I’ve written several posts about self-compassion and am very open about how helpful I have found it. But, I have not always had as helpful and positive of an experience with it.
There have been times when I thought I was engaging in self-compassion, but was actually engaging in what I call “near misses” with the steps of self-compassion.
One of my first near misses was when I thought being self-compassionate towards myself meant I needed to always be feeling happy and positive. It’s easy to be kind to ourselves when things are going great, right? And it’s not to say that self-compassion isn’t about leaning into the good times. But Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer actually primarily talk about self-compassion being utilized in times of suffering and failure.
In the past, since I thought I needed to be positive and happy, I ended up suppressing and avoiding many of the more challenging emotions. And when the more challenging emotions came up, I often got frustrated with myself because I thought I must be doing something wrong.
Now, I know that self-compassion means naming and sitting with all emotions that come up for me. And, when those emotions are the more challenging ones, it means recognizing that all people suffer and fail, not just me, and working on speaking with kindness and compassion to myself.
On my journey to not avoiding the more challenging emotions, though, I progressed too far the other way, which meant ruminating and over-identifying with my emotions. I would start to work through an emotion and fear that my tendencies of avoiding were coming back up. So I’d work my way back into that emotion to ensure I wasn’t avoiding but that led to rumination. Rumination looked like constantly thinking of my emotional experience and rarely finding a break from thoughts about them. Over-identification looked like structuring my whole day around the management of my challenging emotions and forgetting that there were more aspects to who I am other than my emotional experience.
Now, I know that part of self-compassion is sitting with my challenging emotions but also ensuring I’m not exaggerating them or giving them more weight than they deserve. And that part of being compassionate towards myself will mean I start to work through my emotions in a healthy way, which doesn’t mean I’m going back to avoiding and suppressing my emotions.
A couple of other aspects of my journey with self-compassion did not involve “near misses,” rather they were aspects of my internal experience that stopped me from being able to progress to self-compassion at all. The first experience that fell into this pattern was shame. Shame convinces us that we are unworthy of love and connection and pushes us to remain in isolation, which is the opposite of engaging in common humanity. Where shame would tell me that I was alone in my experiences, that nobody would be able to understand my experiences, and that if I did open up to others that they would abandon and reject me, self-compassion reminds me that all people suffer and fail and that even if people can’t relate to the exact experience I’ve had, they will be able to relate to the emotional experience I am having.
I know I am more in shame-based thinking when I fear telling people in my close circle what happened. Often somebody in my friend group or family will ask me how I’m feeling and I’ll notice I’m leaving a piece of my experience out which signals to me I’m moving into isolation and shame is likely the culprit. When engaging with self-compassion, I can catch onto this pattern, hold the space that I am experiencing suffering and fear of others’ responses to my experience, but remind myself that people within my circle have suffered and failed, too, and won’t reject or abandon me.
The last hindrance in my engagement with self-compassion is the presence of my critic voice. I remember reading about the Enneagram One and feeling seen on a deep level. The critic voice is easily a constant part of my internal experience and is often analyzing what I’m doing and giving me feedback on places for improvement. This voice often feels in opposition to the last component of self-compassion, self-kindness.
But, through my own rounds of therapy, I started to view my critic voice in a different light and recognize that its intentions are often good and from a caring space, but its execution comes across in a belittling and demeaning way. Through a better understanding of the function of my critic voice, I have been able to take that constant voice in my head and lean into its good intentions and create more space to allow self-kindness to be my primary internal voice versus my critic voice.
These are my experiences with self-compassion and by no means encompass all the possible hindrances in engaging in self-compassion. But, they are possible ones, and ones I encourage you to reflect on and see if you can relate to them. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer say that we engage in self-compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad. Because suffering is inevitable and we are often harder on ourselves than anybody else, I want to help in the mission to shift our internal experience towards a self-compassionate one so that when we do suffer we are met with the care we so desperately crave and deserve.
Kylie Larson, MA, LPC