The Centre for Healing Blog


Cultivating Unconditional Self-Compassion From a Trauma Informed Perspective - Part 1

acceptance self-compassion self-esteem vulnerability Jun 19, 2024
Self-Compassion, Self-esteem, Self-acceptance

Cultivating unconditional self-compassion from a trauma informed perspective

Did you know that the latest findings in psychology (see Kristin Neff – Self-compassion, 2015) have found that the new self-esteem is really self-compassion. The old pop psychology idea of ‘self-esteem’ that took off in the 80s’, has recently been challenged and de-bunked as an unhelpful construct and goal. Why? Because self-esteem is usually highly dependent on how well we are measuring up to our achievements, expectations and ideals.

Having high self-esteem was often interpreted as having to be above average at something and theoretically, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average! If we are measuring up to our goals, yes, we can temporarily have a high self-esteem and feel fabulous! However, we can see that with this definition, our self-esteem can be a very brittle as soon as we face a limitation or setback. What happens if we don’t measure up - when we stop living up to our ideals, lose something important to us, don’t feel special, don't get the confirmation or mirroring that we were seeking for an achievement. What happens if we have to accept a physical or psychological limitation in ourselves or something we have invested a lot in. In these situations, we can easily lose our self-esteem and collapse into a place of self-doubt, worthlessness and deficiency.

Consider for a moment that true unconditional self-esteem (confidence and value) comes from cultivating radical acceptance and compassion for all parts of our human experience – the good, the bad, the traumatized and the ugly! In my experience, the deeper our self- acceptance and self-compassion the deeper our sense of freedom, and paradoxically the more resilient our self-worth actually becomes. Why might this be the case? Because its not dependent on whether we measure up to some ideal standard. True self-acceptance and compassion can be brought to hold and accept any part of our human experience. It is not dependent upon the amount of possessions, recognition or achievement we are making, or our how well our outer situation is going, or the results of our actions. This is something that can be cultivated through the practice of embodied mindfulness and self-compassion.

The Deepest Acceptance

At an even deeper level, true self-esteem, what I prefer to call our true value, cannot be earned and cannot be lost. It is intrinsic to being a unique human being. Although we can learn to bring self compassion to ourselves on a relative level (e.g to have the intention to hold your suffering with kindness and understanding, to appreciate your good qualities, your strengths, your survival patterns, traits, healthy values and capacities), the deepest value comes from a place much deeper than anything that we believe, have, achieve, possess, know or acquire. Through sincere and curious inquiry into the true nature of who we really are, we can discover that our true value is inherent in us, it’s part of us. Acceptance is built into the very fabric of awareness.

Prior to the minds interpretations of reality, awareness has already accepted reality as it is. It is only then, does the mind kick in and begin tinkering with it. Buddhists call this deeper place of unconditional acceptance our ‘basic goodness’. Knowing this place inside us can be an enormous support to then safely turn towards and integrate our unmetabolized traumas.

When we take the time to be curious, to know and investigate ourselves and the beliefs our mind has concluded about ourselves and the world (the stories we tell ourselves) we have the chance to see, and see through these beliefs and discover what’s true and what remains when these falls away. Who are you if you’re not your stories and ideas about yourself? We might discover that no story we tell ourselves e.g I’m worthless, I don’t deserve love, I’m broken - can capture the complexity, mystery and vastness of who we really are. We can learn to risk letting go of our identification with the old deficiency or pride based self images and identities, and can discover an already underlying accepting, open and spacious awareness that naturally holds and accepts all parts of ourselves.

This is a non-dual awareness that both embodies, allows and witnesses experience at the same time. At the same time, we can also consciously learn to bring unconditional compassion and presence to all parts of us, and deeply understand how we have been shaped by our conditioning and past attachment disruptions or traumas. From a trauma informed perspective, often the first step in cultivating self-compassion is to acknowledge, understand and appreciate how our survival strategies e.g of dorsal shut down or hyper-arousal, and protector parts once kept us safe, even if they are no longer serving us well as adults.

The Challenges of Self-Compassion

For many, learning to become unconditionally self-accepting and self-compassionate can feel elusive and sometimes near impossible. We have been dominated by a harsh tenacious critic our whole life and the idea of being kind to ourselves not only feels foreign, but near impossible. In fact it can feel dangerous and as result enormous resistance! There are many myths about self-compassion that we need to question. Many folks I’ve worked with, including myself, have come to see that self-compassion is soft and weak, too vulnerable, and leads to self-pity, lack of action and or stagnancy. It can challenge ones identity of being calm, in charge, strong, independent or intellectual.

