When Self-Compassion Triggers Shame

Self-compassion is powerful. 

It helps you recognize your own suffering as part of being human and gives you comfort during difficult times. As you tune into your own emotional needs, self-compassion encourages you to be vulnerable with yourself and others, which leads to deeper intimacy and more satisfying relationships. 

Unfortunately, self-compassion sometimes has the opposite effect. Instead of warmth and acceptance, it triggers your self-loathing and fear. Perhaps you don't believe you deserve kindness or you've been taught that it's self-indulgent to be compassionate with yourself. Yet, you keep hearing that if you're kind to yourself, you will begin to love yourself, which creates a path to healing. So what do you do? How do you give yourself loving-kindness when the very mention of it makes your muscles tense and your heart race? How do you tolerate self-compassion long enough to feel its healing effects? 

Recognize the presence of shame. 

Shame is a uniquely human phenomenon that generates self-critical thoughts and physiological discomfort each time you fail at being perfect (which we all do, because no one is perfect). The extent to which shame overtakes you depends on your level of self-awareness, what you know about its roots, and how much you buy into its message.

Shame tends to arise when you haven't learned that emotions are a vital part of your existence. As you grew up, understanding and expressing your feelings may have been discouraged, so you learned to shove them off to some dark corner of your mind. Instead of disappearing, however, they fester and grow more extreme, unable to get you to pay attention to them. When you consider these forgotten parts of your experience, shame swoops in to make you feel weak for getting bogged down by useless feelings. 

Shame reminds you that you are bad for having emotions in the first place! Shame can also be a natural response to trauma, especially when it happens in your intimate relationships. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can fill your head with lies about your personal value. 

If someone I love could treat me like this, what does that mean about me? If I brought on this behavior, what does that mean about me? 

Not what does it mean about the person who perpetrated the abuse, but what does it mean about me! Your brain likes to problem-solve and wants desperately to make sense of these horrific things that have happened. Sadly, this often leads you to blame yourself. 

Children are particularly susceptible to this. You relied on your parents to keep you alive; it was too threatening to see them as dangerous or neglectful, so you turned the blame on yourself. This blame translates into shame when it becomes part of who you are: I am the reason I am in pain. I deserve to be treated this way. There is something inherently wrong with me. I am bad. 

When shame is so deeply ingrained in your identity, no wonder compassion can't find its way in! It feels painful and actually triggers more shame. So what do you do? You get creative. When you struggle to feel worthy of love, compassion can also feel like something meant for everyone else but you. In that case, start with something that seems less tied to your value. 

Be patient. 

Learn to tolerate that you have emotions at all. Give yourself time to uncover the story of what makes you feel the way you do. Make room for the feelings to exist without judging them. Just watch them rise and fall in their intensity. You might notice shame makes an appearance; at some point, you'll be able to watch it too, without overidentifying with it. Become aware of how each feeling looks, feels, and sounds when it surfaces.

Be curious.

Next, imagine a stage on which your thoughts and emotions are the actors, playing out their experiences, while you listen and learn about their lives and how they arrived where they are today. 

Now begin to see these thoughts and emotions as parts of yourself. Name them so you can refer to them easily. Identify your fearful part, your brave part, your survivor part, your protective part, your hurt part, and any other parts you witness. 

Again, listen to their individual stories and be curious about their motivations. Does your fearful part keep you from taking risks so you don't embarrass yourself? Does your angry part come out to defend your more vulnerable parts when it feels they're in danger? 

Notice the relationships that develop between your parts and how they try to help each other. Notice how they're trying to help keep you safe, even when their methods seem suspect.

Be grateful.

Can you thank your individual parts for their efforts to take care of you? What happens when you offer understanding and maybe even forgiveness to your parts for the way they act? You might find that your parts relax, because they finally feel heard. They finally feel that you take them seriously, that they are important to you. They feel the acceptance and empathy you're offering them, rather than your disdain or discomfort. 

Ultimately, you're offering your parts the compassion they need to feel heard, respected, and loved. Over time, these parts may become less extreme, because they no longer have to overwhelm you to get you to listen.

By now, you might realize that you have found a backdoor to offering compassion to yourself. All of these parts make up who you are, so when you are kind to them, you are being kind to yourself. 

When you accept them, you accept yourself. When you forgive them, you forgive yourself. 

Compassion for others is often easier to cultivate than compassion for yourself, especially when shame is involved. Identifying your parts allows you to create external images that can receive compassion from you. The process of recognizing and understanding your parts can feel challenging, so remember to start with patience. 

Slow down, observe, and seek assistance from a therapist when you need it.   

Resources to learn more: 

Kristin Neff's website

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Links to books are affiliate links.