Fighting Self-Compassion

Red and yellow lillies in vase

Strange as it may seem, I find myself fighting therapeutic approaches based on self-compassion. The reasons run deep and reveal a lot about the difficulty of trying to get depression completely out of my life.

In a recent post, I summarized Kristin Neff’s idea of self-compassion as a way of relating to ourselves that is more helpful than the commonly used idea of self-esteem. Instead of focusing on self-worth as a measure of psychic health, she believes it’s more important for your well-being to relate to yourself in a compassionate way.

Her concept of compassion incorporates kindness toward yourself, mindfulness and a sense of connectedness to the rest of humanity. I was intrigued by her articles and have been reading her extended treatment of this approach to wellness in her book, Self-Compassion.

Reading it turns out to be a big problem for me, but it’s not her fault. She writes well and brings the book to life with vivid stories about how she has learned to be self-compassionate. Clearly, it has been a hard-fought struggle for her, and I’m in the midst of the same battle.

The problem is, to be blunt, that I don’t want to be kind or compassionate or caring to myself. I have a visceral reaction when I read about this idea. Engaging the book turns out to be like working on a chain gang. I’ll read a page, toss the thing aside in contempt, try to break away, then feel myself pulled back to read some more. Luckily, she’s on to people like me and articulates exactly what we go through:

[P]people who are used to constant self-criticism often erupt in anger and intense negativity when they first try to take a kinder, more gentle approach with themselves. It’s as if their sense of self has been so invested in feeling inadequate that this “worthless self” fights for survival when it’s threatened.

That’s the idea. Something inside me feels like it’s fighting for its life.

Why else would I fight so hard against the idea of self-compassion when it is so easy and natural to feel love, kindness and compassion for others? All the mental traps come into play, the biases familiar from cognitive research.

When you have a strongly held opinion and read something that contradicts your belief, you tend to dismiss the idea you don’t like in a couple of ways. You apply a much stricter standard of proof. You punch holes in the argument because you know you disagree with the conclusion. You overlook anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived idea.

And you get angry, simply because you don’t want this idea to be true. It just doesn’t fit the belief you’ve held so deeply, perhaps one you grew up with. And I grew up believing that I wasn’t worthy of compassion or kindness.

It’s as if I’m doing life in penance – I did grow up in the Catholic Church so I learned the idea at an early age – but not the penance of prayer. It’s more like the self-lashing of the penitents who imitate the suffering of Christ at Easter. I’ve always had trouble with the physical extremes they go to, but I’ve had no trouble at all with severe mental and emotional beatings I have given myself.

Fortunately, the lifting of depression and the practice of mindfulness have long since weakened the hard belief in my own badness. But when I try to take the next step of relating to myself with compassion and kindness, I feel like I’m kicking against immovable boulders.

The bottom line seems to be that I’m supposed to be in pain. That’s the norm, that’s what I get in life. It just doesn’t feel right in my gut to be kind, gentle, soothing to myself, or even to relax for very long.

But these feelings have to be rooted in more than self-punishment and unworthiness. Those are the negatives, and this resistance must deliver something more positive, however, twisted that pay-off might be.

As I was trying to figure this out, I happened upon a brief podcast about something called Self-Defeating Personality Disorder. No, it’s not an official diagnosis. In fact, it’s been excluded from the DSM. I don’t want to go into it in any detail here but instead focus on one idea I took from the discussion.

Some of us grow up learning that the pathway to connection is through suffering. In my case, this weird emotional logic started with the premise that there was something in me that turned off the offering of love, kindness and compassion. The norm of the relationship on my parents’ side was cool detachment and the quiet demand for proof of my value.

On my side, I accepted their assessment, believed that I was lacking in a fundamental way and needed to make up for that. But there was another catch. Ultimately, whatever I did wouldn’t be enough. Things wouldn’t work out for me.

What I gained from accepting and believing all this was a security in my relationship with my parents. That is beyond strange. There I was, often full of anxiety and fear about falling short but settling into the security of knowing that while I couldn’t relax the effort to do well, it also wouldn’t change the fundamentals of my life. Secure in fear and emotional barrenness. Secure in perpetual dissatisfaction with myself – or, in Buddhist terms, secure in suffering.

