Three Simple Steps to Greater Self-Compassion Even Under Stress

Photo by Marc Pell on Unsplash Image of woodland scene with moss

I’m a big fan of compassion. For the record, I’m not a fan of positive thinking. Compassion is different from positive thinking. If I was nervous before a public speaking event, positive thinking would have me repeat affirmations about how confident I was, and imagine my awesomeness as an inspirational, in-demand, public speaker.

With compassion, I focus on having compassion for the part of myself that is nervous and afraid, being warm and understanding just as I am. Compassion involves accepting the hard emotions rather than trying to change them.

Positive thinking directly seeks change — compassion directly seeks acceptance (which paradoxically can lead to transformation).

Compassion isn’t the same as assertiveness. That said, if someone practised self-compassion they may feel better able to assert themselves as a secondary effect.

While we’re here, mindfulness isn’t about thinking positively either — it’s about trying to notice how things are and not judge them, so not label them positive or negative.

Although I didn’t have the name for it at the time — which is shocking, given all the therapy and mental health input I’d had, and the fact that I was a dietitian — compassion got me through when I’d dropped below the rock bottom. I don’t know if it saved my life, but it sure as hell changed it.

Here’s what I’ve learnt about putting compassion into practice when things hit the fan. There are three steps:

  1. Reality

Reality means we’re not sugar-coating events or denying it’s tough by plastering over reality with positive affirmations. (But hey, if you find postive affirmations helpful then get stuck in (N American translation ‘get stuck in’ = ‘fill your boots’). I’m not trying to tell you how to feel or how to live your life, but I do want to make sure I’ve been clear about what compassion is and isn’t — that way we get to create knowledge that’s meaningful, which is sorely needed for social change.)

  1. Your reality might be: this sucks.

Common humanity means recognising that we are not the only person feeling this feeling. We might be physically alone but we are not detached from other humanity. We are connected by feeling like this, not separated.

2. Common humanity: Other people feel like this and we all count.

Kindness can be a borrow from your yoga or meditation practice, or an everyday phrase that validates your emotions, reminds you of your worth, serves to get you through.

3. Kindness can include ‘May I be well. May all beings be well’ or ‘Everyone deserves respect. I deserve respect’ or ‘This too will pass.’

These three steps, reality, common humanity and being kind and understanding, can switch our body processes from panic to safeness. When we get out of panic mode, or trauma-brain, we’re better placed to make decisions based on what we currently know. If we respond from panic some parts of the brain shut-down and we can’t access up-to-date information on ourselves. The hard feelings escalate and we can’t think clearly. Maybe we lash out at someone else, verbally or physically. Now there’s more confusion because we really didn’t intend to do that, and there’s more hard things to deal with. Maybe we also beat ourselves up or turn to coping strategies that come with their own unhelpful side-effects.

So, by strengthening the compassion muscle we get to soothe ourselves in the moment and we get back the capacity to make wiser choices and maybe also create less mess.

Sometimes the idea of ‘choice’ is a laughable insult because really, things are that bad. In case that hits a nerve: That totally sucks, and I’m sorry you’re having to cope with what you’re coping with. No-one should have to do that. Poverty, ableism, oppression are always wrong. Looking after ourselves isn’t the answer to structural violence or #MeToo or coronavirus. But it can be among the responses that we can turn to to support our mental and emotional ok-ness and hang onto our clarities and realities.

Having the option of trying compassion to maybe change how we feel when we are in the grip of an intensely difficult emotion, can give us a sense of having a bit more control over our own emotional lives. As a bonus point, feelings of choice and control can also switch body processes to safeness and even wellbeing. Safeness helps us plan, organise, cope. Here’s a great flow-chart that expands on this. (The benefits of having choice are explained by a concept called sense of agency. Sense of agency helps us understand why people with low control over their lives e.g. because of racism or classism, have poorer health outcomes.)

Coping with everyday day stuff in unprecedented times, andor living with oppression, andor plain bad luck, can mean we get exhausted and overwhelmed by powerlessness andor trapped by anxiety. Maybe we’re also spinning fast and furious around a self-blame loop. Compassion and self-care isn’t a panacea for everything that’s wrong and it’s not an alternative to addressing the world’s ills but it can help get us through.

Self-care helps with ampowerment which has to do with power-from-within. Ampowerment is as different from empowement in the way that dealing with an isolated dingbat is different from dealing with systemic abuse. Ampowerment centres us, empowerment centres social change. Of course, they’re interlinked, and can overlap: taking care of ourselves makes it more likely we can work collectively for systemic social change.

(Every health practitioner has a responsibility to ensure intellectual rigour, and call out the political subterfuge that misrepresents self-care as empowerment. Careless theory fuels deaths of despair because it hides power and creates suffering, it urges the marginalised to walk in nature and think positively while obscuring the structural roots of our experiences of health, wholeness and blame. Eating more vegetables might cure you of constipation and self-compassion might help you sleep, which is great for quality of life, but it’s not empowering. Urging the WHO to adopt a feminist economic agenda , now that’s empowering. )

Taking care of ourselves can include stewarding our time and energies to contribute to building the world as we’d like it to be, say, one where we look out for each other by sharing what’s got us through. Strengthening the compassion muscle is my offering to this ampowerment-empowerment agenda. With a reminder to ensure our theories emerge from a liberatory praxis (such as the health-justice approach Well Now). Power, my friend, with and to and through caring for the people.

Lucy Aphramor is a poetitian — a radical dietitian and performance poet. They developed the health justice approach Well Now.

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