Fierce self-compassion and protection from harm

The following essay is adapted from Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.

Self-compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering, and to do so sometimes we need to protect ourselves — to speak up, say no, draw boundaries, or to stand up to injustice. Self-compassion has three core components—self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Kindness involves treating ourselves with the same care and support we’d show to a good friend. Common humanity involves feeling connected to others in the experience of suffering, remembering that we are all imperfect and lead imperfect lives. And mindfulness allows us to be aware of our suffering with balance and equanimity. Each element has an important role to play in self-protection. When we’re fighting to keep ourselves safe, the three elements manifest as brave, empowered clarity.

Kindness, when it’s aimed at preventing harm, is not gentle, it’s powerful and courageous. Facing danger requires audacity and determination — like when we climb out a window to escape a burning building or undergo chemotherapy to combat cancer.

Bravery is also required when we need to stand up to someone who disrespects us or invades our privacy. It gives us the boost of energy we need to say no or draw boundaries. Kindness also compels us to demand fair treatment when we’re being treated unjustly and to fight against oppression. This may take the form of speaking up, marching in protest, writing opinion pieces, going on strike, or going to the authorities. Active and engaged kindness spurs us to take whatever steps are needed to protect ourselves and our fellow humans from harm.

The sense of common humanity inherent to self-compassion is an important source of collective empowerment. The truth is that whenever we protect ourselves, we’re also protecting everyone else. We stand together with our fellow humans knowing that we’re not alone. There’s strength in numbers. When we forget this and feel isolated by fear or shame, we think we’re helpless. We may believe we can’t change anything because the problem is so much bigger than us as individuals. It’s hard to protect ourselves when we feel alone. From an evolutionary standpoint, we could never survive as individuals. We evolved to live side by side in social groups, and a core feature of humanity is our ability to work together. Remembering this fact — and acting on it — gives us power.

Understanding common humanity helps us stay strong when someone crosses our boundaries, tries to discriminate against us, or disrespects us. If someone insults me and I take it personally, I might feel weakened or afraid. When I forget that my identity is part of a larger whole, and feel cut off from others when threatened, the danger will feel that much more overwhelming. But if I can remember that I have the same right to respect that all human beings do, I will be more able to defend our common rights as a matter of principle.

Mindfulness in the service of protection helps us to see clearly without turning away from the truth. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge when harm is being done to us. When it’s our spouse or our boss who crosses the line, it can be easier to laugh it off than call it out. Part of us knows it wasn’t okay, but we may fool ourselves into thinking it’s not a big deal so that we don’t have to confront the knowledge that it’s not. It also means we don’t have to deal with possible repercussions. This tendency to avoid facing problems because it’s easier not to is pervasive. For years sexual harassment was swept under the rug – “Oh that’s just the way men are” – because women felt they didn’t have the power to change the situation. We continue to avoid the truth of global warming and carry on as if our lifestyle doesn’t have to change, because it’s so upsetting to realize the catastrophe our planet is heading toward.

Mindfulness aimed at protection doesn’t provide peace of mind, just the opposite. Mindfulness shines a light on what’s causing harm and exposes what needs to change. It compels us to acknowledge the truth and speak up even when the truth is uncomfortable, without sticking our heads in the sand. It does so with balance and perspective, however, with the understanding that we may be mistaken in our views. It allows us to consider all the relevant information before acting. It doesn’t resist unpleasant facts by ignoring them, neither does it melodramatically exaggerate them. It sees things as they are. Whether it’s speaking out or simply keeping a dignified silence, we can use fierce self-compassion to protect ourselves from harm while still coming from a place of openness.

Fierce self-compassion must always be balanced with tender compassion, however, so that it doesn’t itself become harmful and destructive.

Compassion is rooted in connection, but when we forget this and recast those posing a threat as the “other,” it creates a destructive us-against-them mentality. Sadly, this is what’s happening with the incredible political polarization in the United States, making it almost impossible for our government to function. For our fierceness to be compassionate, we must recognize that while we need to protect ourselves from harm, those causing harm are still human. Compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering, so hate or aggression has no place in the compassionate heart. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The Zen meditation teacher Joan Halifax refers to this fierce stance as having a “strong back and soft front.” When we hold our backs strong and tall without being hostile, when we embody brave, empowered clarity, we can take action to protect ourselves from harm in a way that’s most effective.

Step into the inner work of learning fierce self-compassion through our 8-week online Fierce Self-Compassion course.

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