Facing Fear With A Compassionate Heart

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the world at the moment, more than many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Author Elizabeth Gilbert shares her personal practice to meet our fear with compassion, and why now is the time to remember that humans are creative, resourceful, and resilient.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction—most famously her memoir Eat Pray Love.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction—most famously her memoir Eat Pray Love.

Fear is a natural human response and nothing to be ashamed of. Author Elizabeth Gilbert shares her personal practice of meeting fear with compassion and how remembering that humans are creative, resourceful, and resilient also helps combat fear, especially during turbulent times of uncertainty like the pandemic.

Western culture often teaches us to hate and be embarrassed by fear. We criticize ourselves when we are afraid, telling ourselves to be more “mature” and “tough.” In this article, Gilbert will steer us away from this harmful notion and teach us to instead love ourselves, be patient with ourselves, and respond to fear with comfort and security. 

Key takeaways

  • Fear is a natural emotion that helped our ancestors survive.
  • Treat fear with kindness and understanding.
  • Writing letters of love to oneself is beneficial as a primary daily spiritual practice and act of self-care.
  • Self-compassion improves mental health, resilience, and overall well-being.
  • Reminding ourselves that we are not alone and offering unconditional love and support can reduce fear’s impact.

Approach your fear with compassion

When we hold onto our fears and shame, we make our mental health worse. By being kind to ourselves and letting go of fear, we can handle difficult situations better and feel more relieved and comforted. While this is easier said than done, with practice and persistence, we can learn self-compassion.

Having a compassionate heart starts with recognizing suffering in others and within ourselves. It means understanding that we all experience suffering and connecting emotionally with and comforting those in distress, including ourselves.

Compassion is the most noble feeling that arises when we witness suffering. It’s deeply rooted in our shared humanity. It makes us caring, protective, and kind-hearted, with a genuine concern for the well-being of others. Studies show that having a compassionate heart can reduce stress, anxiety, and even physical symptoms like heart rate and pain.

Self-compassion is about treating ourselves just as we would care for others when we witness suffering. Having self-compassion has been linked to various psychological benefits:

  • reduces distress
  • improves well-being
  • helps us become more resilient

In her talk, Gilbert begins, “At the beginning of [the pandemic], I did what I always do when I’m scared. I sat down, and I wrote myself a long letter from love using the most soothing language that I could find, talking to myself as if I were the unconditionally loving Cosmic Mother herself, cradling her most beloved baby. . . at the beginning of all of the anxiety, I wrote things to myself like,

‘I see how frightened you are, little one. And that’s all right. This is a frightening time. It’s okay if you’re scared, but I need you to understand that I am right here with you. You don’t have to have any answers right now, sweetheart. And it’s okay if you feel paralyzed or helpless or if you make mistakes along the way or even if you overreact, I don’t need you to perform well. I don’t need anything from you. I just love you and I’m with you no matter what. And I will just sit here talking gently and lovingly to you for as long as it takes until you can draw a breath again. I’m in no hurry. I’ve got nowhere else more important to be. I have nothing else more important to do than to love you. Nothing matters more than me being here for you. I’ve got you. I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.’

That’s what I did. I sat there for a few hours all by myself, writing myself loving and kind words, endlessly pouring it out onto the page.

 And every time my fear rose up and said, ‘Yeah, but what’s going to happen?’ My love replied through my hand. ‘I don’t know baby. That’s not my department. I’m just Love and I’m just here to tell you that I love you and I will love you through this. No matter what comes.’ And every time my fear rose up and demanded, ‘But I need you to tell me what to do to stay safe,’ Love said, ‘Well, maybe it’s not clear what to do yet, but I know that you’ll make the best decisions you can and whatever happens, I’ll be right here with you. I love you. I’ve got you. You can’t lose me.’”

  1. Talk: Facing Fear With A Compassionate Heart Elizabeth Gilbert 22:47

Write letters of love to yourself

To learn self-compassion Gilbert recommends: “When you’re afraid, sit down, open a notebook, and start writing yourself a long, patient letter from unconditional Love. . .You’ve got nothing to lose anyway, right? I’m only giving you what I know, what I practice in my life. . .” 

“. . .what I know is that writing to my fear from a place of love saves my life every single day.”

Gilbert suggests the following when writing love letters to ourselves:

  • Don’t hurry through this exercise.
  • Show up for yourself.
  • Shower yourself with tenderness. 
  • Imagine what the most compassionate, loving, and gentle person in the world would say.
  • Tell yourself what you’ve always longed to hear somebody else say.

Still feeling stuck, here are some tried and true phrases to get you started:
I’ve got you. 

I’m not leaving you. 

I’ll always take care of you.

I’m right here.

Gilbert attests to the power of speaking self-compassion through daily love letters to build herself up and to get through the hardship of life.  

