How to Nurture Self-Compassion in Hard Times

It’s easy to be kind to ourselves when life is going swimmingly. Not so easy when the script in our heads isn’t playing out, and life has taken twists and turns we didn’t plan and didn’t want.

Years ago, I had a fantasy that it was possible to never feel emotional pain. I’d read several of those “positive thinking” articles that suggested as much. If you aren’t happy, it’s because you are choosing not to be. Choose Happiness!

This is complete rubbish; absolutely pernicious.Compassion Logo

Let’s make an acronym for that. It would be:

C. R. A. P.

Life brings crap to us sometimes, and sometimes crap hurts. A lot. But – and this is huge – we don’t need to add to our pain by resisting it.

According to Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion (one of my favourite books) “suffering is the mental anguish caused by fighting against the fact that life is sometimes painful.” It took me decades to realise that fighting pain doesn’t make it go away. Neither does ignoring it or avoiding it. Nor does blaming someone else for it. In my experience at least, nor does yelling, screaming and punching pillows. Some people disagree with me on those, so it works for them and might for you. Crying on the other hand… I probably could fill a few buckets with the healing tears I’ve wept.

I cried a few rivers of those healing tears when my father died in August 2013, after five years of living with a painful bone marrow cancer that destroyed some of his vertebrae. The time around his death was a sore test of everything I’ve ever learned about treating yourself with kindness.

I have used a releasing process for years, which simply means I notice what emotions I’m feeling and welcome or allow them. Although emotions like grief, fear and sadness are painful, in my experience, Neff is correct when she says it is our resistance to them that causes our deepest suffering.

Despite of all I’d learned, I still sometimes resisted. Sometimes I fell into the “choose happiness” pit and told myself I should just remember the good times, and be glad my father was no longer in pain. I tried to rationalise away my sadness by saying he was an old man, so it was his time. (That might have been true, but it didn’t stop one iota of my sadness.)

Other times I even resisted my resistance! I thought that because I’d learned techniques to release emotions and to question stressful thoughts, I should be able to do that now and feel peaceful. Really, that’s just another way of falling into the “choose happiness” pit, another way of resisting what is.

When I realised I was adding to my own suffering by believing I should be different to how I was, I allowed myself to fully feel the sadness and grief. So what if a mindfulness guru (or several mindfulness gurus) might be able to experience the death of a loved one with only peace in their hearts? That is right for them, and what was right for me at my father’s death was to keenly feel grief and loss.

We can’t make ourselves feel a certain way, just because someone else feels that way.

When I feel as if every fibre of my being is resisting something that can’t be changed, the best thing I can do is to be compassionate towards myself. If I am resisting, that is reality in this moment. Telling myself I shouldn’t resist when I am is just another form of resistance! Allowing that, welcoming it, being kind towards myself when I notice it, means that I stop  resisting at least one aspect of what is happening.

This extremely subtle resistance is not easy to spot. We are so used to hearing that the way to live a happy life is to “love what is” that we often don’t realise that our inability to love what is happening right now is also part of what is happening right now.

Yet, for me, that awareness has probably been (and still is) the single most important element in self-compassion. When we allow the deepest darkest parts of ourselves to surface, the light dissolves them.

There’s another part to resistance that isn’t often discussed – as well as resisting feeling negative emotions, we can also resist letting them go.

It is even possible to do both at almost the same time. We resist the emotions because we assume that if we allow them we will always feel that way, and then we feel sorry for ourselves because of our endless suffering. But feeling sorry for ourselves is not the same as self-compassion. It doesn’t release  our suffering, but intensifies it. It’s almost as if we fold ourselves around our painful memories and cling on tightly, and in doing so we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to do things differently.

Recently, a friend of mine was going through a hard time and feeling low. She began to dwell on her unhappy feelings and said she’d felt this way for years. This didn’t fit with my observations, but she said she was good at pretending. During one of many conversations, I said that sometimes when we feel depressed it can be hard to feel grateful for good things, but that gratitude does seem to help. She felt resistant. To her, it seemed as if I was suggesting she should be grateful, and should deny her feelings of depression. That, I think, is largely why we hang onto our miserable feelings – because we want them acknowledged. We want a witness to our pain.

We cleared up the misunderstanding and talked some more. I explained that even when we feel depressed or sad we can still have moments of gratitude. That was certainly true for my family after my father’s death, and it was true for me after a miscarriage. During a bout of depression it’s not that gratitude isn’t there, just that we lose awareness of it. (In the same way that on a cloudy day our inability to see the sun doesn’t mean it’s gone away.) My friend thought about this, and we talked about times she’d felt happy or grateful, recently and further in the past. She felt less resistant to gratitude and happiness.

