On self-compassion


One very snowy January day a few years ago, my kids and I arrived home with a 3-year-old rescue cat. As instructed, we brought him into the bathroom before we opened up the cardboard carrier we’d been given to bring him home from the shelter. The idea was to let him get used to us and our home slowly, without overwhelming him by dropping him into the middle of the living room, surrounded by new things and new people. The cat jumped out of the carrier and crawled underneath the small bathroom vanity. He then climbed into the bottom drawer, on top of the bath towels, which he could access from behind the sink. And he stayed right there…for weeks.


During those weeks, we would all take turns sitting in the tiny bathroom, back against the tub, legs squished between the vanity and the toilet and talk to the cat, pet the cat, just be with the cat. We were hoping that once he was used to us he’d relax and come out of the bathroom. My son would sit in the bathroom with a book, reading and absentmindedly stroking the cat. My daughter would bring in her little figurines and make up stories for the cat on the edge of the bathtub. I’d even come home to see my cat resistant husband’s legs stretched out from the bathroom into the hallway and hear him consoling this terrified creature. We didn’t yell at the cat for his fear, we didn’t despair that the cat would never be integrated into our household (although we were a little worried), nor did we promise the cat that if he just came out of the drawer everything would be wonderful. We just offered him, though our presence, compassion.

Many of us have had the experience of comforting a dog during a thunderstorm or a small child startled by a fireworks display. We intuitively know how to do this – stay with the child, connect physically in a way that is comforting, and speak reassuringly. As adults, we have a lot of reluctance offering this type of kindness to ourselves. We instead judge ourselves for being upset and berate ourselves for how we’re feeling. Or we might deny that we need to be comforted and instead distract ourselves, maybe by turning to our phones. When new parents are worried that their babies will never fall asleep by themselves, pediatricians talk about the need for the baby to learn to “self-sooth.” Many adults need to learn to self-sooth, too.

When I suggest to clients they extend themselves compassion and presence instead vitriol and denial, there is a lot of resistance. Mainly they worry that being self-compassionate somehow lets oneself off the hook and leads to mediocrity and more mistakes. It is deeply ingrained in our culture that beating ourselves up emotionally leads to high performance and great results. There is zero evidence that this is true.

I’d argue that we succeed in spite of this abuse, not because of it, and that you can be self-compassionate and have still high standards. More to the point, how do you want to go through your life? With your most vicious critic living in your head? Having self-compassion does not mean shirking responsibilities or lowering your standards. It is about slowing down and attending to yourself before you move on to necessary action, which might be the hard stuff: an apology, starting a project over, or standing up for yourself. Next time you are struggling, try first comforting yourself with the following exercise: 

  1. Put you hand on your chest and breath into your hand until you feel your body start to calm.

  2. Say something to yourself that is kind and simple, like, “You’re okay.” Or “This is so painful, but you can make it through.” Repeat this as long as feels right to you.

  3. Ask yourself, “What might help right now?” Ninety-nine percent of the time reaching out to a loved one does help. Other reliable helpers are fresh air, exercise, lying down for 20 minutes, or even taking on some tiny, manageable organizational/cleaning task. Remember, you are not yet trying to solve the problem, you are still attending to yourself.

Sadly, the cat never came out of the bathroom drawer. Just kidding. After about three weeks he tentatively ventured out into the living room, and has been fully in the mix of our lives ever since. Now he soothes us.

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