Compassion and self compassion are concepts I’ve really been struggling to get my head round with Therapist 2.0, and it’s something she’s set me to think about for the next week. To date, compassion as I understand it has generally meant letting myself off the hook about something, or giving in to an urge (to self harm, to contact Therapist 1.0) or craving (for food, for alcohol). Yes, it helps in the short term, but does nothing to change whatever it is that was causing the problem in the first place.

We talked about it a bit yesterday, and she defined compassion as having two key parts:

  1. Having a sensitivity to distress/suffering in myself and others
  2. Having a commitment to alleviate the suffering and it’s sources

This is so huge I’m not sure I can properly get my head around it yet, and I’m working it out as I go along here so you’ll have to forgive me if this makes less than no sense. The example she gave me was a simple one. Let’s say I really don’t like my commute to work. Every day, I sit in the car fuming about traffic, how long it takes, how much I hate it. Every morning before I leave I’m already thinking ahead to how horrible it’s going to be. Let’s say I do that for a year. That means every single day I’m lining myself up to be in shocking form by the time I get to work, and I’m making sure the day is getting off to a bad start. Then we go a step further. I decide that when I get to work I’ll treat myself to tea and cake to make myself feel better. It works! I go into the office in a slightly better frame of mind. But then let’s say I do that for a year too. So now on top of my cortisol fuelled stress I’m firing in sugar, and then going and sitting at a desk for a few hours. That can’t be good for me.

The problem with this strategy (I think) is that while it alleviates the stress in the short term, it does absolutely nothing to fix it. I think that’s where my difficulty with self compassion comes in. I would have considered the tea and cake option to be perfectly valid, and while it might be once in a while, long term it’s asking for trouble. Even leaving that aside, the fact that I know every single day how stressed out I’m going to be, yet doing nothing to change it other than cake…….that’s not self compassion.

I’m not sure how well I’m explaining this, because I’m not even sure I’ve understood correctly. Self compassion isn’t just about going easy on ourselves. It’s about recognising when something isn’t working, or is causing us pain in some way, and then doing something about it. I think again it’s coming back to the difference between how we look after ourselves physically and emotionally. I came back from a walk this morning with blisters and sore feet, and as soon as I came in the door I took my shoes off and decided they were going in the bin. Why would I keep on wearing something that’s going to hurt me? But yet if something is bothering me emotionally, I don’t try and figure out why. Instead I ignore it. I push it to one side, try and stop myself from feeling what I’m feeling, or berate myself for being off and not able to fix it straight away. I don’t stop to acknowledge what’s going on, and I certainly don’t try and consider why I may be feeling like this, never mind what I can do to change it. Imagine I did that with the blistered feet?! Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Ignore it/ Keep on walking around. Actually, do even more walking because I shouldn’t be letting myself feel pain, I should be able to just keep going……….

I kind of feel like I’ve just had a bit of a eureka moment. Self compassion isn’t easy. It’s work. It’s acknowledging what’s going on, then accepting it, then doing something to alleviate it, then doing something to change the situation if that’s what’s needed.  It’s so much work. But it’s work I can’t afford to ignore any more.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. Hi Fiona, your piece really resonated with me, thank you – I think you explained it well 🙂
    I don’t know if you’ve come across Brené Brown’s book “Rising Strong”? It deals with that idea of digging deep to figure out why we feel the way we do, and how to process those feelings and move forward – it’s a good read, I found it helpful.

  2. Hey, it’s very profound when these realisations click into place, and you can start taking the necessary steps to understanding that disguising how we feel through seeking ‘pleasure’ and ‘comfort’ from external sources, is only denying ourselves the opportunity of addressing the root of the problem. We are programmed in society to try and jettison our feelings and resist what we perceive as ‘suffering,’ but, ultimately, this just allows the suffering to manifest, causing greater distress in the long term. It can be a complex concept to get to grips with, especially initially, as it goes against our natural defence mechanisms, but the greater self-awareness we have in this context, the more achievable obtaining greater emotional equilibrium is. It’s still sinking in with me on a personal level, but I’m glad I’m finally accessing this wisdom now, as it is allowing me to understand that happiness ultimately does lie within us.. Of course that isn’t a groundbreaking statement, but it’s amazing how many of us lose sight of it, and although we think we comprehend it, we don’t actually implement it into our lives. I’m slowly allowing the wisdom I’m learning in my own journey to weave it’s way into the fabric of my life, and despite often being impatient at times, I know it will benefit me so much in the long run. Thanks for another great piece-good luck, sounds as though you are making lots of progress… Lizzie x

  3. My interpretation is that compassion is based on the Buddhist principle of non-harm..not harming oneself or others. Obviously, you add in kindness on top of that but that if you can’t be nice to someone, at least don’t harm them. I think that’s a pretty realistic principle because it can be really hard to be kind to oneself and to other people all the time..that I only have so much patience and I’m bound to get frustrated at times. There’s an Aware talk on Compassion Focused Therapy on’s pretty good but I prefer seeing Paul Gilbert on youtube because he explains it in a really simple, easy to understand manner.

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