It’s good to try to get this in words because it is so wrong-headed. I’ve long since learned how self-destructive this primitive logic is, and I’ve worked hard at changing it.

But I think the fear of losing the security of home and family ran so deep that I still resist the very thought of going beyond self-acceptance to self-compassion. It feels threatening and wrong on a gut level.

Getting that out in the open makes it easier to go back and read about self-compassion with a more open mind, and heart.

Have you had trouble feeling compassion and kindness toward yourself?

Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of a post from the archives.

27 Responses to “Fighting Self-Compassion”

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  1. David says:

    I can rely to your text, since I am in depression. I have been struggling with anxiety and depression since the age of 19, now I am 51. When I try to be self-compassionate, I end up hitting the part of me who thinks I dont deserve love, the harsh part of me. It is really difficult, cause it dont want to ease at all…

  2. Donna-1 says:

    John, you always seem to put your finger right on my pulse. For some reason, a story I saw on the news recently has come to mind. This middle-aged couple had diminished their daily calories to only 700-900 calories per day. The reason: they had read a study done on rats wherein the rats who were essentially put on a starvation diet lived longer than the fat rats. This couple wanted to live longer, so they decided (arbitrarily?) that because the starved rats lived longer, they too would live longer if starved. That was their whole goal. Longer life. Excuse me, but, what about the QUALITY of their lives? Measuring out my food with teaspoons and getting my daily quota of vitamins and minerals from a pill does not sound like the good life to me. Marie Antoinette was of the same opinion it seems.

  3. Bruce says:

    John, we all have our ways through this. I believe that depression is a deep imprint stamped onto us in early life. Certainly, it has genetic components but the trauma many of us are subjected to in early life (even in the womb) changes the way our genes are expressed which changes the way our brains work. The self-loathing we experience comes from that imprint, which tells us we are unloved, unwanted, worthless, useless, etc. (At bottom those feelings have no words because the imprint happens before we have language and it is registered deep in the emotional brain.)

    When my depression is activated, I know the imprint has come to life again. All attempts to love oneself or to practice self-compassion feel like a lie because the imprint is so much more powerful than words or concepts, all of which come from our adult self. The solution for me is to lay down and go deeply into the imprint and FEEL IT FULLY through crying, begging pleading for love, etc. This is deep feeling therapy, and the paradox of this approach is that the suffering is resolved not by trying to change the imprint from without (or above, from the cortex) but by going right into it and feeling it like a child. Only after having drained the power of that self-loathing through feeling does it abate. Only then does self-compassion become possible. It’s not easy and usually requires a therapist or knowing witness to sit for you while going through the feeling, but in my experience, it’s head and shoulders above all cognitive or mindful approaches to healing depression, which are based on detachment rather than integration.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Bruce –

      I’m glad you’ve found such a powerful way to work through depression. I find that depression has so many dimensions that I need multiple approaches for dealing with the range of its effects – from the feelings of despair to the loss of short-term memory to obsessive thinking, etc. I’ve never found one strategy that covers it all, so I keep exploring the various therapies and new research.

      Thanks for writing.

      John

  4. jim says:

    John,
    I have read your blog for about 6 months now. I have often been struck and how closely your experience mirrors mine, in just about every vector you have described. But not until this post have I felt that literally every word could have been written by me. This is astounding.
    I am astounded and grateful at your honesty and humility in your writings. I can’t begin to describe the positive effect reading this has on me. I realize I am truly not alone.
    Thank you for what you do.
    To Judy, your relpy resonates with me as well. I was not raised Catholic. We can all have self-hatred. All I can say is it will get better, it really will.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jim –

      I’m glad the post has been helpful to you and hope you can give yourself a break with some compassion.

      Thank you for writing.

