Self-Compassion Doesn’t Always Mean Being Gentle
How a healthy dose of ferocity promotes healing and growth
“You need to calm down,” someone recently said to me on a phone call. “You’re making a huge deal out of nothing.” Adrenaline coursed through my arms and legs, like my body wanted me to run.
Normally, I’d bow out of the conversation to avoid conflict, make a mental note not to bring up personal topics with that person again, and recover with some self-care –– a hot bath, a walk through the neighborhood, or a chat with a supportive friend.
As I internally grappled with how to respond, I pictured myself as a kid, gaslit into doubting my feelings by abusive family members. This time, I decided, setting a clear boundary was the self-care. I took a deep breath and mustered up some courage. “I can’t let you talk to me that way,” I replied, firmly. “If you’re going to discount my feelings, then I’ll have to end the conversation.”
I’ve always viewed self-care as a way to respond to emotional turmoil, not as a way to prevent it. In a recent session, though, my therapist helped me realize taking care of myself sometimes means getting a little ferocious. Those boundaries I set with a gaslighting relative don’t just prevent harmful behavior; they also send an important message to both them and me –– that I can trust myself and my emotions and that I’m worth advocating for.
For those of us who have experienced trauma or have been part of toxic relationships, that expression of self-validation and self-compassion is an important part of healing. In her growing body of research, Kristen Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, found self-compassion or self-kindness—“actively opening up our hearts to ourselves and responding to our suffering as we would to a dear friend in need”—can reduce feelings of shame, guilt, failure, and defeat in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-compassion is also shown to improve resilience, or the ability to cope with stress and difficulty later on. And because it helps to turn off the fight-or-flight response, self-compassion can improve feelings of mental and physical well-being.
While it’s widely accepted that self-compassion is an important part of a healthy life, it can…