As technology advances nationwide, and we view ourselves through the lens of social media and social comparison, many of us have become overly self-critical. Further, Black people have had a history of being particularly hard on ourselves as we’ve worked to survive in a racist society long before the rise of digital platforms. It may have started generations ago, when the whippings from slave masters continued in the form of whoopings from parents, who were scared that if their children did not obey orders they would receive far worse punishment–even death, at the hands of White people. This fear of what will happen if Black people don’t obey the orders of White people continues today as parents try to prepare their children to survive encounters with police. This anxiety and fear can manifest as harshness instead of as a communication of the deep love that family members have for their children. Many of us have internalized this harshness and turned it on ourselves. Further, Black people in America receive constant messages that we don’t deserve to be treated well or with compassion. The school-to-prison pipeline, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, the criminalization of addiction, and blaming Black women for the plight of Black families are just some examples of the lack of compassion shown towards Black people in America.
One consequence of surviving terror is learning to be tough all of the time. The hope is that if we are tough and avoid being vulnerable, we will be able to protect ourselves from emotional pain. As we learn to be tough we cut ourselves off from intimacy with other people. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much when a family member was killed if we didn’t express how attached we were to them. And, we cut ourselves off from intimacy with ourselves. Maybe we could better handle abuse and mistreatment if we just suppressed our emotions so we couldn’t feel them. The reality is that the pain of loss still hurts even if we had a strained relationship with someone (and sometimes it’s more difficult to process) and suppressing emotions may help us to avoid feelings temporarily but ultimately emotions come out in ways that can cause problems for us and our relationships. suppressing difficulty emotions also limits are ability to feel and express positive emotions. Not having safe spaces to learn to honor our pain and to be vulnerable has left us without life giving self-compassion.
Whenever I talk to clients about self-compassion the first objection I hear is that if people are kind and compassionate to themselves they will never improve, they will be stagnant. We have confused criticism, internalized stereotypes, and feeling like we are not good enough with healthy striving for growth and development. Being compassionate to yourself does not mean giving yourself a pass or letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. Self-compassion actually helps us to face and take responsibility for the things that we have done wrong. It is much easier to reflect on our problematic behavior and consider how we want to move forward when we have a foundation of self-compassion. Let’s use a metaphor of two teachers; one teacher is very harsh and critical of their students. Constantly calling students out for mistakes and telling them that they’re stupid and will probably never learn. The second teacher encourages students to take their work seriously and also provides comfort when students don’t do as well as they hoped. They acknowledge that what they are asking the students to do is difficult and help students to think about how they can improve their skills and increase their knowledge. Which teacher do you think will be more effective with students? Which teacher is creating a safe learning environment for their students? Which teacher would you prefer to have? I’m guessing you’d rather have the second teacher. It is hard to learn, grow, and love when we are in an overly critical environment; even if that environment is just in our heads.
You might be protesting against this case for Black self-compassion by thinking that Black people don’t have time for compassion. We need to be fighting police brutality, mass incarceration, and infringement on voting rights among other issues facing our communities. You might assert that these issues are more pressing than learning to be compassionate with ourselves and others. I agree that these are all pressing issues and I challenge you to consider what our communities will look like if they are not infused with love and compassion. Racist institutions in the US have systematically attempted to erode love and compassion in Black communities. Thankfully these efforts have not been completely successful but it is time to intentionally rebuild Black love and compassion in our communities. Black self-compassion is radical, it is personal and political. Black self-compassion challenges the stereotypes that we are just hard and tough, that we are not fully human. Black self-compassion pushes back against any racism we may have internalized. Black self-compassion helps to break cycles of violence and trauma. Black self-compassion allows us to honor Black humanity.
The following is my conceptualization of what Black self-compassion looks like. It combines established components of self-compassion (mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity) and two other components that specifically address traumas and other experiences that Black people commonly experience.
