Gentle strength: How self-compassion provides both comfort and courage
Updated: Nov 8
Do you find yourself relentlessly pushing yourself to do more, but struggle to get things done? Often, we motivate ourselves with fear: fear of disappointing others, of being lazy, of failing, of being fired or rejected or not being good enough. These fears will trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol, a powerful and energizing cocktail for creating motivation; however, it is not sustainable and over the long term can be harmful to both our physical and mental health.[i] Self-compassion, on the other hand, releases oxytocin and endorphins giving us a loving energy.[ii] We motivate ourselves from compassion by accepting things as they are while recognizing what we need, value and want for ourselves.
Dialectics of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is gentle, comforting and tender, AND it is energizing, empowering and fierce.[iii] I know this sounds contradictory, but it is a beautiful dialectical balance. (A dialectic is when two things that appear opposite are both true, such as accepting yourself as you are while creating change). Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, illustrates the two balancing energies of self-compassion as the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’.[iv] She explains that the yin of self-compassion is practiced through comforting, soothing and validating ourselves, while the ‘yang’ is protecting, providing, and motivating. [v] We need to practice and prioritize both.
Brene Brown has inspired one of my current mantras: ‘choose courage over comfort’. However, I noticed that when I was constantly pushing myself to be courageous, I started to feel overstimulated, agitated and disconnected from myself. This was a reminder that sometimes we need to choose comfort over courage, so we can rest, reflect, realign, and recharge for the day when we have the capacity to be courageous. It’s okay to slow down and even ‘do nothing’. As the poet Rumi states, “the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”
An important part of the ‘yin’ of self-compassion is to connect gently and non-judgmentally with our feelings, needs and desires and responding to ourselves with kindness.[vi] Below are some examples of comforting compassion:
Check-in with our needs. We can do this through inward reflection, journalling or talking with others.
Give ourselves time to rest and recharge. Imagine that we all have cups inside of us that empties every time we’re working, doing or giving. To maintain our momentum, we need to do the things that allow us to fill our cups- sometimes that is resting (e.g., having a nap, watching a show, reading a book) and other times that is recharging (e.g., meditating, moving our bodies, going outside or doing something creative.)
Offer ourselves loving words. We need to give ourselves kindness, encouragement and forgiveness. Ask yourself what you need to hear. Maybe it's a reminder that you 'did the best you could with what you knew in that moment' or that you 'don't need to have it all together, all the time.'
Practice soothing touch. When we touch ourselves gently or are touched by the loving people, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated allowing us to feel safe and soothed. Neff offers many soothing hand gestures to represent compassion, including my favorite, placing our hands on our hearts.
Give ourselves grace for our mistakes. We need to let go of judgment and offer ourselves understanding and forgiveness when we make mistakes or fail. If we do something intentionally wrong, we can still use compassionate understanding to acknowledge the ‘why’ and hold ourselves accountable for making amends.
To learn and grow, we need to be willing to be curious and uncomfortable with not knowing and have the courage to try new things. As children this seems to be done with a joyful and determined energy, but as we get older we motivate ourselves with criticism, comparison and imposed expectations. We might tell ourselves ‘we’re behind’ and need to figure things out or achieve a list of life experiences. If we’re not where we (or our family or society) expect us to be, then we might berate ourselves for our mistakes, failures, and even question, ‘what's wrong with me’? We might look at past opportunities (with the advantage of hindsight!) and get frustrated with ourselves and think ‘if only’ we did this or that. All of this is meant to give us the ‘kick in the rear’ needed to create change in the now. As mentioned above, the cortisol from criticism might temporarily propel us into action, but it won’t last and will eventually lead us to feeling defeated, disempowered, discouraged and overall not good enough.[vii]
Self-compassion, on the other hand, can give us the energy to go after our goals, the confidence to create change, and the resilience to recover from setbacks.[viii] We take this ‘yang’ energy by meeting our needs, connecting with our values, and advocating for ourselves and what matters. We also practice it by setting boundaries to protect ourselves and those that we love.[ix] This might include, distancing ourselves from unhealthy people and situations while seeking out those who inspire and encourage us. Moreover, we can use this positive energy to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to go after what we want and follow through with valued goals.
Self-compassion involves both strength and softness-- skills that can be learned and practiced. It empowers us to change and grow while creating space for stillness and healing. Contact me if you'd like to enhance your self-compassion skills.
[i] Schwartz, A. (2016). The Complex PTSD Workbook. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press; Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [ii] Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [iii] Neff, K. (2022). Fierce Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. [iv] Neff, K. (2022). Fierce Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. [v] Neff, K. (2022). Fierce Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. [vi] Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [vii] Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [viii] Hanson, R. (2018). Resilient. New York, NY: Harmony Books. [ix] Neff, K. (2022). Fierce Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.