Self-compassion is responding kindly to yourself in moments when you need care and understanding. It sounds simple really, doesn’t it? Yet it’s something most of us struggle with to some extent.
Given that self-compassion is one of the key factors behind good mental health, understanding why it’s so challenging to actually relate to yourself in this way can be incredibly helpful and may just be the key to unlocking self-compassion for you, or opening it up a little at least.
So why is it so difficult to be kind to ourselves when we need it most?
The way we relate to ourselves during moments of suffering or pain stems largely from the messages we received when we were young about how to take care of ourselves when difficult emotions come up. In other words, the way that your parents or caregivers responded to your emotions is likely the way that you respond to your own emotions now.
If you were dismissed or ignored, you might have trouble recognising your own emotional needs. You might also feel numb or detached from what you feel and need.
If you were punished, you might feel angry with yourself when you feel emotions arising.
If you were teased when you were emotional (even if it was just “friendly” teasing), you might find yourself feeling embarrassed or ashamed as an adult when strong emotions come up for you.
If you were criticised, you might attack yourself or feel ashamed about having needs. Sometimes this can feel like a war in your head, between the part of you that feels sad, hurt or anxious and the part of you that says that’s ridiculous and you just need to snap out of it or harden up.
If you were left to deal with your emotions on your own, you probably feel alone and scared when strong emotions come up now as an adult.
All of these experiences can lead us to steer well clear of our emotions as adults, because emotions equal feeling awful about yourself.
You may have also seen your parents respond to their own emotions in ways that weren’t compassionate. As children, we’re little sponges, so we soak up the unsaid messages about how we should take care of ourselves when uncomfortable emotions arise.
How did your parents respond when you were upset? Do you mimic the response in any way when emotions come up for you now? Is the voice in your head similar in any way to what you were told or witnessed as a child?
Because of the messages we received responding to ourselves with kindness and care can sometimes feel strange, ridiculous, pointless or even bring up feelings of disgust and anger.
Developing the ability to be compassionate towards yourself, or strengthening this aspect of who you are, takes time. After all, if it was straight forward, we would all be doing it, wouldn’t we? Most of us have painful and confusing blocks in this area, though, especially if we have a history of trauma in our childhood.
If you find it hard to be kind to yourself in the moments when you need it most, working through some of the barriers with a psychologist can be helpful. Psychologists get that this stuff is challenging and complicated. They can help you to figure out why it is that relating to yourself in this way feels so tricky and give you some ideas for working around these barriers.