This week I received a question about self compassion – in particular, about how we can be kind to ourselves when succeeding at something really matters and we aren’t able to meet our own expectations.
It’s a great question! I’ve received permission to share it with you here, and I’m glad – for it’s something we all bump into.
It’s a powerful example of how self compassion can help us change painful habits, soften overeating, and support our goals while being kinder, not hard, on ourselves.
Here’s the question: “I am studying medicine and I have a hard time preparing for exams. I am behind my schedule (a lot), I am stressed, I can not make myself be more efficient. When I am stressed, I overeat and I lose even more time.
How can I be compassionate with that? It seems impossible to me. I hate myself for not being good. And I have a good reason – I want to study medicine but my not being good enough can result in failing.”
We really care
I really appreciate this question, and the space she’s in. When I listen to her question, what I hear is how deeply and sincerely she cares about becoming a doctor. This is something that means so much to her. The results matter!
When we care about something deeply, we want to succeed – whether it’s succeeding at completing a medical degree, succeeding at eating less sugar, or ‘succeeding’ as a parent. It’s a really beautiful longing of the heart.
And when we’re highly sensitive – oh, we care so deeply.
Our hearts are so gentle, so tender, so attuned and easily touched. We feel deeply, and strongly. We want to live out, support and honor these things that we care so deeply about.
The roots of self criticism
But when we care deeply and we’re not able to meet our own expectations, our caring can turn against ourselves. So when the results matter, and we come under pressure – time pressure, financial pressure, the pressure of obstacles and challenges – and we find ourselves struggling, we may feel like we’re being thwarted from our heart’s desire.
We get thrust into the emotional/limbic brain, where strong feelings take over.
We may feel scared, panicked, alarmed, angry, or frustrated. The inner rebel may start to take over, too, with feelings of resistance and “I don’t feel like it.”
In this moment, it’s easy to turn on ourselves. We blame, shame and criticize ourselves as we bump into obstacles, struggle, need more help, get hijacked by the inner rebel, or don’t meet our expectations.
This compounds our stress and suffering – which we can self soothe with sugar, overeating, or other painful habits that keep us further from our goal and add to our pain.
Ouch, so painful.
Moving from self criticism to self compassion
One of the most helpful things you can do in these times is to move from a stance of, “I should be doing better!!” (or even “I hate this!!!!!”) to “Wow, this is really hard.”
You can do this, in the moment, when you notice that you’re caught in self criticism, resistance, or being hard on yourself.
I like to pause, put my hand on my heart and tell myself, “I see how hard this is for you.” I allow these words, the touch of my hand, and waves of self compassion to flood through my being, calming my emotional brain and all the alarm and fears about how “something is really wrong here!”
You can also reach out for support – to allow another to hold you, to care for you, and to offer compassion.
The let down
Moving from “I should be handling this better” to “Ouch, this is hard” is a subtle but powerful movement from self blame to an acknowledgement of the bigger picture: “There are so many factors at play here. It makes sense that I may be stirred up, and even feel resistant. And this truly isn’t easy.”
This movement softens our hearts, and prompts our tears. Our heart lets down, and we may cry, shedding the grief about how hard something is.
Sometimes life is really hard!
Moving into resilience, change, and hope
As our perspective shifts, and as our heart softens, so does the frustration, self attack, resistance, and fear that’s been driving us.
We move out of the emotional brain and into the higher brain, where we remember our commitment, feel our courage, and regain our resilience: “Whew this is hard, and sometimes I really don’t feel like it – and I really care. This means a lot to me, so I’m willing to move through these obstacles to find my way through.”
This is how we learn – how we open to new ideas and suggestions, try something new, do hard things, adapt, grow, change and heal.
Moving into compassionate action
And this is often what enables us to move to the next step, such as asking for more help, or asking ourselves, “If what I’m currently doing isn’t working, what kind of support do I need to try something new?”
You can try this the next time you’re struggling.
When you feel criticism arising, you can pause and tell yourself, “This is really hard.” See how that feels.
As you feel the compassion and the softening, then ask yourself: “What kind of support would help me right now?” And then take the next baby step to getting help.
Why compassion is so powerful
When we offer ourselves compassion, we’re turning away from taking out the fears, foibles, and frustrations of life on ourselves. And we’re turning towards our pain, towards our resistance, and towards our hearts, acknowledging the difficulty and challenge of whatever we’re facing.
We’re also acknowledging our strength! This piece is really important.
In many ways, compassion – the all embracing, all merciful, all understanding, all loving – is how we forgive ourselves for falling short, how we forgive our struggles, and how we change. It’s how we reclaim our whole selves, over and over again.
We remember – ah, the end of my story has not yet been written….
As Carl Rogers once said, “It’s when we accept ourselves exactly as we are that we can change.”
Here’s what I also know is true about compassion: it’s something that needs to be practiced, felt in the emotional brain, and felt in the body for it to take root.
Practicing compassion is like a warm bath, a balm for the soul. We feel refreshed, cared for, and inspired.
So whether you seek out help from me or elsewhere, I encourage you to find a group, mentor, or some other space where you can practice compassion. To find a group in your area, you can try searching online or reaching out to community health organizations, hospitals, universities, spiritual organizations, and counseling centers.