One of my favorite parenting quotes comes from Brene Brown, my social work/writing/Mama hero: “We can’t give our children what we don’t have.”
I find her words to be liberating, inspiring, and, at times, totally obnoxious—not unlike so many of life’s great truths. Liberating because they remind me that it is just not possible for me to teach my children everything, and it’s OK and even necessary for me to reach out to others for help. Inspiring because they motivate me to make the changes in my own life that I hope to share with my girls. And finally, obnoxious, because sometimes I just want to tell them what to do and have them magically do it. Sadly, that rarely happens unless I’ve already taught them how to do it.*
In my previous post, I wrote, “I hope my daughters will grow up with strong Jewish identities and the same love of Judaism that their father and I have. But even more than that, I hope they grow up understanding the power of compassion to change themselves and the world.”
Sounds awfully nice, doesn’t it? But each time I go back to Brene Brown’s words, I realize that it has to start with me. (I realize that I am not the only influence in my daughters’ lives, but seeing as how this is the Jewish Mother Project, not the Jewish Village Project, I’m OK with focusing almost entirely on my role in all of this.)
I would love to tell you that I am compassionate and kind all, or even much, of the time, but, well, I’m not. (Just ask either of my daughters what happens when Mama gets too hungry and you’ll get a sense of when I go off the rails more than a little bit.) And the truth is that until I started researching for this week’s post, I wasn’t entirely sure of the difference between kindness and compassion; in last week’s post, I used the words interchangeably.
Although the concepts are similar, they’re not exactly the same. Compassion is an internal experience, a recognition of another’s suffering along with a desire to help relieve that suffering. (The Hebrew word for compassion, rahamanut, originates from rehem, the Hebrew for womb. You can’t get much more motherly, or internal, than that.) Kindness, on the other hand, is an outward orientation, an action meant to help ourselves or another person.
If compassion is something we feel, kindness is something we do.
The Torah and mitzvot (commandments) offer us an endless list of ways to practice kindness towards others (giving tzedakah, welcoming the stranger, not shaming others, caring for the sick, etc.), and I will explore some of those in future posts. Right now, though, I want to start at the beginning: self-compassion. I have found, time and again, that I can’t give my daughters (or anyone else) kindness or compassion or any of it if I’m not giving it to myself first.
Fortunately, I can practice being nice to myself. I’m using the word “practice” intentionally here, in the same way one might talk about their child practicing soccer. It’s about getting on the field, learning one skill at a time, and not expecting myself to score the game-winning goal in the first quarter of my first game. I’m going to start small, by understanding exactly what self-compassion is, and how I can begin to make it a more intentional practice in my life.
Kristen Neff, a psychologist at the University of Austin, has identified three aspects of self-compassion. First, self-kindness. This is what most of us think about when we think of self-compassion; it’s about responding to our challenges and failures with kindness, warmth, and understanding.
Up next, a sense of our common humanity. This may be my favorite part of self-compassion, because it’s the part where we get to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering, no matter what it is. It is so easy, especially when we are having a hard time, to decide that we are the only ones who have ever yelled at our kids or failed at a diet or gotten yelled at by a supervisor. (Or, as an old Yiddish proverb reminds us, “One always thinks that others are happy.”) It seems like such a basic idea, but it’s a very powerful step towards pulling ourselves out of a funk.
Finally, mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to our own experience with kindness and curiosity. We’ve already covered the kindness bit, so let’s talk about the paying attention piece. We can’t respond to ourselves with compassion or remind ourselves of our common humanity if we don’t even realize we are suffering in the first place.
Here’s the way I think about self-compassion: it’s about treating myself the same way I would treat my best friend when she’s having a rough day. I wouldn’t tell her she sucks and encourage her to shove a tray of brownies down her face. Rather, I would make her a cup of tea, remind her that this parenting gig is hard for all of us and that it will get better, and remind her of yet another Yiddish proverb: “There is no such thing as a bad mother.” Then I’d offer to watch some crap TV with her. So maybe the next time I’m having a hard time, I can try to respond to myself the same way. Chances are, I’ll be a lot nicer to my daughters, too.
*For the record, my husband teaches our girls many, many things—most recently how to make a farting noise with their mouths without spitting everywhere—but for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about my own experience.