I marvel at how often self compassion (or the lack of it!) comes up in my work with Third Culture Kids. I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, my own therapists point it out in me too. But it does seem a strange kind of paradox that TCKs, who we all talk about as tending towards high levels of empathy and compassion towards OTHERS (like articles here and here) struggle so much in SELF compassion.
What is compassion, anyway?
I’ll spare you the dictionary definition approach and instead explain what I mean when I use this. To my mind, compassion accompanies empathy. It’s the care and concern we feel for someone. Compassion is born of both observation and the ability to imagine the experience of another. It suspends judgement about whether of not this experience is “right” or “reasonable” and instead simply cares. And just as empathy is a necessary precursor to compassion (we need to be able to imagine the experience of another to activate care for that experience), compassion itself often leads us on to compassionate actions or responses to what we are observing. When feeling compassion we feel the urge to ease burden, to communicate love. In other words, compassion propels us towards connection. We can’t stay aloof or distance, we simply care too much for that. Compassion gets us invested, not just in the situation involved but in the feelings of those involved.
What is compassion good for?
Well the easy answer is that it’s good for society. When people care about each other, they treat each other well. When we are invested in each others feelings and experiences, we tend to work for each others’ good. This increases cohesiveness in groups and raises trust and a general sense of security and interdependence.
Sounds great… so why do we need self compassion?
Well, sometimes we don’t feel people care about us. We feel they don’t understand us. They aren’t invested in us or what is good for our security or growth. We can’t count on them to really see us and know us. We feel disconnected and maybe even judged for our perspectives or behaviours. Most of us have been here at some point in our lives, and Third Culture Kids especially so.
It’s easy in these circumstances to conclude one of two things –
- People are awful and not worth bothering with. I don’t need them anyway.
- I am unloveable. No one will ever understand me because I’m wired up wrong. I am a defective human. I must be or else they’d want to know me.
The first response is born of lack of compassion in that, not having enough given to us, we decide we can’t afford to give any out either.
The second response is born of lack of compassion too in that, not have enough given to us, we decide it’s because we aren’t deserving of it.
Both are cripplingly painful experiences. And self compassion stands in the gap.
In the first instance, self compassion offers to ourselves what we need so that we aren’t operating from a deficit. We can continue to offer compassion to the world, because we have offered it to ourselves first. We can stay connected to the world, because we are connected to ourselves.
In the second instance, self compassion reminds us of how it feels to be understood and cared for, keeping us connected enough to that experience that when others do offer it to us, we recognise it and can accept it.
So what does self compassion look like?
It looks like compassion. Towards ourselves. It does just what compassion to others does –
Self compassion observes what we are experiencing: “I’m feeling just awful”.
We suspend judgement about whether or not we “should” be feeling awful. We activate care instead; care for the person we are, feeling awful.
Here self compassion propels us to try and help ourselves feel better. We consider what happened that lead us to feeling awful and how understandable it is that we do, given what we know about ourselves and our story (self knowing without judgement). We explore if there is anything we need to feel better (is there a misunderstanding we want to clarify? Is there a hot drink and a bit of self care that could soothe us in the moment?)
Self compassion doesn’t actually change our situations (though we often see the compassion actions that can come next to do just this). Self compassion itself simply pays attention. To us. To our needs. To our feelings. And that attention is a kind of magic.
Self compassion changes nothing about our situation. But it changes everything about how we feel about ourselves in our situation.
Self compassion offers us an ally. We become our own friend.
And we all know the difference a friend can make.
There’s a scripture something to the effect of, “Love others as you love yourself.” Seems to imply a cousin to self-compassion . . .
Thanks for your encouraging, insightful words, Dr. Rachel.
Thanks for this Dan, and for reading and commenting!