Imagine the following: You best friend tripped on a crooked pavement tile. They scraped their hands and knees, and have a big bruise on their torso. As they tell you about their fall, how do you respond? Something like:
Oh my, are you okay? Here sit down, do you need anything? Can I make you a cuppa?
Something along those lines, right? Now imagine that it is not your friend, but you who tripped. What are you telling yourself?
You stupid cow! Can you not pay attention to where you are going?! Idiot!
Am I close? I have a feeling I probably am. Every survivor I know does this, and that includes myself. We beat ourselves up over the most random little details of our lives. The things we say to ourselves are words we would never even consider uttering to our friends and loved-ones.
I had take-out: you lazy gluttonous sloth!
I didn’t do the dishes yesterday: you lazy piece of filth!
You forgot your keys: you useless excuse for a human being!
Why Is Self-Compassion So Difficult?
Compassion [kuh m-pash-uh n] noun: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Most survivors of abuse have extraordinary empathic ability. Where that ability makes it easy to feel compassion to those around us, our self-talk can be absolutely brutal. But why is that? We are clearly capable of compassion, why do we struggle so much with self-compassion?
Most people will find it easier to express compassion to others than to themselves, but as survivors, we may feel very conflicted when we even try. Having experienced abuse, ideas of guilt and shame are imprinted deeply into our mind. We feel an extraordinary amount of responsibility for our actions and how they may negatively affect others. Abusers convince their targets that they are themselves responsible for the abuse they suffer. If only they were slimmer / less clumsy / smarter / less ill / curvier / less clever / less annoying the abuser would not need to be so abusive. That is a message that is central to the abuse, and it is thoroughly and strongly rooted in the mind of the target. Additionally, we pile on further guilt after we escape by holding ourselves responsible for getting involved with an abuser in the first place, not getting out sooner, for allowing ourselves to be used as flying monkey to other targets… the list goes on, and on, and on.
Even when we have gained a (rational) understanding that we were not to blame for the abuse and we are addressing feelings of guilt and shame, we may still feel that we are giving ourselves an undeserved ‘pass’ or that we are being indulgent and ego-centric when we try to practice self-compassion.
They Have It Much Worse
Often we feel guilty about acknowledging our pain because we reckon that others have it much worse. Did you grow up getting this response when you said you were hungry:
You are not hungry, children in Africa are hungry. You are peckish!
It may seem like a silly example, but this is essentially what you may be saying to yourself when talking about your trauma. Stating your feelings does not deny other people’s feelings. It is not like there is a fixed amount of feeling in the world that we all need to share, and we shouldn’t overindulge.
I especially experience this when I hear stories from other survivors. My feelings of empathy and compassion toward fellow survivors awaken a voice that says: listen to that, your story is pretty mild in comparison (not as often these days, but I have my moments). What is interesting to note, is that I witness those same fellow survivors respond similarly to my own story. Pain is pain, trauma is trauma.
Remember, you are not competing for the Gold Medal for Most Pain Suffered.
I Am Being Selfish
Your (emotional) needs have been denied for years, if not most of your life. You may feel that “giving into your feelings” is self-indulgent or ego-centric. You have no time to feel sorry for yourself, you have to look after your partner, pick the kids up from school, have your volunteering job at the nursing home… If I sit here and cry, or -it doesn’t bear thinking- self-care, who is going to look after everybody else?
This may be true to an extent, but most of the time these practical “reasons” are just excuses and easily solved. Your partner is likely an adult capable of looking after themselves, you can perhaps ask the neighbor to pick up the kids when she does her own school run, you can reschedule your volunteering job for once. Even dinner can be ordered and delivered to your doorstep.
Acknowledging you are in pain, you made a mistake or you are (emotionally) exhausted is not self-indulgent. Stepping back, resting and asking for help are all good ways to deal with your life’s circumstances. You are not shrinking away from your responsibilities. In fact, you are stepping up to them by making sure you can continue working, caring and loving in the future.
This Will Motivate Me to Do Better
Let me ask you this: when was the last time you worked harder, better and more efficient for a boss who screamed profanities at you?
Okay, so why do you think that being over-critical of yourself is going to make you a better person?
You can be self-compassionate and still be open to growth and self-improvement. Remember that imaginary fall you had at the beginning of this article? You can be compassionate. You can rest and care for your injuries. You can ask your partner to help out around the house until you feel better. You can even indulge in a lovely cafe latte and apple pie to settle your nerves. After all that, you can still commit to not texting while walking so it won’t happen again. One is completely separate from the other.
