When the Obstacles Come: Using Self-Compassion to Decide Whether to Manage the Inside or the Outside

Self-Compassion, an Inside Job or an Outside Job?

Self-Compassion, people ask me, is this an inside job or an outside job?  The question is about whether we bring kindness to ourselves by controlling the experience outside of us or inside of us.  The answer is neither and both.    

In terms of it being neither, experience is not meant to be controlled.  The more you try to control your feelings or the outside world the more you will fail to do so, and if not immediately, over time you will fail enough to feel helpless.  Instead, we accept experience as it arises, and if it is painful, we take extra care to bring kindness to our experience once this feeling has passed. 

In terms of it being both, to truly practice compassion towards yourself, you inevitably want your actions to match your core values.  If someone is harming you, you can certainly confront them or get out of there.  If you are feeling overwhelmed, and are participating in an elective activity that is causing you harm (ie: watching a scary movie), you can definitely turn it off.  

So, how do we decide?  We decide by choosing the action that leads to the greatest amount of compassion now, and which will lead to the greatest capacity to fulfill your core values.  If you are afraid of heights, and you can tolerate a brief hike, then the self-compassionate response would be to hike.  It will increase your tolerance of heights, and your ability to manage fear when it arises.  If you are feeling completely overwhelmed and someone offers the same hike, the self-compassionate response would be to say no.  Under these conditions, we would only be harming ourselves.  We would likely feel even greater fear and even poorer self-agency.


Our lives can be very complicated, especially in terms of relationships, and deciding what to manage (the inside or the outside), may be less clear.  This opaqueness tends to only be a symptom of beginning our self-compassion practice.  The longer we practice the clearer our core values become.  The clearer our core values are the easier it is to decide which action to take.  If you have worked on your self-compassion practice for several months or years and one of your core values is being empowered and safe in relationships, you will not tolerate any relational oppression.  You will also be wiser in how this oppression manifests, which will give you the best opportunities to respond to it in a helpful way before it becomes a matter of safety or survival.

Social and Professional Activities

Relationships are not the only challenging factors in deciding when and how to activate our self-compassion.  Social and professional activities provide their own problems.  In many situations, we are asked to engage in activities that lead to suffering that come with the promises of professional advancement or continued friendship.  Here, again, we must ask ourselves to what end will we suffer (is it manageable), and does it compromise our core values. 

Live in the world a little while, and you will discover that you cannot be so idealistic that there is no room for connection with a system and others that have not been fortunate enough to have your wisdom or opportunities.  Here are three tenets to help you make these decisions.

First, your safety cannot be compromised.  No experience can justify being unsafe.  That is the road to feeling helpless and welcoming more unsafe experiences. 

Second, there must be a promise of moving towards your core values.  Your goal in life is to live with the greatest sincerity so that you have supports and activities that are a genuine reflection of your views and actions.  Only living this way will ensure that we are accepted and self-accepting, which is a prerequisite for supports that we can trust.

Third, we can do things for others that are meaningful to them, but not at the cost of our own well-being.  I know that this flies in the face of every movie you have ever seen, where the hero destroys his/her whole life for the good of a few characters or to save the world.  The world needs people capable of compassion, who are able to be compassionate consistently.  You cannot give what you do not have, and to have compassion to give, you must first give it to yourself. Never, ever, ever give up your self-compassion to do something for someone else.  There is no time when that is necessary.  You can sacrifice for someone else if that is in keeping with your values and does not mean that you are unwilling to be kind to yourself, but you cannot be unkind to yourself to fulfill someone else’s needs. 

Whenever in Doubt

As we refine our core values, we will be exposed to situations that will be confusing.  Whenever in doubt, ask yourself these 3 questions.  Is my immediate safety in danger?  Will I lose everything by staying?  What seems like the kindest thing I could do for myself?  If you are in doubt, it is likely you are feeling overwhelmed.  Get out of there, if your safety is at risk.  Get out of there, if you have nothing to lose by leaving.  Get out of there, if it is the kindest thing you can do for yourself. 

If you answer no to all of these questions, it is best to stay and notice the thought, feeling, or bodily sensation as it arises. Name it.  Make space for it.  Allow it to pass.  Then bring kindness to it.  After which, you will have a better idea what to do (if anything), and your ability to manage difficult experiences will be more robust.

In the End

In the end, these are important questions to ask because providing self-compassion for yourself does not always look the same despite having the same intentions: love and greater ease.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and grow in your ability to determine how best to respond to your experience.  We learn from our mistakes, as well as our successes.  If you keep in mind that your only responsibilities are to try and learn, you will never forget that you are doing enough. 

Some things are hidden from us because they would be too overwhelming to incorporate into our life at the time or we are in need of certain experiences that we would have otherwise avoided had we certain wisdom available.  Trust your experience.  Trust your decisions.  People who no longer learn and grow become stagnant, and often lose their excitement for life.  If you give yourself permission to always be learning and growing, life’s vitality will never be far from your experience.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 80.  In the Books.