When something goes wrong, do you tend to blame yourself? Are you generous about the quirks and mishaps of your friends, but much harder on yourself?
Do you take care of the needs of others while you drive yourself to the ground?
People who struggle with self-compassion tend to answer yes to these kinds of questions.
If you have experienced trauma, and especially if you were maltreated as a child, odds are high that you are very self-critical. Even if you intellectually know you were not to blame for the trauma, your emotional self tends to believe otherwise.
It can feel very frustrating to continually bump up against this seemingly self-destructive tendency.
A New Perspective
The amazing thing is that what is actually driving your self-criticism is something life affirming and even heroic. Let me explain.
As humans, we all need to belong. Next to the need for food and shelter, that is one of our greatest needs. That’s why children who are not touched or paid attention to enough stop growing, and some even die.
Because the need to belong is so strong, we will do most anything to feel connected to others. The younger we are, the stronger this biological need. If we are abused or not protected by trusted adults, we will blame ourselves rather than risk loosing our connection.
Here’s an example to clarify what I mean:
Since little Mary’s father came back from Afghanistan, he has been struggling with depression and alcoholism. When he drinks, he can become very abusive. Today is a bad day for him and he’s been drinking since he woke up, but Mary doesn’t know that.
She comes home from pre-school and eagerly wants to re-connect with her pre-war dad, the dad of her dreams. She runs up to him, hoping to get picked up and told what a beautiful princess she is. Instead, he recoils from her embrace, and yells, “Get away from me, you disgusting brat!”
Mary loves her father, and she needs to believe that he is capable, trustworthy, and safe. Because, if he is not those things, then who will care for her?
So, she decides, immediately and unconsciously, that she is to blame. A deeply hidden part of her now holds the belief that she is flawed, disgusting and therefore deserving of rejection.
By believing this, she is achieving two essential goals: by making her dad right she can maintain her connection to him, and by making his rejection her fault she creates hope that she can change enough to become lovable and worthy of care.
Think about the sheer, desperate heroism of this little girl. Faced with an impossible situation and an untenable choice, she does the best she can.
She picks up the crippling burdens of self-criticism and self-hatred to preserve her relationship with the father she loves with all her heart. How can you not have compassion for her?
Here’s the key point—your self-criticism served the same purpose.
At some point in your life, you were forced to make the same “no-choice” choice as little Mary. You had to decide to be harsh toward yourself to preserve connection, hope and the possibility of safety.
Is it not time to start appreciating what you had to do to make the best of a very bad situation?
How Do I Learn to be Kinder to Myself?
The key to self-compassion is to allow yourself to feel empathy for your most wounded parts, and the last-ditch defenses you had to devise to make your life as liveable as possible.
These strategies can help increase your self-compassion:
1) Write yourself a letter. Imagine what the kindest, wisest person you know would say to the small, hurt child you once were. Write that down. Read it to yourself as often as you can.
2) Comfort yourself. Place a hand over your heart, and allow yourself to feel the sadness of the difficult choices you had to make, and the comfort of the physical warmth of your touch. This is an especially useful practice during moments of self-criticism.
3) Develop a meditation practice. Through meditation, you can learn to experience peace and relaxation, allowing the self-critical thoughts to fade away.
As you become increasingly comfortable with self-compassion, your self-critical thoughts will become less frequent, less harsh, and quieter.
When you are able to express kindness toward yourself, the part of you that was forced to choose self-disregard will gradually awaken to the idea that those choices are no longer necessary.
Is It Time To Get Help?
For some people, developing self-compassion is fairly easy. They can readily feel compassion for little Mary in the example above, and can translate that compassion into care for themselves.
Some people have a harder time with this. If you find that you can have compassion for other children, but not yourself when you were a child, this would be a time to get some help.
It doesn’t mean you are actually flawed, only that you had many experiences reinforcing the need for self-criticism. Together we can gently un-pack this need, until you too are able to honour the harrowing survival decisions you were forced to make.
I invite you to read the other blogs on my website, complete the quizzes and look at the webinars.
When you are ready, call me at 250-515-2123 or use the pop up box to schedule a free 15-minute consultation. It would be a great pleasure to support you on your healing journey!