Do You Have a Fear of Compassion?

Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.
— Pema Chodron

Compassion is a broad term that refers to an understanding of another’s pain and a desire to somehow relieve that pain, and it is one of the most powerful and healing gifts we can give to ourselves and others. Self-compassion, in particular, allows us to take a balanced approach to our thoughts and experiences (mindfulness), treat ourselves with understanding (self-kindness), and find comfort and empathy in knowing that suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are a shared part of the human experience (common humanity).

But what if trying to implement those practices just…doesn’t seem to work for you? You might be thinking...

“Well, there must be something wrong with me...”

No, there’s nothing “wrong” with you at all and you are not “meant” to suffer just because you have trouble receiving compassion — whether from yourself or others. Not only is it common to feel resistance in receiving compassion, but we can also experience a fear of compassion itself.

And here’s the thing: because compassion is widely accepted as something that’s beneficial for you, you may not even realize that you have a fear of it.

How fear of compassion presents itself

Self-care is not selfish or self-indulgent. We cannot nurture others from a dry well. We need to take care of our own needs first so that we can give from our surplus, our abundance. When we nurture others from a place of fullness, we feel renewed instead of taken advantage of.
— Jennifer Louden, The Woman’s Comfort Book

If you have a tendency to self-criticize, you likely have a higher chance of being reluctant to accept compassion. It’s like two forces fighting against each other — one for your benefit and one for your detriment.

A fear of compassion can also stem from a misunderstanding of what it is. Sometimes, the action of self-compassion is confused with selfishness (“If I am self-compassionate, I am only concerned about my own well-being and therefore, I am selfish.”)

It can show itself in the form of worrying about seeming complacent in life or unambitious (“If I am complacent, I will stop improving and will lose my friend, and who wants to be friends with someone like that?”)

Reluctance for compassion can come through the form of logical reasoning. You might think compassionate people are deluding themselves. (“The world is not compassionate so I must keep my guard up to protect myself from cruel people and negative experiences.”)

If you’ve ever felt this way or had any other similar thoughts of hesitancy toward compassion, you’ll be pleased to know that research shows that the opposite is actually true.

When we practice self-compassion, we’re actually more likely to notice a threat and more likely to have the courage and the right tools in place to defend and protect ourselves (through the fierce side of compassion). We’re also more resilient in the face of difficulty and trauma and are more likely to actually take steps toward having a positive response or making a healthy change.

What’s more, there is no link between self-compassion and selfishness. That’s because being compassionate toward yourself only makes you that much more open and able to show compassion and understanding for others’ experiences and needs.

Why a fear of self-compassion holds you back in recovery

Most unhappy people need to learn just one lesson: how to see themselves through the lens of genuine compassion and treat themselves accordingly.
— Martha Beck

Instead of being motivated by love and compassion, the motivation for change is led by fear and punishment. So instead of thinking we have a choice in our recovery for example, we feel stuck in a corner or like we are being forced to take certain actions.  

We might also be more likely to relapse because when we feel like we’re being forced to change our self-destructive behaviors, we disconnect from our level of responsibility and agency in our decisions (“I look like I’ve made progress but I really haven’t because I’m being forced to stop these behaviors, so it doesn’t matter if I decide to purge after dinner tonight.”).

Even when we do make progress toward recovery, a fear of compassion may cause us to not appreciate the accomplishment (“It’s not that big of a deal. I still have a long way to go,” or “There’s no reason to celebrate because it’s just a matter of time before I’m right back where I started anyway.”). It might also make us minimize the hurdle we crossed or assign credit to someone else like a friend or counselor for “getting you to this point.”   

On the opposite end, we may respond by over-inflating what happened or resting on our laurels. We might think that because we did “so well” this week, that we deserve a break or a treat in the form of indulgence in the self-destructive behavior we are trying to shift.

And none of this will help you make continued progress.

How to tell if you have fears of compassion

British psychologist Paul Gilbert created a scale called the Fears of Compassion Scale. The scale acknowledges that people have different opinions about compassion and kindness — some believe it’s important to show compassion in all areas of life, while others feel it’s best to approach compassion with caution — and tries to help us assess our own level of fear toward compassion.

There are three areas of your life the scale focuses on:  

  • Expressing compassion for others  

  • Responding to compassion from others

  • Expressing kindness and compassion towards yourself

You can view the Fear of Compassion assessment here.

If you decide to complete the assessment, I encourage you to be as open and honest with yourself as possible.

Note: If you feel you may experience a strong negative reaction or find difficulty in completing this, I advise that you do not complete it now, and instead save it for a time when you are able to work on it with a supportive member of your circle (e.g. a friend, coach, or therapist).

If you have difficulty being compassionate to yourself either due to resistance or fears of compassion, remember you are not alone. However, there are so many benefits to being compassionate to yourself, and it is a cornerstone of recovering from an eating disorder. So to start, make the intention today be kinder and more compassionate to yourself, as everyone, including you deserve kindness and compassion. At the end of the day reflect on the ways that you treated or respond to yourself the way you would to someone you love who is struggling in the same way. Remember it takes time to cultivate compassion for oneself, so if there still is a struggle to be compassionate toward yourself, can you have some compassion for that struggle?

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