Straight out of grad school and ready to save the world, I walked into the Veteran’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, for my first day leading a therapy group for soldiers with PTSD. Even though I was aware of the shocking statistic that each year we lose more soldiers to suicide than to combat, I was entirely unprepared for the depth of suffering and despair I encountered. I was also unprepared for the ocean of compassion these soldiers had for each other.
But there was one man in the group who never said a word. Week after week, he just stared at the floor.
Then one day he raised his hand. All eyes turned toward him as he cleared his throat and slowly uttered words I had never heard: “I don’t want to get better.”
He continued: “What I saw in the war, what I did . . . I don’t deserve to get better.”
He looked back down at the floor. Then, in excruciating detail, he described what he had seen and what he had done.
As he spoke, the chill of his shame filled the room. Slowly, he raised his eyes to meet the gaze of his fellow soldiers. Instead of the rejection and judgment he expected, he found compassion. He didn’t say another word, but as he rose to leave, I got the feeling that something inside him had begun to thaw. Slowly, over the next weeks, the compassion of the other men helped him find compassion for himself. He began to believe that he wasn’t defined by his past actions. He began to believe that change was possible; that there was a path out of his suffering.
I continued to work with this soldier for months. After his last session, he shared this:
The military trains you to survive in combat. When you’re there, you rely on your training, and you trust your instincts. But nothing can prepare you to fight against yourself. How do you fight a battle when the good guy and the bad guy are the same guy?
I’ve finally realized that fighting won’t lead to peace. I will never forget what happened, but I’m not going to waste any more energy beating myself up for it. I still have life inside of me and I want to live it for something bigger than myself.
This veteran’s words reveal the power of self-compassion: regardless of our past, compassion can help us rediscover our dignity and our purpose. The revolutionary act of treating ourselves kindly can begin to reverse years or even a lifetime of self-judgment and shame. Like a guiding light, self-compassion allows us to face our darkness.
Self-Compassion: What It Is, What It Does, Why It’s Radical
Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor from the University of Texas at Austin who first defined and measured the construct of self-compassion, says that self-compassion involves treating ourselves as we would treat a dear friend who is having a hard time. We learn to bring kindness, affection, and tenderness to our own suffering. We discover that we can be on our own team, instead of berating or rejecting ourselves.
We can even learn to be kind to ourselves when we’re in the wrong—not because we’re letting ourselves off the hook, but because we’re hurting. Self-compassion offers a radical approach: You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love and kindness.
If you’re wondering how to start being kinder toward yourself, there is good news—mindfulness is the first step. Self-compassion is born of mindfulness. We can’t be kind to ourselves unless we first acknowledge we are in pain. In tough times, mindfulness helps us see our suffering clearly. Self-compassion adds: “Be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering.” Self-compassion does more than just help us feel better. It provides us the life raft we need to navigate through the tough times.
By deepening our self-compassion, we discover untapped reserves of strength, resilience, and wisdom that help us survive the storm, and we strengthen our resources to better navigate future storms. This is one of the alchemical powers of self-compassion: It simultaneously soothes the negative and grows the positive.
Relearning and Reteaching Loveliness
The willingness to face the darker parts of ourselves and the darker parts of life takes courage. This courage is born of compassion—compassion for ourselves and for each other. As we practice self-compassion, we learn not only to confront and grow from our own struggles and sorrows, but to connect with the sufferings and sorrows of others. When we offer compassion to others, we allow them the possibility of finding compassion and growth for themselves.
In fact, sometimes the most powerful moments of self-compassion are catalyzed through receiving compassion from others. Think back to the veteran we talked about at the beginning of this article. The compassion he received from the other men in the group, after sharing his most shameful moment, served as a turning point in his recovery from PTSD.
Self-compassion teaches us to embrace the human quality of imperfection. As Dr. Kristin Neff succinctly put it, “You don’t have to be special to have self-compassion. You just have to be a mess like every other human being.”
In essence, compassion is about love. It is treating ourselves with love, letting ourselves feel loved despite doubt, imperfection, and darkness. It is about relearning our own loveliness. Poet Galway Kinnell beautifully captures this:
everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow. . .
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing
To begin practicing self-compassion, it can be helpful to write a letter to yourself about a current struggle in your life, or an area where you feel inadequate and want to motivate yourself to change. But this letter has a special twist. In this letter to yourself, write as if you were talking to a dear friend facing the same concerns as you. How might you respond to your friend? What might you say? How might you support her?
Tip: Try not to think too much about organizing your words or thoughts. Simply write from your heart.
After writing the letter, put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself. When you receive it, see if you can slowly re-read it, letting the words soothe and comfort you.
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Excerpted from Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness + Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity + Joy by Shauna Shapiro, PhD. Copyright © 2019 What You Practice Grows Stronger, Inc. Published by Sounds True, January 2020.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD
Shauna Shapiro PHD is a professor, best-selling author, and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and compassion. Dr. Shapiro has published over 150 journal articles and co-authored three critically acclaimed books translated into 16 languages.
She has been an invited speaker for the King of Thailand, the Danish Government, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Summit, the Canadian Government, and the World Council for Psychotherapy, as well as for Fortune 100 Companies including Google, Cisco Systems, Dr. Pepper, the National Basketball Association, Proctor & Gamble, and LinkedIn. The New York Times, BBC, Mashable, the Huffington Post, Wired, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal have all featured her work. Dr. Shapiro is a summa cum laude graduate of Duke and 3 million people have watched her TEDx talk What You Practice Grows Stronger.