One of the hardest parts, in my experience, of beginning to practice self-compassion is getting an idea of what it would sound like to do it. Does self-compassion sound like pity (“Oh you poor thing”)? Is it like cheerleading (“It’s okay! Get back up again, you can do it! You’re #1!”)? Does it sound like coaching (“Okay, so you messed that up. Here’s what you need to do next…”)?
I don’t believe so. I believe that self-compassion sounds like full and complete acceptance. Each of the above examples is aimed at trying to change the way someone is feeling. By definition, trying to change the way someone is feeling is non-acceptance of their current feelings. It lacks the trust that feelings will pass naturally (and often more quickly) when accepted. (It is important to remember that acceptance is not the same as approval. You can accept a feeling or thought without approving of it or liking it.)
It is like when a child falls down, scrapes their knee, and begins crying and we respond by saying encouragingly, “Ooooh, you’re okay!” The child may be thinking, “Well, I don’t feel okay!” We’re trying to bypass the emotional discomfort of the child being scared and in pain.
So what can we do differently when it comes to responding to ourselves? I’ve heard it described this way: drop the rope. You can’t get into a tug-of-war if you refuse to participate. And I mean REFUSE to participate in any way. Don’t think of the bright side, don’t list off positive affirmations, don’t try to push the thoughts aside. Just notice what is happening. Then respond with warmth, acceptance, and compassion, as you might do with a loved one.
Time to practice. First, let’s practice extending compassion to someone else, as that tends to be easier:
Imagine saying to that hurt child, “I see you’re crying, that must have hurt.” Perhaps the child then says, “I was so scared!” and begins sobbing. Imagine responding with acceptance and saying compassionately (without pity in your voice), “So you were frightened and it is making you cry to think about it.” And then just be there. Whether they cry more and ask to be held or the emotions pass quickly and they scamper back off to play, you just stay with them and accept the feelings as they come. Simple, right?
Now try it with yourself. Hang on to that feeling of compassion for the frightened, hurt child. Also, while reading the scenario below, pay attention to whatever thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations you have.
Imagine you are having a particularly hard day and you notice that your internal critic has become very loud, saying things to you like, “What a dumb thing to say. You’re so awkward, no wonder you have no friends” or “You’re so fat/ugly/stupid, no one will ever love you”, or “You’ll never accomplish anything, you should just quit now”. What do you notice in your body when self-critical thoughts like these surface? Maybe tightness or heaviness in your chest, perhaps a knot in your stomach, an urge to cry? Certainly a sense of uneasiness and struggle. Our first instinct is to fight against the discomfort. “Make it go away”, we think.
But instead of trying to ignore the thoughts or trying to counteract them with positive thinking, simply observe and acknowledge the upsetting thoughts going through your mind. “The thought ‘no one will ever love me’ is in my mind a lot today. I feel so sad. It makes me want to cry and run away and hide. I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Now imagine meeting yourself with warmth, acceptance, and compassion:
“These thoughts are really painful and overwhelming and I have this strong feeling that I just want them to go away. But I am going to welcome all these thoughts to be here, despite being difficult. The thoughts of being a loser and unlovable are here. The desire to cry and hide is here. The trouble breathing is here. My want for all of it to go away is here. I am just going to let them be here. These thoughts and feelings are accepted here.”*
Then see what happens. The feelings may get stronger. They may get weaker. They may go back and forth between feeling strong and weak. Whatever happens, meet it with acceptance and self-compassion.
When we enter into a power struggle with our thoughts and feelings, we lose. We lose our joy. We lose our confidence. We lose our peace. Practice extending yourself compassion and acceptance. Drop the rope.
*These concepts adapted from Tim Desmond’s book “Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy: Mindfulness-Based Practices for Healing and Transformation”.