How mindfulness got in the way of my self-compassion

I have always thought of mindfulness as awareness of one’s emotional, physical, mental, spiritual experience in any given moment.

Some people access this through meditation, through breathing, through journaling, processing out loud, or any number of practices that give one access to what is going on in their environment and in their inner world.

I define self-compassion as accepting ourselves for who we are, for our strengths and limitations, and knowing that we are good enough.

These two concepts should fit together nicely! Mindfulness invites us to focus on what is and let go of desire or fear about the past or the future. Shouldn’t that lead to a sense of enough-ness?

Sure. But it hasn’t for me!

Don’t get me wrong - mindfulness is a huge part of my self-care practice and I thoroughly believe in its power to help us be kinder to ourselves. But I want to be honest about where I get stuck in my mindfulness and why I’ve had a hard time using it to access self-compassion.

Like most people, I like to feel in control of what’s happening in my life.

And that urge to control easily takes over my brain without my noticing, even when I am actively trying to practice letting go.

In other words, my brain takes my noble efforts at mindfulness and somehow finds a way to turn it into a practice of control. Take my recent interstate move as an example. This is what my cycle of mindfulness and self-criticism looked like:

(Last year, looking ahead to the move) I know moves are really disorienting. This will probably be hard and take a long time to adjust. But because I’m aware that it will be hard, maybe it won’t be so hard.

(During the move) This is hard. But I’m aware that it’s hard and giving myself space to let it be what it is.

(Two weeks after the move) I thought I was adjusted already, but I still feel disoriented. I knew this would be hard, but I hope the transition moves forward quickly so I don’t need to be so uncomfortable.

(Two months after the move…and five months…and ten months) Why can’t I seem to settle in here? I was so emotionally prepared for the challenge of moving. Since I knew what to expect, why am I still struggling??

Did you notice what I did there? I used my own mindfulness, my own awareness of myself and how I feel, to make me feel like I could control what came next.

If I know that it’s going to be hard, maybe it won’t be so hard.

I do this all the time. I pride myself on putting myself out there even when it’s scary. I take the leap and think “This will be scary, but because I know it’s scary, I’ll be fine.” And then…surprise! It’s actually scary and uncomfortable. Or disappointing. Or unpredictable. In other words, it turns out I can’t control the outcome just by being aware of it.

True mindfulness means letting go of attachment to outcome.

I don’t want my mindfulness to be a tool that my perfectionist brain can usurp to make me feel bad. I want it to help me to be present with what is and to release the expectation that I can somehow make things different.

What about you - are you accidentally using mindfulness against yourself? Or some other self-care practice that you really warp into a self-judgment?

Our brains are powerful and will often return to our old thought patterns without us noticing. Usually, it takes either a major life shift or a lot of intentional work to shift those patterns.

I recently had terrible insomnia for 2 months. Waking up every hour or so at night, by morning I felt as if I had barely slept at all. My functionality decreased steadily and at some point, I had no choice but to accept my limitations and let go of all expectations for what I thought I could accomplish during that time. On the other side of that experience, I recognize that I was forced into radical acceptance that I hadn’t allowed for before.

And this highlighted for me the difference between the faux self-acceptance I was practicing before and the kind of self-acceptance I hope to continue to access, even now that I’m (thankfully) sleeping again.

This is where the intentional work comes in for me, so that I can hold onto this new feeling.

Here’s what I’m going to try:

  • Put a sticky note on my mirror that says “Being aware does not mean you have control.”

  • Process with friends and family how I’ve been using my own awareness of my fears and pain to try to control them and that I’m trying to let go of that control.

  • Continue to use journaling and meditation as tools for mindfulness and try to stop myself when I go down the path of “fixing”.

If you find yourself using mindfulness as a backdoor to control, I invite you to join me. You have the power to shift your old ways of thinking into new ways that serve you.

Sometimes it feels unnatural to stop at the place of awareness instead of working to change things. But that’s the only way to make room for self-compassion during moments of struggle. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Just notice the urge to control, take a few breaths, and move on.