Self-compassion and back pain

Back pain is a big deal. An estimated 80% of the population will suffer from back pain at some point1, and in Australia, 1 in 6 people have chronic back pain.2
Self-compassion can help.

Six months ago, I couldn’t walk.

I was stuck in bed with acute lower back pain. Even standing in the kitchen to make tea was too painful. I’d somehow triggered an old condition of sciatica that gradually got worse and worse.

This condition had previously flared up from time to time, but nothing so dramatic for years. This time however, my approach was more accepting, less resistant. I “surrendered” into the experience.

“Well, if that’s what my body is saying right now, I better listen!”

It didn’t decrease the pain, but it sure felt softer, kinder and eased my tendency to tense up and brace against the discomfort.

As well as following medical advice, I tackled the emotional and mental side of back pain with self-compassion. Every day I practised Affectionate Breathing, Loving Kindness or Giving and Receiving Compassion, specifically for my back.

I religiously asked myself, “What do I need?” and asked friends, family and colleagues for more help. I felt so grateful to them, and this felt new and unusual to my proud, independent self. I gave that self some kindness and forgiveness.

Although I’m speaking about back pain here, as this was my personal experience, the evidence suggests that self-compassion can help with all kinds of chronic and acute pain.³

Mindfulness helped me discern between when I needed rest and when I was just avoiding exercise. I did gentle physio exercises every day. The inflammation died down with medication, and soon I returned to walking and swimming. I was listening to my body’s needs with more sensitivity than ever. Dancing slowly around my living room one night felt so good, answering a heartfelt wish and feeling the joy of moving again.

After a lovely, long Loving Kindness practice one day, I felt like exploring any unmet needs around my back pain. Something that “pinged” for me emotionally was sometimes feeling unsupported in life. So I called a counsellor and started exploring any life events that felt related. This was helpful; a great complement to practising self-compassion.

Five Tips for Working With Pain

  1. Give yourself a break! 
  • Acknowledging we are suffering and bringing loving awareness to the pain can help decrease our resistance to the pain.
  • Asking, “What do I need?” Maybe it’s rest, maybe movement.
  • Lowering your expectations of what you can do.
  • Adding rest and self-care breaks into the day.
  • Dropping work or activities that feel too exhausting. Say no, if you can!

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The courageous, active aspects of self-compassion

firefighter low res

Compassion is not just cosy, gentle and receptive; it can be fierce and protective. In this sense, it has both masculine and feminine aspects. Like yin and yang, we need both in order to maintain balance.

Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says that the yin is its comforting, soothing form, where we validate our pain and acknowledge our difficulties. The yang is the more motivating form of self-compassion, where we protect ourselves or provide for others—generating feelings of fierceness and strength.

“Courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Compassion without courage is not genuine. You may have a compassionate thought or impulse, but if you don’t do or say anything, it’s not real compassion.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

Think of the fire-fighters who dive into burning buildings out of compassion for others. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to sit back and watch and think, “Poor them!”

Think of a mother lion with her cubs. One moment she’s tending to them, nursing them and showing them care. Yet if the lives of those cubs are threatened, she’ll stand up and fight. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to feel pity for the hungry attacker.

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The three components of self-compassion

1_OxPMWDQ1SXUdGG-EXgDBBQ.pngWhen things go wrong, how do we treat ourselves? What comes to your mind?

—Perhaps some self-criticism, being hard on ourselves?

—Feeling isolated or avoiding others for fear of shame?

—Ignoring our own painful feelings and distracting ourselves with entertainment, food, drink?

If, in recalling and reading this, we find we’re feeling a bit down about ourselves, we could place a hand on our heart or give our arm a reassuring rub. We could tell ourselves it’s okay, we’re all hard on ourselves at times. And we could perhaps encourage ourselves with some self-talk like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” Taking a moment to really feel that warmth and reassurance.

Here, we just practised all three components of self-compassion.

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Being a friend to myself: a self-reflection exercise

Healing Hands.jpg

This reflection exercise can help us understand if there’s a difference in the compassion we show to others and the compassion we show to ourselves.

During this reflection exercise, we’ll be reflecting on how we treat our friends and how we treat ourselves. We can do this either with pen and paper, or without.

You’ll need to put aside about 10 minutes to do this.

“Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.” ~ Wilfred Peterson.

Taking a few moments to sit and settle into the present moment. Making ourselves comfortable. Allowing ourselves a few easy, deep breaths… with a sense of ‘letting go’ on the out-breath. Then allowing the breath to settle into a natural rhythm. Closing the eyes and scanning through the body from head to toe, noticing any areas where we’re subtly holding onto tension… and bringing some kindness to those areas. Perhaps even offering ourselves a silent inner ‘Awww…’, allowing our heart to melt a bit with each ‘Awww.’ If we like, using the out-breath as an opportunity to let go of tension a little bit more each time.

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Self-compassion break

Hand on Heart

Self-compassion break

This short practice trains us to bring mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness to our suffering.

If we’re currently experiencing emotional discomfort or suffering, we can work with this.

Otherwise, we’re invited to think of a situation in our lives that is difficult, that is causing us stress. Calling the situation to mind, and seeing if we can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in our body.

Now, saying to ourselves:

1. “This is a moment of suffering…”

This is mindfulness, acknowledging what is happening.

Other options include:

“This hurts.”
“Ouch!”
“I’m feeling stressed.”

2. “Suffering is a part of life…”

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