My Mental Health Toolkit: Start with Self-Compassion
Updated: Jan 10
If I had to choose a place to start healing from a mental health injury or building mental health resilience, I'd choose self-compassion
When I think about the process I went through to heal from over thirty years of unresolved trauma, which I wrote about in my memoir, Shop Class Hall Pass, I debate about whether I went about it the best way. The most effective way. If there was a therapeutic technique I should have incorporated first. If there was one I should have delved deeper into and used more often. At the end of the ride on my mental merry-go-round of second guessing myself I always come to the same conclusion: there is no one best or right or perfect path to healing. But if I had to choose a place to start, I’d choose self-compassion.
When, at the age of 48, I started to make the connection between being repeatedly groped in ninth grade and my decades of mental health issues, something inside me finally released all the pain, shame, and humiliation I’d been suppressing for decades. The feelings overwhelmed me. Had me crying in unpredictable outbursts, lying in bed staring at the ceiling while confusion and a sort of grief washed over me, and transformed my usually manageable thoughts of suicide into comforting urges. And through it all, with every tear, minute spent in bed and suicidal thought, a voice in my head chided me: This shouldn’t bother you. You should be stronger. Other people have had it worse. You’re being a big baby. It wasn’t that bad. It happened over thirty years ago. It was only groping. You were never in danger. You were never hurt. You’re being ridiculous. You’re being dramatic.
Get. Over. It.
The voice wasn’t unfamiliar. In fact, it had been my constant companion for as long as I could remember. A voice that kept me in check from undeserved pride and pity. One I listened to closely and agreed with because it had no competition. A voice I’d never before questioned until I looked at a picture of myself. A picture of ninth grade me smiling for the school photographer. A picture taken after being sexually assaulted at least once. When I looked at that girl, I finally saw her for who she really was: a fourteen-year-old who was humiliated almost daily in front of her classmates and teacher. Whose automatic threat response was triggered with every sexual assault. A girl already starting to minimize and suppress the overwhelming physical and psychological feelings that, once they were released, I could barely manage as an adult. A girl who didn’t deserve to hear my voice scolding her to just get over it. A girl who deserved better than that. Who deserved my compassion.
I believe feeling compassion for my fourteen-year-old self was a turning point in starting to heal. Self-compassion didn’t directly address my symptoms of trauma. Rather it allowed me to accept that what happened to me mattered and that I, like my fourteen-year-old self, deserved to heal.
When I look through my journals and re-read my memoir, I see glimpses of self-compassion but it’s obvious it wasn’t intentional. Wasn’t yet a well-honed tool in my mental health arsenal. It wouldn’t be until a year after my memoir ends that I read books about self-compassion and completed The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. But still, I believe those small unintentional moments of self-compassion had a great impact on my healing process. That’s why I think self-compassion is a good starting point on the path to mental health healing.
Self-compassion might have the appearance of self-indulgent pity especially if you were brought up to think it was your job to always be okay, be fine, not bothered, unaffected and untouched by the variety of disappointments and hurts life brought your way. But self-compassion isn’t about feeling sorry for yourself. It’s about being honest about how something has affected you and showing up for yourself the way a supportive friend would. Learning about and developing the skills of self-compassion helped me cultivate a new voice. One that challenges my negative self-talk. One that is more accepting. More forgiving. More supportive. One that gives me a break for not being perfect and invincible. One that honors the limits of my humanity.
And here’s what I learned about compassion: there is enough for everyone. As much as they want, as often as they need it. There is no pre-requisite level of hurt or discomfort in order to receive it. There is no great all-knowing accountant of the universe tallying up where the compassion is going. There will never be an audit on how much you receive. It doesn’t cost anything. There is no bill coming due. Not only that, I believe compassion begets compassion.
By the time I started learning about and practicing self-compassion I had been working as a 911 operator and police call-taker for twelve years. It’s a job, like many others, that makes great demands on and tests the limits of a person’s capacity for compassion. After twelve years, the reserves in my compassion bank were at an all-time low. If a caller was reporting their wallet had been stolen, I found myself withholding empathy, not giving them the small verbal cues or softer tone of voice they needed to hear. If they tried to engage my compassion by explaining how upsetting it is to have a wallet stolen, what an inconvenience it will be to cancel and replace cards, I found myself getting frustrated and irritated at them for expecting me to give them what I felt I didn’t have. Because in the previous call I’d just used almost all of what was left of my compassion on the mother who just woke up to find her teenage son who was sick with the flu dead in his bedroom. I couldn’t afford to waste what was left on the theft of a wallet because I might need it for the next call.
