Practicing Self-Compassion After Sexual Assualt

September 18th, 2019

Editor's note: The Out of the Depths series addresses common pastoral crises in a faithful, encouraging, and factual manner that provides support to parishioners in crisis beyond the initial pastoral conversation. These booklets can be given out to parishioners when they bring their recent diagnosis, crisis, or trauma to the pastor as a way to continue to provide care throughout the difficult season.

Scripture does not shy away from themes related to survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, particularly themes of power, shame, and the power of shame. The Bible calls out the abuse of power and promises the restoration of honor. In fact, correcting the abuse of power lies at the heart of the biblical narrative of justice. In the Bible, we learn that God is not unaware of the suffering inflicted upon God’s children when power is misused, whether individually or systemically, including in sexual exploitation. There are narratives in which rape leads to retaliatory war (Genesis 34; 2 Samuel 13), and in the law of the Old Testament, committing a rape is punishable by death (see Leviticus 22:25-27). I believe that the inclusion of these stories in the Bible demonstrates God’s concern for those who have been violated and afflicted by the devastating effects of such abuse, and who are, sadly, numerous.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point during their lives
  • More than 1/3 of women who report being raped before the age of 18 also report being raped again as an adult
  • In 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator
  • Rape is the most under-reported crime
  • Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities

These statistics clearly demonstrate the prevalence of sexual violence within our society. It is a crime of epic proportions. What the statistics fail to adequately show is the depth and breadth of the effects of such trauma. And certainly, they fail to adequately communicate the level of personal pain and suffering each number represents. They cannot tell the full story of the impact of every individual case of sexual trauma. Your particular story, whatever it entails, is a case in point. Words and numbers will never be adequate to describe your suffering. No one knows it fully, except you, and perhaps even you are struggling to understand all that it encompasses. There is One, though, who knows it all—every detail and every consequence. God sees your inmost broken places, and desires to heal them. Furthermore, and most importantly, God is completely capable of doing so. 

Practicing Self-Compassion

Compassion should be a familiar practice for followers of Jesus Christ, whose divine nature is that of love and forgiveness, and whose humanity and earthy ministry were characterized by compassion as much as anything. As Christians, we are taught to show mercy and compassion and to believe that by God’s grace, God is ever transforming our hearts to become more compassionate. Most of us, however, are much better at practicing compassion toward others than showing compassion for ourselves.

Several years ago, a psychologist by the name of Kristin Neff decided to define and study the concept of self-compassion. She has since linked self-compassion to psychological well-being and increased resilience from psychological distress. Self-compassion, simply put, is having compassion for oneself in the same way that one has compassion for another. Dr. Neff has found that there are three components of self-compassion: self-kindness rather than self-judgement, common humanity rather than isolation, and mindfulness rather than over-identification.

"Out of the Depths: Your Companion After Sexual Assault." Order here:

Self-kindness rather than self-judgement refers to the inner dialogue that takes place about the events of our lives that precipitate stress and suffering. When we are operating out of self-judgment, we engage in the kind of self-blame discussed earlier. At best, we berate ourselves for our behavior—our mistakes, our failures, our bad decisions and poor choices. At worst, we berate ourselves not only for our behavior and choices but for our very being. We say things to ourselves like, “I am stupid;” “I am unworthy;” or even “I am nothing.” You can see the relationship of self-judgement to shame. Such negative self-talk is akin to shaming ourselves. It goes hand in hand with the feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging.

By contrast, self-kindness involves a different kind of self-talk, one that is forgiving of mistakes, failures, and shortcomings. Instead of saying, “I am a mistake,” self-kindness might say, “I made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.” Instead of saying, “I am suffering because I deserve it. I am unworthy,” self-kindness might say, “I am suffering because the world is imperfect, and everyone suffers.” Self-compassionate people tend to be gentle with themselves in the face of trials and suffering. Self-compassionate people of faith see themselves as children of God, beloved and adored by God, and can treat themselves with the kindness God intends for them and for all of God’s children.

Common humanity rather than isolation is a closely related concept. When self-compassionate people experience distress, they tend to use their experience of pain to identify with others rather than to distance themselves from others. While people who have less self-compassion tend to see themselves as suffering in isolation, thinking things like, “I am the only one who has experienced this kind of pain,” self-compassionate people see suffering as part of the human condition. They have a sense that the experience of pain and uncertainty is common to all humanity.

Mindfulness rather than over-identification refers to the meta-awareness of emotional experience. Meta-awareness is awareness that “goes beyond.” It is being aware of being aware. In other words, meta-awareness seeks not only to recognize emotional experience but to go above or beyond it. People who cultivate mindfulness are developing meta-awareness of their emotional experience and neither ignore it nor are swept away by it. They can observe their thoughts and feelings without judgement or fear, and without “over-identifying” with them, cognizant that thoughts and emotions change over time. It is a balanced approach to emotional experience. By contrast, over-identification occurs when we are swept away by our thoughts and feelings. We become reactive and overly influenced by negative thoughts and feelings.

Cultivating self-compassion, then, involves treating ourselves with kindness, recognizing our common humanity, and practicing mindfulness. We treat ourselves with kindness and recognize our common humanity when we consciously change a negative inner dialogue. We stop ourselves when we realize that we are being self-critical and isolating, and we purposefully change our self-talk by introducing self-acceptance and forgiveness and recognizing the universality of our experience. We instead say the kinds of things to ourselves that we would say to a friend who is struggling with the same negative emotions. We practice mindfulness by cultivating self-awareness. We turn our attention to the present moment, paying attention our thoughts and feelings and noticing how they change over time. Practicing self-compassion takes time. It is not something that can be learned in a day. Continue to nurture it, however, and you will see it develop over time.

Excerpted from Out of the Depths: Your Companion After Sexual Assault by Emily Flemming and Greta Smith. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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