Kinder is Stronger: The Case for Self-Compassion
When you have experienced a traumatic event or developed post-traumatic stress disorder, it is difficult to have self-compassion. The wounds and untreated symptoms from living with trauma are frustrating, making it hard to go easy on yourself. Yet, developing self-compassion is an important part of overcoming the past and living fully and with meaning in the present.
Most of us want to avoid painful memories, but doing so does not make them go away. If the sound of a car backfiring makes you re-experience a traumatic event like being shot or hitting another car in a car crash, being near roads will likely make you nervous. At the same time, the disparity between what we know is real in contrast with our psychological reactions can be distressing. It’s just a car, you tell yourself; why can’t I ignore it like I used to?
What people often overlook is that the fight-or-flight response is a natural way that our bodies and minds react to dangerous situations, whether the threat is physical or psychological. The fear you experience at the loud pop of a car’s backfire was at one time a coping mechanism that your brain registered as life-saving; berating yourself for your reaction is like cursing the new brake pads you put on your car for stopping the car! You’re simply doing what you’re supposed to do. Even if the reactions your experience are no longer necessary or disruptive in your daily life, trying to avoid or suppress them is likely to leave you feeling even more worn out than before.
The best way to get out of the cycle of fear and shame that often accompanies trauma is the practice of self-compassion. Most simply, practicing self-compassion means acting with respect and understanding towards yourself with an eye toward alleviating any suffering you’re experiencing. In practice, self-compassion asks you to face your darkest feelings, accept them, and then act in ways that you believe will ease your suffering.
Intentionally incorporating self-compassion into your life will likely make you more resilient, too. In a study, when three groups were asked to complete a challenging task, taking a difficult math test, the group that was given training in self-compassion fared much better than a group trained in increasing their self-esteem and an untrained control group. A willingness to confront the critic’s voice inside of you will make it easier for you to see the difference between pointless negative criticism and genuine internal feedback that you can learn from and use to excel.
Self-compassion is especially helpful for people who struggle with high levels of self-criticism. While scolding yourself over and over again for a real or perceived fault can erode your confidence in yourself and your ability to make choices, self-compassion starts with listening and with thoughtful questions.
How can you be more self-compassionate? If you find yourself repeating a negative mantra in your mind, do not immediately try to distract yourself from or discredit the voice that’s putting you down. Instead, recognize the feelings that this negative narrative represents and accept them for what they are. Once you understand the pain causing these harmful thoughts, genuinely ask yourself what, if anything, you can do to alleviate the suffering that pain is creating. Sometimes just naming your feelings can bring relief.
If you live in or near a large metropolitan area like Los Angeles or New York City, it’s likely that you can find a few therapists who specialize in compassion-focused therapy. But you don’t need to wait until you’re with a trained professional to start processing and healing from your traumatic experiences. The principles of self-compassion can be practiced by anyone willing to take the time and open to listening to their inner voice.