What is self-compassion?
It is the sense of feeling secure in yourself, knowing that you can create a safe haven inside when things are stressing you out. It’s when you can soothe yourself and find ways to calm down enough to be able to do something about what’s troubling you. It’s also something you can do on a day-to-day basis to give yourself a head start when things get tough.
How do we learn self-compassion?
We learn it through the care we received as a baby and child, often from our mothers and fathers, sometimes from other people such as a grandparent or foster parent. As humans we need to be fed and clothed and educated, but also we need to be emotionally nurtured – to have someone respond compassionately to our tears and joys and hurts. Someone who notices our feelings, takes time to listen to our hearts’ desires and tries to satisfy them, taking the trouble to explain if they can’t do that right now and why. Of course, no one is able to do this perfectly, but we need someone to do it most of the time, especially when we are a baby and toddler, and who can tell us why when they didn’t manage it well enough. Someone who does this is attuned to you enough that you feel seen and heard. If this happens often enough, you learn how to do it yourself – to soothe yourself when you are distressed, to celebrate when you are successful, to rest when you are tired. This is called secure attachment.
What might go wrong?
I think it’s easy to see that things might go wrong when a child is often hungry, cold or hurt. But when everything at home seems fine – you always had food on the table, and clothes to wear, and you went to school and didn’t get in too much trouble, you had family holidays and visited your grandparents for Christmas – it’s easy to say, ‘Everything’s okay, I had a great childhood.’ And sometimes you have all this at home, but no one has the time or motivation to really listen to you and try and work out what you need and want, or they only manage it every so often. No one really listens to your feelings, allowing you to express yourself and have someone compassionately respond. When it’s like this, it’s hard to learn how to have that safe haven inside, to be able to listen compassionately to yourself, and give yourself what you need.
What happens if you don’t learn self-compassion?
It becomes hard to recognise and acknowledge feelings – especially the ones that get labelled as ‘bad’ – anger in all its forms from irritation to rage, fear, frustration, resentment and jealousy, sadness and guilt. These are powerful indicators for us that something isn’t right and send us the message that we need to change something, often with other people, so that we can be comfortable and happier.
Because we don’t recognise these feelings, we don’t negotiate with others for the changes that we need so others start to seem more unpredictable and we have less control over our lives. Then our nervous systems start to see others as a threat, and we go into fight/flight mode, which becomes chronic – our way of life.
How can I tell if I haven’t learned self-compassion?
The result of this is to feel anxious all or a lot of the time, out of proportion to the threat. This is exhausting and often people feel tired all the time and feel low in energy. Sometimes, people seem over-active as they try and do everything right to avoid having these feelings, and then crash and burn as it gets all too much.
You might dread meeting a particular person, phoning your mum or going to work. You might even start avoiding these things. You feel like you never do anything right, that others think you are stupid or incompetent, that you never say the right thing. You might spend ages going over situations, to work out what you should have done. All these are symptoms of anxiety and not having that secure base inside. Some people go on to not be able to cope in certain situations and experience anxiety or panic attacks even thinking about doing something.
What can I do now?
Sometimes starting to listen to your feelings helps. How do I really feel right now? What do I need? What do I want? Sometimes your body can give you that information, when your mind can’t. Like your stomach rumbling when you are hungry, you might feel a particular tension in your jaw when you are angry with someone. Some people learn mindfulness or yoga to help get in touch with themselves. Others go out and enjoy the natural world or find creative activities to explore their internal world. Have a look at Hayley Lewis‘s sketchnote ‘Self-Compassion for Daily Life’ for ideas. How about trying to do one thing a day for a week. You could keep a journal or a vlog to record what you do and how it goes.