Self-Compassion, Part IV: Coping with Distress

200338261-001In this series, we have been looking at how to increase the compassion you have for yourself. The first article looked at the concept of self-compassion as a whole, the second explored how to recognize your limits, and the third focused on how to have tenderheartedness toward your distress. This article is the final installation on using compassion in facing and accepting emotional distress.

Acknowledge, Experience, Act

As discussed in this series, acknowledgment and tenderheartedness show you how to no longer hold yourself as separate from distress. Dissolving this boundary between distress and your sense of self allows you to begin understanding the true nature of your hurt. This, in turn, allows you to be more effective in your attempts to alleviate pain.

A simple example is a mild pain in your stomach. A self-compassionate stance would begin by acknowledging the pain. The pain would be regarded as valid, as worth paying attention to, without belittlement or judgment. This openness to the pain enables you to experience it clearly and feel its nuances. Through this experiential understanding, you become far more capable of deciding what needs to take place in order to stop it. Is it hunger pains, indigestion, the pains of food poisoning, or the flu? Recognize the pain, feel it deeply, and make decisions according to your experiences.

This facet of self-compassion can be the hardest for survivors of trauma. Unlike acknowledgment of pain or tenderheartedness, deeply feeling distress requires full contact. Acknowledging your pain can be done in a purely logical and non-emotional manner. Tenderheartedness, though fully emotional, can sometimes be done from a psychological distance: tenderheartedness is directed at the pain, but not the one in pain. Beginning to own your emotions tends to shatter the conception that you are separate from your feelings. You will experience your distress in all of its nuances but a stance of self-compassion will not abandon you in this place of hurt.

Maintaining Balance

Many individuals keep their pain at an arm’s distance. They assume that practicing self-compassion means allowing pain to be all consuming. This is not the case. The tricky part with experiencing and alleviating distress is that it requires a delicate balance: neither disowning nor being engulfed by the pain. Remember the earlier example of stomach pains. If you ignored them, you would be unable to take action and end the pain. If you were engulfed by pain, you would feel helpless in the face of overwhelming hurt.

Self-compassion helps maintain this balance. Inherent within self-compassion is the acknowledgment and acceptance of wounds with the intention of healing, growing, and moving forward. Self-compassion requires both a tender connection with experienced pain and an unyielding commitment to active healing.

I encourage you to practice growing self-compassion for who you are, who you have been, and for all that you have gone through. Feel free to work on whatever component of self-compassion is most appealing to you at the present but don’t forget that all components are fundamental to compassion. As always, reach out for the guidance and compassion of a trained professional—you do not need to go the road alone.

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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views 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.

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  • bryan


    November 2nd, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    “Not only does self-compassion stand against being engulfed by your pain, it also stands against inaction.”

    best part of the blog for me.there is that perfect balance wherein you’re working on your pain but still being yourself and not being taken over by the pain coz that would not let you fix the pain at all.its almost as if you’re walking a tight line but in the end it’s all worth it.walking with an emotional scar or pain is I think more damaging than walking with physical pain.Ive been there and trust me,you wouldn’t want to experience it.

  • melinda


    November 2nd, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    It is difficult to see when you are in the throes of such self hatred and pity, but it really is easier to let go of the pain when you are willing to acknowledge that there is a problem and you become open to resolving that pain. Whether you can do this on your own or with the help of someone else is totally dependent on you and your own needs. But letting it out in the open is the very first step toward healing and beginning a new and more fulfilling life.

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