Components of Black Self-Compassion
Honor your body
Throughout the history of the Western world the Black body has been used, abused, and traumatized. This trauma continues in our homes through domestic violence, physical abuse, and sexual assault. We also receive numerous negative messages about Black bodies. Black female bodies are hypersexualized, Black male bodies are seen as reflections of brute strength, Black trans bodies are threatened and assaulted. There is much need for us to honor our Black bodies, which is why I have included it as an element of Black self-compassion. You can practice honoring your body in a number of ways. One way is in being thoughtful about the food that you eat and how it impacts your body. Engaging in a healthy exercise practice that is not punishing or aimed at changing your body but intended to help you to move and strengthen your body is another way to honor your body. Showing gratitude to your body is another way to practice honoring your body. So many of us, particularly women, are socialized to complain about our bodies and focus on things that we want to be different about the way we look. I encourage you to embrace your body as it is and show it love and acceptance. One way to practice this is through the following exercise that I learned in a meditation group for women and femmes of color:
Get in a comfortable position, you can either sit or lay down. Begin by taking a few deep breaths and really notice the breath flowing in and out of your body. Then starting at your head and moving downward begin scanning your body and noticing any physical sensations you are experiencing. Then take your hands and place them gently and lovingly on different body parts and take a moment to connect to a feeling of gratitude for that body part and how it serves you. Finish the exercise by taking a few more deep breaths and connect to the feeling of aliveness in your body.
Mindfulness involves being in the present moment; noticing what is happening without judgment or struggling against what you are experiencing. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention back to the present moment when it wanders to the past or some expected future. It is learning to be with yourself in times of pain and sorrow and fully embrace times of joy and excitement. To practice mindfulness as part of self-compassion, I encourage you to get curious the next time you experience an emotion that is uncomfortable (e.g. sadness, anger, disappointment, shame, maybe even joy). Focus your attention on the physical sensations you feel with the emotion and really notice all of the elements that make up what you’re feeling. Our impulse is often to tense up and struggle against emotions, getting caught up in analyzing or blaming thoughts about what we’re feeling. If those thoughts arise, see if you can let them go and return your attention to the feeling. You might not like it or want it but see if you can just allow the feeling to be there. See if you can relax your body and breathe into the space where you’re feeling the emotion to create room for it. Practicing mindfulness in the face of pain is akin to bearing witness to our pain. To showing up and being present with it without trying to fix it, diminish it, or push it away.
Learning to be kind to ourselves can be one of the hardest parts of engaging in self-compassion. Many of us have an inner critic as a constant companion who criticizes almost every move that we make. In order to connect to our capacity for self-kindness it is helpful to imagine how you would respond to a friend or loved one if they were in distress. Imagine that they come to you sharing their pain related to a recent experience. How would you respond to them? Would you give them a hug? Sit with them? Tell them that you see how hard this is? Say something comforting? Remind them that they aren’t alone? These would all be great ways to respond to a loved one in distress. Once you imagine what you might do or say in the above situation, I want you to say those things (silently or out loud) to yourself when you’re going through a hard time. I also encourage you to engage in a physical form of self-comfort by gently placing your hand on your chest or giving yourself a hug when you’re feeling upset. This may feel awkward at first but stick with it and see if you find it helpful in healing from difficult experiences. In addition to comforting yourself, self-kindness also involves offering yourself some grace and understanding when you make a mistake.
Common humanity is the third component of traditional conceptualizations of self-compassion. Common humanity involves remembering all of the other people who are experiencing similar pain and difficulty. Often when we are having a hard time and experiencing difficult emotions, we feel that we are alone in our pain. It feels like this hardship is reflective of something being wrong with us; we feel shame and have the sense that if we had been different or better we wouldn’t be suffering in this way. Common humanity helps us to let go of these unhelpful thoughts and self-judgments. Common humanity reminds us that our pain is a normal part of being human. Experiencing difficult emotions is a reflection of the fact that we are human and care about things. The next time you are having an upsetting experience I encourage you to remember that this pain is actually something that connects you to other people, something that is part of our shared humanity.
Contextualize & Transform Your Pain
The final component in my conceptualization of Black self-compassion is contextualizing and transforming your pain. This is connected to common humanity and moves beyond simply connecting to the fact that all people experience pain to remembering the societal and systemic causes of the pain that Black people experience. Understanding our emotions and reactions in the context of racial microaggressions, racial trauma, and other types of trauma can help us to be more understanding with ourselves. After you have taken the time to fully feel your emotions you can begin to transform your pain. Black people have an incredible ability to create beauty out of pain; to create music that is a balm to our souls, and visual and performing art that connects to the depth of our experiences. We have a legacy of expressing our joys and sorrows as a way to release ourselves from carrying the burden of pain. Seeking out and expressing yourself through music, writing, and art in times when you are feeling pain can be a helpful way to contextualize and transform this pain.