Practicing Self-Compassion in Difficult Times

Life is full of unexpected turns. When faced with difficulties, such as an illness, death, divorce, job loss, failures or other painful life events, it can feel disorienting and you may feel as though the ground beneath you is no longer stable. In times like these, our first instinct is to fight back, run away or try to control the situation so that things return to the way they were.

When we finally realize that doing all those things only brings us more frustration, anger and sadness we sometimes turn that pain inward and blame ourselves for unfortunate life events. Somehow we begin to believe that we failed at stopping the event, or didn’t prepare for it in advance, or weren’t smart enough to “turn things around”. This self-blame can take many forms and all of them make us feel shame about who we are and why we aren’t good enough, strong enough or smart enough to handle change.

The reality is that every new challenge results in a learning curve — whether it is dealing with a chronic illness, having financial difficulties, dealing with a child who is struggling, or helping a parent with Alzheimer’s. Each challenge is new to us, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to know how to do things we’ve never done before.

When we are hard on ourselves for being imperfect human beings we then have two problems…the original one we started with, and being hard on ourselves for not knowing how to handle it.

Self-compassion helps us hold our own suffering with kindness and care—it brings us back to awareness of the truth of our experience (sadness, shortness of breath, racing thoughts …) rather than being lost in the various scenarios of what might happen. As we open to our own experience with kindness, we step out of the our own worst case thoughts and are able to respond more kindly and wisely to what we are feeling emotionally and physically.

The practice of loving-kindness broadens our care and concern to include others, too—those near and far; those we love and those we have difficulties with. When we practice sending wishes of kindness and friendliness to difficult people–including, if we feel ready, the one we feel most hostility towards or are most afraid of—they become less of a threat and more a human being who is suffering and acting out their suffering in not so positive ways.

It’s not that mindful self-compassion solves the problems of the moment. It doesn’t. It simply helps us move away from the fear of change and allows us to open up our perspective to one of hopeful possibilities. Self-compassion and other practices that encourage positive emotions-gratitude, awe, generosity, joy, delight, serenity, love- simply shift the functioning of the brain so we can learn to understand, and not always solve, the problems we face.

This shift happens when we intentionally choose to focus our awareness on the feeling of the experience of compassion, gratitude, etc. These practices can change the functioning of the brain instantly. With practice over time, these practices become steadily more reliable, the new “go to” when we are navigating the twists and turns of life. And mindful self-compassion shifts the possibilities of our responses instantly, in this moment, in any moment, over time in every moment. It becomes natural and effortless.

Here is one example of how to practice shifting your emotional response to unwanted or unplanned change:

Place your hand on your heart for a few moments to remind yourself to bring kindness to yourself.

  • Let yourself recall a mild-moderately difficult situation that you are in right now, perhaps a health problem, stress in a relationship, or a loved one in pain. Do not choose a very difficult problem, or a trivial problem—choose a problem that can generate a little stress in your body when you think of it. Now clearly visualize the situation. Who was there? What was said? What happened?
    • Now that you’re thinking about this situation, see if you can’t name the different emotions that arise within you– anger? sadness? grief? confusion? fear? longing? despair? Shame?
    • Can you name the strongest emotion—a difficult emotion—associated with that situation: Repeat the name of the emotion to yourself in a gentle, understanding voice, as if you were validating for a friend what he or she is feeling: “That’s longing.” “That’s grief.” Use the same warmhearted tone of voice that you would use if you were validation how a friend feels.
    • Now expand your awareness to your body as a whole.
    • Recall the difficult situation again and scan your body for where you feel it the most. In your mind’s eye, sweep your body from head to toe, stopping where you can sense a little tension or discomfort.
    • Choose a single location in your body where the feeling expresses itself most strongly, perhaps as a point of muscle tension or an achy feeling.
    Recall the difficult situation again and scan your body for where you feel it the most. In your mind’s eye, sweep your body from head to toe, stopping where you can sense a little tension or discomfort.
    • Now choose a single location in your body where the feeling expresses itself most strongly, perhaps as a point of muscle tension or an achy feeling.
    • In your mind, incline gently toward that spot.
    Then soften into that location in your body. Let the muscles be soft without a requirement that they become soft, like simply applying heat to sore muscles. You can say, “soft…soft…soft…” quietly to yourself, to enhance the process. Remember that you are not trying to make the sensation go away—you are just being with them with loving awareness.
    If you wish, let yourself just soften around the edges, you don’t have to fully immerse yourself in the situation.
    Soothe yourself for struggling in this way. Put your hand over your heart and feel your body breathe. Perhaps kind words arise in our mind, such as, “This is such a painful experience. May I grow in ease and well-being.”
    If you wish, you can also direct kindness to the part of your body that is under stress by placing your hand in that place. It may help to think of your body as if it were the body of a beloved child. You can say kind words to yourself, or just repeat, “soothe…soothe…soothe.”
    Allow the discomfort to be there. Abandon the wish for the feeling to disappear. Let the discomfort come and go as it pleases, like a guest in your own home. You can repeat, “allow…allow…allow.”
    “Soften, soothe, allow.” “Soften, soothe, allow.” You can use these three words like a mantra, reminding yourself to incline with tenderness toward your suffering.
    If you experience too much discomfort with an emotion, stay with your breath until you feel better.

Slowly open your eyes when you’re ready.

It doesn’t matter if we’re not perfect, are having trouble adjusting to life’s challenges, or struggle to keep going. No matter what, we deserve kindness, compassion, grace, and understanding. No one gets through life without struggling or making mistakes. We are human and are learning as we go. Just remember- when things are at their worst, we have the chance to be at our best. That’s the essence of self-compassion.