I had no self-compassion. I was angry that I was so broken, weak, and hurt and everything was so difficult… but since practicing self-compassion my inner voice has changed from a critical, growling, judgemental, really difficult person to be around, to somebody who wants to lift you up and support you and help you through. (sexual abuse survivor)
This page discusses self-compassion, what self-compassion is (and isn’t), and why it is worth introducing into your life. To be up front, we want to encourage you to give self-compassion a try. Evidence suggests that men who have been sexually abused that are introduced to and practice self-compassion have increased resilience and improved lives. Having said this, we know that self-compassion does not come easy to many men who have been sexually abused. Quite often, the opposite occurs, with men reporting high levels of self-criticism, self-blame, and shame. This in turn impacts negatively on their sense of self and relationships, making them believe they are not worthy, or ‘less than’ in some way. Self-compassion can change this. By cultivating compassion for yourself (and others) you are better able to acknowledge the challenges you are experiencing and develop more wise and helpful ways to respond.
Self-compassion promotes understanding and acceptance, in a way that encourages and empowers you to make positive change.
This Introduction to self-compassion web page was developed with the support of Lisa McLean (Psychologist)
What is self-compassion?
When some men think of self-compassion, they imagine it as something soft and fluffy; a way to let yourself off the hook and pretend everything’s okay. Some might even see it as a form of self-pity and think it’s selfish and self-indulgent to offer compassion to yourself. These views can get in the way of giving self-compassion a try, so we ask you to put them on hold for a short while.
Genuine self-compassion is NOT any of these things. Paul Gilbert is someone who works in this area and provides a useful working definition:
Self-compassion is: “The sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it” (Gilbert, 2014)
There are two parts to this understanding of self-compassion:
- The ability to be attuned to and acknowledge the suffering being experienced.
- The motivation and willingness to do something about it.
This definition suggests that far from being soft or an easy way out, self-compassion involves courage, strength, wisdom, and commitment to change.
- Courage to notice and acknowledge your suffering.
- Strength to stay present with your suffering and not turn away, deny, or avoid.
- Wisdom to know how to alleviate your suffering in a helpful way.
- Commitment to act to enhance your own well-being.
How can self-compassion help me?
Studies have shown that self-compassion can:
- reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress for men who have been sexually abused in childhood (Romano, Lyons & St. John, 2015)
- reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress (Kirby, Tellegen & Steindl, 2017)
- reduce feelings of shame (Au et al., 2017)
One of the key ways self-compassion can help reduce these impacts is by addressing perceptions of self-blame, low self-worth and negative self-image. People who have been impacted by sexual abuse often say that they know ‘in their head’ that they are not to blame for what happened, and that the shame is not theirs to carry, but it still ‘feels’ like there is something wrong with them.
While self-compassion is a helpful response for people impacted by sexual abuse, it is also something everyone can benefit from. We are all wired with tricky human brains that produce unhelpful thoughts and all sorts of difficult emotional responses, when in reality we are just doing the best we can to get by. Understanding this can help us be less judgemental of ourselves as well as others. Being open to compassion supports us to develop positive relationships, as we allow ourselves to experience the full range of emotions and remove the barriers that get in the way of connecting with those around us.
Why is self-compassion so difficult?
It is worth considering how and why ‘self-compassion’ can be so difficult. There may be several reasons for this:
- It might make you feel weak and vulnerable.
- You may think you need to be critical to keep yourself motivated.
- Self-compassion might feel unfamiliar, and you just don’t know how to do it.
- You might not think you deserve self-compassion.
These are all really common and understandable thoughts and concerns. Unfortunately, for many of us our experience has meant that we are more likely to jump to self-blame than to practice self-compassion.
There is a parable attributed to the Buddha called ‘The Second Arrow’. It speaks of the first arrow, being the initial wound or cause of our distress or suffering, which is usually out of our control. The second arrow, however, is different, it is optional and can be within our control. Responding to the initial suffering and pain with self-judgement and criticism, rather than with self-compassion, is a bit like shooting a second arrow into yourself. It adds to the initial ‘wound’ and causes even more pain and suffering.
Before we look at how you might introduce more compassion into your life, let’s examine these potential barriers to compassion a little more closely.
‘Self-compassion will make me too weak and vulnerable’
“Men don’t cry”, “Just get on with it”, “You need to be tough”, “It’s all in the past”.
Men receive a lot of messages from an early age, like those above, about how they are meant to act and manage difficulties as a ‘real man’. They are encouraged to act strong, be in control, be able to cope with any difficulty and to suppress any emotion that can appear soft or weak. Acknowledging and expressing feelings (other than anger) are seen by some men as the exclusive domain of women and to be avoided. The reality is that an experience of sexual abuse is likely to generate a wide range of often intense feelings and impacts.
While some men can struggle to express emotions out of concern that doing so demonstrates weakness, the opposite is true. It requires courage and strength to turn towards, rather than away from, emotional distress and difficulties. Self-compassion helps us confront feelings of fear, sadness, confusion, and helplessness: feelings that can trigger memories of times when you were genuinely vulnerable and powerless. While it is understandable that you might have worked to suppress or avoid these feelings, or may have become all too familiar with anger (which can offer an illusion of strength and control), self-compassion is a more effective long term strategy to deal with these feelings.
Self-compassion provides a place to stand that combines the courage to acknowledge the full range of your emotional experience with the wisdom and ability to respond in a way that is helpful and appropriate.
‘Self-criticism keeps me motivated to improve and get better’
Some people have lived with self-criticism for so long that they feel they would be lost without it. Self-criticism can become an all too familiar, tough coach-like figure who points out your flaws and mistakes and threatens all sorts of consequences if you don’t get your act together. You might worry that if you don’t respond to yourself in this same way you will be ‘letting yourself off the hook’, or ‘becoming soft and self-indulgent’ and not be motivated to improve. However, the reality is that self-compassion is a stronger motivator for you to do and be your best.
