The perinatal period is often a time of complex, mixed emotions. There can be joy and excitement, but often there is also feelings of fear, stress, guilt, sadness and inadequacy. Self-compassion can be a valuable tool to assist in navigating this tricky time.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is a psychological tool that encourages people to have care, understanding and empathy for themselves, in the same way they might have compassion for someone else that is suffering. There are three key components to self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-kindness involves treating yourself with empathy, gentleness and fairness. Instead of getting caught in thoughts of guilt or self-blame, self-kindness is about saying and doing things for yourself that you would to do for a friend in the same situation. For example, telling yourself, “this is not my fault” or “you’re doing the best you can in tough circumstances” or allowing yourself to take a break, relax and rest. Essentially, self-compassion is asking yourself, “what would I say to a friend in this situation?”
The concept of common humanity is based on the belief that suffering is a normal part of human existence. No one can live a life without suffering, yet so often when we experience suffering, we think “this is not normal” or “something has gone wrong”. This creates a sense of isolation and loneliness. However, self-compassion reminds us that suffering is a normal, expected part of being human. This perspective promotes connection to others and to your community.
Mindfulness is a skill of awareness. It involves noticing your own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, while remaining non-judgmental about these experiences. For example, you might notice your thoughts telling you “I can’t do this”, you might notice feelings of fear or sadness and notice sensations of your heart racing or nauseous in your stomach. Mindfulness isn’t about fixing or changing this, but about acknowledging your pain without making it seem bigger than it actually is.
Misconceptions about self-compassion
Self-compassion is often a misunderstood concept. The language can be confusing and different to our cultural understanding.
Self-compassion is just selfishness – Actually, research has shown that people who practice self-compassion are more available, caring and forgiving to others around them. This is because it’s not about being self-absorbed, but about acknowledging your humanness like any other person.
Self-compassion is weak or soft – Self-compassion requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Brené Brown famously states, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
Self-compassion is unproductive – Some people believe that self-compassion is a “free pass” and that self-criticism is how change and self-improvement is achieved. Self-compassion is about not beating yourself up if things don’t go to plan. It’s also about building resilience and saying, “that didn’t go as planned, but that’s okay”.
Practicing self-compassion in the perinatal period
All aspects of the perinatal period bring unique challenges. If you’re pregnant, you might experience anxiety and apprehension about what is to come. If you’ve just had a baby, you might find yourself exhausted, overwhelmed and wondering “what have we done?” Or if you have experienced pregnancy loss, you may be experiencing pain, blame and/or deep grief.
Practicing self-compassion involves firstly, recognising when you’re being hard on yourself. Notice this.
Secondly, rather than trying to avoid this pain or discomfort, allow it to be. Often, if we try to resist, fight or avoid pain we inadvertently make it bigger. For example, if the birth did not go as planned, many women can get caught thinking “I should have done X, Y or Z”. They resist experiencing their grief by trying to problem solve what happened, which often results in increased agitation and self-blame. Similarly, some women who have had pregnancy loss often try to avoid pain by avoiding anyone who has a baby. Inevitably, their pain will be amplified every time they see someone with a child, as they have not learned to manage this pain. Difficult and painful situations are opportunities to practice mindful compassion. Do this by noticing your thoughts with kindness, empathy and without judgement; let them pass on by.
Thirdly, ask yourself, “what would I say or do for a friend in this situation?” then do it for you!
Finally, remember that no two journeys of motherhood are alike, and yet there are commonalities in how we all adjust, grieve, love and cope. Suffering is part of the deal, but we don’t have to suffer alone.
Written by Kaitlyn Miller, Clinical Psychologist