Self-Compassion During Difficult Times

Written by Kim Matthews, MA, LPC, Support Programs Coordinator

There is always an argument for the benefit of being kind to oneself, but it can be an especially beneficial practice when experiencing a cancer diagnosis, supporting a loved one during a diagnosis, and during bereavement. Among emotion researchers, compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Self-compassion is simply when that desire or motivation to relieve suffering is directed inward to oneself.

While the definition of self-compassion might be simple, the practice can be challenging, particularly for someone who tends toward self-criticism. The first step in self-compassion might be recognizing when we are being self-critical. Do I judge myself, have unrealistic expectations, commonly use “should” statements, compare myself to others? When we are already suffering and then become self-critical, we continue the loop of suffering. For example, the suffering might be experienced as anger or anxiety, and if we are then critical of ourselves for experiencing challenging emotions, self-criticism can cause an emotional response (frustration or anger) or a physical response (maybe elevated heart rate or lethargy/lack of motivation), which keeps the threat activated so we are now in a loop of suffering. Self-criticism can result in anxiety, shame, guilt, frustration, depression.

When struggling with quieting or reframing the self-criticism, a common refrain is, “What would you say to a friend?”. Thinking about how you would express love and kindness to a friend can be a way to practice shifting how you talk to yourself with love and kindness. Think of self-compassion as a way to alleviate some of your suffering by treating yourself with kindness, care, concern, having realistic expectations, recognizing what is within your control and what is not, treating yourself to activities that you enjoy, soothing yourself.

It can be helpful to make a list of the many ways in which you personally can be soothed, ways in which you can be cared for by your actions/activities (things that are within your control when you are in the midst of an experience that is out of your control). The longer your list, the more opportunities to find one that you can do in any given moment: talk with a friend, go for a walk, pet your dog, read a book, listen to music, watch the sunset, ride your bike, sit in the garden, smile, eat a healthy meal, take a bath, journal, engage in your favorite hobby, take deep breaths, work on a jigsaw puzzle, go to therapy, watch a movie, express gratitude to someone who is supporting you, make a phone call, meditate, do yoga, look at the stars, work on the project that you have been procrastinating, sing, do an art project, laugh…

I believe that an additional aspect of self-compassion is “giving yourself grace”. My favorite definitions of giving yourself grace are recognizing that we humans are imperfect, as well as interacting with your world and yourself with kindness, understanding and compassion.

The suffering we experience during a cancer diagnosis or following the death of a loved one is a normal, painful part of the human experience. Self-compassion doesn’t eliminate the pain, but when we consciously pay attention to the desire to have breaks from our suffering, and act on that desire by implementing activities/techniques to soothe and take care of ourselves, we can experience moments of calm, even contentment and happiness. We allow ourselves to cope as we move through difficult experiences.