Learning Compassion for Yourself

AUG. 14, 2015

By Rita Chin

Rita-Chin-FINAL-5745-print-Edit-(1).jpgI’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.


DEC, 29, 2015 08:50:20 PM
Margie Golub
Excellent and enlightening article. Grateful for your sharing!

SEP, 22, 2015 11:55:52 AM
Joyce Ireland
Awesome article! Love one another!!

SEP, 15, 2015 01:35:06 AM
This is a very movie article, I nearly cried. I was diagnosed with General Anxiety and Bipolar II at the age of twelve. I have been in Mental Health Institutes since I was fourteen. I still am at 28 years old. I am currently living in an IMD or an institute for mental diseases, which is a rather unflattering name. My depression is so severe I find myself shutting down by sleeping all day... I feel hopeless most of the time. My anxiety freezes me and I am unable to do anything. Like it says in this article, I have experienced relief from speaking about my illness and helping and showing compassion to others with mental illnesses. However, due to my situation I do not always receive the help I need. IMD(s) are storage facilities for the mentally ill. It is hard to function when you're robbed of hope. I wish adult mental health facilities I have lived in had Individual one-on-one therapy and therapeutic groups which are held for high functioning individuals, where people actually participated... Well, sorry I didn't mean to disrupt this post with my own story... I will try to use the author's advice in my own life.

SEP, 11, 2015 12:42:55 AM
Alan Perkins
I am 64 now and have panic in the past and generalised anxiety disorder since I was little. I've tried very hard to keep it all secret. Due to the shame I felt.
Then I did realise nobody I know would say. Alan you should be ashamed of yourself ,, we are very hard on ourselves ,,reading this article makes me realise a lot ,, I tell anyone now. Would be great to actually meet and talk to someone with similar. I have felt so alone. I am accepting myself and the condition now. And compassion for myself might come easier now

SEP, 10, 2015 02:23:45 PM
What an amazing article....as I read your description of how anxiety started for you, I could so identify with how you felt. I got so bad I became agoraphobic for nearly a year. Finally was put on medication and gradually worked my way through with therapy as well as my own strength of self talk. Easy steps when getting out or driving....."I will be ok", "You can do this", "It will be ok". I would go to a store maybe for one thing, each day until I worked my way back to being able to handle more. I am so very thankful that I have came through the worst of it. I still live with anxiety to a degree everyday.....mainly in the sense of nerves, or just that uptight feeling. but I can still get out go. Which is a true blessing.
I am Agenda/news writer for our local NAMI Kay County group here in Ponca City, Okla.
Thank you for sharing,

SEP, 10, 2015 01:08:54 AM
truly appreciate the article love,compassion,respect are powerful tools we can use to help us adjust ourselves to be able to meet struggles.please know i am speaking from a place of understanding ( began having panic attacks at 12- learned how to manage that -now at 37 having to readjust thinking and problem solving skills again as i have had to hospitalize one of my teenage daughters2years back-have been told i have ptsd and repeatedly told i need meds bla bla bla,so i understand)it is a beautiful thing when people reach out to help someone else,to a few of the comments i want to say please be aware-our bodies and brains often will heal with a little help.please consider some treatment options before reaching for the meds,please stop encouraging this woman or anyone else to get on meds even Zoloft. these meds alter your brains ability to heal itself and function properly on its own. this is why so many people end up long term medicated unable to function rationally without meds.

SEP, 04, 2015 10:03:10 PM
Thank you for sharing. It's comforting to know and read that other people suffer like I do

SEP, 03, 2015 12:38:11 AM
Guess it's time to tell people. Great article

SEP, 02, 2015 05:50:09 PM
Chuck Williams
Excellent sharing. Men have it too. Have you studied Mary Ellen Copeland's books on this subject and other mental dilemmas. Her WRAP workbook on Trauma is phenomenal. Her teachings opened the door to 48 states to approve Certified Peer Specialists.

SEP, 01, 2015 09:56:04 AM
Great way to let others know 'self talk' matters! When you have positive self thoughts positive actions follow. BE POSITIVE & BE COMPASSIONATE to yourself... LOVE YOURSELF!!

SEP, 01, 2015 12:05:48 AM
judy belva
Love your transparency and gentle humor. I identify with many of your experiences. Will share with my "anxiety group". A great help!

AUG, 31, 2015 12:58:43 PM
Thank you so much for this wonderful and honest article. I found it very meaningful and real. And I was touched by your story, Rita. Thank you for sharing it. Have a beautiful day!

AUG, 31, 2015 10:49:59 AM
Kimberly Whitaker
My 13 year old son started high school two weeks ago. His anxiety level is over the top. Your article has helped me better understand his issues. Hopefully I can share the article with him, and he will open up about his inner demons. Thank you.

AUG, 31, 2015 08:37:03 AM
Rich Mersings
So she has a husband, house and career? Try having depression, no employment, passed up for every menial or good job, two engineering degrees, unable to get a girlfriend, and sick of living.
With the help and techniques of a support group, I also overcame panic attacks and generalized anxiety. I still wish I would die tomorrow.

