Our current technology enables us to instantly broadcast our emotional reactions to the whole world, via the Internet. And yet, many still experience stigmatization and shame that can paralyze the process of adapting to loss, trauma, or negative emotions.
We all experience negative emotions on some level, and many experience more severe symptoms and challenges. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are all very common in the U.S. [1-3]. The experience of trauma is also prevalent. One national survey recently found that over 35 million children in the U.S. have experienced a serious traumatic event in their childhood years . It’s important to remember that this number is probably a conservative estimate, as some people who have experienced mental health issues or traumatic life events may choose not to report their experiences or take part in mental health research.
Personal loss, trauma, and negative emotions already threaten wellbeing, but their impact is often made worse by being accompanied with shame. Shame becomes an obstacle to reaching the compassion and support that we need most in trying times. When we are deep in the trenches of a personal hardship, it can feel like such a lonely place to be. So what can we do to bring our experiences of loss, trauma, or negative emotions out of the shadows?
Using techniques for “shame resistance" (acknowledging the presence of shame and having a nonjudgmental space to share challenging experiences with others), people are more likely to recover from these challenging experiences with less damage to their physical and mental health . Practicing regular acts of self-compassion (i.e., speaking kindly to yourself, being mindful of the transitory nature of all emotions, and acknowledging your own humanity) also helps to foster a healthy and positive self-attitude . Self-compassion has been shown to be particularly beneficial in combating symptoms and improving quality of life for populations experiencing anxiety and depression  and improving psychological resilience in young adults .
I have included a list of practices to help you cultivate self-compassion in challenging times. These practices can also be implemented preventatively, to help you create more resilient attitudes about yourself. Remember, if you or someone you know is facing a serious mental health crisis, please seek professional support as soon as possible.
· Be curious about it. Most of the time when we are met with an experience that triggers shame, our habit is to hide it away, escape, let ourselves become numb to it, or otherwise try to eradicate it from our lives. But what happens if you let yourself acknowledge and observe these raw moments with the curiosity of a kind witness?
One of my favorite stories from the Eastern tradition of Buddhism speaks of Siddhartha’s reaction to the demon Mara. When Mara tries to harm or invade Siddhartha, Siddhartha is able to redirect Mara’s power with kind acknowledgement, even inviting Mara to sit for tea! Instead of lurking in the shadows where Mara can sneak an attack, Siddhartha brings Mara into plain sight.
Maybe next time you experience a dark and challenging feeling, like shame, you can invite it in. Try tuning in to this feeling instead of turning away. It sounds scary I know, but even for brief moments at a time, see what you are able to observe when looking a little deeper into it. Ask yourself: What exactly am I feeling? Where does it originate in my body? How does it change the way I live and interact with the world? Is there anything that I can possibly learn from this?
· Look for evidence of “shared humanity.” Shared humanity simply refers to the fact that your flaws make you human. You are not alone in your shortcomings and challenges. When you begin to accept this truth, you can see it more clearly in the world. I see evidence of shared humanity when I hear people that I admire and look up to: experts, scholars, athletes, and top performers speak about things that I struggle with too, like anxiety, fear, depression, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness. When I notice that even the people who appear to be “perfect” are working through similar challenges, I don’t feel alone. I feel human.
· Find safe spaces to talk about it. Social support provides some of the greatest resources for well-being and psychological resilience. Depending on your social networks, there may be some spaces where your honesty is not met with kind or constructive reactions. When you choose to share your challenges, think about people who speak honestly and constructively about their own personal hardships, people who seem to possess a genuine concern for your well-being, and people that have proven to be otherwise trustworthy and wise. Finding safe allies to talk to in times of crisis can be deeply therapeutic and empowering.
Be clear about your intentions when you share your feelings: do you want someone to just hear you out or are you looking for advice or new perspective? Be wise about the language you use to describe your hardships. As much as possible, refrain from self-defeating language or language that intensifies negative emotion. Also, keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” approach to healing and processing hardship. While you can benefit tremendously from getting the perspective of a kind, empathetic support person, don’t be discouraged if your process requires more time, more effort, or different strategies.
· Meditate and speak love. One strategy that many have found to be incredibly helpful is to implement repeated words, sounds, or statements (i.e., mantras) to help cue up positive, benevolent, and compassionate thoughts and actions. Using these mantras, we eventually learn to override the existing unconscious narratives and actions that may be less constructive for adapting to personal hardships.
Self-compassion is something that I personally struggle with often. Historically speaking, I often hold high expectations for myself and I tend to be overly critical of my shortcomings. A few years ago, when I started to pay attention to the damaging effects of this type of attitude, I began practicing a simple meditation. At least once a day, I would take just two minutes to really look at myself in the mirror. I wouldn’t let myself focus on my flaws, I would try to look beyond the superficial layer of my physical appearance and just connect with my own gaze. I would then speak these words aloud: I love you. At first it felt so weird and totally “fake.” I wasn’t convinced. But after doing this practice every day for a month, it kinda started to sink in. I actually uncovered a genuine love and respect for myself. And, why shouldn’t we love and respect ourselves? Unlike shame, love empowers and mobilizes us. It gives us reason to keep putting in the work to live and feel better. Love comes and goes, of course, but I choose to continue practicing. If you find yourself in a similar crisis of compassion, commit to at least one month of consistently practicing positive communication with yourself in this way. I believe it can change the way you think about yourself in times of hardship, allowing you to tap into the power of self-compassion.
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4. Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (2013). “Overview of Adverse Child and Family Experiences among US Children.” Data Resource Center, supported by Cooperative Agreement 1‐U59‐MC06980‐01 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB).
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