I had an experience recently which re-affirmed for me that self-compassion is probably the most powerful tool I have. Some might wonder how that could be true. While more people are becoming aware of the importance of self-compassion in mental health and well-being, it still runs counter to the values of the prevailing mainstream culture that tends to emphasize immediate gratification, competition, and self-esteem based on hierarchical achievement.
In contrast, self-compassion’s main components, according to pioneering researcher and author Kristen Neff, are awareness, a sense of interconnectedness or common humanity, and kindness. From this perspective, self-esteem is viewed as important, but it’s based on one’s intrinsic worthiness rather than being conditional and achievement-based.
When some people first hear about self-compassion, they immediately get it. It’s like a light-bulb goes off and many things that had confused them suddenly make sense. They recognize how much their inner critic dominates their internal experience, making self-trust nearly impossible. They realize that they tend to withhold compassion from themselves, and that doing so prevents them from having positive experiences at work, or in relationships.
For others, the idea of self-compassion can seem abstract, kind of fluffy or “nice to have” rather than an essential human capacity. I sometimes wonder if these folks imagine something like Daily Affirmations by Stuart Smalley. If they think that self-compassion is all about staring at yourself in the mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me” no wonder they question its in-the-trenches value. My recent experience, however, reminded me that self-compassion is in no way fluffy. It’s a potent tool; a form of emotional aikido.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for 18 years, and I’ve walked, biked, scootered or driven down its streets just about every day. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had no real brushes with overt violence, until a few Fridays ago. Just before noon that day, I stood on the corner of Gough and Market Streets, waiting for the light to change. I often listen to music or a podcast or audiobook on my way to the office, but that day I had no personal soundtrack. As I stood there, I noticed a man on the other side of Gough, looking my way. I felt an intuitive twinge of anxiety (something about the intensity of his stare), but didn’t think too much of it. It was a really fine morning: a bright sun had burned through the early fog, and I focused on appreciating the warm breeze.
The light changed and I stepped into the crosswalk. When I was about halfway across Market Street, something sizable whizzed just past my head. I heard the sound of glass on asphalt, looked down, and a large, empty 40-ounce bottle bounced and rolled into traffic. I felt confused and alarmed, not sure where the bottle had come from or why it had come so close to my head.
I looked behind me, and there was the man from the corner. He looked me intently in the eye and began running in my direction. My adrenaline surged. I was scared, and I acknowledged that to myself. It all happened so fast that I had no words, but I felt an inner acknowledgement of the simple truth of that moment: I was scared, this person was enraged and had just hurled a bottle at my head, and I didn’t know what he was going to do next. He likely had a mental health and/or substance use issue. That acknowledgment offered me a small, perceptible place of inner refuge.
I could hear the man angrily spitting out the same words over and over as he ran, but I couldn’t tell what they were. As he got closer, I realized it was: “You going to?” I think he was asking if I was going to challenge him and his right to throw a bottle at my head. He was fuming and, suddenly, very near. I had no time to think. It seemed very likely that he would strike me. All it would take was one wrong word or sideways glance.
I didn’t run or make eye contact. I slowly shook my head. Gently but firmly I said, “No.” He dared me again and again, “You going to? You going to?” And again I shook my head and simply said, “No.” Somehow, this satisfied him, and without another word he bolted across the street behind me. I got to the other side of Market, too shaken to look back. I continued toward my office, grateful that nothing more had happened, hoping that he wouldn’t follow me. He didn’t.
What was it that kept this situation from escalating? Self-compassion, luck, both? I can’t say for sure. I do know that self-compassion felt like the most important factor for me. It helped me stay present, responsive and non-reactive in the midst of fear. It enabled me to tap into a place of internal safety when my external world felt dangerous. And it also helped me cope afterward, in the way that I immediately reached out by texting my partner and friends so that I wasn’t alone with the experience.
In between texts, I also used an exercise that Kristen Neff calls a self-compassion break. As I walked, I repeated the following phrases to myself:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself.
May I give myself the compassion that I need.
The self-compassion break helped me calm down and remember to be present with myself as I began to process the experience I’d just had. It’s a powerful tool, and I was grateful to have it in my toolbox.
I hope that you never face an experience like that one. And I also hope that reading about my experience will encourage and remind you to practice self-compassion the next time you’re in a difficult, uncomfortable, triggering situation. Start by noticing what’s happening and acknowledge to yourself the truth about how you feel and what you sense. Remember that you are having a human experience, and that you are connected to others. Remind yourself to be kind, and get curious about the specific form of kindness you need in that moment. Try giving yourself a self-compassion break.
Often, when we’re feeling deeply challenged, unsure of what to do next, self-compassion is what matters most.