The Yin & Yang of Self-Compassion

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Self-compassion has both a gentle and a fierce side to help you manage your inner critic and face whatever life sends your way, says Mindful Self-Compassion teacher Steve Hickman.

Omega: How does self-compassion help us stand up against our inner critic?

Steven: Generally if you have a voice telling you you're not good enough, you're not smart enough, or whatever negative message it’s saying, the tendency is to fight back against it.

With Mindful Self-Compassion we don’t fight it—we get curious about it and see where it comes from. Often that voice is an internalized version of someone who was influential to us when growing up, like a parent or a caretaker. In most cases, they were acting out their plan to keep you safe and push you to succeed.

We have an exercise that invites people to think of a behavior that they would like to change, and to think about what happens when they do the behavior that they don’t want to do. What comes up? How do you talk to yourself? What does the inner critic say? Can you look underneath that voice and see where it came from and how it might be trying to keep you safe in some way?

You then acknowledge the voice and say something like, "Thanks for trying to help me and keep me safe, or have a better relationship, or live longer (whatever it may be), but I don't need your help at this point. I see where you're coming from, but you're not going about this in the best way." You take the wind out of its sails and make room for a motivational, self-compassionate voice instead. A voice that wants the best for you but for very different reasons.

This is a much more successful way to change behaviors around things like exercise, diet, smoking, drugs, etc. Self-compassion can make a world of difference when someone inevitably relapses with these behaviors, too. We’re human. We’re subject to making mistakes and that gets left out of the inner critic’s version of how you should be.

Omega: Is kindness always about having a soft approach?

Steven: This is an idea we often come up against when talking about self-compassion with men. But compassion has a yin and a yang side. The yin side is comforting, soothing, and nurturing—this is what generally springs to mind when someone mentions kindness or self-compassion.

But there’s also a yang side, which is about protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves or others. It’s a compassion that is a little more active, a little firmer, a little more stereotypically masculine. Sometimes being compassionate means firmly saying "no" to something or acting to stop a bad or dangerous behavior, like if a parent yells at a child to get them out of the street.

Omega: Is self-compassion practice about making us feel good?

Steven: We like to say self-compassion is a practice of good will, not good feelings. One of the biggest potential pitfalls is starting this practice with the goal of feeling better. What we’re actually doing is cultivating a different relationship with our experiences in life. Some of those experiences will feel good, some won’t. We want to meet whatever we encounter with some degree of kindness so it loses its hold over us, so we don’t get stuck in a lingering, ruminating, shame-driven spiral of bad feelings that could lead to depression or despair.

We’re going to have moments in life that just suck—moments that are uncomfortable or even traumatic. We want to be able to comfort ourselves and be kinder to ourselves in the midst of anything. We’re cultivating within us a goodwill toward our existence, no matter what is happening.

Omega: Can self-compassion practices make people feel worse?

Steven: There is a phenomenon we encounter sometimes called backdraft. This can happen especially to people who had a past experience where compassion was coupled with suffering or to someone who had an extreme situation of abuse or neglect and compassion wasn’t forthcoming.

In these cases, someone may put their hand on their heart and find it hot with accumulated suffering. Much like a firefighter doesn’t want to open a hot door because the fire inside the room will rush out looking for more oxygen—something known as backdraft—sometimes when we swing the door open we may experience unpleasant, painful feelings like anger, frustration, or rage.

This is a sign that you are moving in the right direction, but you may want to seek support from a professional to help you work with this outpouring of difficult feelings. They can help you slowly open the door and then back off—to titrate the experience so you can tolerate it over time. Self-compassion practices can help everyone, but not everyone will be able to approach it in the same way.