Therapy Thoughts – The Importance and Elusiveness of Self-Compassion

You may have heard.  The Seahawks lost.  They didn’t just lose – they tore out the heart of a region with a poorly called or poorly executed or poorly blessed play at the end of the Seahawk.cryingSuper Bowl.  If you haven’t heard, then you’re not reading this and are probably foraging for breakfast on your deserted island.  As for the rest of us….wow!  Wow wow wow wow.  On Monday after the game, I processed this hardly imaginable disaster with a few friends and none of them had slept on Sunday night.  My wife, who doesn’t give a hoot for sports, recovered about five seconds after Butler’s interception.  I usually pity her for not being able to get excited about the drama of good sports contests, but this week I envied her.  Seriously, this was a visceral blow to those of us who were all engaged with this scintillating drama.

Then again, it wasn’t Ebola.  It wasn’t a suicide bomb detonating at our place of worship.  Tanks aren’t rolling down our street to crush dissent.  My family is healthy and secure.  Really, in the big picture, it IS a game and three days later, I’m just glad I’m not one of the team members.  Now, they must be having a real hard time right now.  Still, their families are safe and they  will be able to cash their checks.  This all got me to thinking about people in therapy who have suffered emotionally in their lives and who dismiss their pain by saying, often glibly, “What right have I to complain?  I’m not blind.  I’m not a starving child in Africa.”  Well, that’s true.  Our distress can often be easily dismissed as “First World Problems,” but to do this matter-of-factly really misses what I think is a very important point.

People who struggle emotionally have a really heartbreaking paucity of self-compassion.  There seems to be this either/or duality in our thinking, so that we think that the choice is (a) wring our hands and cry “woe is me,” collapsing into a mound of self-pitying protoplasm, or (b) dismiss our pain because we have two functioning legs (and others don’t) or two functioning eyes (and others don’t), etc.  However, I do believe that many of us hold fear, shame, grief and other honest and very real feelings inside (and usually have for a long, long time).  When we first experienced the violations or wounds that caused us to experience these, we also reasoned with our youthful brains that we could never show the world, or ourselves, the horrible pain or the belief that a powerful force outside ourselves (adult parental figures) were wrong or uncontrollable.  That would be intolerably confusing and frightening.  So we hold it inside and when we get older dismiss our deepest wounds with off-hand comments like, “What do I have to complain about…”   In dealing with most of the world, that’s a smart decision.  But in our closest relationships, or in therapy, by thinking these thoughts, we deny ourselves the care we have longed for and, at the same time, found so risky.  I have sat in amazement and great sadness watching the determined energy with which  people bat away truly caring statements from their partners in couples therapy – or me in individual work.  We are so many things in our lives – filled with such an array of feelings.  Many such feelings are safe to show to the world.  Others, comprising an essential and intense core, are very risky.  Chief among them is the grief we harbor for the love we needed and the anger, neglect and judgment we received in its stead.  For many of us, it’s part of our personality and isn’t going to simply evaporate over time.  We need to embrace it – embrace ourselves – and allow others to embrace us as well – to embrace our hearts while we are experiencing this grief.  Yes, we have both eyes or both legs – and we also have weeping hearts that we shield from ourselves and others.  If we can be able to say to ourselves, “It’s okay.  That part of myself is there along with all the other parts. I can grieve for the embracing love I needed and didn’t receive” I think we can experience our world more fully and freely – more joyously.    No one is a “victim” unless they choose to be – and that won’t ever get you anywhere.  There’s a difference, though, between embracing our own hearts and letting ourselves be cared for, now, and being a victim.  Self-compassion is one of the great gifts of personal therapy, actually.  Even New England Patriot fans deserve that  in their lives.