“I’ve been writing these letters of love to myself for 20 years. I’ve written letters of love to myself when I was in hospital waiting rooms in the middle of the night. When I was sick and alone. When I was going through divorce and heartbreak. Whenever I’d failed my own perfectionist standards. When somebody I loved was dying. When I was overcome with existential dread. And I can tell you it always works.” 

“Love always shows up and love always has the same thing to say to me, ‘I’m right here.’”

The therapeutic power of self-love letters

At first, writing a letter to ourselves might seem a little strange. However, this simple act can help our mental and emotional health. Studies show that doing things that make us feel good, like being grateful, can motivate us to become better and grow as individuals.

Writing a letter to ourselves gives us a special place to be less critical and more accepting of ourselves. It’s a safe space where we can think about our thoughts and feelings, connect with our true selves, and learn to love and accept who we are. This practice helps us be nicer and more understanding toward ourselves.

Writing letters to ourselves is like having a heartfelt conversation with our inner selves. Research supports the power of reflective exercises, like self-love letters, to give us a structured and thoughtful way to explore our thoughts and emotions. They help us better understand and appreciate ourselves and the world. 

Listening to your inner voice of love

It may be difficult at first to find your inner voice of love, and that’s okay. Perhaps the voice of compassion in you isn’t yours, but God or the universe. Gilbert says, 

“Look, I don’t pretend to know what that voice of Love is or where it comes from. I’ve taught this method to a lot of people, though, and it doesn’t matter who they are or what they’re going through. When they start to write themselves letters from unconditional Love, their fear starts to dissolve and their letters read exactly the same as mine do. That same tender voice, that same reassurance, that same sense of you can never lose me. 

“So what is that voice of love? Where’s it coming from? Is it God? Is it our guardian angels? Is it the loving energy of the universe itself trying to tell us at a cellular level, ‘No matter how scary things look, my beloved, you are safe and you belong.’ Or is it just my imagination trying to comfort me when I’m scared?

“. . .Whatever it is, I pass it to you. Give it a try. When you’re afraid, open up a notebook and write yourself a letter of unconditional Love. And if writing to yourself doesn’t help to calm your fears, that’s okay, too. I love you anyway. This doesn’t have to work for me to love you. I am just sharing with you anything that I’ve got that might help right now.”

Unconditional self-acceptance through inner dialogue

Accepting ourselves unconditionally can be a powerful journey of change, and a tool that can help us along the way is our inner thoughts. It’s about paying attention to every part of our inner world — embracing all our thoughts and feelings — and finding comfort in the complexity of being human.

When we truly listen to our inner voice, we can feel comfortable and accepted without needing approval from others. 

Research from the British Journal of Medical Psychology shows that having a conversation with our inner voice can help us manage negative thoughts and feel better about ourselves. When we acknowledge and interact with our inner thoughts, we can start to address issues like low self-esteem and self-criticism. These are often connected to various mental health conditions. It’s not about ignoring our inner critics. Rather, it’s about understanding and talking with them. Doing this can turn these negative voices into motivators for personal growth and kindness towards ourselves.

Develop a compassionate heart with meditation

Perhaps writing a letter of self-love doesn’t appeal or work for you. That’s okay! There are other ways to develop compassion and self-compassion, like meditation and self-care

The practice of loving-kindness meditation

Practicing Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) is an amazing journey towards developing a caring and kind heart, and it all starts with ourselves. When we focus on being kind and compassionate towards ourselves, we also build a strong foundation for extending those warm feelings to others. This practice boosts our self-compassion and brings positive emotions into our everyday lives.

When we do LKM, we participate in a special type of meditation specifically to develop feelings of love, usually through repeating phrases of kindness. Research shows that even short sessions of LKM, just 10 minutes, can greatly increase our levels of compassion and positive emotions.

Incorporating loving-kindness and compassion meditation into our daily routines is a powerful way to develop self-compassion. According to science, this practice is especially helpful for those who want to:

Regularly practicing LKM strengthens our relationships with others, helps us feel more positive toward strangers, and prevents us from feeling drained by caring for others. By making LKM a regular part of our lives, we can create a chain reaction of kindness and compassion that spreads to everyone around us.

Practice unconditional love for yourself and others now with Insight Timer’s free loving-kindness meditations.

Self-compassion meditation for self-kindness

Self-compassion meditation is a way to be kinder to ourselves and better understand our experiences. It helps us step back from negative thoughts and see that we are all connected. When we practice self-compassion meditation, we’re not only being kinder to ourselves but also planting seeds of empathy for others. 

Self-compassion meditation teaches us to be less critical of ourselves and more accepting. Studies support how this shift makes a big difference in our mental well-being, reducing shame and making us stronger.

Discover free Insight Timer self-compassion meditations to live healthier and happier in the face of fear.