We can be our own witness. Taking time to notice things we feel grateful for, whilst also acknowledging our painful feelings, gives us the opportunity to let go of those painful feelings and to heal.  It lets us see that our painful emotions are not who we are, just feelings that come and go, (even if sometimes they hang around for a long time.)

So self-compassion during difficult times has two wings – we allow ourselves to feel our emotions – and we are willing to let them go.

This means we stop seeing emotions, or indeed life itself, as fixed. Instead, it becomes fluid, ever-changing. Instead of trying to change things for all time – which we can’t do anyway – we allow change in this moment. Right now.

Along with advice to choose happiness, we often hear that present moment awareness is the key to that happiness in difficult circumstances. There’s more truth in that than in the unsympathetic suggestion that we can and should just “choose happiness,” but it’s far too easy to think that to be present we need to continuously be observing the feel of the keyboard beneath our fingers, noticing the blue of the sky, hearing the tick of the clock. The human brain is incapable of constantly noticing everything in every moment.

The truth is actually far simpler.  This moment is all we ever truly have. Everything else is either a memory or a fantasy. Realising that is all that present-moment awareness is. When I am fully aware of this (not just logically knowing it but truly feeling it) then all resistance to what is just falls away. With it goes my suffering.

It almost feels inadequate to end this post here. But the truth is, you have what you need to be compassionate with yourself in hard times.

  This moment is all we ever truly have. Anything else is either a memory or a fantasy. 

this moment

This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a particular focus on Nurturing as well as the broader topic of compassion.

If you would like to join in, you can write a post  on  Nurturing –and add it to the link-up right  by clicking the blue button below.

The co-hosts for the link-up are

American Indian Mom, Finding Ninee The Quiet Muse, Chronically Sick Manic Mother, Just Gene’o, Driftwood Gardens,Getting Literal, Head Heart Health, The Meaning of Me, Paper,Pen,Pad, Blogitudes1000Speak,

Other ways to get involved:

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  1. I love this post, Yvonne. Self compassion is the hardest of all to nurture, yet so vital to our well being. I agree that being able to feel gratitude is a huge part of being happy, through good times and terrible times.

  2. Author

    Thanks Jen. Yes, it can be hard to nurture self-compassion, because there are so many cultural messages against it. I hope that the tide is turning on that!

  3. Love the last quote; staying with a realisation that the moment is everything and truly realising that is so spot on. Like you, losing my father was difficult because I was angry at him. And realising I wasn’t wrong to allow that anger at the same time as accepting the relief he had in dying to be free of his cancer took a long while. It only really came into a balance when I talked it through with my wife, because to a point it seemed wrong to feel anger for something he hadn’t chosen and she allowed that feeling while pointing out I could accept all sides and not see them as either/ors. Until you have experienced it, it is difficult to explain – at least it is for me – so I will cheat and steal some of your ideas.

    1. Author

      How wonderful that your wife helped you work through your grief Geoff! Absolutely agree with her that it’s not either/or. I can certainly understand your feeling of being wrong for feeling anger because I’ve felt that way many times (though not about my Dad.)
      I also relate to what you say about this all being difficult to explain unless you’ve experienced it – that’s why my ending felt almost inadequate. Glad you found my ideas useful though -steal away!

  4. I think it’s harder especially for women – who want to give everything of themselves – to save a little compassion for ourself. Great post Yvonne!

    1. Author

      Liv, I’ve wondered about that – if women are harder on ourselves than men. Some professionals say yes, but possibly it’s just about different things. And, in the UK, suicide is the highest cause of death in some age groups of males. So we all need to save compassion for ourselves for sure! Thanks for your comment.

  5. I may come back and read this a few times – there was a lot in there to take away. I agree that sometimes happiness isn’t a choice – and sometimes life gives us hardship and challenge. I also agree that resisting the crap life throws at us – in so far as that means not dealing it with – prevents you getting through it. To oversimplify: sometimes a good wallowing is what is needed to heal. But I also think our natural state or goal should be to want or choose happiness, so I think we all quest to get back to that state in one way or another. It certainly isn’t as easy as “Choosing Happiness!” but, on some basic level – I think that’s what most of us aim for. Perhaps focussing on living in the present – and then actively working on making that to our liking – is another way of saying that?