All that chastising is going to do, is make you fear failure and that will eventually lead you to not even trying anymore.
I Am a Strong Independent Human
Yes, you are! Showing yourself compassion will not in any way diminish that. Making mistakes, admitting you are in pain or simply tired will not make you a loser, a wimp or anything other than a strong independent human who knows their boundaries.
When your imaginary friend fell at the beginning of this article, did you think any less of them because they stumbled and fell? Did you view them any less strong or independent?
How Do We Start Welcoming Self-Compassion?
Practicing self-compassion is not something you just switch on or off. It will take practice and patience. It is not going to happen overnight, you are not going to feel good about it every day. The good news is that self-compassion will create your Best Best-Friend-Forever Ever. The bad news is, your BBFFE is currently still a toddler in the middle of a hissy fit.
Let’s look at ways to calm your BBFFE down, and set the tone of that life-long friendship.
Be Mindful of Your Self-Talk
Before you can change how you talk to yourself, you need to become aware of the conversation that is going on right now. Don’t question the why of it, or beat yourself up over talking to yourself poorly. Just hear what is being said inside your own mind.
Often times we are not aware of the judgments we throw around in there. It has become such an integral part of our subconscious, it just runs in the background. Just because you are not aware of the running commentary, doesn’t mean it is not affecting your daily life though.
Tune into your internal radio and listen to the words you say to yourself.
Start Introducing Self-Compassionate Language
You may be shocked to hear the things you say to yourself. Honestly, the cruelty we can inflict on our own precious selves is astonishing sometimes. As you become more aware of that inner-voice, you will want to start introducing language that is more in line with how you would want to talk to yourself.
More often than not, we have a wish to find greater self-love and self-compassion. We see others take a rest, or embrace their weaknesses and we think: I wish I could do that. Think about the words you would like to hear yourself say and believe about yourself (even if you do not feel you deserve those labels yet). Perhaps you can start by introducing some small kindnesses.
Perhaps looking yourself deep in your eyes in the mirror and saying: I love you! Is taking it about 30 steps too far, right now. Why not start by putting your hand over your heart and saying ‘good morning, me’ before getting up in the morning. It may feel a little awkward but keep at it. After a few days the awkwardness will wear off and you will begin feeling a little more confident. Then you can add an ‘I am so glad we have another day together’ and eventually even an ‘I love you’.
Don’t Talk to My Friend Like That
Would you ever allow anyone to talk about your bestie the way you talk about yourself? When you feel you are beating yourself up, stand up for your BBFFE and tell yourself: don’t talk to my friend like that.
At any given moment you can consider the words you would use if your friend was in your shoes. What would you tell them? Repeat those words to yourself:
Oh my, am I okay? Here sit down, do I need anything? Can I make me a cuppa?
Let the words sound in your mind, even if you can still hear that bully in the background. Familiarize yourself with loving and compassionate words and thoughts about yourself having a place in your mind. The more rational kindness and compassion you afford yourself, the more your subconscious mind can absorb this new retoric.
Parent Your Inner-Bully
Don’t be upset with the bully in your mind. He (or she) is just a scared and traumatized little you. Don’t tell that little guy off for lashing out. He is the little dude you want your rational voice to address.
I once read an article about parenting where a father shared the experience of how he dealt with his daughter’s tantrums. He realized that his little girl would usually spin out of control when she was unable to deal with her emotions. Rather than being angry or frustratingly trying to make her stop he realized she needed a hug. His girl, however, would be stroppy and refuse to accept the gesture of love. So, instead he would say to her: daddy could sure use a hug right now. Her empathy and compassion for her dad made that she would immediately want to hug him. In return, he would be able to hug her and tell her she was loved. It gave this little girl the space to calm down enough to accept his compassion for her. Eventually, she learned that when she felt emotionally overwhelmed, she could just go to her dad for a hug.
This is what your inner-bully needs too, he needs some space to reset and learn better ways of dealing with emotional overwhelm. Don’t try to demand he shut up, or try to ignore him (he is too loud for that, trust me). Instead, say:
Hey little me. I hear you, but I need a hug right now. Can we do that? Thanks.
Your rational mind can help you start that conversation with yourself. As you practice it will begin to feel more and more comfortable and you will realize that that inner-bully becomes less and less loud.