From my perspective, self-compassion boils down to being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. Over the years I've had a lot of people ask me about whether they could forgo compassion and just get things done by motivating themselves through shame and grit. My short answer is, I tried that method. As I’ve previously shared, it led to an entire year of intense daily pain. That was over years ago and I still have chronic pain issues, so life will never quite be the same. Fortunately, I've found ways to cope with it that don't involve telling myself what I "should" be doing.⠀
Oh, and the other answer involves that there's good research to back up my very individual story (thanks Kristen Neff!) about how shame isn't motivating – self-compassion is the way forward.
When I talk to clients about self-compassion, I often talk about acceptance. In this post, I wanted to touch on acceptance in three specific areas: acceptance of mistakes, acceptance of our limits, and acceptance of our feelings.
Accepting that we make mistakes
We hold ourselves to such impossible standards sometimes. And hey, I get it. If we can just be perfect, then we’ll never have to feel the horrible feeling of shame, right? So we aim for perfection, try never to make a mistake, and then hold our breath. Unfortunately, perfection is a plane of existence that doesn’t exist.⠀
From my perspective, not only is making mistakes allowed, but we can end up growing and transforming because of them. It’s part of what helps us move through life and learn about ourselves and our world. When we make a mistake, I feel like there’s SO MUCH we can do with it. Getting stuck in shame is not the only way. We can actually learn, repair, forgive ourselves, and do a ton of amazing healing work after we mess up.
I know forgiving ourselves might be a hard one, so here's my thought: we all make mistakes. After all, we're all human. We can learn to be accountable. We can learn to take responsibility for our part. We can learn to take a step back from shame and forgive ourselves, remembering that our mistakes (or the things we didn't know then) don't have to define who we are.
Accepting our feelings
Accepting our feelings has been an especially significant theme in the last year because many of us have been feeling uncomfortable emotions and probably also wishing we weren’t going through so much stress, anxiety, and pain. Isn’t that human? To be wanting to move away from the hard parts, and also to be feeling a lot of it right now.
However, when we try to get away from the difficulty, we deny our reality. And that reality doesn’t go away. We might temporarily push it down, but to what effect? The most long-lasting impact I see is what Tara Brach would describe as shooting ourselves with the second arrow. Not only are we still feeling the initial anxiety that was there – we’re now also feeling the shame of it too (“what’s wrong with me that I just can’t get through this?”). We’re left with twice as much pain, or more often more than we initially started with.
Now don’t get me wrong. If I could magically get rid of my fear of public speaking, or airplanes, I would! But since I can’t wave that wand, I’ve found there’s a better option: acceptance. Leading up to those events, I can take of those fears and anxieties rather than ignore them or try to muscle my way through the pain. Most of us know by now that pain gets worse when we try to suppress it, so I think it’s time to try something different. When we’re more self-compassionate and can accept what we’re experiencing as human, we do a way better job of taking care of the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts that go along with everyday life, and the whole thing gets easier to cope with and less intense over time.
Accepting that you have limits
You may have noticed by now that acceptance is a tough one because we're working to accept things we'd rather not. Like the fact that we do, in fact, have limits and can't do it all. Or like how we wish we had more time and energy for the things and people we love and, at the same time, our body is breaking down, making it impossible to give any more without great detriment to our health. ⠀
At the risk of sounding repetitive, you are human. Even if sometimes you don’t want to be constrained by those limitations. Even if you think you should be "better by now" or "able to handle more". Fighting it isn’t working anymore. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working anymore. Work on accepting that, just like every other human on this planet, you have limits too.
If you’re curious to learn more, please feel free to check out my new online Shame Resilience Skills course. I go over more of the elements of acceptance and my favorite ways of bringing about more self-compassion into your daily life.
In this video, I provide an intro to shame (including examples of how it can show up in our day to day lives) and shame resilience. Shame resilience starts with being able to identify shame and take a step back from it when it arises. Fortunately, shame resilience can start today with tools such as self-compassion. I include one simple idea anyone can try out, starting right now.
