Making Our Way Out of the Labyrinth: Choosing Self-Compassion Over Self-Obsession

We may all wrestle with ego, but knowing how to differentiate between self-compassion and self-obsession can help us effectively heal from our traumas, versus staying stuck wandering around a hall of mirrors.  The truth is that we absolutely have to be able to give ourselves the same loving kindness we extend to others, without being labeled (or labeling ourselves) as selfish, or narcissistic.  But for some, the veil between self-obsession and self-love wears thin as we get lost in our stories of victimization, and unmet needs.

Some of the reasons that prevent our ability to self-love appear rather obvious, because trauma, afterall, tells us that our needs do not matter. For example, my clients involved in court cases, who have experienced sexual trauma, are at risk of believing that what happened was their fault (instead of the care they need) due to the lies thrown around courtrooms.  Stripped down by false allegations, and pointed fingers, they can oftentimes incur additional trauma through the unethical dissection of their character.  In these instances (and there are still far too many) it makes sense why these victims lose faith in themselves, the system, and lose sight of the truth.  They can soon buy into the lie that their needs do not matter, and can end up pointing their own fingers at the mirror.

As a result of this process, I have seen many clients derail their post-trauma work as  they are pulled in two different directions at the same time.  On one hand they want to heal, but on the other hand, they don’t believe that they deserve to.  Add to that the faulty beliefs that putting ourselves first is the telltale sign of narcissism, or that it’s not okay to ask for help, many people can develop additional symptoms.  As a result of our silence, and fear of judgement, we can fail to ask for what we need from the people who can actually help,  increase our own suffering, and eventually burnout our supports as we become even more overwhelmed.

We cannot move forward through the practice of  self-neglect, secrecy, or survival on the back burner. But if we find a way to ask for help when we need it, and find kindness for ourselves, we can actually move through our pain in a way that restores balance.  It is a process that can also allow us to deepen compassion for those around us.  Finding people who will listen (but not enable helplessness), and who can remind us of our inherent goodness can help point us in the right direction.  At times the road can be hard to find, but finding compassion for ourselves, and for others, is the way out of the labyrinth.

Living in a culture that smells out narcissism everywhere, it can be increasingly difficult to practice self-love.  We can feel selfish, or bad if we put ourselves first.  But remember that the narcissists among us practice compassion only for themselves.  Whereas the art of true compassion is not one-sided as it extends both inward and outward, and is therefore much more powerful.  Developing true compassion allows the door to swing both ways, whereas narcissism slams the door shut as soon as the narcissist walks through.  This line may seem clear, but without awareness, we can lose sight of it along with our recovery.

Through our inability to take care of ourselves, we can actually get further away from our goal of healing, and of also being there for others.  We can slip into believing we are helpless, need others to take care of us, and can feel perpetually victimized as we justify our behaviors.  It may seem paradoxical, but in our best efforts to protect those around us from our pain,  we can risk becoming obsessed with our own stories down the road.  The process of self-invalidation consumes everything, and will ultimately leave little room for anything (or anyone) else.  

Building a habit of self-compassion can actually hasten the light we seek, and also illuminate the path.  It is the corrective experience we need, having been victimized both in, and out of court rooms.  The self-absorbed among us never truly heal as they are lost in the maze,  blaming others constantly for their victimization, and by their lack of accountability for their own healing.  They can become lost in victim thinking. As a result, the self-absorbed lack the ability to evolve, integrate new information, and oftentimes tax their relationships through their dependency on others.

Know how to love yourself, be kind through your process of healing, and also know the signs of self-obsession so that you can step out of the maze.  Otherwise, in your best efforts to put others first, you could unwittingly end up needing others to take care of you.  We are all at risk of blurring the line through our experiences, and it helps to stay vigilant.  Find people who are there for you, and who also believe in you. See yourself as the capable survivor that you are. Here are a few questions to stay mindful of as you differentiate between the dead ends, and well lit corridors:

Do you believe that you burden others by asking for help?

Although many of my clients attempt to protect others by not asking for what they need, they may inadvertently cause others more difficulties in the long run.  For example, my client who didn’t want to burden her mother with how she was sexually abused by her step-father as a child, ended up struggling with both depression, and anxiety into adulthood.  Her inability to get the help she needed to alleviate her symptoms early on created difficulties not only in her life, but in the lives of those around her.   Her mother had to take care of her financially because she couldn’t keep a job due to her symptoms, worried about her endlessly, and struggled to make sense of her daughter’s symptoms.  Oftentimes, becoming the martyr actually just ensures others will have to take care of you in the end.  Ask for what you need, and love yourself.  This will allow you to be there for others in a more authentic way, and will also limit your risk of dependency in the long run.

Do you believe that success is defined by working to the point of exhaustion? 

Many people buy into the myth that working ourselves twenty four hours a day is the only way our lives can have value or meaning.  We feel like we are being selfish or lazy if we don’t keep going, and prove to others that we can be successful.  But the reality is we will have nothing left for those around us if we don’t ever stop and refill our cup.  In our best efforts to be liked, successful, and feel productive, we can end up never having any energy for those around us. Find time to relax, rejuvenate, and spend quality time with loved ones.

Do you believe that you will be rejected if you don’t take care of others?

Many caretakers feel as if their self-worth and connections to others are solely marked by their ability to meet the needs of everyone around them.  By staying only outwardly focused, they miss the opportunity to take the pulse on what’s going on inside.  Many caretakers become burned out, resentful, and develop low self-esteem due to their inability to please everyone all the time.  Take time to develop multiple identities.  Explore your hobbies, interests, and recognize your ability to define yourself in a variety of ways, versus a narrow focus on just one role you happen to play.  And besides you will have far more to give to the ones around you if you take good care of you.

Many folks believe cultivating self-compassion is a hard skill to master, but I think that oftentimes it just requires focus, intention, and a willingness to take action.  Whereas, slipping into infatuation of the self requires the belief that we are helpless in our suffering, and therefore requires much less work, and personal responsibility. Regardless of the level of difficulty you believe it requires, learning how to develop a deep sense of compassion for ourselves, and our experiences, is imperative if we are to heal from trauma.  In fact, it is actually essential to the cure.

Clear Reflections

How do you define self-compassion?

How do you practice self-compassion? What are the ways you practice being self-absorbed?

How can you continue to take responsibility for your own healing?

What can you do to pratice self-compassion daily?  Compassion with others?

Love Yourself.  Heal.

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