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 difficult emotions also limits our 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.