Self-Compassion: Why It’s Important And 4 Ways To Build It In Yourself

Sometimes painful emotions feel like they may kill you.

Perhaps Harry Potter said it best.

“I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!”

“You do care,” said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”

Underneath the adventuresome battle for Harry Potter to vanquish the vicious Voldemort was his tremendous grief. His parents had been killed when he was only a toddler, and although surrounded by wonderful friends and the guidance of caring adults, he was alone in that sorrow.

People do a lot of things to deny or avoid feeling painful emotions. You drink too much, work too much, gamble, dive into Facebook, Netflix binge — all efforts to escape. You avoid feeling anything at all and focus on control, organization, or order. You allow your mind to constantly turn things over and over, worrying about things that you cannot control. You deny the impact of hurts or actual trauma from the past. You discount and rigidly compartmentalize abuse that you suffered.

Nothing could be worse than being a whiner. Right?

Maybe you had a mom who was a roaring alcoholic or a dad who had multiple affairs. Your older brother fondled you or you were raped in college. You were bullied by other kids or you were in a terrible accident that took the life of a friend.

Why feel the emotions that those memories bring? What’s the point?

Because the message to you was you don’t matter. And the message you’re giving yourself is the same. 

“My pain, me, what happens to me, isn’t important enough to honor.”

A multi-millionaire, Roger had been happily married many years, with no children. Yet he found himself drawn to divorce and felt tremendous guilt over the concept of hurting his wife. But in middle age, he was restless and wanted to make changes. In one of the most poignant conversations we had, Roger said, “I’d like to quit my job. I’ve always wanted to do something to help other people — volunteer to teach in a less developed country.”

I responded, “What would keep you from doing that?”

He paused and then replied, “To be honest? I can still hear my dad screaming at me that I wouldn’t amount to anything.”

“And how do you feel about that now? As a very successful adult?”

Again, another pause. His words showed no emotion, “I don’t know how rich I’ve got to be to actually feel successful. All I know is that it’s not enough now.”

“What do you feel when you remember being screamed at like that?”

“Oh, I don’t talk to my dad anymore.”

“But what do you feel? What would you want to say to that child — the child who was you?”

“I don’t know. Go be successful. Prove your dad wrong.”

Roger was living out what he could not express. He was stuck in the mind and heart of that child, who was angry and hurt, as he couldn’t allow himself to connect or to feel compassion toward himself as a child or as an adult.

He continued to work and made even more money. He divorced, and the last time we spoke, he was still going by his now ex-wife’s home to check on her.

What Are The Steps In Developing Self-Compassion?

1. See Yourself As You Might View Others

If you saw an adult throwing rocks at children, would you ever tell one of those kids that their fear wasn’t important? Or maybe you were one of those kids, dodging rocks. Why wouldn’t you be as important as every other human being? Why wouldn’t you deserve protection, advocacy, understanding, comfort, and care?

The answer is that you do deserve those things as much as the next person. Grant yourself the same level of compassion that you’d offer others.

2. Recognize The Defense Mechanisms Or Strategies You Used To Cope With/Detach From Pain Or Trauma

When there was no one to help — when no one stopped your parent from screaming at you, no one noticed the bullying, your brother told you he’d hurt you if you ever told, you’ve tried to forget the rape — you survived. You began detaching from the pain of what had happened in order to cope. You rarely feel sadness, or perhaps even actively hide it from yourself or others. You may not be comfortable at all with even present-day vulnerability and perhaps are perfectly hiding depression.

3. Actively Challenge The Habits And Beliefs That Fuel That Detachment – Get Unstuck

If you tend to escape, sit down and write about what you’re afraid to feel. “What am I trying to avoid feeling by eating? By drinking? By working too much?”

If you desperately need to stay in control, look for opportunities to allow others to be in charge, to take a back seat and to let go of all the responsibility. When you’re not hiding behind being busy, what do you feel?

If you worry, and thus stay “in your head” for most of the day, begin a worry journal. Begin noticing the patterns in your worry. Write about them all, and begin to notice how you feel as you write and after you write.

If you deny the importance of whatever trauma you experienced, try telling it — all of it — to one person you trust who you know has the capacity for empathy. Watch for their reaction. You’re going to see compassion. You’re going to see how important it was — how important you are.

4. Realize The Value Of A Rich Emotional Life/ Confront Your Own Fear Of Feeling Pain

When an artist paints, they often use a certain color palette. Different artists use color, shading or brush strokes in diverse ways. It’s often how we identify their work, “That looks like a Monet.”

Human beings work in a very similar way. We color our lives by expressing diverse, unique emotions that range from enjoying a good old belly laugh to mild irritation, or from a peaceful contentment to an indignant anger, using a spectrum of feelings.

Self-compassion expands your available emotional palette. You can claim and express emotions that were first experienced and then suppressed as a child – and work through your own grief and pain.

Grief may feel like it’s an external force that has the power to destroy you. Yet, as Harry Potter discovered, it instead can free you to live in the here and now.


Tell us how you practice self-compassion in the comments!

About Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford has been a psychologist in private practice for over 25 years. In 2012, she began extending the walls of her practice with an online blog, as well as writing for HuffPost, Psychology Today, The Mighty, Readers Digest, The Gottman Blog, and others. In 2016, she began producing The SelfWork Podcast, which has surpassed 4 million downloads; her goal has been to educate others about therapy and the benefits of seeking help and treatment. And her book was published in 2019, entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free from the Perfectionism that Masks Your Depression (New Harbinger Publications).

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