Self Compassion: The Antidote to Shame
Chief Inspector Gamache is the main character in Louise Penny’s Three Pines
book series. He is an honest man with integrity and a desire to help others. In
A Brutal Telling, he makes a serious mistake in judgment and causes a dangerous drug raid to take a wrong turn. Several of his police officers are killed and he is seriously wounded. Gamache believes it is his job to protect those who work under his leadership. It is a serious and personal duty.
As the novel closes we see Gamache locked in a cycle of depression, self blame and judgment. In the following novel, A Long Way Home, we are taken along on Gamache’s journey of physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
In the days following the tragic raid, he is unconscious and we are uncertain whether he will live because of his physical wounds. We do not know if he will be disabled physically or mentally. We receive hints of the emotional pain he will suffer, but it is not until he recovers consciousness that we are told of the depth of his self incrimination.
He is bombarded with messages of shame, blame and self doubt. His harsh inner critic tells him that he is responsible for the failure of the raid and for all the deaths and all the pain suffered after the attack. His critic fails to take note of the fact that the men involved in the crime ultimately were responsibleand that he prevented even greater loss of life by bravely leading the mission to stop the crime.
What we experience as the story unfolds is Gamache’s fight to regain his sense of self, to let go of self punishment and his battle with shame. In the process of healing and recovery he had to learn self compassion. Gamache is a man with great compassion for others, but when in his own personal crisis, he has only criticism and judgment for himself. He must learn to have self compassion in order to heal.
Compassion means to suffer with someone or something. Self compassion is to feel moved by your own suffering so that your heart responds to your own pain. It means that you offer kindness, and understanding if possible, when you fail or make a mistake. Compassion means that you realize that suffering, failure and imperfection are all part of the human experience. Acknowledging this means when you fail, make mistakes, and hurt others, you are acting like a human being.
Self compassion is the same as compassion for others. It means you are kind and understanding when confronted with your own shortcomings and failures. It is the realization that to be human is to fall short. It is to care for yourself. Self compassion means that when you are having a difficult time, make a mistake, fall short of your own expectations, or notice something you do not like about yourself, you treat yourself like you would a trusted friend. You comfort and care for yourself.
Three Requirements for self compassion
Kristin Neff, PhD, believes that self compassion requires three things: recognition of our common humanity, self kindness, and mindfulness. Inspector Gamache held himself to an unreasonable standard of excellence. For most of his career, he was able to perform to his standard. When the drug raid went so wrong and the price was so high, he could not live with his own pain. He became isolated and alienated from himself. He lost sight of the fact that he was only one of many people involved in the failure of the mission. He had to regain his since of being one of a group of humans attempting and failing to save lives.
Once he gained his oneness with humanity, he was able to consider the fact that he too had suffered. Slowly, he began to see that he needed to heal and to be treated with kindness. He was able to learn to be gentle with himself and to understand his suffering and quit being harsh, critical and judgmental of himself.
Stop and Breathe
Gamache spent time learning to stop and breathe. When he would find himself angry and critical of himself, he would stop and focus on his breathing. He became mindful of his experience, his pain. He quit suffering to prove he was regretful of his mistake and became balanced in his evaluation of himself. In his own words, “...isn’t that what’s often taught in meditation? Not the absence of emotion, or swallowing them, but not allowing them to run the show?”
Gamache come to terms with the effects of his mistake. He had to stop judging himself. He had to quit telling himself that he was responsible for all that went wrong. You can do the same. Self compassion leads to greater self-esteem that is based on reality and balance. We are not perfect, nor do we need to be. Things will not always go the way they need to go, mistakes will be made, losses will happen, and we will hurt ourselves and others. That is what it means to be human. The more you open your heart to this reality, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and others.