      John

  5. Judy says:

    John, I really do get the extreme reluctance to treat onself with compassion. It’s better now, but I used to harbor such deep self-hatred and nobody was going to talk me out of it! I think the logic behind it was, if I keep the self-hatred alive, nobody else can hate me worse or hurt me worse. I would never be caught off-guard in a moment of “kindness” to myself or in a moment of not hating myself. I still have trouble when I’m with groups of people, where I can start thinking that nobody really likes me or wants my company and if I initiate a conversation, I can read on their faces that they’d rather I didn’t. And it could be true, for all I know. I can’t quite shake that feeling of being a bad person, even with evidence to the contrary. I grew up Catholic, too, and I know that contributed to it, but family dynamics were probably the biggest influence. Even now, when I think about my parents, I always feel like I’m bad because I’m not doing enough for them. I probably could do more, but they drain the energy right out of me. I know they’re not happy, but it’s kind of like reaping what they’ve sown. I feel more pity than anything. I don’t know what would make me feel truly good.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      The saving grace of self-compassion, at least as Kristin Neff describes it, is that it’s not about evaluating yourself as good or bad but about relating to yourself as if you were any other human being. Recognizing that you’re no better, no worse and share more with the rest of humanity than it may seem in the pressure-chamber of your mind. That makes the concept more accessible to me – just the thought that I don’t have to have the greatest self-esteem to be compassionate toward myself. No conditions attached to being human. At least, that’s the easiest route into this for me. I wish you well in trying to get around the “bad” problem – why do we hold onto that forever??

      John

    • Michelle says:

      Judy,

      My heart broke when I read your words, “I think the logic behind it was, if I keep the self-hatred alive, nobody else can hate me worse or hurt me worse.” Those words spoke volumes because I feel the same way … and I never realized that. I am struggling and it’s a real dark place. But the good Lord has kept me focused by reading such articles like this. Judy, I pray for both of us and for all of our brothers and sisters out there fighting these ugly battles. It is so hard. I can’t even find the words to describe the intensity of my anxieties and self-loathing and fears and even anger. It all gets mixed into one living hell. I feel like I am losing sight of myself, my mind, my heart and most importantly, my Heavenly Father. I have to continue to fight, someway, somehow. And most days, I don;t even know how to fight…I don’t know what’s wrong, I just feel upset, angry and anxious.

      Michelle

      • Judy says:

        Michelle, thank you for your response. I just want to say that I’m definitely better than I used to be. I’ve been able to find some compassion for myself – despite myself! I hope you have someone to talk to because it’s pretty hard to deal with this degree of self-hatred by yourself. All that anger came from somewhere and it’s probably disguising a lot of grief. So I hope you will give yourself plenty of time to heal. Hang in there!

  6. I’ve been working on self-compassion with my counsellor for well over two years now. I was incredibly resistant and skeptical at first. But I have made a lot of healing advances in that time with my depression and it’s thanks to self-compassion. I still have a long ways to go to make it as natural as breathing, but I am starting from a place of extreme self-hatred when I was about 4 yrs old. It’s no wonder one feels depressed with such emotions. As I begin to soften to myself, I see there’s no reason why I should treat myself so abysmally when I treat others so kindly.

    Blessings,
    Jane

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Jane –

      It is hard to understand how people with lots of empathy for others can’t feel compassion for themselves. All the rules seem to go in reverse when it comes to a damaged sense of self. I’m glad to hear you have made so much progress. If you do get to the point where self-compassion is as natural as breathing, I think you will have really arrived!

      Thanks for your comment – and what a beautiful blog you have!

      John

      • I’d love my breathing to be as natural as breathing! 🙂 When the damage to the self is done so young, it really is a challenge to rewrite the rules, especially when you have lived by the “rules” for decades. Baby steps…

        Thanks so much for visiting my blog too – I appreciate it!

        Blessings!

  7. Scott says:

    At first glance I thought this concept was strange. “Of course I love myself”, I thought. But the more I dwelled on the subject, the more I realised my mind is insecure. I have a deep seated need for validation all the time and fight for recognition. So Self-Compassion hey? This is going to be a hard one to take on board.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Scott –

      I guess self-compassion raises a host of inner conflicts about everything that goes into your idea of who you are. It’s definitely a lot to take in, especially when mixed in with depression.

      Thanks for your comment.

      John

  8. Edwin Rutsch says:

    A question. I’m interviewing experts http://bit.ly/y8WS7V about the nature of empathy as well as how it relates to other values, situations, conditions — like depression. Do you know of work on the relationship of empathy to depression and who the experts in this area are?

    thanks
    edwin

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Edwin –

      That’s a good question that I’ll have to do some research on. I’ve come across a few articles on this, but off hand I can’t think of an extended treatment of the subject, and no one comes to mind as an expert on the connection between empathy and depression. John Grohol did this piece some time ago on Depression and Empathy in Couples, and here is another post from Psychology Today.

