Self-compassion can leave a bad taste in your mouth when individualism places a greater emphasis on “self” than “compassion.” Add toxic positivity to this cocktail and self-compassion can become violent to marginalized individuals.
In our work towards equity, compassion towards others and ourselves often serves as a compass guiding us to the future of liberation -- to a future where we have what we need to thrive collectively. Compassion invites us to acknowledge injustice with clarity and to take action to address harm. Firm, non-violent understanding and accountability replace shame and blame. In Thailand where I was born and raised, it is common to address strangers as auntie, uncle, or sister to show endearment and respect. As we commit to doing no harm to others (i.e., our aunties and uncles), it only makes sense to extend such kindness towards ourselves. After all, liberation at large needs to start at home, within ourselves. There is no separation between self-compassion and compassion for others because we are all interconnected. In other words, compassion brings us together in solidarity and moves us towards the future of equity.
Self compassion is giving ourselves permission to feel a whole spectrum of emotions, especially when our survival depends on it. It liberates us from shame and grounds us in the fullness of our humanity. However, capitalism and individualism often reduce self-compassion to a warm and fuzzy well-wishing feeling towards ourselves without intentional action towards liberation. Cue the relaxing spa music and imagine the warm glow of artisanal candles, we might imagine a person practicing self-compassion saying positive affirmations to themselves to feel empowered and ready to increase their productivity at work. Similarly, oppression and toxic positivity mix kindness with politeness which is code for “shrink the fullness of your humanity down to a size that feels comfortable to the dominant group.” Then, that kindness is wielded against us when who we truly are fails to meet the demand from the dominant group to be nice, be cute, be real but not too real.
Compassion is not free and kindness is expensive. As someone who has survived by using compassion for capitalism and kindness for the comfort of others, I know that this comes at a cost to my integrity, dignity, safety, and belonging. But before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not here to shame your compassion and kindness. I am all for multiple truths co-existing. My goal is to shed layers of internalized oppression with you. If that sounds great to you, we need to talk about compassion and kindness. We need to talk about how we practice them for ourselves while simultaneously surviving and thriving amid oppression right here and now.
What if we practice self-compassion with a goal of choice? Self-compassion may not be the end goal when I am mustering every ounce of my energy to get through Tuesday. In that case, did I fail at self-compassion when I need to choose my survival from oppression? No! I choose self-compassion when I can and it gets messy!
Many times rage, grief, and despair with a tinge of sass take over the driver’s seat so I can get through the day with full integrity. Even though such rage, grief, despair, and sass do not fit with that peaceful image of compassion the wellness industry is trying to sell us, I invite these emotions to take the wheel with inner peace and intention. I make a choice to honor these emotions as my survival strategies under oppression. Instead of trying to get rid of them, I know that I can invite them to take the wheel when I need to. I also know that I can invite them to sit in the back seat. This way I can make room for joy, kindness, hope, and compassion to take the wheel, too.
By shaking and stirring self-compassion, we are decolonizing a version of wellness, compassion, and kindness that was not built for us in the first place. Let’s aim for a compassion of intentional choice, where we mindfully choose when which emotions are taking charge and which ones are playing a supporting role. Applying the value of non-violence, we are not force-feeding compassion upon ourselves when it does not feel right. That pressure for us to conform to the mainstream image of peace and compassion and to disregard our present survival needs has got to go. I encourage us to cultivate our own version of wellness in that tiny space between fight-flight-freeze-appease-dissociate survival intelligence. In that tiny space and that tension, we dance with our agility and vitality, stepping into self-compassion and out of survival responses. Without getting stuck in our survival overdrive and forgetting our inherent nobility, we remember how to be in this flow of flexibility. We remember the beauty of our own souls.
Crocodile Lightning is a wonder-full work-in-progress. She integrates her passion in trauma-informed care, healing justice, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and bodywork into her work as a trauma-informed, social justice somatic therapist and educator. She enjoys cooking, eating, and petting other people’s fluffy pets.