Remember that we come from survivors

Gilbert shares another way to combat our fear: 

“If you’re looking for courage in the face of catastrophe, try to remember this. Human beings are enormously resourceful, creative, and resilient, both as individuals and as a species. Yes, what we are facing is scary and serious, but every single one of us is the direct genetic descendant of ancestors who survived unthinkable hardships. That’s who you come from. That’s who we all come from, survivors. That’s what you’re made up of. Literally thousands and thousands of generations of people who survived. If they hadn’t survived, you wouldn’t be here. So resilience is your birthright. Survival is our shared historical story.

“If you’re afraid for yourself or others or for the future of humanity, take a moment to remember our common ancestors and recall what they faced, what they got through. . .”

“So, if you don’t want to address your fears in a letter from love or if you find that’s out of reach, then try looking at it from an evolutionary point of view. We are strong. It’s a fact that we’re actually just incredibly strong. You’ve probably already survived a great deal in life — emotionally, physically, financially. I don’t even need to know who you are to know that you’ve survived a lot already. You’ve gotten this far. You may have resources that you’re not even aware of yet. I believe that about you. I even believe that about me.”

Ancestral resilience — a source of strength in times of fear

Looking to our ancestors’ strength can inspire us and make us stronger when we feel scared or uncertain. Thinking about how those who came before us faced their own challenges and overcame them gives us a different way of seeing things and the bravery to deal with our fears and uncertainties.

When we look at our fears from an evolutionary perspective, we realize that feeling afraid is not a weakness. Instead, it shows how strong and adaptable we are.

According to scientists, our ancestors who quickly learned to fear dangerous things had a better chance of surviving. This ability has been passed down to us so we can react fast when faced with threats. This means that our fears, even the ones that turn into phobias, are not random or illogical. They are connected to our history and how our ancestors stayed safe.

Understanding that our fears come from evolution can help us handle them better. Knowing that our fear responses are part of a system that protects us can be comforting. In an article for Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologist David Buss says that looking at evolution can help us discover new things about our minds. With this perspective, we can understand our fears better and find ways to face and overcome them.

Cultivate calm, courage, and clarity with spiritual practices for hard times.

Gilbert says, “. . .I’m not saying that what’s coming is going to be easy. Neither to experience for ourselves nor to witness in others, whatever is coming is coming and it promises to be difficult. But for those of you who have been doing any kind of spiritual practices over the years, well my loves, this is what we have been practicing for.

Spiritual practices are exercises that are meant to prepare you for exactly these sorts of moments in life. For the hardest of times when those practices can be transformed into a way of living, a way of surviving. All those hours that you may have already spent in meditation or prayer, it was all for this. None of it was wasted. Nothing you’ve ever learned, spiritual or otherwise has been wasted. Without even knowing it you’ve been building all sorts of reserves over time. Deep muscles that you didn’t know about yet, and you’re stronger than you know. Anything you’ve ever gotten through your life so far, any wisdom that you’ve gathered, all been in preparation for what’s happening now. As one soldier might tell another soldier before going into battle, ‘Remember your training buddy. This is what we came here for. This is what we’ve been practicing for and this is where it counts.’”

Building reserves of strength through spirituality

Building up inner strength through spirituality can be a lifeline during tough times. When we engage in spiritual activities like meditation, prayer, mindfulness, and reflection, we aren’t just going through the motions. We’re creating a calm and clear space within ourselves. Recent research shows that spirituality plays a big role in helping us bounce back from difficult situations and cope better. 

Incorporating spirituality into our daily routines can transform how we face challenges. Making time for these practices helps us build up our inner strength and emotional resilience. Embracing spirituality brings us comfort. It gives us the tools to handle life’s difficulties with grace and determination.

Be kind to yourself, always!

To conclude, Gilbert says:

 “. . .if you can’t remember your training sometimes, it’s okay. I can’t always do it either. You’ll falter, you’ll stumble, you’ll panic, and that’s okay, too. When that happens, just sit down and write yourself another letter from Love. Come back to repeating those three magical, soothing words to yourself from infinite Kindness. ‘I’m right here. I’ve got you, I love you and I’m not going anywhere. Do you feel that? Do you hear that? And right here, I’ve got you. I love you and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what Love always says, ‘I’ve got you. You’re not alone.’ And Love, I have found, is never not here.

During difficult times, being kind to ourselves and practicing self-compassion is important. Research shows that self-compassion can greatly improve our mental health and well-being.

Furthermore, self-compassion can help us cope with tough times. It allows us to be gentle and understanding with ourselves, knowing that fear is something everyone goes through. Being mindful of our negative thoughts and emotions can build resilience and improve our psychological well-being and emotional growth.


FAQs about keeping a compassionate heart

What does it mean to have a heart of compassion?

Having a compassionate heart means showing empathy, kindness, and a real concern for others’ suffering. It involves taking action to offer support, comfort, and help to others and oneself. This fosters a sense of connection and humanity.

