Raise your hand if you’ve had a moment or a series of moments in the past month where you felt hurt, terrified, like you failed, or did something wrong. Keep your hand raised if you found yourself tossing and turning in bed as all those moments in your life flooded you. Now, keep it raised if you responded to them with avoidance or critique. Give me a “hootie-hoo!” if you’ve ever heard of and not used Self- Compassion, instead. HOOTIE-HOO!
The Bones of it All
I think of these cringe-worthy, painful flooding moments as skeletons in our closets. Maybe not the kind like they have in The Sopranos, but close! They’re moments of suffering that we like to push back into our closets because we’d rather not see them, but we don’t get rid of them either. Every now and then they come out and whisper: “You did that stupid thing once, don’t ever do that again!” “Remember how much this hurt you?” “I should have done this differently” “You were weak then, you need to be better”.
Brain-Body response to psychological pain
Then, of course, there’s the potent suffering, when we are IN the moment that later keeps us up at night. To stick to my analogy of skeletons in the closet this might be the..scene of the murder? Oh god, I don’t know. Back to the point. In that sticky moment, our bodies and mind can tend to go kooky. We feel a psychological threat, and so our body prepares itself for actual danger. The Sympathetic Nervous System activates making cortisol and adrenaline pump through our bodies. Blood supply floods away from organs and to our extremities, preparing us to fight or run. Our heart picks up its pace and our breath becomes more shallow. Our brains start working differently, usually going from our Neocortex (thinking, problem-solving, empathy, curiosity, contentment) to our Hind-brain (fear, threat system, fight/flight/freeze).
Attempts to heal a broken bone
Our initial response to these internal experiences is usually to bury them under distractions and avoidance or to scold ourselves for being that way in that moment. This is because it tends to provide temporary relief and gives us a sense that we’re making ourselves better for it. Our culture tends to support both of these paths. “Feel good now.” “Push on, don’t wallow” “Make yourself better” “If you aren’t first, your last”. Ok, that last one was Ricky Bobby, but I’ve definitely seen that mentality in my environment.
We know with certainty (ahem, empirically validated research) that none of those strategies actually do good or create change long term. But it makes sense that we use them when you think about it. Something about it kind of works, short term. And if you haven’t tried it any other way, you really wouldn’t know that things could be better. So what’s our other option?
Compassion Focused Therapy is a framework I have started including with almost every one of my clients. It’s not specific to anyone, it’s applicable to everyone. Kristen Neff, a researcher and the University of Texas, Austin professor ( HOOK ‘EM!), was the boss babe who conducted the first academic research on self-compassion. She identifies three components of self-compassion and compares them to their evil twins.
Self Compassion vs. The Other
First, self-compassion is Self Kindness vs Self Judgment. Self-judgment is telling yourself you are not acceptable the way you are right now. It’s your self-critic. Being the self-critic feels safe because the self-critic can’t be hurt. It’s not the one who’s suffering! It also is the one getting in the way of healing and growing appropriately. Self Kindness is the active component of being kind. How would you behave or speak in order to make a sufferer feel as good as possible?
Self-compassion is Common Humanity vs Isolation. When we are hard on ourselves in moments of suffering, we are sending a message that being imperfect is abnormal and we’re forgetting the fact that life is imperfection. In that way, we create this lens that we are alone in this mistake or situation, and we feel cut off from the world. Bad news, because the best way to soothe is to have connection to others.
Lastly, Self Compassion is Mindfulness vs Over-Identification. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to each moment. A favorite colleague always says it’s having your mind and your body in the same place at the same time. We need to be aware of our suffering and turn towards it in order to send it compassion. However, that is not the same as over-identifying with this feeling over suffering. You are not defined by this moment. It is the weather, and you are the sky.