Research shows self-compassion actually helps motivate us towards self-improvement in response to perceived weakness or failure (Breines & Chen, 2012) as opposed to self-criticism, which often leaves us feeling defeated, inadequate, worthless, anxious, and far more likely to give up. If self-criticism was an effective way to improve yourself, chances are you would have achieved perfection by now!
‘I don’t know how to be compassionate’
Compassion has a functional role to play in our lives. Compassion evolved as part of our care-giving system to help recognise and respond to the distress of our offspring, kin, and other group members, and ultimately aim to ensure their survival. Unfortunately, however, not everyone experiences this care and compassion as part of their childhood experience and it can be very difficult to offer something you have not experienced.
Even more than compassion being unfamiliar, for some people compassion can be quite frightening. If efforts to receive compassion from others were met with hostility or rejection, or the same people/person offered both, it is completely understandable that compassion has become something not be trusted. Fortunately, self-compassion is something that can be learned, and with practice can become as familiar and automatic as self-criticism is now.
‘I don’t deserve self-compassion – I’m to blame.’
For many people who have been impacted by sexual abuse, feelings of shame and self-blame can contribute to low self-worth and beliefs about not deserving anything positive, including compassion. Some of the myths associated with masculinity can contribute to this belief. For example, it is not uncommon for men who have experienced abuse to judge themselves for not being strong or powerful enough to overcome the offender, or to feel incredible shame associated with physical reactions which occurred in response to the abuse. Often, survivors will beat up on themselves for accepting gifts, for physically enjoying or seeking out attention etc., whereas the only person or persons responsible and to blame are the ones who chose to take advantage of a position of power for their own needs and gratification.
Self-blame and shame are common and debilitating impacts of sexual abuse. Self-compassion is the antidote to self-blame: self-blame and self-compassion cannot co-exist.
How can I cultivate self-compassion?
Like any new skill, learning how to respond to yourself with self-compassion will take time and practice, and it is definitely not easy at first! Your self-critical voice has had a lot of rehearsal time and is used to the starring role, so it will keep showing up for a while. The first step, therefore, is to acknowledge this voice and allow it to be there without giving it the microphone. Instead, we want to hear what self-compassion has to say.
There are a number of exercises you can do that can help cultivate self-compassion: here are a few suggestions to get started:
Take a self-compassion break: Kristin Neff suggests that self-compassion has 3 components:
- Mindfulness – present-moment awareness of our suffering.
- Common Humanity – a recognition that suffering is part of the human condition.
- Self-Kindness – offering ourselves understanding and kindness.
With these three components in mind, Neff recommends during times of stress, instead of responding with habitual self-criticism, we instead offer ourselves a self-compassion break by taking a deep breath and speaking these words to yourself, out loud or silently in a warm and caring tone:
This is a moment of suffering/stress/pain
We all have struggles to deal with in life
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
Use words that feel appropriate for you and your situation, but the point is to acknowledge that you are struggling and respond in a wise, caring, and helpful way.
Ask yourself what you would say or do for someone else in this situation: Some people find it easier to offer compassion to others than receive it from either themselves or someone else. A good way to start cultivating compassion is to ask what you would say to a friend who was feeling the same way.
This is a particularly important question if you experienced abuse as a child and continue to be self-critical and self-blaming. Quite often this occurs because you are viewing the situation through the perspective of yourself as you are now – an adult – and assuming you had the same understanding and resources that you may have now. Ask yourself what would I say or do for a child (of the same age) who was feeling and thinking the way I do about myself? The answer to this question provides clues as to what your own intuitive wisdom knows will be helpful for you. Listen to it.
Pause: Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do in response to a difficult feeling or experience is PAUSE. A moment to notice and pause breaks the cycle of reactivity and allows you to choose your response. Ask yourself:
What is the most wise and helpful thing I need for myself right now?
Be guided by your response – this is compassion – acknowledging the difficulty and then using your wisdom to determine what will be the most helpful way to alleviate your distress. Remember to use the word ‘wise’ in your question, as this will make sure you choose a response that will be beneficial not only in the short-term but in the long-term as well.
Make a list in advance of what some of these options might be for when you need them. What you need may be different each time. Sometimes you might need to contact a friend or loved one, another time you might need to do something physically active, and other times you might need a quiet space to reflect. Whatever wise and helpful response you choose, make sure you do it with self-kindness and encouragement.
Guided meditations: Several of the websites below contain guided meditations which will help you to develop a compassionate mind. This is a really great way to start, especially if you have no frame of reference for what a compassionate voice sounds like. Use the guidance from these meditations to slowly develop the qualities and skills to respond to yourself (and others) with care and compassion. It might not feel natural to begin with, but compassion is a motivation towards alleviating suffering. Setting the intention to develop a more compassionate mind is therefore a critical first step.
Self-compassion may not be easy, but it is definitely worthwhile. Allowing space and practice for self-compassion will provide an alternative to the habitual habits of thinking, feeling, and responding, and free you from that self-critical and judgemental voice which was probably never even yours to begin with.
Where can I get further information?
- Compassionate Mind Foundation (UK): www.compassionatemind.co.uk
- Compassionate Mind Australia: https://www.compassionatemind.org.au/
- Mindful Self-Compassion (Kristin Neff): www.self-compassion.org
- The Center for Compassion-Focused Therapy (US): http://www.mindfulcompassion.com
- The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert
- Recovering from Trauma using Compassion Focused Therapy by Deborah Lee
- Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
- The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer