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Our Visceral Reaction to Self-Compassion

By Marissa Tolero

THU OCT 15, 2020

It wasn’t until I started practicing therapy that I began to wrap my head around the idea of directing compassion inwards. Let me repeat that: it took becoming a therapist for self-compassion to cross my radar as a necessity, let alone an option. Before this, I heard advice sporadically about giving yourself a break or being kind to yourself. None of it really stuck though and a lot of the time I heard the words, but didn’t soak in the message. I still struggle constantly with self-compassion and in many ways am only beginning to truly live it. I know I am not alone in this experience. I’ve seen friends, family, colleagues, and now clients struggle greatly with self-compassion as well.

For one, we receive conflicting messages about extending compassion to others while also hearing and observing that certain folks and communities do not deserve compassion at all. We learn this from the micro to the macro levels - from family and peers to law enforcement and government. Compassion is intended for a certain kind of person with a certain skin tone, gender, socioeconomic status, and so on.

Second, usually our first introduction to compassion-towards-others is framed as “put others first”. So on top of confusing and hypocritical information regarding who deserves compassion, we receive a misguided definition of what it actually means. Putting others first inherently means we come second or not at all.

Third, self-compassion is rarely mentioned or learned. Sometimes it is even disdained as selfish.

I talk about self-compassion so much now because it is a core part of the way I approach therapy. This means I see how folks react to it when we discuss it as a goal to work towards. The responses are across the spectrum - from acknowledging nods to rolling eyes to rocking in place to blank stares. Even if the response is open and positive, it is almost always followed by “Yes, but..” with an argument against self-compassion.

These are perfectly normal, common, and understandable responses. So if this is how you also react to the idea of self-compassion, you are not alone. For me, I fell in the “blank stare” category: I didn’t so much despise or dismiss self-compassion, I just didn’t know what the hell it was.

These varying reactions are how all those years of compassion “education” show up in the here and now. Add on membership in a marginalized community and your experience with compassion is that much more complicated and likely lacking.

You’re confused by it. It makes you uncomfortable. You feel weird, awkward, and selfish for even considering self-compassion. Deep down, you might even be disgusted by it and want to hide from it.

When looking at these reactions objectively, the underlying message is clear: self-compassion is wrong. So we have a visceral reaction to it. We feel it in our bodies and it comes out in our words.

This is where I put my compassion-focused therapist “hat” on - not as someone who has conquered it by any means, but as someone who is unlearning and relearning what compassion towards others and myself means. Essentially, I’m meeting and working with those visceral reactions with, well, compassion. Whatever our initial reaction to self-compassion may be, it’s understandable. We can probably trace back where we learned about compassion in the first place. With this knowledge and awareness, we can reacquaint ourselves with it, facing those visceral reactions (and their underlying messages) with warmth and love. We can then begin to realize how much we not only deserve, but need, self-compassion to thrive.

Here are some questions to think/write/talk about:

  • What physical feelings and reactions do you have in response to the word “compassion”? What about “self-compassion”?
  • Where do you think this reaction stems from? In other words, where did you learn your current stance on compassion and self-compassion from? Take into account your identities and circumstances.
  • What would it mean to just consider being compassionate with yourself? What would that look like? What would it feel like?
  • What small step can you take today to start practicing self-compassion?

If you need more information, support, or guidance in your exploration of self-compassion, please reach out. Schedule a complimentary consultation for yoga+therapy today!