The Turkish word “arkadaş” means a friend, the rock behind your back, as well as someone you are willing to be there for through thick and thin. We may strive to be that kind of friend to others, but are we that kind of friend to ourselves? What happens to us when we are overwhelmed with emotions of loneliness, anger, pain and hurt? How do we care for ourselves when we feel guilty after an action we took or feel ashamed of who we are as a result of what we did? Do we have our own backs as well or are we only good friends to others?
Most of us are not familiar with the concept of being a good friend to yourself, so let me explain what that means.
Being your own best friend means non-judgmentally listening to yourself, validating your emotions and motivations for doing what you’ve done. It is about accepting both your truth and your inability to fully accept it.
Being there for yourself means recognizing how circumstances or events (even those occurring in your internal life) impact you while noticing how often you want to shut down and/ or run away when you start feeling so-called unpleasant emotions. It means recognizing and understanding your shortcomings while pushing yourself to change in ways that are healthier and more fulfilling. It means being an honest friend, with a willingness to listen to your own thoughts, emotions and physical sensations even when all you want to do is run away and never look back. It is also befriending your tendency toward avoiding and/ or eliminating the challenges of being human.
Being your own unconditional friend means telling yourself it is okay to rest when you are recovering from a cold and giving yourself permission to ask for help from others when you are dealing with something that is too difficult to handle on your own.
Many of us have been conditioned to avoid uncomfortable emotions, such as hurt, pain, anger, guilt, shame and sadness. We don’t know what to do with them. As a result, we keep abandoning ourselves through sex, drugs, alcohol, internet, sleep, food, constant unproductive busyness and so on. As a friend to yourself, you are willing to lean in to your own internal life instead of, with good intentions, avoiding it with ineffective (and only temporarily useful) strategies that, as Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron says, turn pain into suffering.
We easily accept that we must be there for a friend who is in pain yet it is okay that we don’t listen to the part of us that is in pain. Avoiding or running away from oneself tends to intensify and prolong depression and anxiety. This is why learning how to become good friends with yourself in order to stay with difficult thoughts, feelings and physical sensations is an important skill for overall wellbeing. In fact, learning to be a curious, compassionate, open-minded friend to yourself is one of the best ways to manage stress, depression and anxiety.
How to start being your own best friend
First of all, please know that many of us have never learned how to ‘stay’ with ourselves. Most of us never observe what happens to us during times of strong emotions. Usually we do not pay attention to how we shut down or want to avoid pain when we feel, for example, hurt or jealous, or when we experience a sense of worthlessness.
Therefore, the first step is to recognize that you are feeling something and be curious about your experience. Through the practice of RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Non-Identification) you can learn how to stay with yourself, get to know yourself and regulate your emotions, your physical sensations and improve the quality the relationship with yourself.
American Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach writes about RAIN in her book “True Refuge: Finding True Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.” She passionately shares that she loves teaching her clients how to use this tool, and guides them through the process in order to show them how to be with themselves without acting out or suppressing their emotions.
Here are the steps:
- Recognize what you are feeling inside. Notice, for example, “I am feeling sad/overwhelmed/upset/nervous.” If you are not able to name a specific emotion, asks yourself questions to help identify your emotions: “Is what I am feeling a pleasant or unpleasant emotion? Do I feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’?” Recognizing your emotions is an important step in the process of regulating them. Studies of the human brain have shown that people who can identify their emotions have an easier time calming themselves down.
- Allow (or accept) the experience to be just as it is. Allowing doesn’t mean that you like what you are experiencing. It only means that you are giving it permission to be there without trying to get rid of it or acting out on it.
- Investigate in a compassionate and curious way and from a distance (meaning without losing yourself in the experience). Try to get to know what you are feeling, thinking and experiencing in your body in the form of physical sensations. Asking non-judgmental questions is important because doing so keeps us from analyzing and intellectualizing our experience. To help you non-judgmentally investigate your internal experiences without further triggering them and to develop a more intimate relationship with your human experience, you may ask these questions:
- Where do I feel it in my body?
- Does it feel hot, cold or warm?
- Is it a moving sensation or solid?
- Where is it located in my body?
- Does it have a color?
- What does it want to tell me?
- Have I felt this way before?
- What does this sensation look like?
- Non-Identification means acknowledging that you are not your emotions. Picture yourself on a moving train watching outside from your window and recognizing what is taking place outside the train without losing yourself in what you see. In this way, you are distanced enough from your experience to know that you are the one who is having the experience, but you are not the experience itself. To help you non-identify with your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, changing the way you phrase things can be helpful. For example, I suggest that you say, “This anger is going through me” vs. “I am an angry person.” Or you might say, “I am noticing this sadness bringing tears to my eyes” vs. “I am a sad person.”
I have tried to explain how to develop a more intimate and friendlier relationship with yourself. My hope is that this information is of benefit to you. To learn more, or to speak to a therapist, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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***Thank you to Celal Aydemir, MA, LPC, for contributions to this blog post.***