The Uncomfortable Side-Effect of Self-Compassion That We Don’t Often Talk About

Self-compassion didn’t come easily to me, and if I’m fully honest, I still struggle with it at times. My brain is very creative (I can come up with incredibly imaginative worst-case scenarios) and over the years my head’s been a pretty awful place to live in at times. I’m so grateful for my own healing journey and how far I’ve come, as well as the levels of self-compassion I’ve been able to develop over the years.

For some reason in the past couple months, self-compassion has been popping up in my life all over the place. It came up as a theme in a few sessions I’ve had recently with clients, in my teaching at the college, as well as in conversations I’ve had in my personal life and with colleagues.  As a result, I’ve been thinking about the process of developing or growing our ability to show compassion for ourselves.

In all the different ways it’s shown up, one thing has remained constant – self-compassion is SO DAMN HARD.

It’s hard to feel, it’s hard to sit with, and so often we humans go back to judging ourselves for our reactions or feelings instead of having compassion for them and ourselves.

We all know that self-compassion is a healthy, healing thing, and we know we “should” be giving ourselves the love we need and deserve. (By the way, anytime we’re “shoulding” on ourselves, we’re judging and shaming ourselves – kind of the opposite of self-compassion, and yet, we do this so often!)

But rarely is understanding the benefits of something enough to change our behaviours.

We also need to understand our barriers to them – we need to understand what’s preventing us from getting there, and honour or accept where we are first. Basically, we need to know why it’s so damn hard.

One of the biggest barriers to showing ourselves self-compassion is because it, like all forms of compassion, requires us to be able to sit with someone’s hurt, pain, and vulnerability. This is hard enough when it’s someone else, but when it’s our own pain or vulnerability it becomes even harder.

We literally have to hold space for our hurt while loving ourselves through it. This requires us to lean into our pain and be able to sit in all that muck without jumping back out. Judging becomes a way of distancing ourselves from the pain we’re feeling – we don’t have to feel vulnerable if we’re too busy deciding what we could have done to avoid that feeling.

Self-compassion is tricky because on the other side of the pain we need to sit through is the joy, the relief, the connection and the peace we’re looking for and we hear about when people talk about self-compassion.

It’s almost like we have to feel a bit worse before we start to feel better. And if our aim is to feel better, then, of course, we’re going to think we’re doing something wrong when we start to feel worse.

This feeling worse before we feel better is a huge barrier to giving ourselves the grace and support we need. And if you’re anything like me, you may even find you get caught in a cycle of judging yourself for not having compassion, and then judging yourself for judging yourself (and on and on and on).

Maybe the answer is to just let it be as hard as it is – let it hurt and be uncomfortable and know that this is part of the process and doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong. Maybe the pain and discomfort that we feel when we have compassion for ourselves actually means we’re doing something right, and we can even reframe that discomfort as a step forward rather than back.

And if all you can handle is 5 seconds of pain or discomfort, that’s your starting point. Next time it maybe 6 seconds, or even 10. Eventually, with practice, it does become easier – like how side effects from medications reduce over time.

Because the reality is that we all deserve to be loved by ourselves, and we all deserve the relief and peace that comes from sitting with ourselves through our own pain.

If you’re struggling with a lot of self-judgment or have low levels of self-compassion, I encourage you to reach out to others (friends or family you trust, a helpline, or a therapist). We all struggle at times and learning to love ourselves is a heck of a lot easier when we’re connected with people who can support us through the process.

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