Many survivors of child sexual abuse experience shame. Shame is a negative belief we have about ourselves and typically comes about when we try to fill in the gaps about something we don’t fully understand. These beliefs can influence our behaviors, judgements, and perceptions of the world. Such beliefs can contribute to other symptoms many survivors experience such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, body image, sexual intimacy issues, and dysfunctional relationships.
Shame can even manifest as smaller, seemingly insignificant beliefs such as “I am too incapable to hit this week’s deadline,” “I never text back because I am a terrible friend,” or “I am such a failure that I can’t even do the dishes.”
While these shame-based beliefs can feel very real, overpowering, and definitive, it is possible to change them—even the beliefs that survivors have been carrying for years or decades. And the way that these long-term beliefs can be challenged and changed is through self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is actively loving and valuing yourself for who you are right now. It involves extending warmth, kindness, and deep understanding toward your perceived inadequacies, failures, or suffering. And while that sounds easy enough, it may feel impossible in the present moment. Practicing self-compassion is something that many individuals struggle with. It’s human nature to want to pick ourselves apart, fixate on our imperfections, or look for additional reasons to validate the shame we may feel.
If feeling any degree of love toward yourself seems like a foreign concept or an unattainable goal, you are not alone. Fostering self-compassion can be one of the most difficult challenges for survivors of child sexual abuse. Sometimes survivors may even feel additional shame for not having enough self-compassion in any given moment.
We want to remind you that there is no self-compassion quota or milestone that you are required to meet. Rather, self-compassion is about meeting yourself where you are at right now.
And wherever you are at—whatever shame-based thoughts you are grappling with—the first step towards loving and valuing yourself is acknowledging that self-compassion is something that you need and deserve.1 You may not believe that you are deserving in this moment, or even for the next while, but as you engage in this resource and the activities that follow, over time and with repetition, believing you are worthy will start to feel more natural.
Ways to Foster Self-Compassion
Using More Compassionate Language
One element that shapes your beliefs—particularly about yourself—is the language that you use. For instance, a shame-based thought might be centered in self-critical language like, “I am too lazy to get anything done” rather than “I didn’t feel very well today, which made it difficult to get stuff done.” The first is a definitive, black-and-white statement, while the second allows for context, understanding, and different outcomes in the future.
To help remove shame from your everyday thoughts, you can start by changing the language that you use. For example, when you notice a thought that is perpetuating self-blame (My daughter doesn’t want to be around me because I am a terrible mother), you can try removing the blame from the thought and changing it to: My daughter seems upset and wants to be alone. She must be struggling with something.
These changes in language can help direct your perspective away from judgment and self-condemnation and towards patience and compassion—both for yourself and for others.
Another way to remove shame from your thoughts is by taking the “I” out of the statement. Instead of getting caught up in thoughts such as “I am an angry person,” question why you might be feeling angry and what has led you toward making that statement.
Perhaps the thought “I am an angry person” is actually coming from a place of frustration with various comments you are seeing on social media about sexual abuse and the #MeToo Movement. With this context in mind, you can remove the “I” from the statement and change “I am an angry person,” to “There is a lot of negative and triggering content on my social media right now and it’s having a major effect on my emotions.”
Try practicing this approach by thinking of an example from your own life. What shame-based thought have you experienced recently? How can you take the “I” out of that thought to help remove the self-blame? What context can you add? In what ways can you see the situation differently? Remember, in seeking to examine the situation differently, you are not trying to find excuses for the difficulties or challenges you are facing, you are simply allowing room for more compassion.
You can also remove the shame-based language from a thought by stepping back and looking at the big picture, rather than focusing on one specific situation. Consider Eva, who gave an important presentation at work but struggled with explaining one of the key points. Afterwards, Eva singled out that one incident as a representation of her entire job performance. She casts moral judgments on herself, including: “Wow, I am incapable of doing the simplest of tasks. I am a useless employee.” These negative self-beliefs build Eva's feelings of inadequacy, panic, and self-loathing.
However, in Eva’s case, a much larger picture reveals that she is deserving of more compassion. She was up all night with a friend who was experiencing suicidal thoughts and had asked for her support. And while Eva is happy that her friend reached out to her and is doing much better, she feels physically and emotionally exhausted, which made it difficult for her to deliver the presentation exactly as she’d planned.
When the larger picture is examined, it’s easier to take into account all of the nuances that may have contributed to a single error or a decision we later regret. And as we consider all these nuances, it becomes easier to steer away from harsh criticism or judgment.
Are you ever quick to cast judgment on yourself for a specific situation without taking into account the larger picture? Reminding yourself that you are only human and are doing the best you can is an appropriate and compassionate response that every person deserves.
Hands Over Your Heart
This grounding technique involves simply placing both hands over your heart and taking a moment to feel the warmth of your own touch. Notice your breathing as it is (there is no need to change or deepen it). As you breathe in, imagine a sense of calm and gratitude flowing through your body and towards your heart. As you breathe out, imagine any tension or stress leaving your body.
As you do this, you might also choose to envision a moment when you were with someone who made you feel loved and safe. This moment may be an actual memory with a loved one, trusted friend, neighbor, therapist, or mentor. You could also think of a moment spent with a beloved pet.
