At the crossroads of marriage and divorce, we face some of our greatest fears: making a mistake or the “wrong” choice, being alone or unable to take care of ourselves or the people we love.
It’s here, at this liminal threshold—when we’re neither in nor out—that we must meet our fear with self-compassion.
Compassion is an embodied state that prepares us to take positive action.” ~Kelly McGonigal PhD
Research shows that self-compassion reduces anxiety and depression and enhances our health, wellbeing, and sense of purpose. In a study conducted at the University of Arizona researchers found that divorcing people who practiced high levels of self-compassion showed “significantly less divorce-related distress and reported higher positive emotions.”
The Fierce Side of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion isn’t pity or simply a feel-good practice. Self-Compassion is a powerful soothing and motivating tool that, like a good divorce coach, helps us to do hard things.
Kristin Neff PhD explains in her book, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive,
…sometimes compassionate care takes the form of solace and a soft leaning into difficult emotions (comforting); sometimes it involves a stern “No!” and turning away from danger (protecting). Sometimes it involves letting our bodies know everything is OK with warmth and tenderness (soothing), and sometimes it means figuring out what we need and giving it to ourselves (providing).”
Face Fear in Divorce with Tenderness and Ferocity
When fear arises, whether it stems from a need for spousal support, lack of real-time control, or a deeply buried childhood wound, the first step toward self-compassion is to be gentle: to treat ourselves the way a loving Mother cares for a scared child. To retreat, rest, and restore.
The second step is to protect and provide for ourselves—to love ourselves fiercely like a Mama Bear provides for her cubs. With fierce self-compassion we acknowledge risks of harm, identify what we can and can’t change, and then take courageous action with integrity.
The invitation is to combine the fierce energy of brave, empowered clarity with the tender energy of loving, connected presence. Give yourself full permission to feel the force of your anger and resolve, but also let this force be caring. Remember, we’re aiming the fierce compassion at the harm or injustice itself, not at the person causing the harm.” ~The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
3 Self-Compassion Practices
Box breathing is a technique that soothes our central nervous systems and calms our bodies. It improves our ability to focus and practice fierce self-compassion in stressful situations. Box breathing includes four steps: Step 1: Breathe in for a count of four. Feel the air enter your lungs. Step 2: Hold your breath for a count of four (if you can.) Step 3: Exhale for a count of four. Step 4: Hold your breath for a count of four (if you can.) Repeat steps 1 to 4 until you feel less afraid. I find the most soothing box breathing meditation practice happens when I use my Muse headband.
Mindful loving awareness meditation is a practice in which we seek to label and understand fear itself, and hold it and ourselves with loving self-compassion. What does it feel like in our bodies? Do our hearts race, stomachs churn? What stories do we tell ourselves when we’re anxious or afraid? Research suggests that when we can articulate what we feel, we can help minimize the physiological responses in our bodies. Once we learn to recognize and interrupt feelings of fear, we can avoid or recover from tailspins and rabbit holes. We can choose to retreat or respond fiercely in the face of harm.
“If we open our eyes and our heart to the fearful mind and gently name it, ‘fear, fear, fear,’ experiencing its energy as it moves through us, the whole sense of fear will shift and eventually become recognition: ‘Oh, fear, here you are again. I know you. How interesting that you’ve come.'”~Jack Kornfield
Fierce self-compassion exercises are techniques to use when we need to protect ourselves, draw boundaries, or stand and speak-up. We learn to feel the energy of our anger, and when we’re threatened or in danger, we aim it at the harm or injustice, not at whomever causes the harm. This can be difficult when a spouse is the source of our fear or rage, which means, it’s especially valuable to learn to draw on fierceness to take constructive steps in divorce and hold space in our hearts for ourselves.