Compassion is a topic that often comes up in therapy. Often it is about having compassion for others. That is a concept people grasp fairly easily. Don’t get me wrong…they may not do it but they understand it. The concept that isn’t always as easy to understand is having compassion for ourselves.
There are two big responses I get when I ask people if they have compassion for themselves. The first is, “I don’t know what that means.” The other is, “of course I do.” The problem is that I then watch them be not compassionate with themselves at all.
I saw a great example of this the other day. A client was struggling with the fact that someone she cared about was treating her badly. She was sad an hurt that this person chose to treat her this way. She cried about it. She tried hard to make sense of it.
When she came to session she told me that when she was having those feelings she felt like a little 8 year old girl who just wanted someone to make it all better. She then told me that she knows these feelings aren’t “normal”… That she shouldn’t be having them. She had been telling herself how “silly” she was for having them. She wanted to know what to do to stop herself from being so “ridiculous”.
She wasn’t being compassionate with herself. Instead of acknowledging her feelings as valid, she decided that they were “wrong” and that she should “just get over them.” Those are the words I too often hear people tell other people. And she was telling them to herself.
I asked her why she picked 8 as the age she felt. She told me that she remembers being 8 years old and feeling ignored, unloved and unappreciated. She spent much of her childhood feeling this way. On this particular day she remembers dressing up in her prettiest dress, trying to feel special. She climbed under the covers, crying and thinking that when someone found her they would feel bad that they drove her to this.
The situation she experienced in the present took her right back to those feelings she experienced when she was 8. That 8 year old never got comforted. She never got taught that even though she had those feelings, things would be okay. That 8 year still exists inside of my present-day client. And all of her feelings came rushing back.
There is still someone that can show compassion to that 8 year old and soothe and comfort her…the adult version of that 8 year old. The adult version can acknowledge the 8 year old’s feelings and show her that it will be okay. The adult version has power and knowledge and the ability to self-soothe. And, yes, be compassionate.
So be compassionate with yourself. Don’t criticize or blame. Don’t tell yourself that your feelings are wrong. They are the feelings you have. If you don’t like them, find a way to change them…but with compassion. Be gentle. Being compassionate with who you were and who you are now is the start of the path to becoming who you want to be.