Or, rather than drawing on a memory, you can envision a hypothetical scenario with an older, wiser version of yourself, or with a well-known figure you admire and whose work has brought you inspiration and comfort. Whoever you choose, think about the feelings of acceptance, safety, and love you experience when focusing on that person. Take a moment to allow these feelings to become steady in your body.
With this technique, you are practicing self-compassion by viewing your own experience with curiosity and openness, rather than with shame or judgment. You are also allowing yourself to experience feelings of safety, warmth, and acceptance, even if for only a moment.
Words to a Friend
A major component of self-compassion is viewing yourself in the same manner you would toward someone else. For instance, it’s often easier to show compassion towards others than towards ourselves.
This is why a great place to start with self-compassion is to look at ourselves through the perspective of a friend.
Now, think about a time when you were struggling in some way. Consider the following questions:
- How did I respond to myself?
- What did I say?
- What tone did I use?
- What about my posture and non-verbal gestures?
- What emotions did I feel?
Think of a time when you’ve had a friend who was struggling in some way. Maybe they had a misfortune, failed, or felt inadequate. Reflect on the following questions:
- How did I respond to that friend?
- What did I say?
- What tone did I use?
- What about my posture or non-verbal gestures?
- What emotions did I feel?
Note the differences between how you responded to a friend versus how you responded to yourself. Write down any specific phrases you may have said to your friend in this situation. Perhaps they were words of encouragement such as “I know this is really difficult,” “You are working so hard,” or “You are amazing no matter what.” Keep these phrases close and read them to yourself the next time you notice you are experiencing any shame-based thoughts. Remember that the warmth, sympathy, and kindness you granted your friend is the type of compassion you deserve to feel towards yourself.
Inner Companion Reframe
You can take the “Words to a Friend” idea a step a further by practicing the Inner Companion Reframe, a strategy that incorporates both Mindfulness and self-kindness.
Celebrate Your Victories
There is a common misconception that we have to be “perfect” or “better” in order to be worthy of compassion—that we are not deserving of it until we overcome our perceived shortcomings, limitations, or failures. Sometimes we may feel that we still have too much work to do or too many flaws to fix before we can allow ourselves grace.
This is not the case, as self-compassion and imperfection go hand-in-hand. Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and perceived inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. From this perspective, self-compassion can be seen as an act of bravery in which you are dealing with pain and suffering head on. Admitting that you are a human being—doing the best you can with what you have been through—is a key truth we all need to acknowledge. We can build upon that by looking to the future and allowing ourselves to have higher aspirations, even if we are struggling with feelings of shame, failure, or inadequacy in the present.
And self-compassion not only involves acknowledging your struggles or things you’d like to do differently. It also involves acknowledging your victories and what you have already achieved today.
Because the healing journey is an ongoing process, personal victories achieved along the way can go unnoticed. You might have days where you feel you’ve made very little progress in your healing. You might get frustrated and impatient, focusing on doubts, struggles, and setbacks you’ve experienced. These kinds of thoughts and feelings can happen instinctively, which is why it’s important to practice self-compassion and recognize that no matter where you are or what you’ve done (or haven’t done), you are strong and resilient now.
This strategy is about highlighting your present strength, courage, and impact. It’s about noticing the good things you are already achieving every day and practicing self-kindness in the face of difficulties.
At the end of the day, look back and identify at least three victories you achieved that day. This could be anything you see as a triumph, no matter how small it may initially seem. Some examples might be:
- I got out of bed.
- I finished a project.
- I took a breath to ground myself.
- I made progress on something important to me.
- I gave myself a compliment.
- I told my kids I loved them.
- I ran an errand.
- I spent time outside.
- I noticed something beautiful/positive.
- I practiced self-compassion.
Take a moment after listing your three triumphs to appreciate your actions from that day. You could also keep track of these positive observations by writing them in a journal. When you are feeling down on yourself or struggling to practice self-compassion, refer to this journal to remind yourself of all the victories you have achieved.
Be Patient and Kind With Yourself
Ultimately, self-compassion is extending warmth, kindness, and deep understanding towards yourself. It involves gently redirecting your thoughts away from a lens of shame and towards a more compassionate, more knowledgeable perspective. Instead of judging yourself for the difficulties, sufferings, or perceived failures you are experiencing, you offer yourself the same grace and sympathy you would a friend.
Remember, mastering self-compassion is a lifelong journey that takes time and patience. If you are struggling to feel any degree of compassion towards yourself right now, that’s okay. The jump from self-loathing to self-compassion can seem insurmountable, which is why it can be more helpful to focus on the degrees in between—on moving the needle in the right direction. Start with small steps, choosing activities that seem most realistic to you with where you are at. If loving yourself right now seems like too large a jump, perhaps start with liking yourself or seeing yourself through the eyes of a friend.
Over time and with practice, rerouting your shame-based thoughts towards a kinder, more compassionate direction will start to feel easier. And each time that you engage with these steps towards self-compassion, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by accepting that a moment you are experiencing is painful and that there are valid reasons for those emotions.
- Mindfulness by directing your attention to your present needs and how you can attend to those needs.
- Aspiration by intentionally fostering a more compassionate mindset that you can continue to implement in the future.