Turning a critical judge into a compassionate observer

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on May 03, 2017 # Health

When the Dalai Lama visited this country for the first time, it is said that his first reaction was “People don’t seem to like themselves over there. I don’t know how you cannot like yourself when everyone is born with a Buddha nature.”

Throughout most of my life, I never liked myself very much. I was a bad student and ashamed of that. I was sexually abused when I was 12 by my seventh-grade teacher and I was so ashamed of what happened that I never told anyone. And then at age 33, I became a quadriplegic. I felt so useless and worthless that I didn’t even think I was not even worthy to live. And I hated this body. I felt it was like a terrorist, attacking me frequently.

I was ashamed because I couldn’t make love like other men. I was ashamed because I needed help cutting my food, because I peed in my pants periodically, lost my bowels occasionally and so much more.

For some reason, several years after my accident, I began thinking about that seventh-grade teacher and what he had done. I used to have frequent violent fantasies about walking into that bedroom as an adult and humiliating him. And then one day, I imagined myself going into that room and looking over at that little boy scared, confused and feeling so very alone. In my fantasy, I laid in bed next to the child I was and held him as we both cried for what happened.

That was my first real experience of self-compassion.

And then I looked back at that little boy who was a school failure and I felt compassion for him, knowing that he was a sweet little boy trying the best he could. And then I felt compassion, even love for the man who was so despairing and scared after he became a quadriplegic. And as I looked at every one of my life traumas, I felt and feel kindness and compassion towards this person who suffered so.

Self-compassion is not self-pity and it is not self-entitlement. Self-compassion is simply treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend. Compassion for others is about simply understanding their suffering and caring deeply. When you feel compassion, your heart opens.

So imagine feeling openhearted kindness towards yourself at various stages in your life when you have suffered and felt alone. Imagine feeling compassion for your body and mind that has been put under unfathomable stress whether you are disabled or a caregiver. Feeling compassion for your body that has been pushed to the limits by external circumstances, and all it does in return is keep us alive and functioning.

Imagine feeling compassion for the body, the life, and the loved ones we have.

Neuroscientists have made remarkable discoveries about brain plasticity. For example, with practice we can change the brain circuitry so that we can turn self-loathing into self-compassion.

Research shows that people who practice self-compassion have a greater sense of well-being, despite health issues and that they are less prone to anxiety and depression. People who are high in self-compassion, perform better, have better relationships and experience life with more gratitude.

And how do we get there? Practice, practice! By engaging in new behaviors, we can become aware when we are suffering. Once aware, just close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to feel kindness for this good person.

Like many others, I have severe neuropathic pain. When it first began, I reacted with fear that I would never be able to live with it. And then I felt self-pity. But when we experience with those emotions, our bodies tense up making the pain worse.

With my practice, I realize that it is not “Dan” that suffers, it is this poor body that is suffering. As I age and my body gets weaker, I frequently feel such deep gratitude and compassion for this body. Doing that doesn’t necessarily reduce the pain, but it sure does change my reaction from fear to kindness. As a result, the pain may not diminish, but the suffering sure does.

For more about self-compassion and exercises, visit Kristin Nath at


The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.