Some understandably fear that self- compassion will open up all their disowned traumatized parts and lead to overwhelming feelings they don’t have the capacity to handle. So, how do we navigate these obstacles and help ourselves and our clients learn to safely cultivate unconditional self-compassion and acceptance in a way that’s doesn’t lead to re traumatization and shame. Is it even possible? As a survivor of developmental trauma and chronic shame I have learnt it is indeed possible. But it may be different to what you thought it would be? Here are a few learnings from my own journey and what I’ve learnt from clients.

Notice and Acknowledge your lack of Self-Acceptance

As much as is possible, have the conscious intention to be curious and observe the ways you reject yourself and your experience. From a trauma informed perspective, we benefit from knowing and  appreciating the protective parts of us that have developed to keep us connected and safe from further overwhelm, danger and dysregulation.

How did our various patterns of fighting, fleeing, appeasing and freezing (dorsal shutdown) originally develop as necessary and intelligent responses to insurmountable adversity, trauma and stress in order to feel safe, connected or in control. This often begins with noticing what your mind says to you andmakes meaning of the events around you ( e.g. You should be more...funny, intelligent, likeable, capable, good looking, beautiful, or your not good enough, capable enough to cope with that etc), or the questions you ask yourself (e.g. Am I good enough? Am I smart enough?) that fuel your lack of self-acceptance!

Furthermore, see if you can catch and notice how your mind relates to your internal experience? Is not uncommon that beginning to practice self compassion will activate all the ways we resist it. Is your mind often wanting your inner experience to be different, wanting to get rid of, fight, figure out or fix unpleasant feelings (e,g uncertainty, confusion, hurt, vulnerability or sadness), and wanting to hold onto pleasurable ones (happiness, confidence, power or control?). This is totally normal! It is almost inherent in being human that we do not accept, little own embody the immediacy of our experience as it is. We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Its part of our survival instinct as well as our dominant cultural values.

See if you can begin to accept this natural normal tendency of the human mind, but begin to see how this pattern may not be serving you so well now. In fact, it may indeed perpetuate the very symptoms you want relief from. When we begin to see this, it can support us to try something different to our habitual patterns of self-rejection. If you don’t struggle with your struggle, you might find that some more space, peace and stillness open inside. This deeper peace often opens up effortlessly when we are no longer feeling divided inside.

As the Buddha noticed 2500 years ago our tendency to seek and grasp hold of pleasant experiences and to avoid and reject unpleasant experiences causes the majority of our human suffering. It is called dukka in Pali! Even if were not traumatized (which many of us are) we are almost always curating and tinkering with our feelings, picking and choosing what we should and shouldn’t feel, based on our conditioning from our families and culture! Not only do our minds reject our experience all the time in the hope of a better experience, we often deny, compensate for, ignore and reject our self-rejection. We defend and fight our own self-hatred or shame, which just makes our self-rejection even stronger. As I like to say, what we reject goes down into the basement and pumps iron!




Identify and disengage from your ‘Inner Critic’

"You cannot make yourself grow; you can only cease to interfere.
You cannot make yourself happy; you can only stop the judgements.
Growth and expansion are natural; they are they life force itself. And you cannot predict its direction"
A.H Almaas

As mentioned, one of the first starting places in cultivating self-acceptance is to notice, 
understand and accept that as a result of trauma or attachment wounds you have been conditioned and learnt to not accept many parts of yourself. This is often a reflection of what messages you got explicitly and implicitly as a child and in your culture about what emotions, desires and needs are acceptable. As a result of internalizing these messages, you have developed parts that now do the job of what your care-takers and culture taught you. These parts now protect you from vulnerability, or attack some ‘unacceptable’ part of yourself e.g. an emotion, an impulse, a trait or limitation. This is what we often call the inner critic or super ego in psychotherapy Paradoxically, when we deeply understand and appreciate the historic and cultural roots of our inner critic’s lack of acceptance e.g as a result of how we were neglected, shamed, marginalized or criticized by our environment, we immediately begin to experience more clarity and self compassion. We can begin to relax and let go. I believe this is the first step on the road to self-compassion and acceptance.

What is the critic’s job?

Over the years, many clients have told me that they think they need their "inner critic" to motivate them towards change and to become ‘enough’ believing that without self-criticism they will be rejected by others, stop changing, striving and growing, and become a shag on a rock! I have my own version of this belief! The critic developed to originally keep you safe or connected to your caretakers (Note - our need for attachment usually trumps our need to be authentic as highly dependent children) and to mitigate further abuse, neglect or hurt by judging and shutting down the parts of you (feelings, qualities and needs) that you believed put you at risk of this. If we can see that our critic was once an ally trying to keep us safe and connected, that it was a strategy of survival, not a reality, we can begin to cultivate compassion and understanding for this protective of us. We can say to the critic, “thanks for your good intentions, I can see you were just trying to keep my safe by gaslighting my anger at my dad. But I want you to know now, your not helping anymore. I’m learning that its OKAY to be angry and upset”. When we can do this, the process of dis-identification from our critic starts to naturally happen and more space opens up to be where we are, to be less divided inside.