Busting Myths of Self- Compassion
The other day, my mom (Hi, mom!) asked me how you’re supposed to balance self-compassion with pushing yourself to do what needs to be done and not letting yourself “off the hook”. I also have some clients that have thought self-compassion might become a space of “wallowing” and keep them stuck in their suffering. Another client of mine was fearful that using self-compassion would become an easy path towards maintaining self-destructive behaviors. i.e. “Oh it’s ok, I’m imperfect, I can still engage in (insert unhealthy behavior here )”.
Will I lose Motivation?
Research shows that self-compassion is MORE motivating long term than criticism or judgments. If we’re using judgments or criticism, it’s fear-based. We’re telling ourselves that it isn’t ok to fail. We are telling ourselves that we aren’t acceptable until we reach XYZ. Cue the (not so) sympathetic nervous system! Self-compassion isn’t saying “aw well shucks, it’s ok you didn’t reach that goal, you don’t need it anyway”. It’s desire-based, and it says “You are still acceptable in this, and what can we do to help or support you in this?” In that way, we are then safe to see ourselves fully, explore what we need, and then be motivated to grow. The Carl Roger’s (famous American psychologist) Paradox is “When I accept myself as I am, THEN I can change”. It’s actually easier for you to take responsibility for growth because you’ve gotten rid of the part of you that hates on you for not growing. As a result, it becomes safer for you to try!
Does it promote excessive behavior?
Self-compassion is not self-indulgent. It’s not the same as telling yourself you can do or have whatever you want. The compassionate you actually wants the best for you! It desires health and well-being, craves balance and peace. It’s when we let the self-critic rule for too long that we then become starved and self-indulgent. If we use self-compassion, our true self is satisfied, content, and ready to thrive.
Is it just feeling sorry for myself?
Self-Compassion is not self-pity. Self-compassion is mindful of our suffering, and thus, it has no need to over exaggerate or flounder in it. It doesn’t need to ask for pity and attention, because you have recognized it and turned towards it already. You don’t say “poor me”, you say “man, this is tough, not just for me, but for all of us!”
Making Self-Compassion Accessible
Self-compassion is easy in technique, but long in process. It takes constant practice because our self-critic is ALIVE. Here are some easy ways to facilitate this process.
In your moments of suffering and in moments when your self-critic is buzzing, stop. Engage in some paced breathing. Then say to your self some version of this mantra that makes sense to you. I’ll share my version with you:
This is tough. I am
really struggling right now
I am not alone in
this. Other people have experienced this and may be experiencing it right now
May I be kind to
myself in this moment. May I be safe.
May I accept myself just as I am, right now.
It feels good to place your hand over your heart as you say this. But if you feel weird about it, that’s okay too. You do you!
“In Loving Kindness”
A little longer, but very impactful, is the “In Loving Kindness” Meditation. There are a few different versions, and I encourage you to find one that speaks to you. I recently ran my client through a Loving Kindness Meditation, and they experienced such warmth and acceptance in the midst of a really, really tough experience. They then found their own condensed version to say to themselves whenever they felt that suffering.
If you find that it is particularly hard to send compassion to yourself right now, try picturing yourself as a 5-year-old you. Send compassion to that little nugget. Imagine what kind of love your pet feels towards you and send that to yourself (verdict’s still out on whether Captain is compassionate towards me after I made him pose for pictures on a cliff). Or imagine a loved one in this exact situation you’re in, and send compassion towards them!
Compassion as a Frame of Mind
Above all else, it’s about being present with your suffering and speaking kindly to it. So finding whatever phrase or song or poem that works for you is self-compassion. Allow yourself to be freaking human, that’s
what you are!
Remember, self-compassion is about humanity, so practice sending compassion to friends, family, pets, acquaintances, strangers and even those people you aren’t so fond of. We are all humans. And, we are all totally 100% completely imperfect. Guess what- We all still desire safety, love, strength, and well-being.
I want to know how self-compassion impacts you! Especially if it’s feeling like it’s too hard to do. Feel free to share your experiences or ask questions here, or through my Instagram: @katiesoandso.