The struggle for self-compassion

A few months ago, I turned 29. I’m embarrassed to admit that it bothered me a great deal. If you’re older than I am, I forgive you for rolling your eyes. As for those of you around my age, I hear your nervous chuckle!

We often hear the assertion that age is but a number, but for many of us each subsequent number serves as a checkpoint: what have I achieved in N number of years? Sure enough, on the morning of my birthday, I woke up feeling weighed down by a litany of personal failings and should-haves. 29. Should have gotten a promotion by now. Should have gotten published by now. Should have started a family by now. Should have resolved this conflict by now. Should have gotten over those vices by now. Should have become a better person by now.

‘After the ball’ (1899) by Ramon Casas

The list went on and left me staring down a rabbit hole. I recognised, given my mental health history and predisposition towards depression, that I was in danger of freefalling into a dark abyss. I have seen how easily such thoughts could morph into You are useless. You are disgusting. You are irredeemable. And when this mutation runs its course, I am transformed into a self-loathing, self-destructive alter ego. As I stood at this precipice again, I had a decision to make: to pay heed to the taunts, or to tune in to the quiet voice.

This quiet voice was one I discovered only after more than five years of weaving in and out of depressive episodes. With the help of my therapist, I recently came to recognise that I possessed two voices: a condemning voice and a compassionate voice. The condemning voice is loud, brash, and unrelenting. And because I had given it authority over most of my life, it has no qualms about shouting over all other thoughts and making its presence felt in any situation. I had unknowingly given it free rein to be my internal judge, jury and executioner.

The compassionate voice, on the other hand, is quiet and unassuming. It is easily overpowered and requires a lot more effort to discern from the noise.

For many years I neglected this quiet voice. Not because I didn’t know it existed, but because I viewed it with suspicion and distrust. To me, self-compassion was synonymous with self-deception. To be forgiving of my flaws and failings meant to sweep them under a rug and move through life wearing a veneer of saintliness. I also saw it as cowardice, because it meant not facing the truth of my own depravity. It was for these same reasons that I distrusted medication throughout my first few years of struggling with bipolar disorder. I believed I deserved to suffer as a consequence of my own wickedness, so to do anything to alleviate my pain would be to live in denial. Hence I could not, in good conscience, exercise ‘self-compassion’, be it accepting the medical help that I desperately needed, or simply speaking to myself with kindness.

But I have since arrived at a better understanding of self-compassion. Far from delusional, self-compassion is honest: it gives me permission to acknowledge my flaws, yet without dismissing the possibility of growth. Far from cowardly, it is courageous: it beckons me to stop slinking away from life, and to stand tall and tackle obstacles even with all my imperfections. It is also humble: while pride listens to no other voice but its own, self-compassion is vulnerable and teachable.

‘The birthday’ (1905) by Paul Fischer

As I stood at the precipice of my 29th-birthday crisis, I chose to tune in to the quiet voice. It is true that I had not accomplished many of the things I imagined I would have before 30. But life has turned out to be too great a mystery to be measured by the rubrics determined by my younger self. Among other unexpected turns in life, the onset of mental illness at the age of 22 might have derailed me from my pre-written script, yet it also opened the door to a different adventure. I have struggled more than I ever thought I would; but those very struggles endowed me with a strength and grit I never knew could be mine. They also made me more compassionate person who is attentive to those who are forgotten, which led me to become a special education teacher, a vocation I have fallen in love with. I also emerged with the humility to receive help, to be corrected, to forgive myself and others, and to always leave the door open for healing and reconciliation. Listening to the quiet voice helped me to see that life is much more than what I have (or have not) accomplished – it is about what I have received, what I have given, how I have grown and helped others grow.

The checklist of goals set by my younger self remains, but without the anxiety of it determining my life’s worth. After all, at the end of this life I would like to take with me not a checklist, but a full heart enriched by love, humility, hope, and courage. Perhaps 29 signals much more than the end of my 20s, but a new beginning.


This essay was first published on The Tapestry Project SG – an independent, non-profit online publication that aims to restore hope and reclaim dignity through the sharing of first person mental health narratives.


Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.

