I came across a great quote the other day by the therapist Terrence Real:
“There is no redeeming value in harshness.”
And this got me thinking about compassion, particularly the all too rare self-compassion and the resistance we so often have to building this up in ourselves — particularly for men.
It can sometimes be a real challenge to find compassion for others, especially if we’re in the midst of our own reactions. Compassion literally means “to suffer with” and it’s difficult to be with someone who is in emotional pain and not try to “do” something about it. Men, stereotypically, want to fix things. We want to devise a plan to get through the bad stuff and end up having everyone feel better. Compassion asks us to do something different.
It says, “Don’t solve the issue for someone else, just be with them while they’re suffering.”
Maybe that means sitting silently with a person who’s really angry.
Maybe it means being near someone while they’re crying and not telling them to stop.
It’s doing less and being more, and this can feel like not doing anything at all.
Even more difficult is to turn the energy toward yourself and build your self-compassion. Taking care of others is hard, but focusing and taking care of ourselves can seem indulgent, narcissistic and just all around difficult to do.
Build Your Self-Compassion Before Self-Confidence
Self-compassion means being with ourselves while we’re struggling — without jumping in to fix that struggle just yet. It’s being aware of our own pain, our own anguish, at how angry, pissed off, hurt or vulnerable we feel inside without doing the many, many, many things we traditionally do to not feel that pain.
Put it that way and building your self-compassion can sound counterproductive.
And I’m not just talking about using alcohol or drugs to anesthetize us from the pain, but all our tendencies to fix our own problems. We make lists, we devise plans with goals, we do lots of things to get us out of our pain and suffering—and I’m not making the case that these things are bad to do, but it’s not the first step.
Allowing self-compassion gives us a better shot at making a good plan that will actually work. But we have to give ourselves the space to feel however it is we feel.
We have a default response to times when we’re feeling down: I need to build my self-confidence up. We tell ourselves to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and to get to work on a Plan. We’ll often say that confidence is at the root of all that we’re not doing.
- “If I just could push myself to start that business…”
- “If I could just get the confidence to ask that person on a date…” etc.
We tend to think that confidence will give us the energy to get where we want to go—and confidence can help with that. Feeling confident is amazing!
The problem with confidence, though, is if it’s not rooted in an honest understanding of who we are, then it’s so easy to become over-confident without realizing it.
The Secret of Self-Compassion
We can easily under- or over-estimate how much skill we have for just about anything.
Over-estimating could lead us to do something way too risky and under-estimating may stop us from trying anything at all or make us depend way too much on how someone else judges our abilities.
Self-compassion, perhaps surprisingly and perhaps paradoxically, is a great antidote to this. Nurturing self-compassion provides us with a more objective sense of our abilities by reminding ourselves that we are flawed people, you know, just like everyone else. We will make mistakes. Just like others make mistakes.
Here’s what self-compassion does that really makes it stand out, though: self-compassion reminds us that our self-worth is not tied into what we did or didn’t do. Our sense of self does not have to be at risk because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted or we made someone upset.
We can feel guilty about hurting someone else. We can be angry that a plan didn’t work out the way we thought it would, but self-compassion allows us the energy and freedom to try again. It breaks us out of the jail of perfectionism that too many of us grew up with.
Contrary to what we may have learned, we don’t need punishment in order to learn from our mistakes.
Fear of Going to Extremes
This is closer to what I think Terry Real is getting at with his statement about irredeemable harshness. He’s talking particularly about couples (the way to get your partner to change is not to berate them about what they’re doing) but this applies individually as well.
Some of us do this with our partners and it can become emotionally abusive. We think our yelling and speaking down to a partner is justified if it’s our way of expressing our feelings. But it’s also shaming, demeaning, and can be threatening—even if you don’t mean it to be. There’s a cavern of distance between expressing how you feel and being harsh and abusive, but too many of us didn’t learn this difference.
Many people speak this way to their children (probably because that’s how they were brought up), but consider what you are encouraging: a self-critical, shame-filled child who will grow up to be an adult who does the same things to themselves—and probably to others.
As a child, I really believed that it was this harshness that would keep me safe, and I know I’m not alone. Many of the guys I work with worry that if they let go of this harshness there will be nothing stopping them from letting themselves off the hook for all kinds of bad behavior. We all know people who never take responsibility for anything, and we don’t want to be like them.
But self-compassion shouldn’t take you to that extreme.
Without that harsh judge constantly ready to beat us up we have the freedom to more objectively examine our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings. This freedom provides space to feel guilt, if needed, to feel anger, if needed, to feel regret, if needed—but to also know that our self-worth and self-respect is not completely entwined with these feelings.
We learn that we can make changes. We can gain some more skills. We can say we’re sorry.
We look deeply at the reasons we acted a certain way and the self-compassionate view allows us to shift things so we act differently the next time.
Want to go deeper to make changes? Send me an email and we’ll set up a free consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.