    Again – lots to think on here. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Author

      Louise, thanks for your thoughtful comment with lots to consider. Sometimes a good wallowing is what we need – yes, I’d agree! The thing is (and here I really can only speak for myself and what I’ve observed in friends and family) most of the time there is no thing. We just do what we do, until we have a light-bulb moment and then we do something different. Sometimes the wallow and the tears are what I need to “witness” my own pain; other times I have been too caught up in that and just gone on wallowing. Awareness is (for me) the key – if I realise I’m wallowing and treat myself with kindness then already I’m stepping out of it, but if I don’t realise I’m doing it, it would become a downward spiral.

      I was about to agree with you that our natural state is to choose happiness, but I’ve just remembered I read somewhere that negative emotions are part of our evolutionary programming to convince us to run away from danger – that old fight of flight thing. Still, I do agree that we do aim for happiness! Even our cave-dwelling ancestors probably aimed for that. My objection isn’t with aiming for happiness, but that in making it the end above all others we can actually lose sight of what’s right before us. So yes, it’s back to focusing on the present, just like you say.

  6. There is so much in this post that is food for thought. I was nodding about the CRAP bit. Choose happiness works in a limited manner in the attitude that we may have. It helps to nurture happy thoughts and avoid bitching and gossiping on a regular basis. But there are incidents and things beyond our control that make us immensely sad. And no matter what, we cannot feel happy just by trying to be happy. That’s absurd. Thank you for this lovely post. Incidentally, I also wrote about body love which is a subset of self-love.

    1. Author

      Rachna, yes to everything you’ve written here and particularly “we cannot feel happy just by trying to be happy.” Trying to feel happy means resisting anything that isn’t happiness, and when we do that we get resistance, not happiness. Being *willing* to be happy is an entirely different thing however, and opens up so much…
      Your post sounds interesting, looking forward to reading it.

  7. Thanks so much for this post, Yvonne. I have been gripped by uncertainty lately on so many fronts that I have felt quite overwhelmed at times and just have to keep reminding myself to keep just doing what I can in small, manageable loads to clear the rubble and get through it.
    Here’s a link to the Lennon quote I posted today:
    xx Rowena
    PS I’m also about to post about The Question Mark, for the blogging A-z Challenge, which may well interest you in terms of not being able to predict the future.
    xx Rowena

    1. Author

      Roweee, yes, small manageable loads is pretty much the only way to get through anything! Glad you enjoyed the post and I’ll check yours out soon. I’m working my way through as many as I can.

  8. I loved this Yvonne. I have read a lot about self-care but this one made more sense to me than any others. The examples you mentioned are some of what we all go through at times. I am definitely going to check this book out, thank you.

    1. Author

      Thanks Rena. I’m glad it made sense to you! And yes, definitely check out the book. It’s great.

  9. This post is so about self-awareness as well as self-compassion! The understanding that we can control some of our decisions and actions and sometimes we cannot. But, being aware of how we react is so very important and enlightening!
    Thanks again for another wonderful post, Yvonne! I think that’s what I like best about your writing; your ability to analyze and then write about it eloquently! 🙂

    1. Author

      Roshni, yes you are right – I guess I see self-awareness and self-compassion as intertwined. As you say it’s important to be aware of how we react. Unless we are, how can we ever do things differently?
      Thank you for your kind comment!

  10. Words of wisdom, Yvonne. It is the resisting of negative emotions that is so so damaging. The denial that they exist. Stuffing them down. It’s a hard habit to break but it can be broken. And worth it for both mental and physical health. And once we acknowledge them, then we can do the work of letting them go. Thank you for this.

    1. Author

      Gretchen, I agree that it’s important for our physical health as well as mental to allow emotions and let them go. Physical and mental health are so intertwined. I also agree it’s not easy to break this habit of stuffing emotions, but the more we let go, the easier it gets to spot when we are resisting.
      Thanks for your comment.

    1. Author

      Suzi, your point about not letting feelings control you is a good one. I struggled with that for a long time. A lot of it has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. I saw myself as “over-emotional” and that identity made it hard to acknowledge I could be more in control of my emotions than they were of me!
      Thanks for adding that insight, and wishing you the best with your health.

  11. This is so wise and so true, Yvonne. I have found over and over that I can only move beyond of deep feeling until I have felt it completely.

    1. Author

      Thanks Sarah, and yes, that’s absolutely it – to move beyond you need to fully feel it first.

  12. What I really liked about this post (apart from the fact that it’s brilliantly insightful, as always (because you research and consider things in a far more scholarly way than I ever do)) is that I’m DOING some of those things. Not all the time, but I AM doing some of them, for some of the time, and that’s HUGE. HUGE HUGE. And I love that this almost validates that I’m on the right track with my approach.

    Brilliant, and THANK YOU 😀

    1. Author

      See, told you you’d find it reassuring didn’t I? Keep doing what you’re doing!
      Love you!

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