A couple of years ago it was brought to my attention that I don’t have a history of being very self-compassionate. I’ve been able to readily offer support and comfort to others going through difficulties, but have found it challenging to offer that same love and care to myself. At first this was surprising, as I thought I knew how to take care of myself. But in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been.
Self-compassion isn’t something many of us, particularly as people of color were taught growing up. Often times when facing life’s challenges many of us were told by family members and others to be strong, accept that life can be difficult and power through. That advice was possibly given as a protective measure to guard us against the disparities in the world that can make life unjust for black people. And even worse, many of us may have received criticism and were blamed for whatever troubles we were experiencing. Or, they didn’t know what to say and the concept of showing yourself love in hard times just didn’t become part of the conversation.
I grew up believing my feelings didn’t matter, an experience that’s essentially a version of the “power through” philosophy. Being led to believe that our experiences and feelings about them aren’t significant is invalidating and doesn’t allow us to create a space to tend to our emotional and psychological needs. Having compassion for yourself and not just others is a critical tool of emotional health and survival.
Associate professor at the University of Texas, at Austin, Dr. Kristin Neff, identifies self-compassion as:
“Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience… “
Now that I have been made aware that I could be kinder to myself, I’ve been practicing self compassion more and it’s made a big difference. I’m able to forgive myself for mistakes, take a break when I feel overwhelmed, defying my instinct to push myself, and accept my perceived flaws. I am able to treat myself more gently with less blame and more understanding. My “self talk” is much kinder and nurturing instead of critical and blaming. And in turn, I think this has allowed me to be even more understanding of others.
Dr. Neff developed a test to rate one’s ability to demonstrate self-compassion. I took it and was happy with the results. If you’d like an indicator of where you stand on being able to show yourself compassion, you can take the test on Dr. Neff’s site here.
If you aren’t where you’d like to be with being able to offer yourself compassion, I hope you begin to find ways to be kinder and gentler with yourself. Remember that your feelings are valid and you deserve to feel comforted and supported. And sometimes, we have to give that comfort and support to ourselves.