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Self-Compassion, Part I: After Trauma

Sad woman

A common but frequently unrecognized side effect of traumatic life experiences is an excessive harshness toward oneself, which often coexists with a healthy degree of care and concern for others. While this harshness toward oneself can be expressed in a multitude of ways, a commonality is the existence of different standards for yourself than the standards held of others. Be it standards regarding fairness, worth, acceptability, or love, the standards for yourself can be far more stringent, unrealistic, and possibly unattainable. Phrased another way, you judge yourself with more rigorous criteria than you use for anyone else. Ultimately, this demandingness does not lead to increased achievement but rather perpetuates the emotional mistreatment and ensuing wounds you experienced in your past.

Healing this harshness toward yourself is pivotal in your ability to embrace a meaningful and desirable life, one that contains more peace than misery, more joy than pain. A cornerstone in this healing is the development and growth of self-compassion.

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Before exploring what compassion is and how to cultivate it, let’s clarify what compassion is not. Often times people equate compassion with an almost spineless, sugary form of kindness. Some associate it with a type of hall pass—granting one total permission to wallow in endless complaints and accusations of unfairness. Compassion is neither. Nor is compassion the contemptuous or indulgent variant of pity that many independent individuals regard as kryptonite. So, what is compassion?

Defining Compassion

Compassion is an awareness of hurt, suffering, difficulty, or unfairness that progresses past mere recognition. Unlike sympathy, sorrow, or commiseration, compassion entails at minimum a hint of action or desire to help. This awareness elicits a turning toward the source and stokes a soft gentleness toward the pain. There is an inclination to alleviate the pain, to rectify the experience; either with an edge of urgency or with a sense of longer-term dedication. “Compassion” means tenderhearted recognition of pain or distress, coupled with a desire to alleviate it.

These components of compassion—recognition of, tenderheartedness toward, and a desire to alleviate distress—take a powerful stance against past wrongs and champion healing. This makes compassion diametrically opposed to callousness, indifference, and heartlessness.

A prerequisite for compassion is an unabridged recognition of life’s experiences as they were and as they are. Revisionist history is not fertile soil for compassion. Many survivors of painful life events struggle with accepting the full impact as well as the wide range of emotions that were/are unleashed by the untoward life event. For many there is an unspoken trade along the lines of, “If I censor or deny the magnitude of this experience then I will be protected from any further damage,” making a complete accounting and inventory implausible.

Skip the Judgments

Once there has been an acceptance of life as it was/is, then you can practice having a tender, nurturing stance toward the pain, difficulty, or struggle you are experiencing. Such a stance requires that you relax or abandon rigid judgment—rather than determining your situation, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings as being “good” or “bad,” “legitimate” or “ridiculous,” you are acknowledging them as simply being. This acceptance is necessary—if you maintain a judgmental stance, you will evaluate whether your traumatic situation is worthy of compassion. Odds are you will conclude that your situation does not meet the requirements for compassion.

For example, imagine that you have a beloved dog as both your pet and companion. One day the two of you are out on a walk and your dog stumbles over a divot in the road. If you judge your dog as being irresponsible because she was not watching where she walked, you will most likely express some irritation and keep on walking. If, on the other hand, you do not apply judgment to the situation but simply assess that your dog stumbled and scraped her leg, the odds are higher that you will react compassionately. You will literally and emotionally turn toward your dog, whisper gentle words, determine whether she can keep walking, and make decisions based on what will alleviate your dog’s discomfort. It is only by skipping judgment and assessing the current reality of the situation that your compassion can flow freely.

So, how do you begin to grow your compassion? The next few articles will begin to answer this question, but for now just start small. The next time you experience some stress or a hurt feeling, practice acknowledging the reality of the turn of events, recognize your emotional pain as being present and legitimate, tap into your tenderness, and extend a dollop of this nurture from yourself to yourself.

Keep in mind that growing compassion, just like any other skill, takes practice. You will grow more proficient at it, and don’t forget to practice extending compassion to yourself even as you are working on growing self-compassion. Finally, as always, feel free to harness the wisdom and knowledge of a trained professional to help you practice developing this worthy skill.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Kramer August 1st, 2011 at 2:43 PM #1

    YOu know,reading this post made me think about how many of us believe that we did something wrong if we do end up in a sticky situation or suffer a trauma.I think sometimes we need to chill about it and tell ourselves that there was no other way it could have worked out.

    Its not always you,sometimes other factors can take over too!

  • Jeff Reynolds August 1st, 2011 at 7:29 PM #2

    It always seems that I am in the wrong even when I am actually right. I have always wondered if this was because of losing my parents at when I was 8. I just never seem to actually be in the right and at the standard of performance that I think I should be at. When I then face a discussion with my girlfriend I can always see her side of the discussion and realize all the faults I had in the discussion. It really is like the wrong that has been done is always my fault.

  • Meg August 1st, 2011 at 11:33 PM #3

    Really good article and good reminder thanks

  • katt August 2nd, 2011 at 3:13 AM #4

    harsh to yourself after trauma?! whenever I go through an unpleasant phase or am feeling down I feel sorry for myself and if someone else is the reason for it, I blame that person in my mind. I would never be harsh to myself especially at a time when I’m low…!

  • rebekah August 2nd, 2011 at 4:34 AM #5

    We are typically our own worst critics, so I can easily see how you could fall into that trap of self blame and loathing when something traumatic happens in your life. You think that this happened for a reason, and that the reason may be that you were not good enough to ward it off. But try having a little moment for yourself in which you recognize that wehn bad things happen it is not your fault, and that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And then tell yourself that there is work and healing to be done but that you are strong enough to get through that and to make those positive steps forward in life.

  • Edwin Rutsch August 2nd, 2011 at 12:23 PM #6

    hi Susanne

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion: CultureOfEmpathy.com


  • Richard July 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 AM #7

    Hello Susanne,
    Thank you, a beautiful expression of love (support, caring, sharing, fairing, airing, honor, honesty…).
    As long as we are ‘effectively’ imperfect, we will judge. Honoring, seeing, noticing, accepting and expressing my judgment ‘upon myself’–embracing my ‘effective’ faults–will carry me to peace in my spirit. The conflict that has plagued and suffered us for thousands of years will fade away into memory and we will never again need think of these days negatively.
    We will see we ‘felt’ bad to move us to accepting peace.
    Peace and love, r

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