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Why Self-Compassion is So Hard

I can't count the number of times I have heard people say that compassion for others comes easily, naturally, but self-compassion is an on-going challenge. I think I finally understand why.


There are so many barriers to self-compassion. One is the fear that if we don't "stay on our own case" we will never get anything done. Or put another way, if I go easy on myself, I will fail. This misperception assumes that self-compassion will kill our motivation, keep us from reaching, growing, progressing. In fact, research shows the opposite - as does common sense if we stop to think about it. It is clear that positive motivation is much more likely to result in positive change than criticism or punishment.


I remember really getting this when we got our first dog. The books and puppy-class teachers insisted we reward the desirable behaviors rather than punish the undesirable ones. This meant a lot of waiting for an unruly puppy to happen to sit or come, and then showering him with treats and praise. Not putting a hand on his butt to push him down into a sit. Not repeating the command in a louder or more stern voice. You can't punish a dog into doing what you want him to do. He will just become afraid of you. Similarly, humans don't learn, grow, or change their habits when they are afraid. We learn and grow in safe and consistent connection with other humans, and when we learn to be a safe haven for ourselves.


And yet even when we understand that self-criticism isn't helpful, the fear of not being enough or not doing enough remains a huge barrier to seeing and accepting our own suffering.


Another barrier is how we internalize the criticism we receive from caregivers, coaches, peers, teachers. We then we turn it on ourselves in a misguided attempt to keep ourselves safe. We also internalize broader societal stigmas -- around weight and appearance for example, or gender and sexuality -- and then criticize, shame, hide or even repress ourselves when we don't match the acceptable form. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. To be cast out of the tribe for being different, for not adhering to norms, could mean certain death for early humans. If not life-threatening, exclusion is painful, something we will do almost anything to avoid. As a result we learn to discipline ourselves in ways that preserve connections, even when that's intensely painful too.


So, to the extent that self-compassion contradicts the internal critic that is keeping us "in line," it gets blocked.


The inner critic causes us so much needless suffering. We know this. And we know that we would never speak to someone we love the way we speak to ourselves. It can be helpful to challenge the stories told by the inner critic, as in cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness practice. We can identify and name the thoughts and remind ourselves that they are not true. That can reduce the sting and free us from some of our automatic behaviors.


But it's not enough to free us up to truly cultivate the deep self-compassion, the kind that brings healing, peace, and deep contentment.


Compassion goes deeper than just not doing harm. Real compassion is a radical act of caring about suffering, moving toward that suffering, feeling it's impact so strongly that we have no choice but to take action. Compassion can be gentle and tender. It can also be fierce, moving us to speak up, to speak out, to put ourselves on the line. A truly compassionate being can express both its tender and fierce forms.


Again, easier to do in the face of others' suffering. To practice genuine self-compassion, we have to acknowledge that we are suffering. We have to be mindful and brave enough to see, accept, and sit with OUR OWN pain and suffering - just as we do with others. We have to feel the pain of criticism and judgment, really feel it in the body. We have to sit with the shame that judgment evokes. We have to allow loss and grief to register and to hang out with us for a while. I am not talking about knowing it intellectually. I'm talking about identifying the sensations in the body, allowing them to grow as big as they need to, fearlessly staying with them. Only then does it become natural, inevitable, that we will turn toward ourselves with that tender - or fierce - compassion.


But the barriers to doing this are also really strong. Our nervous systems are wired to protect us from such powerful, overwhelming, and even traumatic emotions. When bad feelings are too strong we shut down, numb out, or seek distraction. This is a protective response that evolved along with our frontal cortex. Or we go into our heads and get into a story about what's happening - which is not the same as feeling the raw emotions. Or we go into problem-solving mode - which can trigger anxiety when it's a problem we can't solve.


Often we simply can't access self-compassion on our own. We are social beings - connection equals safety for our nervous system. Safe connection calms fear, quiets the fight/flight response, and can bring us out of a state of shut-down. Being in safe and trusting connection with another person can help us contact, acknowledge, and thus evoke compassion for our own suffering. It is profoundly healing to have another person remind us how hard we are trying, how difficult the situation actually is, that it does hurt. That it actually really does suck. That it is sad. That's it's ok to feel grief (even if we think we shouldn't). That we are enough. That we are doing enough. That it's safe to feel. Then the self-compassion can arise.


And, it is really really important to approach these feelings gradually and gently. They can be powerful, destabilizing in anything but very small doses, especially when they've been repressed. It's ok - even wise - to stop and focus on something external if the feelings are too much. Move your head and look at your physical surroundings. Move your body. Get out in nature. Reach for the resources that soothe you and bring you comfort.


So don't be surprised if self-compassion doesn't come easily -- even when you try to "practice" it. We come wired with protective barriers against the magnitude of our own suffering. We are habituated to deny, minimize and turn away from it. Small steps, gentle steps can bring us closer. We can remind each other. We can reflect back to each other the truth of how hard it can be, sometimes, to be human. And also how profoundly joyful it can be.