Do you think you’re a “somebody”?

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

I'm the little blonde standing up...
I’m the little blonde with the funny haircut

When I was a little girl in the 1950s, my parents were stingy with praise and magnanimous with criticism. To be otherwise would result in a child developing a “swelled head”, which, as all parents knew back then, would be the worst possible thing that could ever happen to any child.

“She really thinks she’s a SOMEBODY!” was a phrase delivered with withering contempt by my mother in describing any person whose sense of self-esteem seemed even remotely healthy.

Nobody, according to my parents, likes a kid with a swelled head. The only way to prevent that catastrophe was to be tough on your children, and in turn teach them to be equally tough on themselves. You could thus help them avoid growing up to be spoiled and self-indulgent adults who acted like they were a “SOMEBODY!”

But Dr. Kristin Neff, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, now believes that children who grow up like this end up experiencing little self-compassion when life’s difficulties hit them. Her observations on the importance of developing self-compassion may sound reassuring to those of us living with a heart disease diagnosis.  

She maintains, for example, that self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we are suffering, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  She told the New York Times:

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent.

“They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Self-compassion is a central construct in Buddhist psychology, says Dr. Neff, who’s been a practicing Buddhist herself since 1997. In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she is the author of a book called Self-Compassion.

Because having a heart attack is such a profoundly traumatic and life-altering event for most survivors, we now get many opportunities to practice self-compassion daily – although in my case, I have to tell you that my own experience with this foreign concept as a freshly-diagnosed heart patient was a disaster.

During the early weeks and months post-op, I was dismayed to discover that I seemed no longer physically or mentally capable of doing many simple things that I’d easily done my whole life. I was desperate to just feel “normal” again, at a time when absolutely nothing felt normal anymore.  (See also: “The New Country Called Heart Disease)

But instead of feeling compassion about ongoing complications, I mostly just felt despair and anxiety over my inexplicable failure to bounce right back.

“What’s wrong with you?” I would wail silently to that exhausted stranger’s face in the mirror.

I wish that I’d known then about Dr. Neff’s perspective on the value of self-compassion when facing challenges like a catastrophic chronic illness diagnosis. She also offers some ways to re-learn the important skill of self-compassion.

“The problem is that it’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime. People have to actively and consciously develop the habit of self-compassion.”

A Portugese study on self-compassion found a significant link between self-compassion and quality of life in people living with chronic illnesses. Self-compassion was associated with decreased symptoms of stress and depression, and better quality of life.(1)

Meanwhile, Dr. Neff’s three key elements of self-compassion are:


“Self-compassionate people recognize that experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.

“People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”


“Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering.

All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through, rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

“It also means recognizing that our personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by external factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.

“If we had full control over our behavior, how many people would consciously choose to have anger issues, addiction issues, debilitating social anxiety, eating disorders, and so on?  Many aspects of ourselves and the circumstances of our lives are not of our choosing, but instead stem from innumerable factors (genetic and/or environmental) that we have little control over.  By recognizing our essential interdependence, therefore, life difficulties do not have to be taken so personally, but can be acknowledged with non-judgmental compassion and understanding.


“Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.

“This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness.

“Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.

“At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

Visit Dr. Neff’s website for more tips to practice being self-compassionate. 

PS: In case you haven’t figured this out already, you ARE a somebody!


Q:  Did you learn about self-compassion as a child?


(1) Pinto-Gouveia J et al.  The protective role of self-compassion in relation to psychopathology symptoms and quality of life in chronic and in cancer patients. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2014 Jul-Aug;21(4):311-23. doi: 10.1002/cpp.1838.

See also:

The New Country Called Heart Disease

Heart Attack: Did You Bring This On Yourself?

How Our Girlfriends Can Help Us Get Through the Toughest Times

“God Punishes Bad Children!” – or, why you have heart disease

A Letter to My Pre-Heart Attack Self

Go Easy On Yourself, an interview with Dr. Neff from the New York Times

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about this concept of self-compassion in Chapter 9 of my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).


23 thoughts on “Do you think you’re a “somebody”?

  1. It’s been almost a year since my AVR surgery and I am still struggling a lot with this aspect of recovery. Anytime I experience what I consider to be a step back, rather than forward (even a minor one), I get frustrated with myself, as if it’s my fault my body can’t always keep up with my expectations. I actually started a self-compassion journaling challenge this month to try and deal with it. Hopefully it helps!

