A client expressed relief about the coming New Year and the fresh chapter that it brings, seeing it as a promise of new beginnings and better things to come.
At the same time, she resists the idea of reflecting on the past year and the mistakes and struggles endured. In this moment, I ask her to take a breath and congratulate herself on all she has accomplished, both through the joy and the suffering. She sighs with ease and remembers the work we have done to cultivate self-compassion as a core value.
This conversation is representative of an important value I hold for myself, as well as for my clients: the practice of loving-kindness. You may be familiar with this idea; it has, along with mindfulness, traveled west from its Eastern roots to work its way firmly into our therapeutic approach to healing and developing a positive sense of self.
Loving-kindness is the intention of embracing yourself and others with a nonjudgmental, compassionate, and kind approach. The practice begins with ourselves to build a strong foundation of internal confidence and compassion, and then we can extend loving-kindness to others. As the flight attendants say before take-off, “In the case of an emergency, when your oxygen mask drops, place it over your own nose and mouth before attempting to assist others.”
The research we’ve done in our center and that done by others continues to prove that the most powerful tool for healing is connection and compassion. Through the practice of loving-kindness we can intentionally cultivate this sense of connection. Research has shown that if you practice loving-kindness on a weekly basis it can increase a positive sense of connection to others and the world around you.
To cultivate a practice of loving-kindness, you find four or five phrases that you can comfortably relate to. The phrases consist of “May I be _______.” Here are four common phrases:
Complete the phrase with anything you want more of in your life. Then sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and repeat each phrase to yourself, either silently or out loud. I prefer to say each phrase split between the in-breath and out-breathe. As I breathe in, I say, “May I,” and as I breathe out, “be happy.” After I finish the phrases for myself, I replace “I” with anyone I would like to extend loving-kindness to—family, friends, those I’m in conflict with, or the world at large. I go through each phrase for as long as it feels comfortable for me that day. At first, it may feel foreign and forced, but give it time and soon enough this will start to feel more genuine, and a sense of connection will build.
Happy New Year, and may you all feel a sense of ease, peace, and happiness.
Lara Schuster Effland, LCSW, is the Vice President of the Mood and Anxiety Program and Residential Services at Insight Behavioral Health Centers of Chicago. Ms. Effland clinically specializes and trains others in dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness-based therapies, exposure and response prevention, and trauma treatment.