Inquiring into our beliefs

Many of us have also learnt to believe our ‘thoughts are facts’ and that they tell us who we are! Even though they may feel real, they are not necessarily true? Can a thought really tell you who you are? What if they are just conditioned stories and sound bites in your head that you hold onto because that is what you were told, what you know and are familiar with? As mentioned, we often hold onto our negative beliefs and self-judgements because deep down we think we need them to feel safe, connected, secure or to identify ourselves as a person. Ive had many clients tell me, ‘I’d rather believe I’m a piece of shit, than have no identity at all’. Can you identify, inquire into and question what you tell yourself? Identify your should and should nots, and your worst self-judgements. Choose one of the top 3 worst beliefs you tell yourself, write it down and then ask the following questions. Is it really true? Is this my deepest knowing about who I am? How does it effect me when I believe this story? (e.g. somatically, emotionally, behaviourally). What is good about believing this thought/story? How did it once keep me safe? What’s scary if I stopped believing that thought/story? What would be different in my life if I didn’t entertain this belief? If you begin to identify and question your self-judgements you can start to dis-identify from them and realise you are far more mysterious, complex and full of potential than any thought can tell you.

Practice Common humanity for your trauma symptoms and effects

When we take some time to think about it, we often discover that our human pain and trauma symptoms are normal response to abnormal situations. They are universal human responses to overwhelming adversity. When we can acknowledge and understand the impact of our trayma and our trauma symptoms e.g dissociation, shame, sensitivity to abandonment, fear of intimacy, self-harming, numbing, different forms of fighting, fleeing and freezing are natural responses to trauma, we begin to develop self compassion.

We can also learn to appreciate that we all share universal suffering – e.g. we all grow old, experience loss and disappointment, feel shame, get ill, suffer from pain and loss, fear failure, and go through heartache. This is inevitable! When we can see the universal human condition of our pain we can connect with our common humanity, and this can bring in a sense of connection, compassion and a realization that we are all ‘fellow travellers’ sharing a similar existence and set of life challenges. We can feel less alone. This can take away the sense of ‘shame about shame’, and the belief that we are the ‘only 'one' going through this kind of suffering.

There are probably thousands of other people on this planet right now that are feeling the same feelings and having the same thoughts and conflicts as you are right now! There are many who have had similar traumas to you. What difference does it make to your suffering when you hold this perspective in mind? There is a very powerful Tibetan Buddhist compassionate practice called Tonglen, which invites us to identify and breath into our suffering and the suffering of all those on this planet who have experienced similar pain to you, and to then, on the out-breath, breath out compassion and good will to yourself and all others. Experiment with this and see what difference it makes?

Consciously Practice self-compassion

We can learn to switch from the reptilian brain that’s preoccupied with survival (fighting, fawning, fleeing and freezing, to the mammalian nurturing and attachment orientated part of the brain (rest, bond and relax) via the simple intention and act of self-compassion.

For example, we can touch ourselves in ways that convey self-compassion and evoke feelings of safety, soothing, softening and relaxation in our biology. E.g. Notice what happens when you put one hand on your heart, and one hand on your belly for few minutes, and to say to any part of you that is scared or suffering – I’m here for you! Ill support you! Often this exercise can immediately evoke oxytocin (which is the hormone that is associated with bonding and self-soothing) and reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. Although our minds find this hard to believe, it’s much more effective to feel safe and motivated from self- compassion, rather than being run by the inner critic and the anxiety that it evokes. Doing this self-touch via skin to skin can also be more effective. This communicates directly to our physiology in an instant and profound way that we are attuned too and "there" for ourselves. Then practice saying to yourself kind self-statements – e.g May I be happy, May I forgive myself for being imperfect, May I accept my limitations, May I be kind to myself. As you gently and silently say these statements to yourself, while having your hand on your heart, see what happens in your body. You may notice that you start to soften, relax and feel more self compassion towards your own human suffering. If resistance comes up towards this process, we can then allow that and be curious what the resistance and concern is if we did offer ourselves self-compassion. We allow the lack of allowing.

Part 2 coming next week …

Peace & Blessing,
Noel Haarburger - Embodied Processing Trainer.


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