The Yin and Yang of Self Compassion

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

October 2019 Soul Notes

I’m seduced to surrender when I read 'Song of Autumn' by Mary Oliver. She draws a picture of welcome and gratitude for this season of release, and I sense my own longing to join the leaves and the trees and the firewood in their allowing of what is.

In truth however, it’s been a tough transition from summer to autumn for me. I’ve had chronic back pain since early September and have been physically limited. My body hovers in a state of high alert, waiting for I know not what, but denying the present moment as it does so. I’ve had lots of well-meaning advice to slow down, listen to my body, take the opportunity to care for myself and feel it landing on fallow ground in me. The urge to “push through” is profoundly strong and it’s only when I was literally floored, falling up the stairs on the London underground, that I allowed a pause. How is it, when my life and my work is all about being with others in their struggle, that I find it so damn challenging to be with myself?

This question has taken me down a familiar path of exploring self-compassion. Confession.  I am both an advocate for self-compassion, and, at the same time hugely ambivalent about it. The research pioneered by Kristin Neff and others, shows unequivocally, that self-compassion is a strength, a motivator and a regulator.  Soldiers who have high self-compassion levels suffer less from PTSD, demonstrating that it is the relationship with yourself, in the face of the most horrendous of circumstances , that matters most,  not the circumstances themselves.

Tara Brach quotes the following in her talk on how connecting with self and others both restores and heals us in a world where those connections can be difficult to find.

We are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”

— Louis Cozolino

In my daily experience, I see that those clients who are compassionate with themselves, are the ones who experience most joy, are more present and open to life, and getting more of what they like. Those who drive hard and pay little attention to their own wellbeing have flashes of satisfaction in moments of “success” and “achievement”. However, these are often short-lived and don’t provide enough fuel for the remaining times. Resentment starts to build. Along with a feeling of isolation and belief that people are taking advantage of us, when in fact, we are the ones taking advantage of our own self.

According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion is about three things: kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. More recently she has expanded her research in work with Chris Germer to describe different types of self-compassion. She describes these as the yin and yang forms of compassion

The yin form, is a “being with”, a feminine and still energy. It is tender, nourishing, gentle and looks inwards.

The yang form is an active, masculine and fierce energy. It can be angry, assertive, passionate, with a driving focus. These forms are embodied in both men and women but the yin version is the one most often associated with the notion of self-compassion.

Together, the yin and the yang provide nurture, not to be confused with "comfort". Author of "Women who Run with the Wolves", Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes nurture like this:

"The difference between comfort and nurture is this: if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort. If you take the plant out of the closet and put it in the sun, give it something to drink, and then talk to it, that is nurture."

One client recently told me that she “despised” the concept of “self-care”. She is someone who had to grow up quickly as a child. Her parents were loving but not around very much, and were very clear that they valued hard work, good grades and independence. Not much attention was given to her needs or feelings and so she too, learned to dismiss them as an inconvenience. This is the familiar drama of the “gifted child” as explored by Alice Miller in her book “The Drama of Being a Child: The Search for the True Self”. For this child, once grown, the idea of taking care of oneself is derisory. It contradicts all that she has known and doesn’t sit well with the drive to get on in life. It is hard for her to imagine that she can achieve great things by sitting still, even if that is her greatest longing (which it often is). She is afraid of becoming stagnant, getting left behind, being lazy, not fulfilling her potential, etc. Ultimately, she is afraid of disappointing her parents, even if they are thousands of miles away. The messages she is holding onto from her early years tie up her self-worth with hard work, drive and achievement, and have driven her into a well-paid, prestigious job that makes her deeply unhappy. She has found a demanding CEO to replace her parents, one who asks exactly the same of her as she is used to.  She feels trapped.

This is not uncommon and it illustrates the familiar misconception about nurture as comfort. What brings people to coaching or therapy, is the inner conflict that starts to bubble in the adult, as they intuit they do have needs but feel the injunction against acknowledging or honouring those needs because they have never been recognised. The inner critic will demand that they forge ahead and stop being vulnerable (eg. my client’s “hatred” for self-care), whilst the neglected child inside will get more and more desperate. Sometimes this manifests physically in illness, exhaustion or emotionally, in an increased sensitivity and reactiveness to others as the feelings bubble over and thinking gets disrupted. This creates a feeling of instability and insecurity and often disconnection from others. 

What is often missing for these children is the guiding, strong, encouraging hand of parents who believe in them,  and are able to work with their unique feelings and experiences. Instead of pushing them forward into the world and expecting them to find their way, these parents help them get to know themselves and to navigate the world, in their company. They nurture the young person emerging before them. This is where the  yang version of compassion becomes relevant. It is about protecting, providing and motivating. Think tiger-mother. Teaching the child to know clearly what she wants and needs; how to go out into the world to get it and how to draw boundaries so as to fiercely protect and defend what’s important. 

Yang self-compassion is about being able to do that for yourself, rather than rely on others. A radical form of self-care which puts you first, and depends on you being attuned enough to know what it is you want and valuing yourself enough to be able to ask for it. Uncovering and developing this capacity can be a long process, as you encounter the inner critic along the path, who would much rather that things stayed just as they are, with him or her in charge. You can free yourself from old patterns if you have someone to stand by you, as you challenge the existing order, which is where therapy, coaching and even supervision come into play. 

I have found that for many clients, the way into developing self-compassion is the fierce route. It can feel like a more active way of working, that fits with the patterns already laid down and meets clients where they are. And then a more gentle way of being can enter, when the armour has softened a little and the hurt child can be found beneath the bravado.  

As for me with my back, I’m getting clearer about how to be kind to myself and getting better at both giving myself what I need, and asking for it. Initially, I was fearful that I would have to stop completely in order to heal and told myself that that wasn’t possible, especially as I had just come back from a holiday. What I’m learning is that I can continue if I go more slowly. I’m cutting back on travel. I’m resting more. I’m more mindful of my experience, discovering new ways of moving dictated by my body, rather than what I think I “should” be doing. And from the quieter and more still place that has emerged, I’m discovering a flickering creative energy that I’m tending to. I’m more present with my clients. And with myself. Where I had imagined a stagnant pool, there is in fact a flowing, freshwater stream. Who knew?

With much love and until our next season

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