We view vulnerability as a strength in others, but a weakness in ourselves. Who has a wish to be vulnerable? We don’t want to be vulnerability because we associate it with emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment. Emotions we want to sweep under the carpet. Emotions we try to ignore even though they have a profound impact on our relationships and our lives.
“What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” Brene Brown
Vulnerability is scary, especially when we have a sense of unworthiness. We are afraid that people may see that we really are not enough, that we are unlovable, or that we are failures. Our culture doesn’t help as it encourages us to connect our self-worth to what we produce. Our shame keeps us small, and resentful. Small because we contract, we sometimes make ourselves invisible. Resentful because we don’t get what we want as we were not willing to take the risk to get it.
“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.” Brene Brown
For me, vulnerability translated directly to shame. I had incontinence as a child and during stressful periods of my life. Every time I had to go to the bathroom in 1st grade before it was time, I would get a look of disapproval from the nun. I was so afraid of that look of disapproval that sometimes I waited too long to ask to go. I never told anyone about this as it would make me look broken. I couldn’t wait like all the other kids could. The shame got added to when Billy (yes the one I named my inner critic after) called me pisspot in eighth grade.
When my friend told me I didn’t fit in with our group anymore, I assumed that meant there was something wrong with me. Again, shame had me hiding it. I kept silent about it and tried to keep it in the dark. When the thought came up, I thought I was the only one in the world rejected, and I would beat myself up about it. The opposite of being self-compassionate.
Self-compassion is mindfulness. But I was playing whack a mole trying to push the negative feelings down. Self-compassion is common humanity. I found out after I told my sister about my being rejected, that she had a similar incident that I never new about. I wasn’t the only one who was rejected, but I thought I was. Kindness is the third component of self-compassion. I wasn’t kind to myself. I was beating myself up telling my self that I should just get over it.
My inability to face my vulnerabilities made it near impossible to practice self-compassion or loving kindness for myself. I projected a carefully curated image of being knowledgeable, competent, even keeled and most important of all need free. I didn’t need anything (even if I realy did.) There was no room for my needs or negative emotions to get in the way. I swept any negative emotion or problem I could not immediately fix under the carpet. Often this was done unconsciously, yet it consumed a lot of energy.
When I learned about loving kindness, it was easy for me to do for loved ones, neutral people, and even difficult people. I conveniently skipped over doing it for myself for a long period of time, at least nine months. I knew that practicing self-compassion would be good for me, I had read all about its benefits. But it was on my one-day list (something I would do one day), not my day one list (something I will do today). I had a strong aversion to practicing loving kindness for myself and to practicing self-compassion.
In my meditation teacher training, when Tara Brach would put her hand on her heart and say, “It’s OK sweetheart.” I would think, “Ew, I could never do that. That seemed too corny.” It seemed so unnatural to me.
Through the multiple week-long workshops in my meditation teacher training, and the monthly small group workshops, I developed the strength to begin self-compassion and loving kindness practices. What gave me the strength was starting to see that I am worthy. I don’t need to be perfect to be worthy. And I learned that I was strong enough to face my vulnerabilities. I will be forever indebted to my friend Leah who encouraged me by asking, “Can you be with it for just a moment?” whenever I was trying to push negative emotions away. And I could be with it for a moment, and with practice for two moments. And I have been sitting with these things for years, before I developed the courage to share my vulnerabilities. I had to sit with that little girl who was hurt, that eighth grader who was mortified, and the adult who was mortified when incontinence happened.
Fear or Aversion to Self-Compassion
I recently learned that fear of or aversion to self-compassion can arise in those who grew up with insecure attachment to our parents—some 40% of us. People who struggle with chronic shame, which is me, or self-criticism, which is also me, also find self-compassion very scary. If you fall into one of these categories, you may find attempts to practice in self-compassion bring up feelings of self-disgust, sadness, disappointment, anxiety, or even anger.
While I had a basically happy childhood, I grew up in a family with ten kids. And my mom coped by pushing anything unpleasant under the carpet. I followed her lead. From my earliest memories, I always tried to hide any imperfections or negative feelings. I felt there was an unwritten rule of not bothering people with your problems. I kept them hidden, not just from others, but as best I could from myself too. Therefore, I did not have the emotional memories of feeling secure and supported that self-compassion can activate. And I somehow came to believe that if I showed any needs, emotional or otherwise, I would be perceived as weak and a problem. People wouldn’t want to deal with it.
Until after my teacher training, I couldn’t ask for or even accept support when I needed it. Even through my divorce, another source of shame. Thus, Tara’s display of self-compassion was not comforting to me, it felt very uncomfortable, almost threatening. My inner critic was having a field day saying, “You are not worth it. You don’t deserve that compassion.” It took me years to be able to put my hand on my heart. I still don’t call myself sweetheart, but now I can say, “It’s OK.” Or “I am sorry you are suffering.”
If you are like me with insecure attachment, shame, or chronic self-criticism, you will resist any expression of compassion due to concerns of being rejected, criticized, or feeling undeserving.
The higher your score on the questionnaire, the less likely that practicing self-compassion gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Some of us have blocks to giving or receiving compassion. When that is the case, practicing with a self-compassion meditation won’t work. I did not know this when I was trying to practice self-compassion. I was trying with pure grit to do it. I needed to do some other things first.
If like me, you switched off your awareness of your own needs, or feel your needs are not important, practicing self-compassion can feel selfish. Our inner critic kicks in, so some practices can be re-traumatizing, according to Paul Gilbert. For example, if you try to tell yourself it is OK to feel sad, and maybe you grew up in a household where it was not OK to feel sad. Instead of feeling comfort from your words, your inner critic makes you feel bad for feeling sad.
“The alternative is to practice behavioral self-compassion, or figuring out what you need in the moment to feel soothed—for example, petting your dog or taking a short break from work. When we are upset, though, it can be difficult to practice behavioral self-compassion and figure out what we need in the moment.” Caroline Benner
Reflect on these questions from Chris Germer:
- What do I need to feel safe?
- To be comforted, soothed, validated?
- To protect, provide for, motivate myself?
If you come up blank, there are some ideas of behaviors that can be comforting on this Self-Compassion in Daily Life worksheet. These practices can help you feel safe while practicing self-compassion. Once you are feeling safe, you can move on to the mental practices.
“There is a trick to practicing self-compassion. The best advice won’t help you if you do not practice self-compassion with the right intentions. Trying to practice self-compassion to manipulate our moment-to-moment experience will ultimately fail. People need to be guided into practicing for its own sake, as we might care for a child with the flu, not to drive out the flu but as a simple expression of sympathy and kindness.” Chris Germer
So, we practice self-compassion, not to fix ourselves or the environment. We practice self-compassion because we are hurting, and we need someone to be kind and care for us.