      I’ll look into this some more and write a post about it.

      John

  9. Edwin Rutsch says:

    John , May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    also, more about Kristin Neff
    http://bit.ly/m2rCN2

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Edwin –

      Thank you for getting in touch. Your website is a wonderful resource, and I look forward to exploring it in depth.

      John

  10. Evan says:

    Hi John, due to the experiences of someone close to me I’ve been gradually understanding that attachment is even more fundamental than safety. I am still getting my head around it.

    I have had struggles with self-compassion – mine about being self-indulgent, selfish and so on. I am getting better at it.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      That’s a helpful insight – that the attachment is more fundamental than safety – more than almost anything. As usual, you give me much to think about.

      John

  11. Thomas Jespersen says:

    There are guided meditations on the website of the book:

    http://www.self-compassion.org/guided-self-compassion-meditations-mp3.html

    I just started reading the book earlier this week. I have been trying to read and use the guided meditations as well. The first few times I used the meditations I felt a bit uneasy but its getting better now.

    I am not sure if its working yet because the effects of meditation usually takes a while to show.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you for the link, Thomas –

      I have found it helpful to say the meditations aloud. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the sound of the voice seems to have a healing quality of its own. And hearing the resonance of my own voice – and I have to put real breath and body into it, not whisper – adds a powerful dimension to the experience.

      John

  12. Ann says:

    Hi John

    I have been reading your blogs for months now & wanted to tell you I think your great . It’s been very helpful for myself listening to other peoples stories & of course your kind input.
    I’d like to tell you & the lovely people on here my story.
    I’m 45 , married for 26 years & have 3 grown-up kids.
    My husband first took depression when he was 28 , he’s now 47. He came home from work said I don’t love you anymore then left for 2 months. He then had another bout when he was 35 & walked out again.

    2 years ago he almost brought me & our kids to our knees with his behaviour that lasted on & off for 4 years until the end result was a nervous breakdown .

    During this time he sex text and sent e-mails to 3 colleagues . He was sacked for sexual harrasment even though the females were sending stuff back & forth also .Our dog died then his dad & his Auntie in quick concession . He was hating his job and was working away Monday-Friday. He said he felt lonely stressed and didn’t no how to make his marriage work .
    He’s devastated about his behaviour & the contents of his texts & e-mails he sent.

    The past 2 years he has turned his life around and said he’s loved me his whole life but never been able to show it & that he tooke for granted.
    Too be honest it’s me who is struggling now . I called him horrible names a sex pest , a devient & a sleaze to name a few .
    He can’t remember most of the stuff he sent .
    Our Doctor said the he had a breakdown & used sex texts as a release as his mind was on over load for years & that’s how he can’t remember stuff.
    As I said he was lonely ,stressed, grieving & feeling overwhelmed.
    All that behaviour over the 4 years was so out of character as he is a lovely guy who is well respected . Our family & friends all adore him.

    Can depression cause this behaviour & can it be so intense on & off for years. Can it really cause amnesia & result in a person making bad decisions & choices .

    Thanks John & anybody else readingease feel free to reply .

    Thanks for listening
    Ann

  13. John Folk-Williams says:

    Hi, Ann –

    I’m glad to hear that your husband has turned his life around – and I hope you too are getting the support you need to heal after so much stress and being on the receiving end of hurtful behavior for a long time.

    Depression affects people in so many ways that it’s hard to say what might relate to depression and what might be due to some other condition or influence. Depression does affect memory, especially short-term or working memory by interfering with the formation of new cells in the part of the brain linked to the formation of memories. And it can lead to strange behavior alternating with the return of affection. In my view, the hurtful behavior does its damage no matter what the cause, and it takes a lot of work to repair the relationship after depression has lifted. I think it’s important and healing to get the hurt feelings out in the open and discuss them, perhaps with the help of a therapist.

    Thank you for writing. It’s really encouraging to hear a story about a family that manages to survive severe depression.

    John

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