In one of her talks, Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who was in a coma. Her daughter was at her bedside, and the woman woke up from the coma for a brief moment and said, “All my life I thought there was something wrong with me.” Then she died.
When you read that, I hope that, like me, you find it incredibly sad that she lived this way, and you realise that the beliefs she held about herself throughout her life were most likely not true. Yet many of us have similar beliefs about ourselves that limit our lives, and, although they are also probably not true, they can be really hard to let go of. Also, many of us find it difficult to be kind to ourselves when we are having a hard time the way we would be to a friend that we cared about. Why is this, and what can we do to have a bit more self-compassion?
The quote at the top of the page is also from Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher who believes that we spend much of our lives suffering in what she calls the trance of unworthiness: the unworthiness part is that we have deeply-held beliefs that we are in some way not good enough, and it’s a trance because we don’t realise that the way we are viewing ourselves is not necessarily true. When we feel bad, it often connects to an underlying belief that we are bad, and these beliefs make it more difficult to be kind to ourselves when we are having a hard time.
Tara explains that these beliefs about not being good enough come from our early life experiences in which we had to be a certain way to get love or approval from our parents. Childhood is also usually the root of our lack of self-compassion; your self-blame and self-judgement most likely come from the way your parents dealt with you when you were having a difficult time. Perhaps they were too busy and wanted the problem to go away, or they saw you as weak when you were struggling. Most people’s parents did their best with what they had, but whatever their style of parenting was, it usually becomes how you relate to your own suffering.
Another reason we find it difficult to be compassionate to ourselves, according to Tara, is that we believe that without the self-judgement we won’t ever change. She explains that when we are blaming ourselves, there is often an accompanying belief that we can somehow control ourselves into being better, whereas being kinder to ourselves would be somehow condoning a bad behaviour.
These ways of relating to our own difficulties are not usually helpful, and most people would benefit from being kinder to themselves. Self-compassion not only leads to more happiness, less depression and less anxiety, but also better relationships with other people. This is because when we are judging and blaming ourselves, we also judge others more and tend to be more aggressive or defensive. So how can we shift from blaming and judging ourselves to being kinder?
First of all, you need to remember that your beliefs about yourself may not be true. This can seem like a strange idea as we tend to assume that the way we see the world and ourselves is accurate, but often it’s not. Think back to the woman in the coma; not only were her beliefs unlikely to be true, but she most likely lost many moments of potential happiness and connection believing that there was something wrong with her.
Tara believes that a key to being kinder is to notice when you are having a hard time and accept that it is difficult. She says that a good starting point is pausing and saying to yourself ‘this is difficult’. That pause breaks the trance, and can be followed by bringing kindness to yourself. If you can do this, if you can notice, soften, accept and bring compassion towards yourself, Tara says that there is an awakening, something like ‘nothing is wrong with me anymore’, and a realisation that things don’t have to be this way.