Badass Benevolence: Self-Compassion for Reformed Felons, Vets & You

Think about the last time you messed something up. Or things went really wrong. How did you treat yourself? Did you show self-compassion?

Did you give yourself kindness? Talk to yourself gently? Acknowledge the pain?

Or did you berate yourself for not getting it right, for making a bad decision, for not seeing how it would turn out?

If you tend to beat yourself up about mistakes, you are not alone. In fact, you are in some resilient, badass company. 

As an editor at resilience2reform, I’ve read all kinds of incarceration stories. Stories of the path to prison, life inside, and the challenges after release.

As varied as these stories are, there is a common thread in nearly every piece I read: incarcerated folks are ruthlessly hard on themselves. Woven through their posts is the harshness of self-deprecating jokes, off-hand cut-downs and relentless assertions of their abject terribleness.

I get it. These are people who made bad choices. In many cases, really bad choices. They then spent years, sometimes decades, in the cold toughness of prison culture where stony unemotional endurance means survival. It’s an understandable protective reflex: I beat myself up so nobody else needs to.

The writers on r2r are people who have been through enormous trauma and suffering (some self-imposed) and are making their way through it. They are working to heal and transform it into something better. And that is some serious badassery.

So even though I understand the tendency to relentlessly beat up on themselves, whenever I read this stuff, I always suggest self-compassion. 

You can imagine how well that goes over. It’s a tough sell.

Think about the last time you messed something up. Or things went really wrong. How did you treat yourself? Did you show self-compassion?

Nonetheless, I argue that self-compassion is not only the most courageous choice, it is the only approach that will heal their relationships (including the one with themselves) and move their lives in a more positive direction.

As I said, a tough sell. But I’ve got research to back me up.

A lack of self-compassion is rampant in our culture, not just with felons. Our tendency to judge ourselves harshly is due at least in part to a misunderstanding about what self-compassion means and how it works.

Culturally, we tend to think of self-compassion and self-kindness as self-centered and narcissistic. Research shows the opposite. Those with the highest levels of self-compassion suffer far less anxiety and depression, feel more motivation for self-improvement and are kinder and less judgmental to the people around them.

Sounds like something that would quite literally make the world a better place, right?

Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin explains that compassion means to notice someone’s suffering and then to desire to ease that suffering (compassion literally means “to suffer with”). Compassion is not pity but a willingness to be with another when things are tough.

Self-compassion, then, is the same impulse directed inward. Dr. Neff says,

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

I imagine my incarcerated and formerly incarcerated friends hearing this and rolling their eyes at me. “Seriously?” I can hear them saying. “That is some cheesy, sissy, weak-ass shit.”

Yet I stand by my contention. What if only by showing yourself the same care and kindness you would someone else, can you heal, move forward and ultimately love others? What if self-compassion is the only way out?

Recently, I talked with Lisa Jakub about practicing self-compassion with people who see it as wimpy and weak. Lisa teaches yoga, meditation and therapeutic writing to veterans (you can listen to her meditations for vets and other people who love swearing here). She and I agreed that while both vets and felons (and all of us) could really use self-compassion, they think it is seriously silly shit.

Lisa’s approach to introducing self-compassion to vets is all about language and context. Her approach is to translate soft, squishy self-compassion into something with more grit and muscle. I love this: re-brand self-compassion into Badass Benevolence.

So if you feel skeptical about self-compassion, what if we just get straight about it without any fluffy stuff?

Badass Benevolence means Self-kindness vs Self-judgment

Dr. Neff explains that “self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and 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. … When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”

In other words, sometimes life sucks. Sometimes shit goes wrong and sometimes we make stupid decisions. That’s the way it is for everybody. If your kid messes up or your best friend gets themselves in a jam would you tell them how crappy they are? Nope. Not if you wanted to help them, you wouldn’t. You would say yeah, it sucks, I know how bad that feels and I’m here for you.

Badass Benevolence focuses on Common Humanity vs Isolation

Kristin Neff writes that “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.”

That’s right. You’re a human. You are nothing special. There aren’t special rules that only apply to you. If you’d be nice to your kid, be nice to yourself.

Badass Benevolence means Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Neff describes mindfulness as “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. …Mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

Yep. It’s actually a weaker move to beat yourself up. Want to be courageous? Want to do the hard, brave thing? Be aware of how you feel and don’t push it away or beat it to a pulp. You really want to be strong? Then watch how you feel and just be with it.

Despite its warm, fuzzy reputation, self-compassion is actually one of the most powerful and courageous practices you can do. It has the potential to improve not just your own life but your relationships and the lives of the people around you.

So call it what you want. Talk about it in a way that works for you. But be nicer to yourself especially when things go wrong.

As Kristin Neff says, “Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.”

And as Lisa Jakub says, “Let’s go, assholes. You can do this.”



15 Most Interesting Self-Compassion Research Findings

Kristin Neff ~ Definition of Self-Compassion

Interview with Kristin Neff on Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris (who thought self-compassion was cheesy)

Lisa Jakub ~ Author, Mental Wellness Advocate, Retired Actor

Lisa Jakub’s Meditation for Vets and other people who love swearing



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