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How to protect yourself, so you can protect the world

book excerpt self-compassion

Happy 2024! Just between us, I'm always a little shocked that our problems don't magically resolve themselves on January 1st.

Like, whoever's in charge clearly did not get the memo. How dare our problems follow us into a whole new year? We demand our fresh start!

But since life blatantly ignores the construct of the calendar (the audacity!) and it's still pretty overwhelming out there, I thought we'd start 2024 with a reminder that now is a good time to try some self-compassion.

I know! You’ve heard me say that before. I sound like a broken record but that's because:

Researchers found that people who give themselves compassion have lower cortisol levels and those experiencing trauma who are compassionate towards themselves are less likely to develop PTSD. Healthcare workers who are more self-compassionate have reduced levels of stress, depression, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and emotional exhaustion.

I want some of that for all of us, so I'm still out here in these streets tooting the self-compassion horn. It works, it’s free, and it's more nuanced than you might think.

And that's where the inspiration for our next book highlight comes from...


This month we have an excerpt from Fierce Self Compassion by Kristin Neff, PhD.

“One commonly prescribed method of preventing burnout is a form of fierce self-compassion: drawing boundaries. This means placing limits on the amount of time and energy we give to others. Being firm in this requires protective self-compassion…a form of boundary setting involves emotional distancing, so that we’re less engaged with others' suffering. 

Sometimes we simply can't allow ourselves to feel too deeply if it's going to curtail our ability to do our job. When an ER doctor or nurse attends to a patient with a life-threatening wound, emotional distance is often needed just to continue working without being overwhelmed... 

As long as we're clear about what we're doing it can be useful to distance ourselves from the pain of others for a limited time in order to do our jobs effectively. The real problem comes when people distance themselves from their own emotions unconsciously. 

If we aren't aware that we're shutting down to protect ourselves we never have the opportunity to process the empathic pain we've experienced. If I get home from work and reach straight for the wine bottle or click the TV on to smooth over the stress I've experienced on my shift those feelings may stay locked inside me. This can lead to high blood pressure depression or substance abuse. 

But when we shut down consciously as an act of caring for our well-being in the moment, then we can work through the difficult feelings later when we have more resources…

[For example], I might temporarily compartmentalize my empathic pain so I can continue to teach. However later that evening I'll check in with myself to see how I'm doing. If I find that I'm still carrying some of the distress from the day I'll do a practice such as the Tender Self-Compassion Break or Being with Difficult Emotions [soften, soothe, allow] to make sure I acknowledge the discomfort and tend to it…

Strategies like emotional distancing, even when temporary, also have their limitations…So how do we care for ourselves in the presence of suffering? We bring in tender self-compassion. 

We learn to be with our empathic pain with loving, connected presence as we engage in the difficult work of caregiving. We acknowledge our distress…we recognize that helping others is a challenging, but rewarding aspect of the human experience…and we support ourselves with the type of warm internal dialogue we might naturally use with a friend… 

Holding our empathic pain with compassion [during] the actual act of caregiving provides tremendous calm, stability, and resilience.

Some may feel it inappropriate to give ourselves compassion if we're caring for someone who's suffering much more than we are. We might have the thought “Who am I to complain that I've been working for 12 hours straight? This poor guy might not make it through the night!" 

Although it may feel selfish, it's anything but. We're not giving ourselves care to the exclusion of others. Rather we’re just including ourselves in the circle of compassion

…Remember that [those] we care for resonate with our state of mind too. Empathy goes both ways. If we're frustrated and exhausted others resonate with those negative feelings, but if we're filled with self-compassion, they tune into these positive feelings. 

Just as we can experience secondary traumatic stress we can also experience secondary loving connected presence. In this way giving compassion to ourselves while caring for others is actually a gift we give to the world.”



For me, this passage is helpful because it reminds me that: 

Self-compassion isn’t just reactive, it’s proactive. 

Yes, it’s responding to ourselves with tenderness when we’re struggling, but it’s also about taking action to protect ourselves in challenging circumstances. 

Tender self-compassion asks: “What do I need right now to help alleviate my suffering?”

Fierce self-compassion asks: ”What action do I need to take to protect myself so that I can keep working to help alleviate suffering in the world?”

Tender and fierce. Both/and. For helping professionals, this can be a lifesaving combination. 

Want to keep reading? You can find a copy here.


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