    As always, a fantastically informative and useful post. Thanks for addressing this issue! It helped to be reminded I’m not the only one dealing with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are definitely NOT the only one struggling with self-compassion, Kim! Good luck with that journaling challenge – a brilliant and reflective project. I love your blog, by the way. READERS: check out Kim’s heart blog Tick Tock Ticker about life with a mechanical heart valve.


  2. Today I feel like a nobody.

    I am still in the process since my HA of clearing out junk and clutter from our rather large house. It will be forever entrenched in my mind the feeling I had that I was leaving things unfinished for others to attend to and have wanted to organize and be prepared for another crisis, giving things away to those I love. I want to live the rest of my life without clutter, with good books surrounding me, organized, so that I can relax more on bad days.

    Yet, I heard from a friend that she was tired of hearing me speak of giving away instead of surrounding myself with things that are part of living. As I part with dear things I have compassion for myself by making daily living less stressful. I certainly keep many cherished objects, it is mostly junk I want gone from my life.

    I do enjoy lovely things but I am tired of being a consumer and want peace in my old age, not things. This friend was quite dreadful but has never had heart disease, gets about quite easily and doesn’t suffer from fibromyalgia. I felt like a failure and I know she thinks I am preparing for dying. Perhaps I am. It is a fine line between living fully and waiting for the finale. In the meantime because this friend does not have much empathy or patience for anyone who has had the experience of looking death in the eye, she has left me today without any feeling of self compassion.

    Guess meditation is needed big time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Barbara – I’m going to respond to your very important comment as one of my blog readers responded to me once. I can’t remember which blog post it was, but the topic was something about ‘being helpful to sick friends’ in which I too had described a friend making dismissive comments about whatever I’d been going through that day. My reader’s blunt assessment was something like: “That woman is no friend to you.” She may be a longstanding acquaintance, but would NOT fit anybody’s definition of friendship. Her comment had a profound effect on me.

      Whether we live with heart disease or not, we all have a very limited number of hours left on this earth. This is true for each of us. So it’s important (more important than de-cluttering the house!) to start by sorting out those relationships that suck the life right out of us, as your friend did today – or if we choose to continue them, to severely restrict the type of conversations we choose to have with them, especially of a sensitive or vulnerable nature. Far better to spend the very valuable time we have left with those who love and accept and support us, no matter what.

      I too went through a pervasive tidying/de-cluttering compulsion in my early post-MI days. Part of me was (maybe? unconsciously?) making sure everything looked tickety-boo in case the paramedics (or worse!) my grown children had to come in to find me one of these days. Oddly enough, I didn’t find this prospect frightening or worrisome – more just like an important project that I somehow wanted/needed to get through. The upside: my small apartment had never looked so fabulous.

      Also, it is of course entirely possible to enjoy “living fully” even while turning away from the acquisition of stuff and towards a more simplified life. It’s a growing trend, in fact – just look at the new HGTV series on tiny houses! These home-buyers are not preparing to die – they’re preparing to LIVE (without the weight of all those possessions).

      PS I happen to know for a definite FACT that, no matter what this person says or thinks, you ARE indeed a somebody, Barbara!

      Hugs to you,


    2. Barbara…I read your post & immediately felt a kinship…. I’ve had “friends” like this and finally recycled them as I did knick knacks or furniture that I no longer needed…. And quietly continued my winnowing process …. I grieve some of the things I no longer have room for and I’ve grieved the women who either left me due to my illness or I left because of the pain of being in relationship was too draining. Just reading your post I think you are a real somebody….somebody I’d like to get to know & share with over a cuppa.

      Thanks for your post….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carolyn you have hit a nerve! I would have done MUCH better on the self compassion before I got well, but have slipped into very bad habits, I think! WOW! Thought I’d lost those old tapes…..

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It is like gulping life because I got it back. And all the old workaholic triggers are there in spades. Hard to think I need psych help because I am WELL 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ha! As one of my readers living with a number of serious cardiac issues once said: “I have more balance in my life these days because I HAVE to!” So maybe ‘gulping life’ is the unsurprising result of no longer needing to parcel out every bit of energy like when you were ill? Striking that balance is the key (before you find yourself ill again!)