When I started to practice self-compassion something inside me started to open. Make space. It seemed the more room I made for my disappointments and hurts, the more room I had for other peoples. No matter how big or how small. Pretty soon, when a friend, family member, co-worker or caller tried to elicit compassion from me for what I would normally deem a small “c” complaint, something my automatic defenses didn’t think deserved what little compassion I had left, I reminded myself there are no limits to compassion. When I remembered that, I found I had more to give and when I gave it, I discovered giving compassion feels a whole lot better than withholding it.
When I use the phrase self-compassion practice, I worry I make it sound like a time intensive operation and something I do consistently every single day. I don’t. Not even close. At least not now. At the beginning I did devote time to it almost daily for approximately eight weeks. The authors of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, suggest reading one to two chapters a week and practicing thirty minutes a day. I followed the reading schedule and completed all of the exercises but I can’t say I practiced a full thirty minutes a day every day. But I did my best. The more I practiced and the more I remembered to give myself self-compassion, the more it became ingrained and a natural response instead of something I had to sit down and take time out of my day to do. It is like learning any other skill. It takes focused effort and practice in the beginning, but eventually gets easier and more natural. I will, every now and then, when faced with something particularly upsetting or hard, take the time to do a more focused practice such as a guided self-compassion break.
And here’s the best part about giving yourself compassion: no one has to know you’re doing it. When you identify a moment when you could use a little self-compassion, you don’t have to announce it to the world and run to the bathroom to journal and cry it out. I mean, you can if you want. I know I have. There is no shame in showing vulnerability. In fact, I think it’s a sign of mega-bad-assery. But if you are worried about other people tagging you with labels like dramatic and over-sensitive and self-pity, you can quietly give yourself the compassion you need and deserve and maybe even extend it to those others because I suspect they need it more than they know.
Luckily, when it comes to cultivating self-compassion, you don’t need to rely on guidance from me. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. It’s been done for you by some incredibly insightful and dedicated professionals. I have included a list of the resources I use and recommend below.
If you’re interested in developing self-compassion but don’t have the time and energy to devote to cultivating the skill or aren’t ready to examine the places in your life where you suspect you might need it, consider trying the following: The next time you share a small disappointment with a someone like a bad night’s sleep or a pulled muscle and they say they are sorry, instead of waving their comment away say, ‘Thank you.’ Then try to receive the compassion they are offering. Try to feel the concern they have for you. Open your mind and heart to the idea that you deserve compassion and let the caring of others sink in. Because you, just like every other being in this world, do deserve compassion. And just like there is enough for everyone else, there is enough for you.
Kristen Neff PhD and Christopher Germer PhD. The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. The Guilford Press; Illustrated edition (Aug. 29 2018)
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook is a step-by-step guide which includes information and concepts about MSC followed by exercises, informal practices and meditations. The authors state MSC is a proven way to accept yourself and build inner strength. I purchased and completed this workbook approximately one year after my memoir ends. True to the authors claims, I became more accepting of myself and more resilient. I still practice MSC on a semi-regular basis or when I need a dose of self-compassion. It has helped me be a kinder and more supportive friend to myself and I believe (and hope) to others. If I had to choose one book to recommend about self-compassion, this would be it.
This is Dr. Kristen Neff’s, one of the authors of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook as mentioned above, website. It offers information about self-compassion as well as self-compassion practices. Dr. Neff also has written books and developed other self-compassion courses which are available on the store on her website.
This is Dr. Christopher Germer’s, one of the authors of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook as mentioned above, website. It offers information about his 8 week online or in person MSC course as well as a section with free MSC meditations and practices. He also has authored books about self-compassion.
I try to remember to use a self-compassion break whenever I am feeling frustrated, angry, hurt, disappointed or overwhelmed with a situation or am being particularly hard or critical about myself. This is my go-to self-compassion meditation.