Healing from Trauma with Self-Compassion

The knife in her desk drawer was there as long as she could remember. She has no memory of when she pilfered it from the kitchen, but there it lay, next to the Bic pens and the lined looseleaf paper. But she does remember clearly why she took it and why it remained there all these years later … it made her feel safe, in an environment and a home where she felt very much in danger. This way, she knew that if he came after her again, she’d be able to defend herself.

The need to feel safe is perhaps our most basic human need.

If we feel threatened, if we feel in danger either physically or psychologically, our biology demands that we protect ourselves. Survival always comes first. So our physiology dictates that we defend ourselves either by fighting back, or the alternative – doing whatever we can to escape the danger. This might mean physically leaving the situation, if we can, or if not, leaving psychologically – finding some place to escape in our minds so that we are emotionally removed from the terror.

This is our physiological stress response, better known as the fight and flight response. Our level of stress hormones increase, so that blood flows to our extremities and we are physically able to run from the danger. If we remain in a state of stress or fear, or if we are continually provoked, our stress hormones stay elevated. Elevated stress hormones over time can wreak havoc on our bodies, and is often associated with depression, anxiety, and physical ailments such as heart disease, chronic pain and autoimmune disorders. Those of us who experienced trauma as children often remain on high alert for the rest of our lives, ready to escape should the danger – or anything we perceive might be danger – appear again.

Knowing that these traumatic events are a part of our past, and therefore an integral part of the fabric of who we are, we cannot pretend that we can live our lives hiding from them. As much as we would love to bury these memories, we cannot escape them – we cannot escape our past. So, the only way that we can ever hope to heal then is by allowing the feelings in, bit by bit, as much as we are able. And at each step, at each tiny increment of the door opening to allow in a pebble that has broken free from the mountain of anger, we flood ourselves with love and compassion. For the hurt that we felt. For the desperate sobs into the pillow, for the loss of innocence too young, for the relentless shame held in our hearts for far too long.  But we are human, and as human beings, we deserve self-compassion. And we can give this to ourselves.

How do we define self-compassion?

Kristin Neff, PhD, informally defined self-compassion as “treating ourselves the way we would treat a good friend who was suffering”, knowing that almost 80% of us treat our good friends better than we treat ourselves1. Research has shown that people who are more self-compassionate have less depression, anxiety, and less stress than those who are less self-compassionate2.

How do we become more self-compassionate – how do we start treating ourselves kindly when we’ve spent a lifetime treating ourselves like dirt?

It’s a process, and a practice. It may not happen overnight. But it can be done. Research has demonstrated this fact3, and anecdotally, I’ve heard from many of the students in my self-compassion class that it has transformed their lives. When this transformation takes place, your whole outlook on life changes – mood, sense of self, the way you relate to others. The “dark place” built from past memories is always there, but it becomes softer, grayer, and so much less significant, fading into the background of our hearts. Barely alive, like remnants from another lifetime.

How do you get started? Information on self-compassion can be found on Kristin Neff’s website: www.self-compassion.org . Kristin Neff and  Chris Germer, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard (www.chrisgermer.org) , created an 8-week course called Mindful Self-Compassion specifically to cultivate self-compassion. This is the course that I teach, and that we have heard from so many that it is life-changing. Information about the course can be found at www.centerformsc.org.

And what about that knife in the desk drawer? An old friend from the past, a fond but no longer needed memory. And the person terrorizing her? Long gone, a horribly confused, emotionally tortured person, who had also been terrorized by ghosts from his own youth.

Survival comes first in our physiology, but compassion must come first in our relationships, and most of all, in our relationship with ourselves.



References

  1. Neff, K. D., & Knox, M. (2017).  Self-Compassion. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. Shackelford
    (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. New York: Springer.
  2. MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical psychology review32(6), 545-552.
  3. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self‐compassion program. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(1), 28-44.

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