Today starts our mini-unit on self-compassion in the mindfulness class I’m teaching. It’s a hard unit, even as a teacher, because so much of our culture says we need to be hard on ourselves–and probably much harder than we already are. It’s almost painful to be self-compassionate, and it’s about as awkward to talk about it to kids.
And on top of that, I’m still feeling sick. I got to bed a few hours earlier than usual last night, and I woke up feeling so much better–but my throat is so dry it’s raw, and I can barely open my mouth to talk without feeling the pain of it. I was talking to myself last night, and I know when I’m feeling sick I have the least amount of willpower, so all my normal challenges look like massive mountains right now.
So it’s the perfect time to talk about self-compassion.
About a week ago, I happened to get off work just early enough to see a local bakery’s open sign still on. They usually close shortly before five, and I usually pass through the area around 5:15, so it’s a special treat when I get there and they’re open.
Off in the corner of the room, they have a bin of big gallon-sized zip bags full of day-old baked goods, and day old or not, they’re delicious. And inexpensive. And they had a sign that said “Today only, buy 2 and get 1 free”–but it said it all in Spanish, and I was able to fully comprehend and understand it, so man, I felt good. I was gonna get all three.
Then I went to check-out, and the cashier and I got to talking about my work and how her son applied to the school I work at and she’s hoping he gets accepted, and then she says, “Why don’t you grab another bag? We need to get rid of them.”
I felt a rush of social pressure–wouldn’t it be rude to refuse?–and a flash of gluttony–one more bag of conchas and other delicious desserts? yes, please!–so I grabbed another bag.
Walking the rest of the way home, weighed down by four bags of baked goods, I realized I had set myself up for the greatest willpower failure I could foresee: I’m trying to workout more and eat healthier, and here I am with four big bags of desserts.
Suddenly a spark fired inside my brain and I knew the surest way out of this mess I’d made: I could pick one bag to keep at home and I could bring the others to school the next day, place them in the office, and tell all the teachers I had brought in some snacks to celebrate the end of our second week back in school. Yeah, maybe in some cruel and twisted way I’d be passing on my willpower failure to others, but even if everyone just took half a piece of one thing, it all would’ve been eaten the next day.
Then I got home.
And I sat on the couch.
And I opened the bag.
I smelled the fragrant aroma of sweet and succulent bread, of sprinkles and crystalline sugar sparkling under my nose, so close and decadent, so eager to be eaten.
And I ate it.
That first bite was delicious, and the second was just as good, and soon I’d lost count, and the first concha was a pile of crumbs spread between my lap and the floor, and that person-shaped sugar cookie was gobbled up next, and then, ooh, another concha! Bite after bite, bit of bread by bit of bread, I ate and I ate and I ate and I ate.
And then I reached in the bag for one more bite, but the bag was empty.
So I grabbed the second bag and ate that one, too.
Now there were only two bags left, and sure, I could bring three bags to share with the other teachers, but two bags wouldn’t be nearly enough to let everyone get something, so I scrapped that idea, and over the next two days, I ate all the rest of the desserts I had.
Man, it tasted so good, but I felt so bad afterward. I felt ashamed for giving in (and then giving in again). I even felt bad for not sharing with the other teachers when I had decided I would–even though none of the other teachers ever knew I’d had the idea!
I was angry at myself for failing. I was frustrated that I had allowed myself to grab that fourth bag, annoyed that I had decided to stop at the bakery in the first place.
Not to mention, after all that sugar and savory, stale-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside desserts, my stomach was a bit upset, and I totally skipped the healthy leftovers I’d set aside for dinner from the night before. :(
However, despite that willpower failure, I know I’m not alone. I know hundreds, if not thousands, of people face the same struggles each day, and while many succeed, many also succumb to temptation. Even reading my students’ responses after class today, I saw a couple students describe stories similar to mine.
So what would I tell them? I’d say it sucks that it happened, but today is a new day and we can try again. We can remember that experience–how it felt both physically and emotionally–as a reminder for why we don’t want to do it again. And it’s important to recognize that movement isn’t always one directional; sometimes we’ll take a few steps backward, but that doesn’t mean we can no longer move forward.
Bringing this message around to myself is at the heart of self-compassion. Rather than berating myself for my failures, I can forgive myself and try again.
After all, if it’s good enough for a friend, it’s good enough for me.