10 reasons self-compassion can help loved ones of trauma survivors

I sit in my office, jaw clenched, back rigid, eye brows raised. I want to cry or scream but instead I feel frozen, paralyzed. I long for something to expel the distress from my body. Please, anything.

Instead, I remember – breathe, just breathe. My attention shifts to my belly and my eyes drop observing the ballooning of my middle in and out, in and out.

I close my eyes and sense an almost imperceptible change. The anxiety is still there – sometimes it’s always there – but there’s something else: the indent of the office chair under my seat, the firm floor under my feet, and the cool pressure of air making its way past my nostrils.

My arms rise and cross. They land in a hand over heart gesture. With gentle pressure, I feel the rhythmic beating and I know without words:

This is me. I am here.

More words follow:

I am here for you.

I am not going anywhere.

I’ve got you.

My voice, my body, my connection.

This is self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?

While, at the core, self-compassion is being there for yourself, the practice of self-compassion comes from Buddhist psychology and is empirically researched by Christopher Germer, PhD and Kristin Neff, PhD and others. The three components of Mindful Self-Compassion (self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness) are integrated into a practice, which can be done formally, as in time set apart, or informally throughout the day.

MSC can be learned by anyone. It’s the practice of repeatedly evoking good will toward ourselves especially when we’re suffering—cultivating the same desire that all living beings have to live happily and free from suffering.

Center for Self-Compassion

You can learn Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) through reading, watching videos, joining an online or in person group, or listening to the practices on an app or online. I was privileged enough to take a formal class this past summer. I found the class time beneficial to understand and explore the practice in a way I probably would not have on my own. Whether you can or cannot take a class, I believe this practice can be supportive for those who are closest to trauma survivors. I want to take a few moments to share ten reasons you might want to explore it.

Ten reasons self-compassion can help

Self-compassion activates the care system

Without getting technical, the act of self-compassion physiologically evokes the mammalian care system. Physiologically, the hormone of oxytocin, which is involved in attachment, is activated leading to an embodied feeling of connection and care.

Self-compassion provides kind language

With connection, the language of care follows. Phrases like ‘I am here for you,’ ‘I love you,’ or ‘That’s hard,’ are accessible. The amazing part is that it is you speaking to you.

It is accessible

The informal practice of self-compassion is available any time and any place.

It is an anchor

Self-compassion is an embodied practice, anchoring you to you. This self-anchor is especially helpful for anyone who is in a position of caring for others and experiencing chronic stress.

It can decrease body tension

Self-compassion, by its nature, is a supportive experience. It helps us experience support, which leads to a softening of the emotions, the mind and the body. It may not completely remove tension but simply by being kind, we may feel a little more ease.

It lessens isolation

Isolation is a common issue for loved ones. Having a sense of self-connection can help lessen feelings of being alone and misunderstood.

It provides care when caring for others

Accessing the tenderness you need during difficulties is one of the biggest benefits of MSC. In the moment, a self-compassionate phrase or gesture can be exactly what is needed.

It offers choice

Once we become aware of it, the choice to use self-compassion is always available.

It is a support system

It is not a replacement for support from others while at the same time MSC helps to access and strengthen self-awareness so we can be there for ourselves.

Self-compassion becomes automatic

It replaces old patterns, interrupts self-criticism, and offers encouragement, love and care. I think everyone could benefit from this.

One more reason self-compassion can help

Self-compassion is realistic

The point of self-compassion is not to get rid of distress. As I discovered, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. The main thing the practice does is teach us to be with ourselves in the midst of difficulty. For me, as a partner to a person with complex trauma, the knowledge that I always have a place to turn when I am struggling is deeply comforting. Perhaps exploring this practice will comfort you too.

Could you use compassionate resources?