Self-Compassion in the Wake of Emotional Abuse & Compassion Fatigue
By Amy Thompson
“How are you doing on self-compassion?” my counselor asked me with empathy pouring from her posture and tone. I let out a self-degrading, failure-exposing, pain-masking chuckle. “That good, huh? What’s going on?”
I proceeded to share about six ways I thought I’d messed up that week and how my shame in those mistakes affected other things in my life. Things like struggling at the drive through because I tried to hand the lady in the window the money with my right hand - which, on a left-hand drive car, is absurdly difficult. I felt like a fool awkwardly reaching and nearly dropping the money, but I couldn’t bear to give it to her with my left hand because where I’d come from in Africa that is insulting. Using my right hand is habit now, even when I’m buckled in the car and it doesn’t make sense. That fumble got me flustered and I worried what the lady thought of me, what other ways I’d made a fool of myself that day, and I stepped back into the sorrow of grieving the African life I no longer have. Self-compassion was out the window with the money.
I spent years giving of myself to rescue and help children coming from extremely traumatic situations, all the while being frequently told that I wasn’t good enough and that every mistake I made, real or perceived, personal or professional, would have devastating consequences and the life I’d built would be taken away from me. I was eventually numb to both sorrow and joy as I worked to protect myself from the emotional abuse and still do the work that needed to be done. I was being abused while helping the abused, and it led to compassion fatigue both internally and externally.
I am finally free of the abusive relationships on the outside, but inside I’m still haunted by them. When abusive messages come from someone close to you (including from yourself!), they go deep and often take root. When this happens, we live in fear, constantly looking over our shoulder, losing trust in others, and continuously beating ourselves up. Our ability to receive grace becomes distorted and even in the midst of receiving praise we’re just waiting for the hammer to come down.
So how do we practice self-compassion? Some days I think I know and other days I beat myself up for not knowing (yeah). Matthew 22:37-39 says, “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus sneaks a message into these verses that we often overlook in whole: as yourself. Usually when this verse is quoted (at least when I’ve heard it quoted) it’s referring to how we should treat everyone with love because we love ourselves so much. Sure - but then, what if we don’t? It goes both ways: we can scold and hold anger towards others for their mistakes while forgiving ourselves of the same, and we can have compassion and forgiveness towards the mistakes of others while holding anger and un-forgiveness towards ourselves when we are guilty of the same.
Self-compassion first changes your response to yourself, which then changes your response to others. Here’s what I try to do to show myself compassion:
1. Recognize Because of the abuse and exposure to trauma, my instinctual responses are not what they used to be. My fight, flight, or freeze responses turn on easily and I may respond in one of these ways to something that wouldn’t have bothered me before. This is okay. It’s how you survived. Recognize that. It is okay. Ask yourself what triggered you. Maybe a nightmare, a situation, a place, photo, etc. Did you feel trapped? Ignored? Taken advantage of? I recently pushed through a situation at the gym that triggered me hard because I couldn’t figure out why I was about to either run out the door or punch someone in the face. It seemed illogical to feel what I felt so I forced myself to go through it rather than walk away. Please, if you need to walk away, let yourself walk away!
2. Re-adjust How can I anticipate, change, or prevent this feeling in the future? I went home from that situation at the gym and was immediately on the phone with my best friend to talk it out and understand why I was triggered. We eventually figured out that I felt trapped and feared the consequences of failing (which was burpees, so, fair). It makes perfect sense now, but I wouldn’t have realized it if I didn’t talk it out. If you don’t have someone safe to talk to, find a counselor (*ahem, even if you do have someone safe to talk to, find a counselor). There are usually scholarships available if needed and there is no shame in seeking professional help. Knowing that I was triggered by feeling trapped has helped me cope and adjust my expectations towards other things in life - like starting a new job and taking out a mortgage. Once you are able to identify triggers, you are better equipped for what can happen in the future. Remember, triggers can still come out of nowhere and surprise you. Don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t anticipate, change, or prevent something that set you off. That’s not self-compassion, m’kay?
3. Repent I snapped at someone I love because a song came on the radio that that had played in the car on my way home from a devastating meeting a year earlier. I needed to apologize for that snap. When you need to, apologize to and ask for forgiveness of God, others, and yourself.
4. Relax Take some deep breaths. Is there tension in your body? Squeeze your shoulders to your ears and then let them relax. Have a cup of something soothing. Roll on some stress away essential oil. Exercise. Give yourself permission to take a time-out (within reason, okay? Don’t like, hop on a plane and dodge responsibilities, please).
The reality is, I am never going to be the same as I was before the abuse and trauma. And I don't want to be. I believe that God, who did not cause evil but created us with free will for the purpose of true relationship with Him, has the power and sovereignty to use my past hurt to mold my future for His glory. Through His real compassion towards me, I’m learning and re- learning each day what it looks like to have this on myself. It rebuilds my ability to live courageously, trust others, experience grace, and ultimately show compassion towards others. And it helps to have someone occasionally ask you, “How are you doing on self-compassion?”
“Amy served at an orphanage in Zambia for almost five years assisting in education, mentoring, social welfare, and many other areas. She has a heart for adoption, safe foster care, and seeing birth families reunited and restored whenever possible. Amy is back in New York and begins a new job - and house hunting - next month.”