On Unmindful Self-Compassion

“Self-compassion is related to the construct of mindfulness, but unlike mindfulness, self-compassion specifically relates to how individuals respond to moments of suffering and perceived failure,” write Ru Ying Cai and Lydia Brown. “Self-compassion is also broader in scope than mindfulness, in that it involves the subcomponents of self-kindness and common humanity, which may be especially relevant as a means of downregulating negative affect during moments of stress.”

I’ve never been able to make use of any mindfulness practices (even setting aside that the woo-woo “wellness” industry has coopted the term), because it “involv[es] the capacity to pay attention to the present moment purposefully and nonjudgmentally”. Generally speaking, for me it’s rare that in any present moment in which mindfulness might be recommended—in other words, in my “most autistic” moments—do I have the psychological or emotional resources available for anything other than surviving that moment.

What struck me about this paper seeking to suggest that self-compassion might be a practice of some not small use to autistic people is that a kind of retroactive self-compassion effectively is what my therapist and I stumbled into (onto?) over the course of the past year.

There is “being autistic” (along with whatever comorbidities might be in play at the time) and then there is contextualizing that afterward—there normally is no “pay[ing] attention to the present moment”.

I’d described as much to one of the authors after I’d requested a copy of the paper, and they asked whether or not their idea for a self-compassion app might be useful. The question led me to a deeper understanding of what’s worked, or not worked, for me and why.

On the one hand, my capacity to just sort of successfully live independently from one day to the next has been dramatically improved by the advent of the smartphone (having a user-friendly calendar and reminder notifications with me at all times, et cetera). On the other hand, I struggle a lot with my life sometimes feeling too programmatic, like I am just a machine following instructions.

I can definitely see a potential self-compassion app being useful for some, but I am fairly sure if it would be helpful for me specifically.

This notion of being too programmatic and the negative impacts that has on my mental state helped explain why I’ve never been able to make use of apps like Calm, which I tried when my healthcare provider made it available for free to members during the pandemic. It also explains why I eventually had to ditch the mood-tracking app I’d started using not long after my initial diagnosis: it wasn’t gaining me any kind of understanding, it had become just another button to push.

(Once upon a time, this is the same reason I stopped using location check-in apps like Foursquare and Swarm. It stopped serving any purpose and just became this weird sort of chore I had to do every time I went somewhere.)

My diagnosis in no small part helped by giving me labels for various things in my head, boxes to sort this from that. Naming things in and of itself often yields some results. It wasn’t until this paper that I realized that while I have to do it after-the-fact, not in a mindful sort of way, self-compassion exactly describes the way in which I’ve increasingly come to navigate.