AUG, 30, 2015 07:07:25 PM
James Ryan
Great article.

AUG, 29, 2015 01:36:34 PM
Charles Trimberger, LCSW
Facilitating that inner conversation is the tough part. Once it begins to happen with that compassionate healing voice, the incidence of panic can begin to decrease and maybe even disappear. As a therapist, it has always been my goal to help patients to heal themselves, with this inner voice working for them, mostly without the hep of medication. The problem is fear of the fear, finding a safe place within the mind, to facilitate this compassionate voice. that's what therapy is meant to be: natural healing within the person.

AUG, 29, 2015 12:57:20 PM
Compassion for myself? That is a big order, but you’ve given it wheels. Thank you.

AUG, 29, 2015 12:33:43 PM
Yoli Broglio
From the perspective of a parent watching a beloved daughter do everything in her power to avoid panic attacks, this article described the process eloquently. The last paragraph particularly hit home and is, well, filled with compassion.

AUG, 29, 2015 06:44:17 AM
Ann Widner
Thank you for sharing your story! Your words have inspired me to begin to share mine, as well. It comforts me to know that we're all in this life together. We just have to reach out to one another and begin to talk!

AUG, 29, 2015 01:27:32 AM
Thank you for sharing this and reminding me that we are not alone in our struggles with anxiety.

AUG, 28, 2015 11:54:50 PM
Maha saad

AUG, 28, 2015 08:54:10 PM
How familiar I am with this! I couldn't have explained it better myself. The lights, people, music, choices are overwhelming. Then I isolate as much as possible (depression). I'm there now, first time since 2009, when I was diagnosed with BP II. Meds/therapy have gotten me thru since 2009 and it's been great. My pdoc is out of town til Monday and I'm struggling to get thru the weekend. Thank you for sharing!

AUG, 28, 2015 07:44:00 PM
John Ullrich
I laughed when I started reading this because it is so familiar. My experiences where different but the panic response really rang a bell. I definitely need a little more compassion for myself. The hiding is ridiculous isn't it? What a waste of time!
One of the things I think triggers me is being required to care about things that are really not that important. I agonize over things that in the larger scheme don't matter all that much but they get me worked up.
Keep on pushing through,

AUG, 28, 2015 05:57:11 PM
It felt like I was writing this story but mine is slightly different. Had an accident last year and after knee surgery developed CRPS (Complex regional pain syndrome). So now I'm battling with panick attacks (psychiatrist says I have agrophobia) and constant pain and all I want is really to tell people why I always have excuses to not go anywhere let alone have unannounced guests. I told a close friend I get severe panick attacks and havent heard from her since then. Thank God I have an understanding husband.

AUG, 28, 2015 04:19:41 PM
Desiree Olsen
My anxiety moments are when I feel so incapacitated I need to lie down but even that is so uncomfortable and I think it comes from a sense of guilt and sorrow so deep that I cannot solve this even with self-talk. When it happens I try to welcome "Mr. Anxiety or Ms. Anxiety" as the case may be but all I can think of is when it will be over...... I pray to Jesus at this time and to the Universe to release me from the prison I feel taking over me. Then, as I try to be grateful and not guilty for all the grace in my life, this helps.......Well, as I am a Wiccan, a Buddhist (Soka Gakkai), a follower of the I Ching, astrology, tarot and anything mystical I suppose I just need a break from reality and hope the faeries understand, as the wee and little ones who are so sensitive find our world so atrocious and un-feeling. How can I explain that I would love to be able to give back to society for the needy and persons with need of help. If only I were strong enough to do so, however, I do volunteer at different places and belong now to a Book Club. Really wish I had a friend to talk to at times......yet, what is there to say, I find myself thinking. Anyway, its great that NAMI has the wherewithal to publish this article on anxiety, a little understood phenomenon. Thank-you for reading and please say more about this as I wish there was something more that could be done for people with this.

AUG, 28, 2015 03:51:42 PM
Kathleen Fitzsimmons
Can we share this excellent article on FB ?

AUG, 28, 2015 03:14:06 PM
John Gibson
To make it simpler, think of 'you', the body and the brain as implied by Martin Buber's idea of "I and Thou".

AUG, 28, 2015 03:11:30 PM
John Gibson
There are crossroads where you choose not only your future, but your past as well.

Take one road and your past becomes but an irrelevant and forgotten dream.

Take another road and even the darkest past can become a magnificent frame for a moment of glory. The moment for which your soul was formed and all the past was made.

Maamar Padah B’Shalom 5738

I read this quotation above this morning and then read Rita's post and thought that perhaps they were saying the same thing but from different conceptual perspectives but very much centered on mindfulness and awareness.

I try to practice a self awareness in which I divide 'my self' up into parts. Our 'feelings' are a product of activity in our brains. These are generated by what our senses tell us but also from chemicals, memories both forgotten and immediate, and perhaps even a disorderly brain.

