelihood, be surrounded by loving people and have the companionship of a wonderful life partner. She was ever ready to focus on the needs of those around her and she brought much comfort and support to her clients, her friends and her family.
Her story reminds me of many people I have met in the healing arts. Like she, many healers are what might be called, life-long “helpers.” While on the surface, this way of being appears to be holistic and harmonious, it can have a terrible dark side. Many times, there is an intrinsic piece of the puzzle missing. That is, having compassion for the Self. For some people, compassion has become an energy that is only outwardly focused. Giving is offered to the point of depletion, disease and even death. While this may seem altruistic, it is actually a distortion or misperception about the nature of compassion.
My spirit teacher insists that for the fullness of compassion to be expressed, it must include the self. Like a glass filled beyond its capacity, giving to others from the place of fullness allows for a constant overflowing of love, healing and support. However, when one gives to others from a state of depletion, the actions create resentment and also physical, mental and emotional dis-ease.
A lack of self-compassion may stem from relational patterns that developed in early childhood. A situation may have existed that left the “helper” needing to find ways to relate to a weak, ill or dependent parent. Since children are wise enough to find creative ways to get their needs met, the child may have developed the pattern of caring for the parent in an effort to receive necessary food, shelter and attention. This creates the perception that the “helper’s” ultimate wellbeing and feelings of self worth depend upon endlessly serving others. This pattern can become so entrenched that the person expends their life in the external quest for self worth, love and peace.
Helping in this dysfunctional way is the antithesis of true caring as on an unconscious level, the “helper” is actually trying to get his or her own needs met. In a way, it is really being selfish not selfless. In addition, by not caring for the self, the “helper” wounds the hearts of those that care for him or her. These loved one witness the healer expending their last drop of energy chasing self-esteem and self-worth, as they continually aid others while their own health, wellbeing and relationships suffer.
Indeed, according to Kristin D. Neff, Ph.D. in her article, “The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion” published in the journal, Self and Identity, the degree to which individuals display self-compassion is what actually determines a person’s health and wellbeing. Self-compassionate individuals experience greater psychological health than those who lack self-compassion. For example, self-compassion is positively associated with life-satisfaction, wisdom, happiness, optimism, curiosity, learning goals, social connectedness, personal responsibility, and emotional resilience.
On the other hand, those that do not practice self-compassion are much more prone to severe self-criticism and more likely to experience depression, anxiety, rumination, positive thought and action suppression, perfectionism, and disordered self-care attitudes. People trapped in this cycle often ignore their own needs for good food, appropriate health caring, and nurturing relationship. They push loved ones and the nurturing aspects of life away in the vain hope that their constant helping of others will someday, somehow leave them feeling full and complete. The unending quest to help one more person or help out with one more project will never bring satisfaction. It is quite literally, in the case of my friend, a dead end.
In other words, one-sided compassion that is only externally focused, is unbalanced and incomplete. It does not hold the notion that all of life—including the self—is sacred and therefore deserving of caring.
If you have recognized yourself in these words, it is time to find a new way. Our planet is deeply into her process of balancing herself. For this to occur in a way that will also allow human beings to survive, we need to develop wholeness and balance in our own selves. Never before has the adage, “as within, so without” held such importance for our individual and collective futures. If we want to have a world that is peaceful, harmonious and vibrantly alive, we need to attend to our inner realm. In other words, if you really want to see that others are helped to heal and change, you must express the fullness of compassion for yourself first.
In finding a new, more self-compassionate way of being it is necessary to remember that the pattern that traps you was not developed in isolation. It was the result of a dysfunctional relationship. As a result, it is best resolved through a therapeutic relationship with those who have been trained to help people resolve unbeneficial patterns. Getting free from the old, dysfunctional way of being is not something that you can or should figure out yourself. Let go of the idea that you must do it on your own. That notion is also a part of the pattern that must be released!
People who have successfully broken this unbeneficial pattern have relied on the work of a trusted psychotherapist or have chosen to regularly engage in therapeutic practices such as our Shamanic Inner Body Healing process. Whichever therapeutic method you choose, it must include identifying and healing the unconscious root cause of the pattern. The therapist provides the necessary container of a safe, guiding relationship that gives the vulnerable inner self the courage to let the old way of being go. You must be willing to devote time to your healing. Since the pattern has been entrenched for a time it requires more than a quick fix to change it. Therapeutic support must be accessed on a weekly or biweekly basis to make real and steady progress. Remember, you are retraining your unconscious mind and changing the behaviors that originated from the misperceptions you held about yourself and the world.
Along with a therapeutic relationship, it is important to place yourself in a supportive community. Like-minded souls can help to reinforce the positive changes you are striving to make. Again, since the dysfunctional patterns were developed in relationship, it is important to have healthy people to reinforce your transformations. Just as importantly, make sure to steer clear of people who want to sap your energy, are dependent or who are actively engaged in addictive behaviors as these individuals will trigger your old desire to want to “fix them.” In essence, their draining energies will work to negate your forward movement.
Another critical component is to develop a strong, daily spiritual practice. This can be as simple as taking time to pray aloud or make entries in an intentional gratitude journal every day. Another spiritual practice for which I am personally indebted is the shamanic journey process. This method offers you access to transcendent spirit teachers who can provide unique support. Their soul-level perspective on our process can be incredibly helpful when we are in the midst of tackling a life-long, unbeneficial pattern. Journeying everyday can help us to stay on track and give the kind of support our inner children need to feel strong enough to follow through.
Rounding out the supports that are necessary to aid in transforming old patterns is time in nature. Nature offers a backdrop of both stability and constant change that helps us to understand on a deep, visceral level that we, as a part of nature, have the capacity to remake and renew ourselves. Just as seasons follow each other and rain or snow eventually give way to sun, we have the ability to rework the perceptions and behaviors we developed in our earlier life. Like the seeds slumbering under the snow, our Light is there, just under the surface waiting to be discovered and brought into the world.
The last element is the need to fully attend to the work. Don’t put it off another minute! Your life and the hearts of those who love you are held in the balance. Getting free of the illusionary burden you have carried for much of your life and realizing your own intrinsic preciousness is possible for you if you chose to follow through. That means not just ruminating about it (which is a part of the dysfunctional pattern) but rather actually taking the concrete, physical steps that are necessary to make the change. The shifts in consciousness and behavior to ones of healthy, self-compassion are essential, not only for you to be able to survive but to truly thrive.
In this time of seasonal darkness, it is appropriate to take steps into the Light. Make the appointment to interview a therapist, start your gratitude journal, let go of relationships that drain you and reach out to those people that are honestly supportive of you and your changes. You’ll know who they are as they aren’t emotionally standing there with their hands out but their arms and hearts spread open and ready to embrace you.
Are you ready to embody this new consciousness and live every moment of every day in the fullness of compassion for yourself and others? Make this transformation your holiday present to yourself and the gift you give those who love you. This auspicious turn of the calendar into 2012 couldn’t offer a better time!
© 2011 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. In joint practice with Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages, her web site is http://www.spiritpassages.com.