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November 7, 2023

The Glass Isn’t Always Half Empty: Self-Compassion as a Tool for Resilience.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying before: Do you see the glass half full, or half empty?

If you’re anything like me (and apparently the rest of humanity), you probably see it as half empty. Despite our best efforts to view it otherwise, the unfortunate reality is that we are all programmed, evolutionarily, to see the negative in things. To look out for danger. To remember scary things as a means of protecting ourselves from them in the future. It is literally hardwired in our brains to be hyper-attuned to danger as a way of ensuring our survival.

While this negativity bias was (and is) often useful for our survival, it can also lead us down dangerous roads when it comes to our ability to be compassionate with ourselves—a trait that is required for long-term resilience. Negativity bias often leads to harsh self-critique, self-judgment, and even self-hatred. It can become all too easy to dwell on the regrets, pain, and negative circumstances we experience rather than to notice and appreciate what is good and positive in our lives. Ultimately, we can even begin to see ourselves as negative. As failures. As not enough. I know, because I’ve been there myself—more than once. I imagine that maybe you have too.

And yet, in order to be resilient in the face of challenges, we must have the ability to shift our brain out of this naturally programmed negativity, reactivity, and fear. We must intentionally and painstakingly teach ourselves to be more receptive and open to the good—both in our lives and within ourselves. To see ourselves more wholly, more fairly. To view ourselves with the tenderness we deserve.

So how do we do this? How can we learn to shift our brain out of the negative?

One way we can do this is by practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion teaches us to notice and focus on our feelings, but it also gives us concrete ways to begin to change the way we respond to those feelings. Ultimately, our ability to notice/name our feelings and shift our response to them intentionally, in healthy ways, is a cornerstone of resilience.

Here are four self-compassion tools you can start practicing now to begin rewiring your brain for resilience in the future:

1. Speak kindly to yourself rather than judging or criticizing yourself. Tune into and take control of that inner voice that is mercilessly trying to tear you down, feed you lies, and pull you deeper into darkness. Get mad at it. Flat out refuse to be your own biggest critic.

Instead, practice speaking to yourself with the tenderness and gentleness that you deserve—and that you undoubtedly grant others. If you have to write down positive affirmations to rewire your brain to think this way, do it. If you have to say those affirmations out loud every day in the mirror to begin to believe them, do that too. There is nothing more powerful than your own inner voice; you must train it to be compassionate and life-giving if you want to build resilience for future hardships.

2. Remember that suffering is a universal part of being human. You are not alone in your feelings of disappointment, your shame, your guilt, or even your pain. Many others have experienced these emotions throughout history, and many feel them today at this very moment—just as you do. I say this not to minimize the impact of these feelings (because they are significant and challenging), but rather to highlight that they are (thankfully!) not unique to you.

And yet, when we experience suffering, we often experience an irrational (but real and understandable) sense of isolation, of being alone in our experience, of being misunderstood or forgotten. These feelings of aloneness have a nasty habit of spiraling, leading us deeper into the mess of our pain, rather than moving us through it in healthy ways. And so self-compassion must involve the understanding that suffering is a shared part of the human experience; it is something we all endure. We are never alone in it, no matter how much it may feel that way.

3. Develop self-care rituals to make you more resilient in hard times. Self-care is the act of focusing our thoughts and behaviors on things that contribute to our own well-being. It’s tending to the basic components of our overall health—mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and so on. Self-care is not selfish. It is not an “extra” or “nice to have.” Resilient people depend on regular self-care rituals in order to strengthen and prepare them for times of challenge. And when that challenge inevitably comes, they continue those rituals without missing a beat as a way of coping and dealing with their circumstances. They continue their self-care rituals despite the challenges, and in doing so, give themselves a lifeline to get through them. A critical tool in their toolbox.

The goal with self-care—as you might imagine—is to build it into your routine so that you are regularly filling your bucket. Ideally, you should work to establish, build, and develop these self-care habits in the “good” times so that you have the muscle memory to fall back on (without too heavy of a lift) when times get tough. Whether it’s exercise, meditation, seeing friends, cooking, or practicing your faith, fill your toolbox with rituals that you can easily grab onto to give you energy to persevere in the face of challenges.

4. Build a support network and seek professional help when needed. We talked above about the dangers of isolation—of feeling alone in your pain. While the practices above are important and helpful, there is often no substitute for the support of others. Sometimes, reaching out to a friend, family member, or colleague is enough. At other times, the help of a professional may be needed. One of the greatest and most vulnerable ways you can show yourself compassion is by acknowledging when you are in over your head—when you need the help of an expert. I have experienced the transformative power that comes from processing my pain and grief with a professional, and I cannot even begin to put words to the difference it has made in my life. I promise it can do the same for you. Don’t let fear stop you from giving yourself the gift of healing.

Will practicing self-compassion in these ways guarantee a glass-half-full outlook on life? Of course not. We will all inevitably have days when it feels hard to be kind to ourselves. But by beginning to integrate these practices into your life, you’ll be well on your way to building a healthier today and a more resilient tomorrow.

~

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