Now, this isn't trivializing us as a 'self conscious' entity but is merely providing a different concept for us which is based on fact which we can use to be the 'person' we want to be.

I've never been diagnosed as bi-polar 2 but I have a daughter who is living a ruined life for the last few years because of her condition. And she has had all the chemical, magnetic and electric treatments available. She continues to react to her natural condition with despair, anger and hopelessness. Well, it matters not what I say or think to her.

I get her to swim every month or so and like me that settles things down. I was lucky and began running when I was a teen kept that up through my 30's and then played basketball every day through my 40's. This was so beneficial to my brain. It kept me sane because sometimes I feel this absolute certainty that life is worthless, as I am, and that I'd be at peace if I were in the 'happy hunting ground'.

I'm just trying to point out that in self awareness we should look at our brain as the organ that it is. It was formed with a certain structure and function based on those elegant double helix molecules to which we owe our being.

Thinking spiritual about all of this I get a spiritual feeling. Is that a thought or a feeling? It's good what ever it is.

Once we get our brain's mysterious reactions and functions in their proper place maybe like Mother Teresa says one can listen for God and get beyond the noise of our environment and the random activity in our brains. They are always 'on'....

AUG, 28, 2015 01:31:39 PM
Why is it that it can be so easy to be compassionate with other people, but so difficult to be compassionate with ourselves? Great article!

AUG, 28, 2015 01:31:21 PM
Polly Meyers
Rita Zoey Chin, you have figured out some of the secrets of anxiety. I'm so impressed. I have a new free booklet coming out next week on our Break Free From Anxiety website that will help you find some more pieces to the anxiety puzzle.
Love, Polly

AUG, 28, 2015 12:04:07 PM
Renee Tempel
Very touching article and description of what goes on when suffering from anxiety, the sense of guilt and gradual isolation , so true.
Like Rilke writes......love is the answer.
Peace and light in our souls,

AUG, 28, 2015 11:29:44 AM
Paige Johnson
Your story is much like my own, thank you for having the courage to write about it and share with others.

AUG, 28, 2015 10:36:55 AM
Ellen Wolfe
Excellent article. I totally relate.

AUG, 28, 2015 10:22:21 AM
Enlightening and encouraging. Allowing ourselves to CARE for us alone isn't selfish.
Thank you for a deeper definition of self compassion

AUG, 28, 2015 09:57:10 AM
Gail Jenson
Good insight and very helpful. I also found that medication like Zoloft helps me manage my anxiety and panic attacks.

AUG, 28, 2015 09:49:23 AM
Thank you, Rita, for this very helpful account of panic attacks and anxiety. I too have had debilitating attacks and times of enormous anxiety. I know where they came from, and with working a recovery program, have learned to recognise and yes, re-parent myself through these times.

AUG, 28, 2015 09:07:51 AM
I have been there, but I learn. how to over come fear or the unknown. That is part of experience that we all goes though this thing call life.

AUG, 28, 2015 08:48:49 AM
This helps so much, THANK YOU THANK YOU!

AUG, 28, 2015 01:07:35 AM
Gary Kolas
Thank you for your courage to tell as it is and helping other people.

AUG, 28, 2015 12:56:20 AM
Michael Popovici
Rita, You are the hope and healing of many. Within all you experience, we realize and can come to healing.

AUG, 28, 2015 12:51:52 AM
I found the best way to deal with my panic attacks was not to fight them. They didn't last as long and became more bearable. Once the doctor discovered I had very low D in my blood and gave me prescription supplements, the panic attacks went away. My low D was caused by primary hyperPARAthyroidism (pHPT). I didn't know I had pHPT at the time, but now, I understand that endocrine problems cause psychiatric symptoms.

AUG, 27, 2015 10:35:43 PM
Shantel Chavis
Brilliant article! Helps more than you'll ever know.

AUG, 27, 2015 10:15:09 PM
very informative story.

AUG, 27, 2015 10:13:28 PM
Robert Coykendall
I have a private practice called Compassion Counseling LLC. I truly believe in the transformative power of compassion! We all need to love one another!!

AUG, 27, 2015 10:00:09 PM
What a beautiful revelation. I am going to share this with my son who suffers from panic attacks. Also a few more people that I know will benefit from such a heartfelt-positive approach to a very difficult issue.

AUG, 27, 2015 07:40:35 PM
Having suffered from this disorder from the age of 27 (am now 59), I appreciate the candid article that Ms. Chin has written. When I was first diagnosed with this it was very much a stigma. Very few people knew anything about it, but it changed my life at the time, and I thought I was loosing my mind. I was terrified to tell my husband. Finally went and saw a therapist, and I can't tell you the relief that I experienced when she explained that many people suffered from it and their were ways to control it. At 59 it's well under control, but to this day I still do take medication for it.

AUG, 16, 2015 05:04:12 PM
Lisa Beiwel
Excellent article that is very helpful.

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