This article is the third in a series that aims to look at the concept and development of self-compassion. We’ve defined compassion as a tenderhearted recognition of pain or distress, coupled with a desire to alleviate it. The first article looked at the concept of compassion as a whole while the second explored growing compassion through recognizing limits. This article will look at the first part of our definition of compassion: having tenderheartedness toward your distress.
The type of tenderheartedness that is integral to compassion is more than a soft emotion: it is a relational stance. It is easy to forget about and neglect the relationships we have with ourselves, all too often ignoring this relationship or bullying ourselves. For example, many survivors of trauma will repeat the words an abusive individual once hurled at them, and in turn will develop an abusive relationship with themselves. Self-compassion stands in opposition to this and offers a gentler way to interact with yourself.
As noted, tenderheartedness describes the relational stance you have toward the parts of you that are in distress. Rather than judging yourself as being insufficient, weak, or inferior for having this distress, tenderheartedness enables you to simply experience the distress. In addition to being open to distress, tenderheartedness entails a gentle assessment of the distress. Tenderheartedness does not allow for an overestimation nor an underestimation of the distress. Rather, it advocates an accurate recognition of the type and depth of pain you are experiencing.
Understanding tenderheartedness is easiest to do experientially, so let’s look at some examples. At a conference I once attended, psychologist Sylvia Boorstein presented a wonderful demonstration of tenderheartedness. She shared a story of being overwhelmed when, upon recognizing this emotional distress, she gently stated to herself, “Sweetheart, you are stressed out.” This simple statement captures the essence of tenderheartedness as it gently acknowledges distress, without minimizing, invalidating, or morphing it into something larger. Tenderheartedness does not require grand statements or big words, but simply a gentle acknowledgement of the source, be it disappointment, feelings of rejection, hurt, exhaustion, or loneliness.
Reacting to Distress
A common misconception is that a tenderhearted recognition of your distress will result in your feeling peaceful, positive, loved, or nice. The truth is that you will feel your distress, which by definition is not a pleasant feeling. However, the benefit of having such a relational stance toward your pain is that it enables you to acknowledge, feel, and hold your pain. This, in turn, enables you to take appropriate actions to prevent future suffering.
Notice the relational stance you tend to take toward your distress. Do you give yourself a pep talk to toughen up? Do you belittle the hurt that you are experiencing? Do you feel as if you will dissolve in the distress, as if you couldn’t possibly cope with it? Do you move into a different emotion such as anger, sarcasm, or resentment?
If you have it in you, play around with extending a tenderhearted stance toward your distress. You can follow the example of Sylvia Boorstein, and you can replace “sweetheart” with your own term of endearment. Try making your own statement that captures what you see as the essence of tenderheartedness. Either way, know you can always reach out to a trained professional for some tenderheartedness. Remember to extend gentleness to yourself as you continue to heal and grow.
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