Updated: Jan 7, 2022
be softer with you. you are a breathing thing. a memory to someone. a home to a life.~ Nayyirah Waheed
How would your life be different if you spoke kindly to yourself when difficult emotions arose or when you wished you'd been a better version of yourself or had acted differently?
How would your life be different if, instead of punishing yourself, you loved yourself through regret, disappointments and heartbreak?
How would your life be different if every time you looked in the mirror on a day you didn't feel so good about yourself, instead of the debasing critic, you were greeted by a loyal fan who gave you a high five and told you you were amazing?
I am not here to convince you that self-compassion works. I'm here to invite you to test it out for yourself.
And while I'm not interested in persuading you, I do have a strong sneaking suspicion that this experiment might change your life in all kinds of wonderful ways. I'm saying this because in my 15 years of practice as a psychotherapist, I've paid very close attention to the trends in my practice. And if I was asked today to name one practice that created some of the most long-lasting changes in the lives of my clients, I would say it's self-compassion.
A brief note on self-compassion and trauma
Awakening self-compassion is often the greatest challenge people face on the spiritual path.~Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance
Self-compassion is a difficult practice for many, but it's especially difficult for those who have complex/relational trauma. The toxic shame resulting from relational trauma creates a particular difficulty for survivors in feeling their own worth or value.
Relational trauma is the result of not having been allowed to exist, which is the condition that originates in environments where fully existing was a dangerous thing to do. To be seen or to be given attention is highly triggering to individuals with complex/relational trauma because when they were seen or noticed as children, bad things happened to them.
The hatred towards self becomes a kind of survival mechanism by which one remains invisible and therefore, calls less attention to themselves. It's a very painful double-edged sword.
Because trauma results in great difficulty taking love in, self-compassion can serve as a gentler path to healing. It allows one to soften gradually. Ultimately, self-compassion as a practice restores our capacity to access love at any time.
self-compassion: the practice
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.~ Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
Humanity vs. Perfection: "I don't want to be good, I want to be free" is a mantra I invite you to try for yourself.
What it means is the desire to be human and in that to be free. Free from holding back, from hiding, from pretending, from performing. Self-compassion is very much about acknowledging and honoring a wide array of human conditions-shame, anger, guilt, envy, regret, aloneness, doubt, cowardice, greed and so on and so forth.
See yourself through "good eyes": This is the moment of (envy, anger, regret...fill in your experience here) . This is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment.
I want to make a quick note about compassion. There is often a fear that compassion means sanctioning what is not okay. When someone acts in a hurtful manner, should we just be compassionate?
Compassion is the acknowledgement of all reality as existing in the spectrum of human experience. Sometimes that reality is upsetting and difficult to accept. Sometimes that reality hurts. Compassion acknowledges where growth is needed. True compassion is holding the regard for others and the regard for ourselves simultaneously. This position allows for seeing how others can behave badly, for example, without accepting that kind of treatment towards ourselves. So you see, compassion must include compassion towards self for it to be complete.
Replace self-criticism with kindness: I will not be unkind to myself in te moment when I need kindness the most. I will see myself clearly as a human being having a human experience. I am worthy of compassion.
Self-criticism: I'm an idiot. I knew I wasn't going to get that job! What was I thinking!
Self-compassion: I am embarrassed I didn't get the job. It's very painful not to be chosen. I know I came as prepared as I could have been. I gave it all I could give. Not being selected hurts, but it doesn't make me unworthy and it doesn't diminish what I have to offer.
Be on your side: Whatever I go through, I deserve to not be alone. I deserve to be believed. I deserve love.
Looking back, my own healing journey very much began with learning how to have compassion for myself. In my 20s, a dear mentor introduced me to the notion of what it meant to be loyal to my own subjective experience. We all want to be heard and we all want to be believed. Our experiences matter. So be kind by listening to yourself when you feel hurt or angry or anxious.
The "lost parts" exercise:
At the very beginning of my Imago psychotherapy training, my group and I were given an exercise that explored parts of ourselves we had to give up. The first part of the exercise was to write down a list of negative messages-implicit or explicit-we received as children. The second part was to write down the messages we wished we had received instead. The power of writing the affirming kind messages was so powerful, it immediately brought me to tears. My inner child responded with tears of grief at having not had what she so deeply desired.
I invite you to try this exercise as well. As you write down the negative messages, notice the themes. What expressions were most suppressed and most unwelcome? Which messages are most painful? How do you feel seeing these negative painful messages on paper? What new messages would you have for yourself? What would you like to hear instead? As you read the new messages, notice how you feel.
As you discover the new messages, start practicing them and saying them to yourself every time the critical voice comes out. See what it's like to speak the new messages into being. Notice what happens when you respond with kindness, with presence, with a stance that is affirmative and loving.
And finally, I invite you to begin this practice today. Let this year be the grand experiment in self-compassion!
See what happens when you change the negative voice inside your head to a loving present voice that has your back, that respects you, that treats you with unconditional positive regard.