Self-Compassion in a CrisisApril 17, 2020
My kids and I were in the basement when I heard my four-year-old, Juliet, begin screaming and crying uncontrollably from across the room.
Her older sister had turned off the light above her and walked away, leaving Juliet in a dimly lit corner. Like many 4-year-olds, Juliet can be a little over-dramatic, so I didn’t immediately react, but I walked over to find out what was going on. I found her crouching against a cement wall, behind a table, covering her face and crying, “I’m scared! I’m scared!”
Slightly annoyed, I told her to come out from behind the table, but she continued screaming, “I can’t… I’m afraid of the dark! I’m trapped!” (She was not actually trapped; all she had to do was stand up and walk out of the dimly-lit corner).
For a moment, time stood still and I zoomed out to a birds-eye perspective. I could see how God sees His kids when we walk through crisis. Compassion for my scared, little girl washed over me. I could see her.
Juliet was not over-reacting for attention. She was trapped, not in the basement, but in her mind. She was being triggered.
I didn’t want to minimize her terror. Conversely, I didn’t want to empower her helplessness.
“Holy Spirit, how do I respond?” I prayed silently.
“Juliet, you are brave and strong,” I affirmed. “Take my hand. You don’t have to be afraid…”
“No, I’m scared of the dark! I’m trapped!” she continued screaming.
“Juliet, it’s not that dark,” I reasoned, “open your eyes.”
Realizing my logic had little effect on her fear-gripped heart, I crawled under the table to her, and put my hand on her heart. Before I could think twice, the words came out of my mouth:
“You are not afraid of the dark. The light is INSIDE you!”
Just then, my oldest daughter turned the light back on above us. Juliet immediately stopped crying, looked up, crawled out from under the table and hugged me tightly.
“Are you afraid?” I asked, a little confused.
“No,” she said.
“Because, you said ‘the light is inside me,’” she replied.
“Can you show me? Do it again.” I asked, always testing. We turned the light off again. Juliet crawled back under the table, smiled, then back out again without batting an eye.
“Juliet,” I asked in awe, “do you know what you just did? You just conquered a fear!” She grinned and proudly, gave me a high five, then ran off to go play.
Like my four-year-old, you may feel trapped in your own darkness, screaming for help internally but no one can hear you.
Perhaps you are facing a battle no one can see, trying to hold it all together.
On the outside you try to be strong, but inside the ever-present darkness whispers, “I’m alone, No one cares,” as hopelessness engulfs you like a heavy wave.
I know these lies all too well. In my darkest moments, they have tormented my mind and kept me awake at night. At times, I struggled to breathe while doing mundane tasks like cooking dinner or grocery shopping. “This must be what a panic-attack feels like,” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. “You are strong. You can do this. One step at a time” I told myself, while those around me remained blissfully unaware.
When we are triggered, it can be difficult to identify what we are feeling and where our feelings are coming from, i.e.: Am I crying because my dishwasher just broke or because deep down I feel helpless and afraid? Is my need for control triggered from a childhood trauma when I felt unsafe and alone? Either way, our fear is real. The brain doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or a perceived threat.
Fear is as familiar as the humanity that binds us together.
These times are triggering for many people. Mental health workers and medical staff are stretched beyond capacity. Overdoses, suicides, domestic abuse and homelessness are increasing so rapidly, support systems can’t keep up (I’m talking suicide hotlines with a 50 minute hold time).
The world is walking through a collective trauma. Everything that can be shaken will be shaken. On top of that, millions of people are facing unimaginable financial, spiritual and relational hardships. Now, more than ever, we must remember: be kind, for people are facing battles we do not know.
FROM JUDGMENT TO COMPASSION
Witnessing my daughter panicking in the basement that day, moved my heart from judgement to compassion. It can be easy to extend compassion to a child, but how readily do we treat ourselves with the same self-compassion when walking through a crisis? Is our inner child really any different than my scared 4-year-old in the basement? Is our pain any less valid than hers?
Despite my initial annoyance that my daughter was ‘over-reacting,’ she didn’t need a judge. She didn’t need someone to tell her what to do or criticize her for doing it wrong. Trauma doesn’t respond well to rationalization because fear, by nature, is not logical. When we respond to people with judgment we create distance and dehumanize their pain. How often, then, do I judge myself for my own fear? Every time I do, I am disconnecting from myself.
Furthermore, my daughter didn’t need a rescuer. Despite my motherly instinct to rescue her from her pain, she didn’t need me to “fix it.” Turning on the light may have temporarily solved her problem, but in the long run, it would have disempowered her. Fear doesn’t go away just because you change the environment triggering you. Trauma will always reemerge later if left unresolved. It hijacks your brain. In essence, trauma is your personal worst-case-scenario mix-tape put on repeat.
If you are feeling trapped, alone or helpless lately, your inner child may be the voice inside crying out for help. It’s a scary place to be in, but consider this: Triggers don’t mean you are broken. They are an invitation to breakthrough. I love my triggers! Like my daughter, it means I am about to conquer my fear!
Our triggers are the sacred ground where we embrace the invitation fear offers us, without judgment and without numbing the pain. But first, we must start from the seat of self-compassion. Only then can we face our pain and humanize it. The only way out of pain is to walk through it.
THE INNER CHILD
“That sounds nice, Karen,” you might say, “but how do I actually change the tape?” I am far from an expert, but I like to believe the universe is simple. Is it possible, that healing our triggers may not look much different than my four-year-old conquering her fear of the dark? What would happen if, the next time fear surfaces, you take a deep breath, step back and observe your inner child from a birds-eye-view?
Can you see him or her? I mean, really see and accept him or her in their darkest pain? You inner child is valuable and worthy to be loved. What does he or she need right now? When you access compassion and truly connect, maybe for the first time, you will intuitively know what he or she needs. Love tells you to crawl through the darkness, reach out, lay a hand on his or her heart and speak to their true identity.
She may have been abandoned, but YOU will not abandon her there. He may feel scared and helpless, but YOU will be present for Him right now.
If you can’t find that little boy or girl trapped in the darkness, listen to the voices around you who will remind you of your light. I have been blessed by those friends in my dark season when I couldn’t find myself. Sometimes I had to seek them out; sometimes they found me, but those friends are worth their weight in gold. You will always find your true friends in your darkest season.
Perhaps you are called to be that friend to someone who can’t find his or her light. I promise you, someone in your world needs to hear this: You are not alone. The light inside you far surpasses the darkness that surrounds you.
This is a pivotal moment in history. Humanity is being invited to participate, on a global scale, in elevating the frequency of fear and trauma on the Earth, and it begins with self-compassion. We cannot heal in the Earth what we have not manifested in our own soul.
We are commissioned to heal the brokenhearted, disciple nations and release our light on this planet. That’s a tall order: Either it’s a cruel and impossible task, or you are more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you.” Isaiah 60:1-4a
Look up, child. On the other side of fear, Father God is giving you a high-five.