How do we practice self-compassion?

Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness. It means understanding your struggles without harsh judgment. Having self-compassion means recognizing that imperfection is part of being human. Techniques like mindfulness and positive self-talk help cultivate a nurturing inner dialogue.

What are the benefits of cultivating a compassionate heart?

Having a compassionate heart enhances emotional well-being, fosters stronger relationships, and reduces stress. It promotes empathy, kindness, and a sense of connection with others. These lead to greater happiness and fulfillment in life. Compassion also encourages positive social change and community support.


References

Armenta, C. N., Fritz, M. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). Functions of Positive Emotions: Gratitude as a Motivator of Self-Improvement and Positive Change. Emotion Review, 9(3), 183–190. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073916669596

Buss, D. M. (2018). Sexual and Emotional Infidelity: Evolved Gender Differences in Jealousy Prove Robust and Replicable. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 155–160. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617698225

Cervantes, J. M., & Arczynski, A. V. (2015). Children’s spirituality: Conceptual understanding of developmental transformation. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 2(4), 245–255. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000037

Chura, S., Saintila, J., Mamani, R., Ruiz Mamani, P. G., & Morales-García, W. C. (2022). Predictors of Depression in Nurses During COVID-19 Health Emergency; the Mediating Role of Resilience: A Cross-Sectional Study. Journal of Primary Care & Community Health, 13, 215013192210970. https://doi.org/10.1177/21501319221097075

Coyne, L. W., Gould, E. R., Grimaldi, M., Wilson, K. G., Baffuto, G., & Biglan, A. (2020). First Things First: Parent Psychological Flexibility and Self-Compassion During COVID-19. Behavior Analysis in Practice. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00435-w

Davies, P., Thomas, P., & Leudar, I. (1999). Dialogical engagement with voices: A single case study. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72(2), 179–187. https://doi.org/10.1348/000711299159934

Gu, J., Cavanagh, K., Baer, R., & Strauss, C. (2017). An empirical examination of the factor structure of compassion. PLoS ONE, 12(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172471

Insua-Summerhays, B., Hart, A., Plummer, E., Priebe, S., & Barnicot, K. (2018). Staff and patient perspectives on therapeutic engagement during one-to-one observation. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 25(9-10), 546–557. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpm.12497

Kearney, D. J., Malte, C. A., McManus, C., Martinez, M. E., Felleman, B., & Simpson, T. L. (2013). Loving-Kindness Meditation for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(4), 426–434. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21832

Kelly, D., & Nicholson, A. (2021). Ancestral leadership: Place-based intergenerational leadership. Leadership, 174271502110240. https://doi.org/10.1177/17427150211024038

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Navarrete, C. D. (2006). Reports of My Death Anxiety Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: A Critique of Terror Management Theory from an Evolutionary Perspective. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 288–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/10478400701366969

Mueller, P. S., Plevak, D. J., & Rummans, T. A. (2001). Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 76(12), 1225–1235. https://doi.org/10.4065/76.12.1225

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x

Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y.-P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576500444000317

Öhman, A. (2009). Of snakes and faces: An evolutionary perspective on the psychology of fear. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 50(6), 543–552. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9450.2009.00784.x

Parviniannasab, A. M., Rakhshan, M., Momennasab, M., Soltanian, M., Rambod, M., & Akbarzadeh, M. (2022). The mediating role of Courageous coping in the relations between spirituality and social support with resilience among adolescents with hemophilia. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 135910452110550. https://doi.org/10.1177/13591045211055081

Ross, L., Jennings, P., & Williams, B. (2017). Psychosocial Support Issues Affecting Older Patients: A Cross-sectional Paramedic Perspective. INQUIRY: The Journal of Health Care Organization, Provision, and Financing, 54(54), 004695801773196. https://doi.org/10.1177/0046958017731963

Seppala, E. M., Hutcherson, C. A., Nguyen, D. T., Doty, J. R., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Loving-kindness meditation: a tool to improve healthcare provider compassion, resilience, and patient care. Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40639-014-0005-9

Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(5), 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2010.516763

Sirois, F. M., Kitner, R., & Hirsch, J. K. (2015). Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychology, 34(6), 661–669. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000158

Veréb, V., Nobre, H., & Farhangmehr, M. (2022). Cosmopolitan tourists: the most resilient travellers in the face of COVID-19. Service Business. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11628-022-00482-z

Whitaker, J. (2016). Recursive Exercises to Help Students Engage and Recognize Sociological Shifts. Teaching Sociology, 45(1), 14–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055×16664958

Woods, H., & Proeve, M. (2014). Relationships of Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Meditation Experience With Shame-Proneness. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 28(1), 20–33. https://doi.org/10.1891/0889-8391.28.1.20

Meditation. Free.
Always.