I know that so many parents are currently overwhelmed. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are suddenly finding themselves in a situation where they’re asking to be both a full-time worker and a full-time parent (sometimes single parent), and honestly, I just don’t know how this is possible. I’ve been so lucky that when the pandemic hit, my partner and I had what amounted to a 2-minute heart to heart on what we’d do about childcare. Me: “So…. You cool with going back to being the stay at home dad?” Him: “Oh yeah. That’s what I figured we’d do because it’s the only thing that makes sense.” And that was the end of that. She’s not at Kindergarten age yet so there’s no homework to be done, nothing special to keep up with. Not that it’s easy for him to do the parenting all day – but for us it’s at least it’s restricted to parenting, and not all these other tasks that other parents are trying to juggle. Most parents we know haven’t had it so easy. Usually they’re still working while also trying to figure out how to take care of the kiddos at the same time. And figuring out school expectations, and homework, and related technology.
I have a lot of compassion for the position this puts parents in because as as great as you might be at grade 3 math, you are not a math teacher. And on the off chance you are (oh hi!), you’re probably not your own kid’s math teacher, right? I learned this lesson very quickly when I took my daughter to gymnastics lessons this year. (So. Much. Fun. For me and for her). After a few weeks of official, totally fun lessons, I asked her if she wanted to do some of the skills at home one day, and she had an enthusiastic yes. This had me pretty excited because I love gymnastics and the idea of cartwheeling around together just seemed great. So we started to practice her forward rolls, and not 2 minutes in…. “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT MAMA!” She was frustrated enough to be stomping away. Apparently I was helping her “wrong” and that’s why her roll had gone sideways. No amount of explaining that I was doing it exactly the same way her teacher had done it (I watched) or that I’d done gymnastics for years before was helpful. I figured out that day that my job as her mama was to cheer her on from behind the glass wall (“you worked so hard! I’m proud of you!”) and not at all to try to give her feedback on how it could be better or teach her these particular skills. I’ll leave that up to the professionals. Who she does not stomp away from.
An update to this story. These days, we’re doing gymnastics videos from home. She still learns from the teacher, and I still watch with much cheering, very minimal interference. Once in awhile, I’ll ask her “do you want my help with this one?” and that’s been okay, but I offer it sparingly, because I still know that if I take on too much of the teacher role, it’ll be frustrating for both of us. I keep reminding myself that the point is for her to have fun, and as long as she’s not doing anything wildly dangerous, I really don’t need to step in. It’s not my job to make sure she has a perfect handstand. She’s 5. It doesn’t matter.
The importance of naming, without judgment, our emotions. We can bring compassion to our experience and make space for complexity in this difficult time.
Most people who have seen me in the last few years know how much I rely on self-compassion - in my own life and in my life as a clinician. I've seen so many amazing people struggle with never feeling good enough and self-compassion is the foundation I return to again and again.
I know some people aren't going to like this post. At the same time, as a Psychologist I think it's important to tackle difficult issues and share what I know from the research and from making a career out of helping people heal and move forward in their lives. Especially for those of us who are mental health professionals or are trusted experts in our communities, we need to make sure that what we tell others about healing and growth is safe, compassionate, and ultimately does no harm. I've been seeing more and more professionals suggesting books like The Secret, and it's extremely worrisome to me.
How often in a day do you catch yourself in "shoulds"?
Maybe it’s about a goal you’re trying to reach - “I should be further ahead with this project”. Or about something you’ve been told is important - “I really should work out more”. Perhaps it’s about a past mistake - “I should have known better”.
Did you ever wonder “whose voice is that?”
Those of you who read my post last week know a little bit about a difficult experience I had a few years ago when I was dealing with migraines. For those of you who haven’t read it, I shared that I had been in the habit of taking on more and more until my body finally said “stop”. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of a difficult work situation, was too much for my body to handle, and it progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.