  4. Carolyn…very timely post! I was trained by the best not to “get too big for my britches!” God forbid I should believe in my inner goodness or show compassion to myself!

    So glad this was the topic today…also thanks to Anna in France for the mention of the free Mindfulness course! I signed up to be alerted for the next course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sunny, I had to laugh right out loud at that “too big for my britches” line. I sure heard that warning from my own parents, too! I’m not positive that I even knew what it meant at the time (do kids puff up when they feel good about themselves, thus making their “britches” too tight?) What the heck?!?

      Thanks for adding your two cents worth today…


  5. Excellent post from well before I was following your blog, so new to me! Our parents came from the same school of child-rearing, and I have a lifetime of being very hard on myself.

    Overall self-compassion score wasn’t bad – 3.8, but different aspects were polarized in a way I thought interesting. Isolation was rather high, as was humanity, which (I think) reflects my reality as someone whose health and abilities are compromised in so many ways, yet who looks pretty darned good. I have ample evidence that I am judged harshly by others. Frustrating, even infuriating, but it’s part of a much bigger social problem and there really is is not much I individually can do about it.

    I look forward to learning about your writing project.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Kathleen – thank you for sharing your unique perspective here. I suspect that this particular school of child-rearing we experienced was very common at one time – meaning there are many of us who have become experts at being hard on ourselves, too. We can’t turn back the clock, but I believe we can, as Dr. Neff suggests, try not to take all of life’s difficulties personally, but instead acknowledge them “with non-judgmental compassion and understanding.”


  6. I did pretty good on the quiz: 3.94 Looks like cognitive therapy over my lifetime has made a difference. It was hardest to ask for help and believe I deserved it. Acceptance of the help is another thing. Today I watched my husband wash some windows, and both shed a tear and laughed. It wasn’t as good as I would do, or thought I did…………however, for a beginner at age 66, it was pretty darn good. I may look up the mindfulness course Anna took. I don’t get out much, except to doctors, so think I can find the time. Thank you for sharing these important thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that window-washing story, Elma – it’s such a good example of how easy it can be to slip into a critical world view instead of being genuinely grateful for each small gesture of help. As you say, asking for help is tough, and being okay with accepting help when it is offered is even harder for some of us – especially if we have always viewed ourselves as the ones who are most competent in providing help to others!


  7. Excellent post, excellent points on self-compassion.

    I think that ultimately we can only give to others what we ourselves possess. So to be really compassionate for others we need to have compassion for ourselves.

    Re: Self-kindness – The other end of the spectrum that can be equally damaging is the “affirming” message that parents give – “you can do anything you set your mind to (or you truly want)”. As Dr. Neff points out – t’ain’t so!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Judy-Judith for adding two important issues to the mix. My own late mother was also very hard on herself, with almost-impossible-to-achieve expectations of every task she tackled. Nothing was ever “enough”, in her estimation of her own considerable achievements. No wonder she had little compassion (or tolerance) for the foibles of others And your second comment on self-kindness could be the subject of a whole new post! “People cannot always be or get exactly what they want” as Dr. Neff (and The Rolling Stones) say…


  8. And on top of self-criticism and perfectionism were the expectations of my husband to be exactly as I had been: strong and uncomplaining, the house, financial, and child manager, the business partner, etc. “Pull up your socks” is a phrase I heard frequently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ouch! “Pull up your socks!” is painful to hear, filled as it is with critical accusations of both whining and laziness in one fell swoop. Family members often want and need us to return to “normal” as soon as possible – not only for our sake, but so they won’t have to be worried/uncomfortable any longer than absolutely necessary. We often see early expressions of concerns dissolve after the initial health crisis passes and it is deemed that we “should” be better by now. It’s tough to maintain self-compassion if we’re not surrounded by compassion from the very people we count on to provide it!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such an important area Carolyn!

    I am just finishing an excellent free online course – Mindfulness for Wellbeing from Monash University in Australia. It is offered by the UK site Futurelearn – I have found it very helpful & informative and Dr. Neff’s is mentioned on the course along with many other useful resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Anna – both “excellent” and “free”! Your mindfulness course sounds intriguing, as the course outline describes: “an attitude of friendliness and compassion toward yourself, as opposed to self-criticism.” A worthy goal!


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