St. Francis of Assisi

24 thoughts on “The struggle for self-compassion

  1. Loved your post. Can totally relate with the feeling, being your own bully. Funny thing is, this compassion is not at all difficult to summon for others, it usually only fails when it comes to our own selves! More power to you for recognising and addressing it. Here’s hoping we all learn to do better in that regard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally relate to this and had this feeling when I turned 25… “We often hear the assertion that age is but a number, but for many of us each subsequent number serves as a checkpoint: what have I achieved in N number of years?”. I also really like your conclusion that life is not a checklist! We should just be grateful for being here every single day ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That you for this honest, raw and beautiful perspective on getting older in our get-it-done society! I’ve often had the same thoughts and they can be very overwhelming so this is all very good for me to read.

    Also I’m a couple years older than you and let me tell you, your 30s are the BEST time. Much love and luck to you!

    Maria Black https://mysoulbalm.blog

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for being so vulnerable in this post. When you live with mental illness, it is easy to get caught up in what we haven’t done yet. I think it is important for us to remember that there is no expiration date on our dreams. We must be gentle with ourselves and realize it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get where we are going, as long as we keep moving forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 29 seems very young to me now, but I also remember turning 29 and being very anxious that I was now “getting older.”

    And yes, I’ve lived with the inner judge/critic for many years. It does seem that the older I get, the easier it is to just ignore her…may the same be true for you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I sailed by age 29, 39, and 49 without knowing I had a 2nd quieter voice. It’s only now at closer to 59 that I can even hear her and listening to her most times necessitates an inner dialogue. As so many others have said, it’s the journey not our to-do lists that matters.

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  7. Thanks for sharing so vulnerably. At 25, I feel like I carry a 4 year counter in my head – to get done all that I wanted to accomplish as a teenager. It’s not healthy and it blinds me to the journey we’re on, the process and all the details along the way. This was a helpful reminder, it’s not all about “accomplishments”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Pain know no age” – how true! That reminds me Viktor Frankl’s analogy: “A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

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  8. I think we all struggle with self-compassion. Because of my physical disability, it is very easy for me to listen to the obnoxiously loud voice inside that constantly points out my differences, my shortcomings and my insecurities. And you’re right. Once you give ear to that voice, there’s not much stopping it from taking over. Choosing to listen to the affirming, compassionate and understanding voice that encourages us to step out and move forward no matter our difficulties, our regrets, our setbacks is something I have to do every day – sometimes several times a day! You are definitely not alone in this struggle. Wonderful post! And I especially love your chosen quote by St. Francis of Assisi.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing that, KJ. Let’s keep choosing the compassionate voice and help it get louder and louder. ☺️ Have you read The Inner Voice of Love by Fr Henri Nouwen? I have a feeling you’d be nourished by it too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just downloaded this book and after reading the introduction, I’m ready to dive in! Thank you for the recommendation. I believe I will be nourished by it, as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Lovely post. Thank you for the reminder to use the “gentle voice” inside and to regard oneself compassionately. It does sound as if you’ve found a good place for your soul. Best wishes for the years ahead!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I wish you no worries at 29 and that the should-haves stay home…. I did not get married until 39 and pregnant at 40. And my family life is very happy! Consider it making sure you get the right one! I. too, have plenty of accomplishments I would like to make in this life but they all pale in comparison to a strong family life.

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  11. Well said. I was 43 when I had to leave my teaching career because of CFS/ME – I’d had years of being too busy to even think about whether I wanted a change of pace, and I did love my job most of the time. Fifteen years on and no better, I can see 60 looming and although I’ve forged a new identity as a natural dyer and textle artist, I struggle to accept my lack of ‘achievement’ and my physical limitations. A lot of my self-worth has come from the emotional support I’m able to give my partner and my step-daughter in achieving their ambitions. Yet I still spiralled into a depression recently when I heard someone else say ‘I feel like I’m wasting my life’.

    Like

  12. I understand your pain. My first crisis was at 19 when i didn’t know what i was going to do with my life. I’ve had a few since.
    I quit neuroscience at 26 and stopped restauranting in my early 30s to become a full time actor. However it was at 45 that I changed my stripes and entered data analysis and coding.
    It was at 49 i discovered I was autistic and things have really eased up in the mental health sphere.
    It’s a journey 😊

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