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Pro-Voices: Self-Compassion

Lisa Carlson

Growing up, my parents spent a lot of time talking to me about compassion. This was because compassion was not necessarily something that came naturally to me. I was a kindergarten tyrant who was ruthlessly ambitious, which mostly meant I was obsessed with bossing people around and becoming a marine biologist.

To this merciless little kid, compassion looked like weakness.

My mom had her work cut out for her. Luckily, she was up to the task.

My mom taught me compassion largely through example. She always met me where I was. Instead of telling me to calm down, she would help me strategize.

When I told her I was going to run for student body president at a brand new school where I didn’t know anyone, she did not tell me why it was a bad idea. She just got on board and started making me posters.

And when I lost, she was there in the parking lot waiting to pick me up, so I didn’t have to take the bus. It’s almost as though she knew I was going to lose.

This happened a million different times with a million different failures. Slowly, I started to learn what compassion was.

Compassion is not making excuses for failure, or denying the consequences of a result. Instead, it is knowing that you matter more than any given result. That you would be okay no matter what the result was, because you as a person still mattered.

As soon as I understood this, I actually started winning more. Life was great for a really long time. But, as you can probably guess, something goes wrong in this story. After all, I’m not a marine biologist.

When I was in my junior year of high school, at the peak of try-hard and pushing my ambition as hard as I could, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She died a year later.

There is no real point in explaining grief. In many ways, it is one of those rare human universals, but it is also extremely personal.

For me, grief looked a lot like failure. Not exciting, dramatic failure either—just a steady flow of small disappointments, like losing my patience with people I loved or losing my car keys.

I leaned hard on my ambition, not taking into account that I had lost my main source of compassion. My mom had been omnipresent, the whole world to me, and her love had been all enveloping. I had never needed to give myself love before. She could be the compassion, and I could be the drill sergeant, like a good cop/bad cop routine.

But now I was left with only the bad cop, and things were not going well. I quickly realized that if I didn’t do something, I was going to burn out and fall apart fast.

The first step I made towards compassion was going to Notre Dame. Land-locked Indiana did not make much sense for a budding marine biologist, but I knew I needed to go to a place that took community extremely seriously. Notre Dame would remind me to be good first and smart second.

There, I started to realize just how much I was missing the gentle understanding and love that used to be so central to my life. I had a mentor ask me how I would treat a stranger mourning beside a grave. Would I reprimand the stranger for being there after all these years? For crying? For missing work or being late with an assignment? For the first time, I wondered why it was so hard to treat myself as well as I’d treat a stranger.

Eventually, those messages got through, and I found a way to make the drill sergeant shut up so my more maternal instincts could speak. I realized that I had lost interest in the race I had been running for so long.

For two glorious years, I let myself do whatever I wanted with no thought of where it would lead. I went to Rwanda and studied microloans; I went to London to try out advertising; and I went to the San Juan Islands to try out cooking. This all lead to a brief, frenzied stint in television. Then, finally, it led me to Prosek—where maybe I “should” have been all along. Maybe following the should’s would have gotten me here faster, but I loved my time exploring.

I think a lot of times we think of self-compassion or self-care as an indulgence. It feels gluttonous or lazy. But self-compassion is not the opposite of ambition. Instead, it is what makes drive possible. Just like companies need a strong culture to succeed, we need compassion to dare greatly.

I would ask you the same question I was asked all those years ago: if you were talking to a stranger, would you treat them as poorly as you sometimes treat yourself? 

Treat yourself like a stranger. Or, better yet, treat yourself like a friend.

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