Three months ago my life changed forever when I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. The experience has already begun to teach me many things about myself, my partner, my family and friends, and even the world. One of the many things inspiring reflection came when I started to introduce our daughter to her younger cousins and family friends. Whenever our baby was in the presence of these small children, I found myself constantly reminding the children to “be gentle." All other adults in the room did the same. We even used a gentle coaching tone when we echoed the words. Of course, we did this because newborns are delicate and young children are often unintentionally clumsy and unaware of the impact their actions may have.
Naturally curious, the children wanted to touch our baby’s perfect little feet, her head, her tummy, and her little hands. With each sweet touch, we would repeat to the little ones “be gentle." And, they were. This sentiment got me thinking…why do we stop reminding ourselves and others to “be gentle?" Sure, newborns are a special kind of fragile, but aren’t all humans of all ages in some ways fragile or delicate? Even the toughest person has a tender side. After all, isn’t everyone fighting a battle we know nothing about?
The definition of gentle is synonymous with terms like tender, quiet, kind, soft, or light. As I reflected on these terms, my mind wandered to the notion of compassion as a form of “be gentle." The notion of compassion is a construct derived from Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology distinguishes between compassion for others and self-compassion. It denotes the idea of “self-compassion” as self-kindness and the ability to recognize the difference between making a bad decision and being a bad person. Research even confirms that there is a positive correlation between self-compassion and mental health, as well as, compassion for others as improving one’s mental health (Barnard & Curry, 2011; Neff & Germer, 2017). Yet, somewhere along the tracks of our fast-paced lives, along with the curves of our frustrations, mistakes, and stressors - many of us forget to have self-compassion and compassion for others. Much like the little kids handling a newborn, we become clumsy and unaware. We forget to “be gentle” to ourselves and those around us.
As a family therapist, I witness this first hand all the time. Parents and family members who are under what could be considered the most intense stress of their lives (often feeling hopeless, afraid, and/or defeated) have a difficult time accessing compassion for themselves and each other. It becomes difficult if not seemingly impossible to “be gentle." Imagine if we could all find it in ourselves to be gentler, particularly when we need it the most, when we are most fragile or delicate – i.e. angry, tired, afraid. Like the art of compassion, it takes practice. Like the little kids who are handling a newborn, it may take constant reminding.
I love the idea of applying the practice of being gentle to all interactions, not just with newborns. In fact, I am going to start practicing today, as I navigate my new role as a working mom, I will try to be gentle with those around me…especially myself.
References Barnard, L. & Curry, J.F. (2011). Self-Compassion: Conceptualizations, Correlations, & Interventions. Review of General Psychology, 289-303. Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J. Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap.27. Oxford University Press.