Self-Compassion and Childhood Trauma Recovery
Many people identify as having survived childhood abuse of some sort and, as a result, often lack self-compassion. Self-compassion is being kind and understanding with oneself instead of mercilessly criticizing and sitting in judgment of all your shortcomings.
This article will explore how self-compassion can change your life after experiencing childhood trauma.
The Greatest Barrier to Healing, Fear of Self-Compassion
Moderate to severe levels of childhood abuse is associated with a greater fear of self-compassion and psychological inflexibility.
Childhood maltreatment survivors often show a marked fear and resistance to self-kindness and warmth. These survivors have become psychologically inflexible, with a strict dominance of psychological reactions over guided actions. In other words, those who experienced childhood trauma often choose to avoid past events that they have internalized by reacting to triggers rather than acting to minimize them.
Research has shown that psychological inflexibility worsens the negative effect of fear of self-compassion. Psychological inflexibility added to complex post-traumatic stress disorder makes an emotional soup keeping the survivor mired in fear.
It is easy to see why a survivor would have a fear of self-compassion. After surviving childhood maltreatment, many instinctively fear the emotions of self-compassion because they are intense and sometimes overwhelming. To feel compassion for oneself is to look at how others treated you with kindness for your feelings.
Fear of self-compassion is also linked to fear of facing the memories of what happened long ago because you were mistreated during a time when you needed and deserved love and compassion.
Why Self-Compassion is Necessary for Healing
Healing and self-compassion go hand-in-hand. One cannot have one without the other.
It is easier for many survivors to feel compassion for someone else; thus, they can understand and remember the warmth and connection they felt. However, when asked to aim that same level of care toward themselves, many feel they do not deserve the same pleasant treatment.
Shame and guilt often come into play when dealing with childhood maltreatment, especially among males. Although childhood victims had no power or ability to stop what was happening to them, the pervasive feeling of “I should have done something” interrupts healing.
Self-compassion is necessary to heal from complex trauma because we need it to silence the inner critic, show compassion toward others, and do good self-care. Below are methods to giving yourself some good self-care.
Silencing the inner critic. The inner critic pulls together shame and self-hate because one is not perfect and dramatically hinders one’s ability to heal. You must learn to recognize and confront your inner critical statements because they foster overwhelming feelings of fear, self-hate, hopelessness, and disgust with oneself.
Show compassion toward others. It isn’t easy to show genuine compassion toward another human being when you do not love yourself. People who feel self-hatred are harsh on themselves and that behavior spills over into their relationships. With self-compassion onboard, survivors can show respect, dignity, and love toward others.
Do good self-care. Survivors who have compassion for themselves take better care of themselves than those who feel self-disdain. As the foundation of self-compassion, caring for one’s serves as a daily reminder that you are worthy of attention, focus, and self-love. Doing good self-care helps you make a better version of yourself physically and mentally.
Self-care should include a routine of exercise or physical activity each day, combined with getting to bed and awakening on a consistent schedule, eating well, and using stress management techniques.
Some Benefits of Self-Compassion
Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion, has shown that self-compassion is much better in many ways than self-esteem because it is related to “greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, and more caring relationship behavior.”
While self-esteem is based on judgment and self-evaluation, self-compassion is based on what you accomplish. Self-compassion falls and strengthens with your perceived successes because your inner critic has more fuel to use to hold you down. However, self-compassion aids in your acceptance of yourself which leads to wholeness.
On her website, Neff states, “People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits.”
According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion includes three elements:
- Self-kindness vs. self-judgment
- Mindfulness vs. over-identification with your thoughts
- Common humanity vs. isolating yourself
Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. Fostering self-kindness removes you from judging yourself harshly so you can return to a good attitude toward yourself whenever life throws you a curve ball. Neff says, “When this reality is denied or resisted, suffering arises from stress, frustration, and self-criticism. However, when this reality is accepted with benevolence, we generate positive emotions of kindness and care that help us cope.”
Mindfulness vs. over-identification with your thoughts. Practicing mindfulness will help reduce your tendency to ruminate or have other forms of negative thinking that inhibit growth. Self-compassion will help you avoid self-limiting or self-destructive thought processes that come from the inner critic. Those negative thoughts diminish motivation and initiative.
Common humanity vs. isolating yourself. The concept of common humanity means seeing yourself from a victim or narcissistic point of view. Remembering you are part of humanity helps you to understand that all humanity has problems as none of us are immune.
What Self-Compassion is Not
So far, we have examined what makes up self-compassion; now, we turn to what Kristin Neff explains it is not.
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. You might be reluctant to be self-compassionate because you think they will get away with something if they do. Being kind to yourself might make you feel stressed initially, going against what you believe you deserve. However, being self-compassionate means you want to be happy and healthy during your lifetime. While stopping overeating, for instance, may come with a bit of displeasure, being self-compassionate means following through to protect your health. In practicing self-compassion, you may be very hard on yourself and attempt to shame yourself into action. This approach will backfire because you cannot face the brutal truths about yourself if you are critical of your actions.
Self-compassion is not self-pity. Self-pity causes you to be immersed in your problems and forget that others have similar problems. Self-pity is ignoring your connections with other people and causes you to feel you are the only one suffering. Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge the related experiences of others and how you are interconnected with them. You may have found yourself wrapped up in your emotional drama and unable to step back from your situation and adopt a balanced or objective perspective. However, in taking the perspective of self-compassion, you will find yourself more compassionate toward yourself and others.
Self-Compassion is not self-esteem. Self-compassion may seem the same as self-esteem, but they are different. Self-esteem is your sense of self-worth and how much you like yourself. Low self-esteem is a problem, and attempting to increase it can lead to depression and become a real problem. In the United States and other western cultures, we base our concept of self-esteem on how much we differ from other people. We may get angry, aggressive, or become narcissistic toward others who make us feel bad about ourselves. However, self-compassion is based on the belief that based on self-evaluations surrounding how well we treat other people under the belief that all humans deserve love, not because we feel better than others. Self-compassion allows you to feel greater clarity and handle personal failings with kindness.
Healing Through Self-Compassion
Christopher Germer, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book called The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. In his book, Germer suggests five ways to bring self-compassion into your life using physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual methods.
Below are four of the methods suggested by Christopher Germer and his colleagues.
- Write a letter to yourself describing a situation where you felt pain, like losing a job or a relationship. In the letter, describe the situation without blaming anyone, including yourself, and acknowledge how you feel.
- Comfort yourself by eating healthy food, then lie down and rest. Massage your feet and neck or take a walk, do anything that will improve how you feel in your body. Doing so is giving yourself a healthy dose of self-compassion.
- Encourage yourself when something painful happens and think about what you would say to a good friend going through the same thing. Direct those compassionate responses to yourself.
- Practice mindfulness by observing yourself nonjudgmentally and examining your thoughts and feelings without denying them.
Ending Our Time Together
Self-compassion is a vital force in healing complex post-traumatic stress disorder. If you cannot love yourself, you will become unlovable to others if you are not already.
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
― Kristin Neff
“Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.”
― Kristin Neff
Boykin, D. M., Himmerich, S. J., Pinciotti, C. M., Miller, L. M., Miron, L. R., & Orcutt, H. K. (2018). Barriers to self-compassion for female survivors of childhood maltreatment: The roles of fear of self-compassion and psychological inflexibility. Child Abuse & Neglect, 76, 216–224.