Two Helpful Tools for acknowledging suffering and engaging in self-compassion
Updated: Oct 31
Living in the world that we do, it is likely that none of us are immune to suffering, especially those of us who were never encouraged to be our true selves. The following are practices I teach my clients to help in managing painful emotional states and overwhelming rumination and self-criticism.
Note: These practices are rooted in Buddhist teachings, available to all of us, especially from the authors that are credited in my references.
Sadly, so many of us were not taught how to self-soothe in a healthy way. We also were not taught how to be kind and nurturing toward ourselves. Before I introduce Tara Brach’s RAIN practice, I first must share with you what self-compassion is and how to practice it.
Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, identifies the following three key components involved in self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness: Being gentle and understanding with ourselves, rather than critical and judgmental.
2. Recognition of our Common Humanity: Acknowledging that as humans, we are all imperfect. This allows us to feel connected to others, vs isolated with our suffering.
3. Mindfulness: Being present and aware of our experience as it is occurring in real time. Acknowledging our suffering, rather than ignoring it or exaggerating it.
I have found that it is easier to practice self-compassion if we regularly practice Tonglen, A Giving and Receiving meditation attributed to the Buddhist teacher Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana. Tong means “giving” in the Tibetan language, and lens means “taking.” As a trauma therapist, I make best efforts to avoid flooding my clients, so I teach a modified version of this meditation, which includes the following instructions:
Breathe in through your nose as you normally would, and breathe out through your mouth long and slow, making note of the sound that your breath makes.
You can even make your breath sound like the wind or ocean as you breathe out.
It is helpful when the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
Next, bring to mind someone known to you or unknown to you who is in need of loving kindness and well-being and healing, and send them well wishes. May they find peace, healing, and wellness.
Then, bring to mind your own suffering and send yourself well wishes of peace, healing, and wellness.
Note: it is not important how long you practice this meditation. What is important is that you experience the sending and receiving of compassion, however long that takes. I actually do not practice long meditations. Typically, my meditations last just a few minutes, sometimes 1-2 minutes.
The Second Practice I mentioned is one of recognizing and attending to one’s suffering. This practice is referred to as RAIN, gifted to us by Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher, clinical psychologist, and author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing your Life with the Heart of Buddha.
RAIN is symbolic for: Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating/Inquiring, and Nurturing.
Instructions: Please do not wait until you are triggered to practice this exercise. If you practice this regularly, this approach will be easier for you to access when you are in a state of distress. Remember that your rational brain essentially shuts down when your nervous system is over-activated in a state of fight/flight/freeze. Waiting to utilize practices like RAIN only when you are triggered will not be effective. Increase your ability to access helpful tools like RAIN, by practicing daily if possible.
First - Recognize:
Bring your mindful attention to what your experience is and notice the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and full experience.
It is ok to observe, just as you observe clouds and birds in the sky.
Just notice what you are observing with the most compassionate and kind eyes.
Acknowledge and Allow vs resisting and denying. Let what is be vs making it be what you desire it to be.
Allow this experience, whatever it is, to exist.
We don’t have to label it good, bad, black, white, positive, or negative.
We are allowing it to exist for us to look at it.
If you acknowledge that something is difficult or painful to look at, you can validate that this memory/image/urge/body sensation, etc is painful.
You can connect to the part of you that is experiencing the most pain and ask this part to give this pain to your wisest adult self (as opposed to your inner child-who needs to be nurtured, protected, and guided by your wise adult self).
The adult self might just want to journal/write this down and put this away for a therapy session.
Bring curiosity to this experience.
What is the intention?
What is the need?
What is the emotion?
What are the body sensations?
What is the memory?
What is the communication and connection within yourself and/or parts?
Nurture your ability to be curious.
Nurture your whole system, which is miraculous and incredibly resilient.
Nurture your ability to connect and communicate with yourself, within yourself.
Provide yourself with necessary self-care.
Perhaps the self-care is a walk with your dogs, embracing and celebrating your silliness and fun parts, singing, creating art, taking a shower, getting a massage or pedicure, gardening, etc.
Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York, Bantam Books.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.