The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Finding balance in how we care for ourselves

Coffee mugs appear as yin and yang.
Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Most of us who have at-minimum dabbled in the world of Eastern philosophy have heard of the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. In fact, the presence of these terms has become fairly commonplace in the world of modern Western yoga spaces that I inhabit (think Yin Yoga). It was only in a recent therapy session, however, that was I introduced to how this dualist principle could apply to how I practice self-compassion—and it totally changed how I think about self-care.

A background on Yin and Yang

In case you need a refresher, according to the ancient Taoist philosophy the two energies of Yin (the feminine) and Yang (the masculine) work as opposing yet interdependent forces in nature that must come into balance to create harmony. This goes for how we interact with and express these energies in our human lives in relationship to others, ourselves, and the world.

Yin represents:

  • dark
  • cold
  • winter
  • night
  • water
  • the moon
  • structure
  • earth
  • rest
  • inward
  • contracting
  • front of the body

Yang represents:

  • light
  • hot
  • summer
  • day
  • fire
  • the sun
  • function
  • air
  • activity
  • outward
  • expansive
  • back of the body

Both Yin and Yang are present in everything and have a mutually dependent relationship to one another. You cannot have heat without cold, light without dark, night without day, and so on. When we humans experience ourselves getting out of balance with the Yin or Yang aspects of our lives, the opposing force begins to surface. If, for example, we become overly Yang-oriented in our busy, activity-filled lives — as is common in the modern, Western way of life — we will find ourselves tired and in great need of rest and time to turn inward, to bring our Yin back into balance with Yang.

Applying the philosophy to our self-compassion practice

Given this background, it seems intuitive to catalog self-compassion practices under the umbrella of Yin. But according to my therapist, this is not the full picture and, in reality, this limiting view of self-care may actually work to our detriment.

When we think of self-care or self-compassion — terms I’m using interchangeably in this article — we think of practices like taking a bath, practicing yoga, napping, journaling, or other actions we do on our own to restore ourselves. These are Yin practices. They are inwardly focused, restful, and calming and serve to balance the Yang energy of the stress of our busy lives.

We often ignore, however, the Yang aspect of self-compassion which is outwardly expressed in how we greet the world and how we interact with others. This is the aspect of self-compassion that allows us to say “no” when we need to, to set boundaries in relationships, to speak our truth, to advocate for ourselves, to provide for ourselves, to employ change, and to move about the world in a way that feels safe and comfortable. This self-compassion moves through us metaphysically, coming forward from the back of the body. We are supported from behind, then, by this Yang self-compassion as we move through our days.

Yin self-compassion, on the other hand, is experienced directly out of our heart space from the front of our bodies. Because Yin-oriented self-care usually involves only one person, ourselves, and doesn’t require much outward energy, we may find it easier to employ and to regularly fit into our routines. It can feel more difficult to rearrange our work schedule to fit our needs than it would be to “suck it up” and take a bath when we get home from an exhausting double-shift spent on our feet. Doesn’t this seem a bit unsustainable though? To truly support ourselves in the world, we must learn the way of Yang self-care.

How I’m learning to embrace Yang self-compassion

It was an a-ha moment for me when I understood what my therapist meant by Yang self-compassion: we must expand care for ourselves outward through our actions and our interactions with the world, beyond the quiet moments of self-care at home.

In truth, I’m really good at the Yin self-care. I journal most days. I love a good bath. I meditate, practice yoga, and sleep in. I’m fortunate to have the time for these things. But I can see now that the full expression of self-compassion for myself must go beyond this. It adds up that my daily need for extensive Yin self-care could be a response to the ways I lack it’s Yang complement.

I frequently find myself bending to adapt to the needs of others. I’m sure many can relate to this if you, like me, are a people pleaser. It’s tough to say “no,” to put up boundaries, and to draw lines around your availability. You don’t want to let anyone down. But for me, this overbending often results in not having energy left to attend to the actions I need to do in order to take care of myself. It can be as simple as putting air in my tires or running a quick errand to get a necessary item, but I often find resistance to these things, lacking the motivation to accomplish them.

What if I changed my perspective to view these to-dos as acts of self-compassion, rather than terrible chores? What if I had the self-compassion enough to say “no” when I need to? To not answer the phone or text back until it’s convenient for me? What if I honored the hours of work that serve my body and said “no” to additional shifts? What if I viewed limiting my availability to others as an act of kindness toward myself, rather than a disservice to them?

We often allow the expectations of others to trump what we know is best for us. Then we are left only with energy to care for ourselves in the more typical, restful, Yin ways. But the world doesn’t stop and errands need to be completed. We need to allow our outward energy to be expended in a way that serves us, as well. So this is the work I have to do. I’m working to practice the action of self-compassion in how I show up for myself in the world. That’s the Yang way.

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Yogi, meditator, student. I believe in compassion.

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Grace Herbener

Grace Herbener

Yogi, meditator, student. I believe in compassion.

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