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Thelma Duffey Ph.D.

Living Through Adversity with Self-Compassion

Self-compassion helps us move beyond blame and toward appreciation

Allison, 64, is taking care of her mother, now in her final days with Hospice. Allison’s relationship with her mother has been historically conflicted. However, over the last few years they have come to terms with their love and need for one another, and made peace. Now living with the imminent reality of her mother’s death, as well as the recent deaths of her father and only sister, Allison finds herself painfully alone. She is frightened and depressed. As she watches her mother lie in bed unresponsive, Allison feels deep sadness for the times of conflict between them and misses her mother deeply.

Sam lost his job after investing 25 years into the industry. He is shocked, humiliated, and in hiding. Sam has not shared his loss with his family and continues to dress in the morning as if he is going to work.

Beth and her husband are divorcing after 35 years of marriage. Beth, who legally pursued the divorce, feels heartbroken, conflicted, angry, and responsible. She never wanted a divorce. She wanted a good marriage with her husband. However, peace and friendship elude them, and their home is filled with blame, shame, and bitterness. For far too many years, they have existed as defensive strangers in the space they call “home.” Beth wants a new life but feels badly for pursuing it.

Jeffrey was not accepted by the university he long dreamed of attending. He worked hard at school and made excellent grades. His standardized scores were simply not competitive enough to gain him entrance. He feels deeply disappointed, confused, and embarrassed.

Every one of us suffers losses, disappointments, and setbacks, which can trigger the most primitive of emotions. The degree of our pain is exacerbated by the meaning and value of our loss, our former loss experiences, and the ways in which we view ourselves. During times of adversity, many of us feel conflicted feelings and sometimes turn against ourselves. Still, it is important, particularly during those times, that we find compassion in our hearts for ourselves. Self-compassion (as opposed to self-pity) allows us to remember our humanness while we connect with the humanity of others and the reality of our experiences. It allows us to grieve our unrealized dreams and the dreams we lived out but must now release. Finally, self-compassion helps us heal in ways that allow us to continue living the richness of life.

Self-compassion must not be confused with self-pity. Whereas self-pity can trigger feelings of misery and contempt, self-compassion helps us move beyond blame and toward appreciation. Moreover, as we develop self-compassion, we are better able to see our situations clearly. We can find some comfort in being realistic and on our own side.

How do we move from a self-negating position to one of self-compassion?

  • We acknowledge appreciation for the parts of us that hurt—the parts of us that tried to make a difference whatever the outcome.
  • We listen to the messages we say to ourselves in our thoughts. Do we speak to ourselves harshly or pejoratively, or do we speak to ourselves with the kind of voice we would offer a loved one?
  • We surround ourselves with people who are genuine with us, who challenge us, and who support us. This fosters self-compassion and responsibility.
  • We accept times of failure as part of life. Self-compassion helps us look at those times in which we were unsuccessful through a generous lens. Those times do not define us, and in fact, they can serve as an impetus for a much greater vision.
  • We notice the times we are impatient or lacking in compassion for others. This could be a sign of an inner lack of compassion.
  • We refuse to blame everyone else for our problems. Doing so keeps us from ever experiencing true self-compassion or understanding.
  • We accept responsibility for our part in difficult situations. This is not to foster self-blame, but to free us from the unspoken dialogue that can keep us stuck in rumination and away from self-compassion.

Adversity befalls us all at different points in life. Create the space in your heart and mind that allows you to see the larger, greater, and more realistic and compassionate picture of you. Let others who care about you help. None of us are exempt from loss or life’s challenges and we will each have an opportunity to return the favor. One of my favorite book characters, Dr. Seuss, once said: “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Self-compassion can help us connect with ordinary moments and appreciate the good in them and in us. And by being responsible, realistic, and compassionate—with ourselves and with others—we might just find ourselves moving beyond those difficult times and creating new, more fulfilling ones.