Self-compassion can ease suffering

We all do not like to experience suffering and pain and things changing, especially unexpectedly.

As human beings, we have an intrinsic tendency to avoid suffering and cling onto pleasurable feelings and experiences.

Sigmund Freud based a greater part of his theory of psychoanalysis and understanding the human mind on these aspects of our psyche. Various spiritual practices, especially those from the East, also attempt to deal with these difficult human conditions.

Instead of avoiding suffering, we need to, in fact, dive into the thick of it. This creates tremendous vulnerability and discomfort, and our tendency is to try to numb or get away from these as quickly as possible.

The trick is to not become attached to anything, to not grasp onto pleasure and comfort and avoid pain, but instead to allow things to be as they are. This is, of course easier said than done. We are all afraid of the unknown, but when we trust in the unknown, in the present moment, this, in fact, alleviates our suffering.

One way to deal with this is through practising mindfulness. Through mindful awareness, we can develop our inner strength and trust in what is.

This includes the realisation that the nature of life, things, reality is that it constantly changes, is unknown and cannot be guaranteed. That, in fact, groundlessness and impermanence is reality.

Being open to this engenders a greater sense of trust in life and yourself as well as develops a sense of equanimity.

Mindfulness includes being aware, moment to moment, without judgement, with open attentiveness to everything that we feel and experience.

This includes making space for discontent, sorrow, misery, grief and anger as well as lightness, relief, joy and pleasure.

There is always a million different forms inside and outside ourselves. We need to come back again and again to being open to whatever arises, and not clinging to or pushing anything away.

When we do this, we touch the immediacy of our experience, our reality, and we can trust in this. We all try to numb our feelings and dissociate constantly, and mindfulness brings us back to the present moment, to the quality of the here-and-now, in all its beauty, rawness and vulnerability.

When we do this regularly, we shift our life experiences from being totally frightening and overwhelming to being present to whatever is happening. Usually at this point, when it is painful or hard to stay, we may try to escape into our familiar addictions. We can expect shaky, vulnerable, and fearful feelings to arise. But instead of trying to run away, we can choose to place our fearful feelings in the cradle of our loving kindness. In Buddhism, they call this practice Maitri (loving kindness).

We understand the nature of our fear and through this loving kindness towards it, again and again, we train ourselves to develop fearlessness. This is the power of self-compassion.

When we develop unlimited, unconditional friendliness towards ourselves, we also deepen our connection and compassion towards others.

When we are honest about ourselves and do not deceive ourselves, knowing ourselves, warts and all, we can develop a tenderness and a warmth towards our own bodies, minds and conditions, and we tend to not judge ourselves so harshly. By making friends with yourself, you move from self-hatred to tender warmth and self-compassion.

In his book, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about a Buddhist teaching known as The Arrow. It says if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit, and then if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least 10 times more intense. The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life – being rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident – are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety. All these things amplify the suffering.

Many times, the catastrophe we’re ruminating upon hasn’t even happened. We may worry, for example, that we have cancer and that we’re going to die soon. We don’t know, and our fear of the unknown makes the pain grow even bigger. The second arrow may take the form of judgement (“how could I have been so stupid?”), fear (“what if the pain doesn’t go away?”), or anger (“I hate that I’m in pain. I don’t deserve this”).

We can quickly conjure up a realm of negativity in our minds that exacerbates the stress of the actual event.

Part of the “art of suffering well” is learning not to aggravate our pain by getting carried away in fear, anger, and despair. We build and maintain our energy reserves to handle the large sufferings; the smaller sufferings we can let go.

If you lose your job, of course, it’s a normal response to feel fear and anxiety. It is true that in most cases to be out of work causes suffering, and there is a real risk attached if you don’t have enough to eat or lose your home.

But you don’t need to make this suffering worse by spinning stories in your head that are much worse than the reality. Some people in this situation may think “I’m no good at this or that,” or “I’ll never get another job,” or “I failed my family”.

It’s important to remember that everything is impermanent. A suffering can arise – or can work itself out – for anyone at any moment.

Instead of throwing good energy away on condemning yourself or obsessing over what catastrophes might be lurking around the corner, you can simply be present with the real suffering that is right in front of you, with what is happening right now.

Mindfulness is recognising what is there in the present moment. Suffering is there, yes, but what is also there is that you are still alive: “Breathing in, I know I’m alive. Breathing out, I smile at being alive in this moment”

Placing our fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness, leads us to ameliorating our suffering and greater ease and happiness, no matter what our circumstances.

As we develop self-compassion, our capacity for compassion towards others increases, and this has enormous power and positive ramifications on our world.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.