Here & there: Crashing into self-compassion

File photo for illustrative purposes only. A passenger car is heavily damaged after rear-ending a pickup truck on Brigham Road in St. George, Utah, Jan. 22, 2018 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

FEATURE — It’s 2:35 p.m. and my teenage son and I are sitting five cars deep at a red light. He’s only minutes into his fall break but already has his first agenda item covered: a ten-piece chicken nugget meal.

French fries, undated | Photo by Pablo Nidam on Scopio, licensed by Scopio. St. George News

In my peripheral vision, I see his hand dip into the brown paper sack monogrammed with a red “M” and draw out a single fry. It is still steaming from the fryer.

I know he can’t resist at least one or two of them while they’re still this hot. While they’re this perfect. He’s on vacation after all. And like my dad used to say: the three primary food groups of vacation are fat, salt and caffeine.

My boy has got two of them covered in one bite. The large Coke nestled between his legs covers the other.

Crack. Lurch.

The fries and drink topple out of my son’s lap and onto the rubber mat on the floorboard of the passenger seat.

The car immediately wreaks of grease and corn syrup, the combined smell of which now burns my nostrils in a way that neither did when they were separate entities.

I hear a voice scream out and it takes a couple of beats to realize it’s me.

Only then do I realize, we’ve been rear-ended.

We get out of line – the cars in front of us now moving under a green light – and pull into an adjacent parking lot. The white sedan follows us in the rear view.

The teenage boy who emerges from the driver seat is shaking and visibly upset. I’m shaking too, from the adrenaline response coursing through my body, but I’m not upset. I’m surprisingly not upset at all.

My rear bumper is visibly crunched in four distinct places and a sensor panel dangles like the right eye of a robot who got punched in the face.

His car is worse. There are dents too, more than mine, and the front left car panel hangs precariously out of place over the front left tire. It’s amazing how much damage can happen when one car is stopped, and another car accelerates into it. Even at a fairly low speed.

The 17-year-old driver is wearing a tidy work uniform for a golf course up the canyon.

He’s going to be late. He’s new. This is no good. And now he can kiss saving for that dirt bike. All his money will be going to fixing my car. To fixing his mistake.

We exchange insurance cards. “This is my second accident,” he tells me. “My parents are going to kill me. If I just didn’t try to turn on my air conditioning. If I hadn’t taken my eyes off the road.”

Man in black and white stripe shirt, undated | Photo by Oasim ZBH via Scopio, St. George News

I watch him. Pacing. Talking. Running his fingers through his hair. And I feel an enormous amount of compassion for him.

But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t feel it for himself.

Kristen Neff, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas, says self-compassion is one of the most important tools in learning lessons and growing from mistakes. But it’s not very widely practiced.

In her research, Dr. Neff finds that we are often harder on ourselves than we are on other people. We criticize ourselves over shortcomings and beat ourselves up for trivial mistakes.

And it stunts us, instead of allowing us to grow.

But Neff says that being warmer and more supportive of yourself in times of mistakes – instead of burrowing down in shame and being cold with yourself – actually allows you to take responsibility for your mistakes.

Because you can look at them. And because you can look at yourself. And then you can move on.

As I pulled out of the parking lot a few minutes later, I saw my new acquaintance take a deep breath and pull out his phone. I presume he was calling his parents.

All I could think about is what I would say if I were on the other end of that call. And how I hope I’d remember to tell my boy about the importance of self-compassion.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News. Any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News staff or management.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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