Self-Compassion, Part I: After Trauma

Sad womanA 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, CA. All Rights Reserved.

Permission to publish granted to The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kramer

    August 1st, 2011 at 2:43 PM

    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

    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

    Really good article and good reminder thanks

  • katt

    August 2nd, 2011 at 3:13 AM

    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

    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

    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:


  • Richard

    July 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 AM

    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

  • Judy

    June 8th, 2015 at 8:24 PM

    I have educated myself a great deal about my 8+ yr npd/socio, etc. I knew many yrs ago..he wasn’t “right in the head”. I went no contact and finally able to escape with his sabotaging ppl I stayed with, hired hands manipulating and scaring, and protection of order. None of his tactics worked. Got my order of protection. He has tried round about ways through another and his new source he had been grooming looooong time before I attempted my , I swear, 300th time to leave. Left last Nov, order of protection in Jan and still out. Albeit 1000 miles away. Unfortunately he is Orr trucker. But, quiet for most part outside of the two incidences. All I read is text book him. I am still spinning a bit but have moved forward quickly and repairing all…which I never ever felt would happen…not ever. Not married..although he wanted to…for even more control. I knew deep down and gave up long ago and think he knew but not ready to discard “the nanny to his son” while he was out gas’ll abating the states otr. Perfect job for him and his narc supply. I feel like I’m doing fine. The idea, memories of the fact it was all a lie and I meant nothing but a source to destoy and beat….leaves me a bit numb since I left…void of feeling anyway about it. I felt that way with him. I learned strengths, confidence and self love. I believe he hated that. I don’t feel hatred…a little of pity because it must suck being him with being what he is with his disorder. It was hell, drama, nightmare, abuse of every kind…I was to blame. I bet he still is living it….I have found my peace again. Just wonder if I just buried too much or really am doing ok because I knew for yrs something not right. BLocked some of his lies and mental abuse. ??? Day by day.

  • Adele

    June 8th, 2015 at 10:44 PM

    I have to admit I criticise and judge myself to the extreme. I blame myself for the death of my brother I’m the older sister I should have been there it was my duty my job. Now I’ve turned issues that’s happening in my life to be my fault I know they’re not but I can’t help feeling that way. Everyone else’s lives and problems are easier to deal with gave you ever noticed that……I much prefer to work on others issues I can forget mine.

  • Sofia

    August 9th, 2015 at 8:27 PM

    I discovered my now ex was abusing my daughter. After that I don’t know how I did the right thing. But now he’s in jail and I see him everywhere. A therapist told me that is part of my trauma. I know he’ll get out of jail soon and I just want to move. I know him and I’m afraid of him. I don’t know how to explain the reason I just have to move before he gets out of there. Now I have a daughter and a grandson from him and my other daughter. I’m educating myself to have a good family even with this issue in our lives. And I’m never ready for another relationship. That makes me feel so sad because I dreamed with a forever love I guess that’s over. Deep deep in my heart as a single mother and a dream to love and be loved. But that’s impossible. Period

  • Fiona F.

    August 15th, 2015 at 2:42 PM

    Jeff, I have felt like things are my fault for as long as I can recall. I feel like I bend over backwards to see the other person’s point of view while at the same time negating my own feelings and experience.

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