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Self-Care is Not the Same as Self-Compassion

Updated: May 3, 2021

At first glance you might say that self-care and self-compassion are one in the same, that it's compassion that leads you to practice self care. But I have found that it's not always true. I invite you investigate this in your own experience. Start by reading this story and see if it resonates.

It's 1:00 on a weekday. I have meetings scheduled at 2:30 and at 4:00. So my plan was to sit at my desk to write and do some admin work from 1:00-2:30. Except my back pain is flaring up. The naproxen I took isn't enough to calm it down. I know my body pretty well by now (we've had quite a long and tempestuous relationship but we've finally learned how to communicate without fighting. Most of the time). I need some self care. I need to lie down for an hour rather than sit at my desk. If I do that, I can be pain free and have enough energy for the day's two remaining meetings. Seems simple enough, right? My body is sending me a pretty clear signal that it needs rest. And I know from experience that rest almost always calms a flare. Sitting will aggravate it.

Check in with yourself right now. What are you feeling on my behalf as you think about me having a pain flare? Is it compassion? If it is, what does that feel like? How do you know it to be compassion? What would you wish for me? If you were my friend or caregiver, how would you relate to me? What might you offer?

Notice how easily - automatically - compassion flows when you hear about someone else's pain or suffering.

I imagine this is my child, telling me she is tired and in pain. What would I do? I'd make her tea or hot chocolate and then and tuck her under a nice thick quilt on the sofa. I'd brush the hair from her face, kiss her forehead, and tell her I love her. My heart fills with warmth as I imagine it. I smile. I feel an energetic connection with her (even though she's 23 and living in Brooklyn!) That's how I know I am feeling compassion.

But that's not what happens in my own mind in the moment that I realize that I will be lying down rather than working for the next hour. I feel grumpy that I "have to" rest when I "should" be working. When everyone else is working. There's some resentment toward my body for needing this. There's shame that I am not stronger, abler. There's resignation, UGH, this always happens. Why is this happening? Why haven't I solved this problem? Why do I still struggle with chronic back pain after 30 years? Will I ever be free of this? Maybe I did something to aggravate it. Must have been the vacuuming earlier - and carrying the vacuum up to the third floor. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. But dammit why can't I freakin' vacuum when I want to? This really sucks!

That's the energy I take with me to the sofa. So yeah, I will lie down, but with an energy of self-judgment, not self-compassion.

How different that energy is from the energy I imagined offering to my daughter! I can tell you this much, there's no damn hot chocolate for me, no kissing myself on the forehead. There's physical tension from the resistance, from not wanting to "have to" lie down. I'm doing what my body needs, but grudgingly. Subconsciously, I am resisting. Resistance shows up as physical tension. And that makes pain worse, not better.

Wouldn't you encourage me to be gentler with myself about what my body needs?

If I catch the self-talk and have the resources in the moment to offer myself compassion, the time on the couch is more restful, more restorative. It leaves me in an infinitely better mood, too. It doesn't take much - an acknowledgment that what I am experiencing is really difficult. Or a hand on my heart. Sometimes I look into my own eyes in the mirror with a compassionate expression. I say "awwwww" the way I'd say it to someone else.

Bringing compassion to our need for self-care takes practice. It requires that we notice the feeling tone that we bring to self-care. Is it positive or negative? Generous or grudging? Kind or judgmental? That's the mindfulness part of the practice. Noticing.

The next step is to identify the not-so-kind story you are telling yourself. My stories are usually that haven't gotten enough done, or that it's lazy to lie down in the middle of the day. That if I don't push a little I will never accomplish anything. Once you identify it, you can usually see pretty readily that it's not really true. Or that it's someone else's voice in your head.

Finally, find a way to express compassion to yourself that feels comfortable and not too corny or goofy. Experiment with compassionate words, hand gestures, or maybe journaling. Seek compassion from someone else - someone you trust. Really take it in. Or, imagine you are speaking to someone you love and use the same words and facial expressions with yourself. You can also imagine a person (or non-human being) who loves you. What might they say or do? Imagine their kindness flowing toward you like an energetic wave.

This is a practice, meaning we will have to repeat it over and over and over again before it begins to come more naturally. The old patterns are deeply ingrained. We're mapping new neural pathways here. Don't let that frustrate you. It's how it works. Keep at it, get the support you need, and see what happens.


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