Thursday, 3 May 2012

Self-Compassion First!

This is an extract from a draft of a chapter for my new book, whose working title is, ‘Healing the Second Wound: A Compassionate Response to Chronic Pain and Suffering’. No doubt much of the text will change before I try to get it published. I thought I’d use this part in my blog as a defence of self-compassion, which many people confuse with self-pity or selfishness, believing that compassion for others is only what matters. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that self-compassion has to come first. If we can’t show compassion for ourselves, we are liable to damage ourselves, and then we cannot effectively show it to others either. The example I give from my own life, towards the end, is a case in point.

The Dalai Lama defined compassion as ‘the state of wishing that the object of our compassion be free of suffering… Yourself first, and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others.’ Buddhism is strong on compassion. One of my favourite quotations from a Buddhist is by Rob Nairn in his book ‘The Tranquil Mind’: ‘The most important thing in all the world is to be kind.’ It’s a simple statement, but true. Imagine how universal kindness would transform the world and its fortunes!

The Dalai Lama’s definition is interesting because it puts self-compassion first, before any compassion we can give to others. This is the opposite of what many of us are brought up to believe from childhood onwards. So often we are taught to go out into the world and put other people’s needs first, if necessary sacrificing our own. Although it’s an understandable belief, an awful lot of guilt is created by this, and a terrible amount of self-punishment and suppression of the most natural basic needs. Sometimes this suppression – which, when it becomes unconscious, is called repression in the Freudian sense – can only allow our thwarted needs to be expressed physically, through pain or illness. We saw in Chapter Four how the effects of trauma can become ‘locked’ into our bodies, but normal tension and stress also have physical effects; often being expressed in the muscles, causing back pain or irritable bowel syndrome. Chronic back pain, for instance, is often correlated with unhappiness or frustration at work, where someone is in a job but getting no satisfaction from it, and constantly under pressure to meet targets or deadlines imposed by someone else. Sacrificing our own needs can become such a habitual feature of our lives that we are unaware we’re doing it. But self-sacrifice, on a regular basis, causes much unnecessary suffering.

Often, if we are willing to get our needs met, such as the emotional and psychological needs which inspire some people to go for counselling, other people may regard us as selfish or navel-gazing. As a counterpoint to the talking therapy industry which is so popular in the western world, there is great hostility to it in many quarters. “Why can’t this person just pull themselves together and get on with it?” people say. I suppose it is possible for some to get addicted to counselling or therapy. But people often have very good reasons for embarking on such a journey: relationship problems or childhood traumata, for instance. Studies suggest that in the United States, between 20 and 25% of women and between 5 and 10% of men were sexually abused as children. Think about that for a moment! Embarking on therapy to deal with these traumata constructively and with self-compassion, takes a deal of courage and some wisdom too. Less constructive ways of dealing with abuse include self-harm (self-abuse) and abusing others. Are those ways less selfish than treating our emotional needs with compassion?

It makes sense to realise that we have to help ourselves first before we can help others effectively. This means that compassion follows on from self-compassion, not the other way round. It’s almost impossible to give attention to others if we’re trapped in our own internal struggles, and likewise we can’t begin to empathise with others – their fears, joys, struggles and hopes – if we take a hard line on our own feelings. Once our own difficulties become workable, we can extend our compassion to others, and truly go out and participate in the world, giving what we can to help others be free of suffering.

A friend of mine who experienced a major and traumatic bereavement, finds it impossible to offer emotional support to bereaved friends; it simply hurts too much. Her counsellor said to her: “You can’t give what you don’t have.” It’s true! Our own healing has to come first.

In the context of having chronic pain, if we ignore what our bodies and emotions are telling us, we are likely to make our own suffering worse. This depletes our energy and our ability to help others. It will also make life harder for those around us, because they will have to deal both with our emotional distress and our diminished physical capacity. So either way, it makes sense to look after our own needs, and to treat them with understanding, patience and compassion. Not doing so causes problems for everyone, starting with ourselves.

Before I had my nervous breakdown in 2008, I had been putting myself under stress for years, and at the same time berating myself because I still didn’t think I was doing enough for others. In my case it was anti-war campaigning that did the damage. I cared passionately about the suffering of millions of people in other countries, was beside myself with frustrated anger at the politicians who caused such suffering and lied to us in order to justify it, and was fearful of where such developments would lead us in the future. So: I was upset, angry and scared. I focused on these issues almost continuously, but because of my chronic pain condition I couldn’t get out into the world and campaign as actively as others. Neither did I, like friends I knew, put myself on the line by non-violently breaking laws that criminalised peaceful protest. Nothing I ever did was enough. I was pushing and pushing and pushing myself to campaign harder, despite being afraid and in stress already due to a chronic pain condition, and I certainly wasn’t treating myself with compassion. Is it any wonder that my nervous system, without the buffering of anti-depressants that I’d recently withdrawn from, finally seemed to decide it had had enough?

Trying to help the bombed and traumatised people of Iraq and Afghanistan, while not taking care of my own basic needs (including the need to feel safe), is a fairly extreme example of where non-self-compassion can lead. But I learned about the importance of self-compassion the hard way. I’ve had to learn how to gradually implement it in my life since, and I must say it’s better late than never! My hope is that this book will help readers to learn self-compassion in an easier way, because it really is the first step in managing chronic health problems of all kinds. We can, like the Dalai Lama says, wish ourselves to be free of suffering, ‘and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others.’

In Chapter Eleven we will look at ways we can extend compassion and kindliness to others as well as to ourselves, as this too is a part of getting well and regaining more of our lives once more. But for now, let’s focus on ourselves, and how we can help give ourselves the compassion that, in our difficult situations, we both need and deserve.


  1. This is a beautiful piece, Michael. So full of wisdom. And you write beautifully!

  2. Michael, this is going to be a beautiful book. I agree and identify with SO many things you've said here, I'd be making a comment as long as your post just to list them. Let's just say, you've struck a chord here, with me, and I know you will with others. SO much wisdom and compassion here. Thank you.


  3. Thank you Toni and Barbara, for your very kind comments. I'm glad that people have been able to relate to this; it gives me hope for the book itself!

    Warm wishes to you both.