Words Don’t Come Easy -How to Help Yourself

How to Help Others Help You Too.
Image and Words by Michael Leunig

Today’s post has been inspired by some homework from my Health Psychologist, Anna.  She is a pretty savvy lady and I really got a lot out of the chapter she gave me to read.  It is called A Caring Hand and it is from Russ Harris’ book, The Reality Slap. Sometimes there is a gap between reality and what we think it should be.  Sound familiar?

Like the difference between the me I see in our holiday snapshots, and the saucy model I felt like I was!

Or the way you think other people should treat you and the way they do.

If you have a chronic illness, this reality gap is something you deal with every day.  Maybe even in relation to those closest to you.  It’s really hard for people to know what to do, how to be.  It’s really hard for people to sustain their compassion, it can be exhausting.  Even those closest to you sometimes need some respite from approaching things in a sensitive way.

Some of us are on our own for a lot of the day.  That’s just reality. And that is when we can really help ourselves, rather than looking to others to meet our emotional needs.

Before I carry on I want to explain the origins of the word compassion.  It derives from the latin.  Com meaning together and pati meaning suffering.  Suffering together.  But how can that apply when you on your own?  I am discovering that you can be your own best friend.

Bad things happen to everyone. And when they do, we naturally hope for kindness from those around us. When something painful happens to you, like a difficult diagnosis, a death in the family, a marriage break up,  a miscarriage or a catastrophic loss of property… there are so many things that might constitute a reality slap… it is natural to seek comfort. It’s instinctive to seek support. Do you remember the peace that comes with a warm and sensitive response from someone close to you?  Maybe it was one of these responses?


These responses all communicate how much a person cares about you and your situation.

And then, there are the other responses. The ones that fall through the gap.  They are common responses in society because we have failed as a community to teach each other that they are not useful.  People don’t know. I think it is really important to remember that these responses often come from a place of good intentions, even if they are not sensitive:


Proverbs and quotes are tricky territory. These may in essence have truth for the human condition, it’s probably why they have become popular.  But they can be invalidating and unhelpful.  They ignore the pain you are experiencing and can feel judgmental.  The hidden message of all of these types of platitudes is “Harden up, look on the bright side, it can’t be all bad”.  When some days, it just is all bad.  Here is what Harris says about that, “If they are the first thing you say to someone who has just been slapped by reality, you will come across as uncaring or offensive… as a general rule, a compassionate response must come before anything else. If someone leaps in with advice, proverbs, positive thinking or action plans without first demonstrating his or her compassion, we are likely to feel upset, annoyed, offended, hurt or irritated -often without quite realising why this is”.

Some of the responses in the second group can actually be really helpful and practical, if they are preceded by caring and empathy.

Mind the gap.  It’s easy to fall into it when someone responds to you from the unhelpful responses.  But we don’t often enough consider how we are responding to ourselves.  Helpfully, or unhelpfully?
Ask yourself:

Who is the one human being who can always be there for you in your life,
in any moment, no matter what happens?
Who understands you better than anyone else on the planet?
Who is the only one who knows how much you are suffering?

Harris suggests that because we are always available to ourselves, we can always do something to help ourselves, even when we think we can’t.  We can be our own first responders. Many of us do, already, practise excellent self-care. Many of us have learned by necessity to nurture ourselves through suffering. But sometimes, our self talk is more like the second list of responses. I know for myself, that I tell myself to harden up all the time, to push through, to stop being pathetic.  I can be more harsh with myself than anyone in my circle and I frequently am.  He suggests that the relationship we have with ourselves should be similar to one we would have with a best friend.  Imagine, if you always had that friend there to be kind to you when you are struggling?

Self compassion is two-fold.
There is being kind to yourself…

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amResting your own hand where you feel the most pain, as a hand of compassion, allowing yourself to relax and accept the warmth of your own kindness.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amNoticing when your mind is being harsh with you and gently telling yourself what your kind friend would tell you.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amAllowing yourself the time you need without judging yourself.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 8.00.12 amReminding yourself that you are deserving of compassion and it is okay to give it to yourself.

…and there is being present with your pain.

It might be your illness, your grief, your suffering.  Or all of these things.  Being present with your pain might be something you are horrified at the prospect of. Here, ‘being present’ is used by Harris in the context of mindfulness.  My homework chapter ended at this point, so next visit I will ask for more.  I am keenly interested in how mindfulness might help to diminish my negative feelings about this illness.  Do you think it might help you too?

For now, I am going to lay a warm hand on my own shoulder and say some kind things to myself for getting this post written.  It has been a tough morning, symptom-wise and I have a big afternoon ahead.  If your own hand of compassion is not enough, get online, join a support group.  Don’t give up.

I hope you can begin to be kinder to yourself today.  Mind the gap, don’t fall in.  It’s good to remember you can make a beautiful bridge to stretch over that canyon.

More soon, I’m seeing Anna again tomorrow.  Watch this space.

PS. Here is a song I heard on the radio just as I finished writing this post.  I always notice the songs that play, I’m sure there’s reasons for them.  This one I am singing for me.
Sometimes finding kind words for ourselves isn’t easy.

Words, don’t come easy, to me
How can I find a way, to make you see
I love you,
words don’t come easy.

And here is a link to Russ Harris’ book The Reality Slap





14 thoughts on “Words Don’t Come Easy -How to Help Yourself”

  1. Gosh you really have heard a lot of ordinary responses! I find I get a bit cross if I get brushed of, or handed a “this too shall pass” type comment. I try to remember not to expect much from that person again. It’s true we can’t control how other people react, but we can learn to be kinder to ourselves. I’m working on that in relation to being creative.

    1. Emily, these responses are from Russ Harris’ book The Reality Slap, they are not my own compilation. I have heard some doozies though! HOnestly, I think it can be really hard to know what to say. Before this, I used to really struggle with knowing how to talk to people who had just suffered a bereavement. Being older and going through it on both sides has helped me a bit, but I still struggle to get it right with other people sometimes. I guess we all just have to practise, with ourselves first and foremost and then with others, doing the best we can to keep compassion at the front. Thanks for reading Emily. Can’t wait to see your creations!

  2. I loved this post Rachel – so much helpful information. I hope you really enjoy learning more about mindfulness, it is a life affirming (and fro some life changing) technique.

    From a Buddhist perspective self-compassion is seen as being fundamentally important. It is like practicing the compassion you can then extend to others.

    If self compassion is a difficult notion to get your head around (it is for me!) the idea that you are exercising self compassion to ultimately help others can be really beneficial.

    Can’t wait to hear more from you on this.


    1. There was a whole exercise in the chapter about the compassionate hand. Laying a hand over where it hurts or ‘holding’ the hurt gently in your hands and going through some relaxation and acceptance exercises. Quite good and helpful, I thought, as a practical way to show yourself you care. Not everyone’s cuppa tea though!

  3. Thanks again Rachel.. another great piece! We do spend so much time alone and really that in itself provides opportunity to self-compassion.. Looking forward to the next instalment!

    1. xox right back at ya. Thanks for reading Annette, I hope you found some helpful responses today, from others but more especially from yourself. Arohanui X

  4. Add to the helpful list: this post. So often I don’t know what to say or where to start when trying to comfort someone who’s suffering. This is such a thoughtful and sensitive guide. Thank you.

    1. Oh, you are so welcome Naomi! Yes, it’s a difficult thing, I have to remind myself all the time about how I can be more helpful in the way I comfort myself and others!

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