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Fierce Self-Compassion

This is part of a series of blogs about the practice of self-compassion. I had personally struggled with both the concept and the practice – I didn’t quite “get it” and had tended to dismiss it – until I came across a new book, Fierce Self-Compassion by researcher Kristen Neff. Suddenly things fell into place for me – tender self compassion allows us to accept ourselves as we are. But we must also know how to act courageously to protect ourselves from harm, set our boundaries to get our own needs met, and advocate for change in ourselves and society. This is a powerful tool, or rather a series of practices – scientifically proven and rooted in the way our nervous systems and our brains operate. 

What is fierce self-compassion?

The right balance between the two forms –  tender self compassion and courageous action –  will vary depending on the situation. Without a bit of fierceness, tender self-compassion may run the risk of becoming passive and over-compromising. On the other hand, fierce self-compassion without tenderness can lead to hostility and selfishness.

 These practices can help us to succeed in the workplace, buffer against burnout, improve our relationships, and speak up about injustice. 

How to practice fierce self-compassion

Think of a situation in your life in which you feel the need to protect yourself, draw boundaries, or stand up to someone. It could be a situation in your workplace – perhaps a manager or colleague takes advantage of you and you end up being given more than your fair share of work. Or it could be a friend or family member, who imposes their religious, political or other views on you or a partner who doesn’t pull their weight when it comes to household chores.

Choose a situation where you feel mildly to moderately threatened, but not in real danger, so that you can learn the skill without overwhelming yourself. 

When you’re ready, call up the situation in your mind’s eye. Try to focus on the harm itself rather than on any particular person or group of people causing the situation. What is the boundary violation?  Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up: fear, anger, frustration, anxiety? Try to stop thinking about how and why you’re in this situation and simply tune in to the physical discomfort it gives you – where do you feel the fear or anger, for example? Across your chest, deep in your gut? Notice any bodily sensations without judging or trying to change them.

Now sit or stand up tall and roll your shoulders back, so that your posture embodies strength and determination. Then say a series of phrases (aloud or silently to yourself) designed to invoke the three components of self-compassion—mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness—(see previous blogs). Below are some suggestions, but the goal is to find language that works for you personally.

  1. The first phrase is meant to help you be mindful of what is happening. Focus on the harm, rather than the person or people causing the harm, say to yourself slowly and with conviction, “I can clearly what’s happening here. It is NOT OK. It is unfair. ” That’s mindfulness; we see things as they are. 
  2. The purpose of the second phrase is to help you remember your common humanity with other people – it’s not just you, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with you for feeling like this –  and it will enable you to draw strength from your connections to other people while protecting yourself. Try saying, “It’s not just me –  other people have experienced this, as well.” Or “All human beings deserve just treatment,” or simply “Me too.”
  3. Now put a fist over your heart, as a gesture of strength and courage. Commit to being kind to yourself by keeping yourself safe. For the third phrase, try asserting confidently, “I will protect myself” or “I can do this.”
  4. If you’re having trouble finding the right words, imagine that someone you really care about was being mistreated or threatened in the same way you are. What would you say to this person to help them be strong, stand tall, have courage? Now, can you offer the same message to yourself?
  5. Finally, put your other hand over your fist and hold it tenderly. The invitation is to combine the fierce energy of brave, empowered clarity with the tender energy of loving, connected presence. Give yourself full permission to feel the force of your anger and resolve, but also let this force be caring. Remember, we’re aiming the fierce compassion at the harm or injustice itself, not at the person causing the harm. They are human and you are human. Can you draw on your fierceness to commit to taking action, while still holding space in your heart for love and compassion?

After this practice, you may be feeling very activated. Do what you need to in order to take care of yourself. Perhaps take some deep breaths, stretch, or have a cup of tea. If calling on fierce self-compassion feels awkward or scary, allow yourself to go as slowly as you need to. The important thing is setting your intention to care for yourself as best you can.

Useful websites  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer     Paul Gilbert UK 

Guided meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert

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See also: Self-CompassionSelf-Compassion ToolsTools of Self-Compassion