Noticing what you need and then asking for it: Self-compassion 101

Anna is a Professor of philosophy and contributor to Thrive Global 

I was at the hospital the other day, taking a family member in for a simple procedure involving scary general anesthesia. When we entered the small and windowless waiting room, we were greeted by four television sets, all blaring reports about the recent mass shootings. They were describing the violence and deaths in gruesome detail; there were graphic images on the screen, and it was loud, loud, loud.

I felt my whole body tense up, my heart beating faster and my breath getting shallow.  I looked around the room, and saw that nobody was watching any of the several different television screens.  And I gently asked the receptionist to change the station to something less violent. The patient sitting next to the reception desk looked up and nodded eagerly. The receptionist looked surprised, and at first told me that she didn’t know how to change the channel.  When I persisted, she figured it out. We switched to a soap opera and she even turned the volume down. The patient next to us thanked me. And my body started to relax.

We watched the soap opera for the next 30 minutes.  As soon as they brought my family member into the back, I left, seeking a more peaceful space to wait. I found it down the hall in the main lobby: Almost empty, not a single TV screen, plenty of natural light, and a very gentle Mozart piano sonata playing in the background. I felt my entire body relax.

I am proud of how I handled this situation because so often I don’t ask to have my needs accommodated. I come from a long line of stoical people. We do not complain, we do not trouble others, we simply suffer in silence. But this day, I managed to combine self-awareness with self compassion:  I noticed the problem – the violent program on four very loud televisions — and I acted to help myself feel better.

These are first steps.  Reflecting on the experience, I also notice the ways in which my self compassion is still limited. The next steps for me involve fierceness; they involve insisting that my own needs are as important as those of other people.  Here, I have ways to go. I gave myself permission to be compassionate to myself on this occasion but it was at least partly because I noticed that others didn’t like the television program either. And I was able to get what I needed without inconveniencing anybody because nobody in the room seemed interested in watching the news in the first place.  Fierce self-compassion would have involved speaking up even if somebody in the room had been watching the news. I don’t think I would have done that.

Like so many other women, my fierce self-compassion is still very much a work in progress.  But I’m getting better at the self-awareness part. And so, for today, I practice self compassion by congratulating myself on how far I have come – and I refuse to beat myself up over how far I have yet to go.


Anna Lännström is professor of philosophy at Stonehill College where she teaches Greek and Asian philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of religion as well as a learning community course which integrates yoga, mindfulness and Indian philosophy.  Her writing focuses on the mindfulness movement. Why are we all increasingly stressed, distracted and angry? Why do so many of us feel lonely? What role can mindfulness play in reducing our suffering? How can techniques like yoga and meditation from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions help us live better lives, and how do we address the ethical challenges involved in borrowing such techniques?

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