My Journey to Self-Compassion
Sometimes it can be hard to put emotions into words, so I thought I’d start off with a definition.
‘Compassion is fuelled by understanding and accepting that we’re all made of strength and struggle – no one is immune to pain or suffering. Compassion is not a practice of ‘better than’ or ‘I can fix you’ – it’s a practice based in the beauty of shared humanity.'
Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart
To have compassion you must first notice suffering, feel empathy, offering understanding and kindness rather than judgment. You also recognise that suffering, failure and imperfection are all part of being human. You must honour your humanness – riding the wave of life instead of battling against it, giving yourself the freedom to open your heart to compassion instead of constantly protecting it, ready for the next battle. I know I’ve had a guard up, perfectionism being the main ‘protector’. However, now that I’m aware I’m starting to drop my guard and let in more love and kindness.
Self compassion is being able to direct this love and understanding to yourself, here's a quote by Dr Kristin Neff
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
Self-compassion mustn’t be confused with self-esteem; Dr Neff highlights that self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively – often based on comparison of others, making ourselves feel better than or special in comparison to someone else. This is not what we want as it can lead to isolation and anger.
Once we understand that life is not a competition, that we are individual, unique, wonderful yet flawed individuals, we allow ourselves to feel more connected. Secondly when moments are hard and scary it means we can lean in and connect with the world, know there are others suffering too which makes you feel less alone. This feeling of connectedness has been ingrained in our genetics from the days when being an outcast meant life or death. In this struggle to ‘fit in’ we can often stop showing up as ourselves and live out of alignment. Pretending to be someone you’re not is never going to lead to happiness.
I wanted to take this opportunity to share my journey to finding self-compassion, incase my story can help you or someone you know feel a little less alone - providing connection and hope:
Step 1: Acknowledge the Numbing
In order to have compassion on any level you must be able to notice suffering, feel pain.
I know that numbing is a tool I’ve used a lot during the pandemic, probably longer if I think back. Very cautious not to let myself get too excited about something, pre-empting disappointment, so that if the disappointment did come I was ‘ready for it’, but what does that even mean? Often most of the fun comes from looking forward to something, counting down the days to the holiday, embracing the giddy feeling of falling in love – not me, what if the holiday gets cancelled, what if this relationship doesn’t work out. I got into a bad habit of numbing my emotions to numb the pain, but this also meant compassion was numbed too. So the first step was acknowledgement.
Step 2: Tackling Perfectionism
Perfectionism has consumed me most of my life, but I now realise that perfect is not what I should be striving for. How can I possibly be compassionate to myself if perfect is always the end goal, I now know this was unachievable. There’s always going to be something that crops up which is imperfect and therefore unlovable. Once I learnt this trigger, became aware of the crippling effects perfectionism had on my life I was able to lean into my emotions without being scared of what I would find (hint: the imperfect). I was able to embrace “good enough-ism” and it feels great.
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.”
Step 3: Lean In
So the third step was leaning into my emotions – very difficult after two decades leaning out. Starting to feel the feelings – all of them, good, bad and ugly. I read an excellent book which helped with this called Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown, where the author talks about 87 different emotions.
There was one emotion that provided a light bulb moment,
‘If you’re afraid to lean into good news, wonderful moments, and joy – if you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop – you are not alone. It’s called “foreboding joy”, and most of us experience it.'
Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart
Foreboding joy meant I was fearful of joy – well that had to stop. I’ve now made a commitment to lean into joy – to find joy in all moments of the day, consciously seeking it out – and what a 6 months it has been since that decision was made!
The emotion hardest to lean into was the one which caused the numbing cycle in the first place – anxiety. If you’ve suffered with anxiety you’ll know how it feels to sit with it instead of running from it. For me it feels like my heart is beating a million times a minute, breath is short, body temperature rises, mind racing to catastrophizing thoughts. Of course this is something that I would want to lean out of – avoid, push away, however you’d like to phrase it. Through speaking to my therapist I learnt that to stop the numbing I needed to lean in and sit with it, in a supportive safe space she taught me to do this. I’m certainly not cured and doubt I ever will be completely anxiety free, but I’ve increased my resilience and that has been life changing. Now I can feel the anxiety as it builds in my body, so I know it’s coming and I can use my mindfulness practices to keep it from becoming a full blown panic attack. At the other end of the spectrum I am now more able to feel joy without the foreboding in front of it, the effects of the numbing are wearing off and I feel more alive, I feel like a participant of my life rather than previously feeling like a spectator.
I’m sure there will be more steps to this journey, I’m still reading, listening and enquiring, I know I can dig a little deeper, but for now I’m proud of how far I’ve come, and that I can feel love and be kind to myself, which I haven’t done since being a child. I am open in sharing my experience with therapy alongside yoga and mindfulness as its very much part of the journey. If you’re suffering from anything I’ve discussed above and would like to take a deeper look in a supportive space here’s a link to more info.
If you’re ready to delve a little deeper into self-compassion join me from Monday 18th – Friday 22nd July for the Free 5 Day Self-Compassion Challenge here’s the link: https://mailchi.mp/9efe5e6d6e6d/selfcompassionchallenge
Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart, 2022
Dr Kirstin Neff: https://self-compassion.org/