Learning Compassion for Yourself
I’d never thought of myself as a particularly fearful person. When I was 11, I fought three bullies off my stepbrother with my undersized fists. Later that year, I found the courage to run away from an abusive home, and by thirteen, I never went home again. For much of my life, fear and I coexisted without much fuss. Snakes scared me, so I adopted a four-foot ball python; heights dizzied me with fear, so I went hang-gliding; the thought of public speak sent a cold chill through my heart, so I took a job teaching at a university. But when I started having panic attacks, everything I thought I knew about myself changed.
I was in my mid-thirties when my first panic attack struck, and in a matter of weeks I went from a happy, engaged, productive person to someone who could barely get herself off the sofa. I constantly monitored my pulse. I carried food wherever I went, for fear of going into hypoglycemic shock (even though I wasn’t hypoglycemic). I spent most of my waking (and some of my sleeping) moments either in the throes of a vicious panic attack or dreading when the next one would come.
Of course, there were the obvious questions. Why am I suddenly scared to go through the checkout line at the grocery store? Why am I afraid to cross the street? When did the highway change from a convenient way of getting around to a deathtrap? Why can’t anyone else see how terrifying this flight of stairs is? Why am I so defective?
It was this last question that filled me with shame. Everywhere I looked, other people seemed to be moving through their days with confidence, instead of hunching over in mortal fear, fingers pressed to their wrists. And though I’d read that forty million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, I felt utterly, despairingly alone. So I kept my panic a secret. I ran from the grocery store checkout line, lying, “Sorry, I forgot my wallet!” At the work dinners I was obligated to attend with my husband, I excused myself from the table and hyperventilated in the bathroom. When a neighbor asked me for a ride to the airport, I explained that the reason it would take twice the amount of time to get there was that I didn’t “enjoy” the highway. And the more I hid the truth, the more I panicked.
The few people in my life who did know the truth about my panic attacks didn’t really understand. “But you have nothing to be afraid of!” they would say, exasperated, as if logic had anything to do with it. “You used to like grocery stores!” Of course, this only bolstered my belief that I was a defective human being—someone who, instead of facing down a bully, would cower at her own shadow.
I began seeking a variety of both conventional and esoteric treatments for my panic attacks, with modest success. Some things seemed to help a little—the bodywork I received from an Oprah-approved anxiety specialist had a somewhat relaxing effect; when I followed the advice of a Zen master and forced myself to smile all morning, I noticed I was a bit less jittery; and it’s possible that the Rescue Remedy I picked up at the health food store took the edge off—but whatever comfort these remedies brought was hard to measure when, despite them all, I continued to panic.
During one of these panic attacks, as I was sitting on my front step (the place I often scuttled to when I was panicking), I started thinking about those forty million Americans I’d read about. Where were they? Were they sitting on their front steps clutching their knees to their chests like me? Did they also feel alone? Hopeless? Defective? As I listened to the traffic go past along the road, I wondered how many people I’d unknowingly passed who were also struggling under the weight of a fear that seemed as vast as the universe itself. And I wondered what I would do if I met such a person. Unlike the elusive answers to the many questions I’d asked about my own panic, this answer was easy: I would reach out my hand. I would say, “You’re not alone. And you’re stronger than you feel in this moment.”
How readily those words came to me when they were meant for someone else. Not once—not even for a second—did I consider that the panicking stranger of my imagination might be defective. She was simply afraid, and all I wanted was to give her my compassion, to remind her that she was bigger than her fear.
Something changed for me that day. Instead of feeling ashamed about what I was going through, I began to turn my most natural impulse—the compassion I felt toward another person—inward. I spoke to the scared part of myself—simple things like “I’m here” and “it’s not your fault” and “go ahead and treat yourself to some ice cream.” I cheered her on when she took even the smallest step toward courage, as if she were a child who simply needed my love.
And I stopped keeping panic a secret. I told family, friends, acquaintances, strangers at work dinners, and I soon found the answer to that question I’d been asking—where are these forty million anxious Americans? Turns out, they’re everywhere. Virtually all of the people I told about my struggle with panic disorder either suffered from panic or anxiety themselves or knew someone who did. And many of them were doing their best to hide their fear just as I had been. But how eager—bordering on desperate—they were, once I opened the door, to simply be able to tell someone about it.
While having compassion for myself wasn’t the sole answer for my panic attacks, I’m not sure I would have stopped panicking without it. And if I could go back now to the person I imagined talking to then, when I sat terrified on the front step of my house, that’s what I would tell her. I would say other things, too, like, it’s time to stop feeling shame, because what you’re going through is not your fault. I would say that those of us who panic are sensitive creatures, which means that alongside our capacity for fear runs an even greater capacity for love and joy and wonder, for empathy, for transformation. I would say that compassion takes many shapes: it may come as a conversation you have with yourself, in which you soothe yourself as you would a frightened friend; it may arrive in the form of curiosity—questions you might ask yourself about what could be triggering your fear (a troubled relationship, for instance, or an upcoming event or a distant memory or a letter you received or the loss of someone/something, etc.); it might arrive in paint or music or literature—some way of making, and taking in, art; it might come as tears, when you let yourself be sad about that thing you’ve been avoiding feeling sad about; and it might come as laughter over the folly of it all—but whatever shape compassion takes, it always comes as kindness. There are, in fact, no limits to the ways we can offer ourselves, and each other, compassion—because perhaps, in the words of the great poet Rilke, “everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Rita Zoey Chin is the author of the bestselling memoir, Let the Tornado Come, which the Huffington Post calls “A near euphoric ode to the human spirit." Her writing has appeared in Marie Claire, Tin House, Guernica, The Rumpus, Freerange Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the University of Maryland and now lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street, mentors teenage girls, and rides her mischievous horse, Claret.