Finding Self-Compassion

About thirty years ago I was injured in a car accident while hitchhiking. I ended up with a spinal injury, which has caused me chronic back pain, especially in the morning when I wake up. 

My parents, like most people in our culture, were enthusiastic believers in free will and blame. As a result of this early training, for years I believed the following about the accident: I should have known better (how many times had I been told that when I’d made a mistake?). After all, the driver’s appearance wasn’t confidence-inspiring, the car was old, etc. I should have said “No, thanks” and waited for a more reliable-looking ride. As John Belushi put it, "But noooooooo!" I got in the car, though I could have done otherwise, so I believed, from which it seemed to follow that I must deserve the negative consequences of my actions. 

That was my story and I stuck to it for about 15 years. My daily routine was to wake up, feel the pain in my back, which triggered my self-blaming version of the story. As you can imagine, this didn’t get the day off to a great start. It was difficult to address my predicament constructively. Any attention I paid to my back reminded me of the incident and the blame and shame associated with it. So, rather than being able to treat myself well, to stretch and strengthen my back, I reacted by ignoring the pain as much as I could, consuming painkillers (luckily not the addictive kind), and devising other avoidant behaviors. This resulted in a vicious cycle: weak back, more pain, more blame, more avoidance, weaker back, etc. 

Then I was lucky enough to stumble upon naturalistic psychotherapy. My therapist saw my situation in a radically different way. In his view, I had to get in that car. One reason I did was the very flaw in my self-concept which made treating my injury difficult. As a believer in free will, all the mistakes I’d ever made – and I’d made some relatively serious ones – reinforced a poor, contemptuous view of myself.  Belief in free will takes us away from healthy, constructive regret and send us into paralyzing, debilitating guilt and shame. If I’d thought more highly of myself, I might have been able to turn down the offer of a ride, waited for a better one, one more in line with a healthy person’s desire to stay that way. But self-contempt leads to self-destructive behavior. Conversely, rejecting free will removes the justification for self-contempt, promotes its opposite, self-compassion, improves self-concept and leads to self-improving behavior. I still wish I hadn’t gotten in that car, but am no longer burdened with the painful and stultifying illusion that I could have stayed out of it. Nor do I believe I deserve the pain and injury which resulted. That’s another misconception my therapist helped me correct. There is no desert, just luck. I was unlucky enough to injure my spine but, more recently, lucky enough to be able to deal rather successfully with it and to actually learn a good deal from the experience.

I can’t say self-contempt has entirely disappeared  but it has been significantly weakened, and partially replaced by a still-growing feeling of self-compassion. Now I wake up, feel the pain in my back, and am able to muster some compassion for my suffering. My understanding of this event no longer triggers excessive psychic pain, and therefore no longer requires intricate and self-deluding avoidance. My understanding of the accident leads me to want to relieve my suffering, and provides me with the ability to do so. I stretch, go to the gym and work on my back, etc. 

I believe the healthiest response to the knowledge that we are fully caused is compassion for all, including ourselves. As a therapist, I’ve been teaching this with good results to clients for years, it’s an insight which can help people heal. This idea isn’t my own; I first heard a version of it from my therapist. I later came across it and many other profound implications of naturalism by Tom Clark. I explore this idea more on my website

 – Ken Batts