• A Horse Metaphor for Practicing Self-Compassion

    Practicing Self-Compassion to Manage Burnout

    There is a phrase found in the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, that has to do with “turning toward negative feelings with love and compassion.” This phrase has been on my mind recently, as I have been working with many clients for whom holding onto and digging into negative feelings is extremely difficult, and if I get really honest with myself, I share this struggle too. When I see patterns in what my clients are puzzling through, it feels only fair to bring more light to what can feel dark and lonely. It’s really hard to feel proud of feeling hateful, vengeful, full of rage, and self-pitying, but when we relegate these emotions to the back of our “dealing with” feeling drawer, they wait, and they fester. They grow in power, venom, and ferocity. The darker they become, the more decrepit we feel. But what we’re talking about here in truly holding and working through these dark and ugly spaces within ourselves has much to do with practicing self-compassion, something that many of us who are dealing with burnout are short on.

    What Is Self-Compassion? 

    If you haven’t heard much about what self-compassion is, here is a very basic “cliff’s notes version” of what I mean. Self-compassion is a term coined by Dr. Kristin Neff, currently a professor of Educational Psychology at UT, Austin, who has extensively studied moral and self-concept development. You can read all about her by clicking her name above. The concept of self-compassion is often coupled with mindfulness and mindfulness practices, and it essentially involves showing, toward oneself, the kind of unconditional positive regard, love, and compassion that we would hold for a dear friend. Though we have no problem conceptualizing how we would do this for a best friend, we get a little stymied when it’s time to apply the same rules to ourselves. We instead choose to decide that though others deserve it, we couldn’t possibly. And this is a problem that contributes to keeping us burned out, riddled with anxiety, and exhausted.

    Practicing Self-Compassion: A Visual Reference

    To give you a visual for this concept, I want to share something that I witnessed several weeks ago. I was at my daughter’s horse show, watching the riders compete in many different classes. I am new to this sport, and I remain an inquisitive learner, asking questions, using incorrect terminology, and clapping at inappropriate times, I am sure. Horseback riding is an activity that is extremely difficult, dirty, vulnerable, and it can be frightening, especially when observing one’s own 70 pound child child on the back of a 1500 pound animal. It is also a sport that is hugely graceful, exhilarating, and endearing. There is most definitely some magic in it. 

    While watching a warm up, I noticed a young woman coming around one of the turns in the arena at a much faster pace than expected, as she had lost control of her horse, and he forged ahead into the turn at a speed that could not sustain her ability to stay on him. Within seconds, she was launched off of the horse and into the chain link railing that had been in place as a visual blockade, skidding across the dirt of the arena floor, dirtying her crisp tan pants and navy blazer – a bruise made of dust marks. Her horse slowed and looked back at her, and she quickly caught her breath, sat up, and rushed steadily yet speedily over to him, very intentional in her gait. Before he had time to even become aware of her approach, her arms were around his neck, and she was embracing him, petting him, reassuring him that they were both ok, looking deep into his chocolate brown eyes, comforting him that they would both be just fine. I witnessed this same sequence of events at least three more times throughout the show. Each time, the rider could not move quickly enough to let her horse know that they’d just been through something difficult and frightening together, offering acceptance, compassion, and hope that they could prevail together. Nothing about this was gallant or dominating; it was instead a simple exchange – this thing happened between us, and it wasn’t great, but we accept it and we go on from here.

    Embracing Negative Emotions is Practicing Self-Compassion

    The ability that we have to embrace negative emotions and make space for the dark side of ourselves relates deeply to how the rider turns toward her horse, facing with love and compassion the animal that has thrown her. When we are faced with the parts of ourselves that we least like, the parts that are unforgiving, harsh, mean, or cruel, our natural inclination can be to flee or to ignore. We feel ashamed that we can harbor such vile things within us, and all we want to do is to be unburdened of them, and so we numb those feelings with alcohol, we blame someone else for why we feel the way we do, or we seek comfort from someone who might be able to offer it. However, the work is ours to do alone.

    Turning Toward Negative Emotions

    When we “turn toward negative feelings with love and compassion,” just as the rider does to the horse, we allow for an exchange of calm to occur. We make space for a moment of resignation between our more likeable selves and our less likeable selves, and we allow for fuller integration of all of the many parts that comprise WHO we are, without ignoring or running from the parts that we identify as least savory.

    Recovering from burnout demands that we not wage war against all that we dislike within ourselves and others, and that we instead accept and feel the entire range of our feelings, turning toward ALL of them with self-compassion, not cherry-picking the ones that we want to deal with from the ones we wish we could cast aside. The rider has no choice but to greet her horse, aching, sheepish, and perhaps a little angry, and assure him that they’ll continue on together, sometimes more intact than others. We too can do this with our feelings – get up, face and make peace with them, and move on.

    About the author

    Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women, with particular focus on the motherhood experience. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a school counselor, a school administrator, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid.