Crafting a More Compassionate Self // Trina O’Gorman

Crafting a More Compassionate Self // Trina O’Gorman

When my psychologist referred to my life experiences as traumas and my responses to those traumas as a complex post-traumatic stress disorder, maybe I should have felt relieved that it had a name and that I wasn’t the only one that had to find ways to navigate and cope with multiple traumas. But I didn’t. It made me feel quite uncomfortable. I hadn’t come to her for a diagnosis. I remember her regarding me with interest and asking me what strategies I’d used to manage my life. I told her that I write. I write nearly every day to process my experiences. That, and I had always been determined to break some of the negative, generational cycles to which I’d been exposed. It was one of my missions in life, and it had been since I was a little girl. 

When I was a little girl, I’d read and was inspired by Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was most taken by her courage to tell her story so unapologetically. And though I didn’t then learn everything I could have learned from her at the time, for there were lessons I didn’t learn until much later and some that I am still learning, I did take away one important lesson from my this “literary auntie,” and that was to own my story.  My story belonged to me, and it needed to be told. As Angelou advised, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I think she was absolutely right. But one lesson that she most definitely shared, and I am still trying to learn, was that we must exercise compassion, compassion towards others and compassion towards ourselves. It is the self-compassion, the compassion towards myself that I struggle with the most. 

I’ve clung onto Maya Angelou’s every word, as though she were speaking directly to me, and so when I heard her say, Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,” I took that to heart. It made me a much more compassionate and forgiving person, such that when the perpetrator of some of my childhood trauma finally came to me much later, when I was well into my 40s, and apologized, it was easy to forgive him. In fact, I’d already done the work of forgiving him before he expressed remorse. I’d already assumed that he had done the best he could have done at the time, and had he known better, then he would have done better. This made and still makes logical sense to me. It acknowledges the fact that we are all fallible and flawed, but that we have the capacity to grow and change. I found and find it still to be a comforting way of looking at the world. There are times when I still struggle with compassion, but I write about it often, nudging myself to take steps in that direction. I continuously work on becoming more compassionate.

But even as I become more compassionate towards others, the person I most struggle to become compassionate towards is myself. Like many people who have experienced trauma, especially childhood trauma, I’ve developed many shame-based behaviors, and even though I am cognitively aware of all of this, the struggle is real. Acknowledging that I am included in Maya Angelou’s advice, to “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” is hard for me to do, but I know that it is the antidote to shame and the key to well being. And this holds true not only for me but for others as well. Though research on self-compassion is still new, it is very compelling. It identifies self-compassion as a very important factor in our emotional and mental health and one that many of us grapple with. 

As I work towards becoming more compassionate towards myself, I use these writing prompts quite often:

  1. Have an inner dialogue between your shamed self and your developing compassionate self by writing the story that brings you shame, and then responding to your own story with compassion and non-judgmental understanding. 
  2. When you are feeling self-critical or hard on yourself, write about the “thing” that is causing this discomfort, and then accepting the fact that we are on this journey to learn from our mistakes, try to find the lesson in your experience. Once you identify the lesson, include the lesson whenever you tell or think of this story in the future. 
  3. My younger son often asks me what I love about him, and I can give him a list a mile long. The challenge then becomes for him to tell me what he loves about himself. Write a list, as long as you can, about the things you love about yourself.
    If you lack self-compassion, becoming more compassionate towards yourself will not magically happen overnight, even if you write these three journal prompts. However, being mindful of self-compassion as a mindset will help you infuse more of this kind of thinking into your everyday life. 
    Be gentle with yourself.


    • mary hazlett: August 20, 2019
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      Trina, when I began to read this, I saw “complex post-traumatic disorder”, and was comforted that someone I respect also suffers from this. Not that I want anyone to have it, but it’s good to know concretely that I’m not alone.

      I don’t think about it all of the time; it is part of my make-up. In the past, people didn’t have names for all of these disorders. They were just looked at as odd or eccentric. Having a name for things allows me to look at it. It’s not a vague something. It is a named something.

      Although I grieve the loss of family, mine has been a huge part of my complex-ptsd. So I’m slowly letting go of them. They don’t want me in their lives. I see them seldom – - 99% of the 30+ members live in town. After years of trying to belong (I’m single, and 2018 ended my 24 years as a live-in, 24/7 parental caregiver), it’s healthier to quit trying. I have 5 siblings, all married, and 12 nieces/nephews, 8 of whom are married and one in a relationship, and 5 great nieces/nephews with 2 more coming. Out of those, I’m blessed with relationships with a niece and her family, and a nephew (one of her brothers) and his family. There are several family members I’ve never met and don’t expect to.

      For me, family caused the bulk of the complex ptsd, with school and work bullying close behind. It’s healthier to let go of these people than try to change them. I can change myself and my behavior. That’s what I’m doing.

      (sorry for the monologue. I often think that we hide how bad things are, and others need to see it in order to not feel so alone)

    • Debra Zyla: August 20, 2019
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      This is beautifully written, thought-provoking, encouraging. I feel so vulnerable when I turn to another blank page. Your words have helped me. Thank you, Trina.

    • Denise McClean: August 09, 2019
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      Trina is always inspirational. This post is especially meaningful for me. My journals are moving into a more positive form partly influenced by Trina. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    • Heidi Ellis: August 06, 2019
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      This is so inspiring. What a strong resonating quote to keep moving forward in every aspect of your life. Thank you so much for sharing.

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