From schooldays onward, there is encouragement for us to be kind to others. But what about being kind and understanding to ourselves? Is self-compassion even desirable, or is it a selfish excuse to let us off the hook? Is this a worthwhile quality to aspire to? I’ll come back to these questions. But first, what is compassion and what is self-compassion?
Compassion means to ‘suffer with’. So, to have compassion for someone, first we must notice their pain. We are able to do this because we can imagine their suffering for ourselves. And we want to respond with kindness to help ease their suffering if we can. To have self-compassion is to respond in much the same way when we recognise our own suffering. We too are a person deserving compassion, as much as anyone else. But why focus on self-compassion? Is there not a danger of becoming too self-centered?
In general, our society values compassion towards others. Indeed, we may understand compassion as the quality of putting the needs of others above our own. But what happens when we leave ourselves out of the picture? We may neglect or exhaust ourselves to a point where we have nothing to give. We might then find ourselves feeling resentful, or indifferent to the needs of others. Moreover, a lack of self-compassion is often accompanied by being critical towards ourselves. We tend to judge ourselves when things go wrong, sometimes harshly. We condemn ourselves for weakness or failure. When we neglect to notice it, we allow such inner judgments considerable power. And this impacts on our mood and confidence. Imagine a bully following you around, bombarding you with critical comments. The worse you feel, the more they pick on you. Moreover, you believe their criticisms without question. Anyone would find this stressful. But what if the bully is a voice inside your own head?
Cultivating self-compassion offers a way out of this unhappy situation. It offers a path to greater understanding and ease. Let us explore the possibility that this is a beneficial quality to develop. But how can we encourage self-compassion in ourselves? To lack self-compassion is to lack awareness of ourselves in relation to the world around us. The way to counteract this is to become more mindful of ourselves as we live our lives. We can learn to attend more carefully to how we treat ourselves. I am offering here what I have observed as a typical journey towards self-compassion. I have based this on my own experience and what I have witnessed on my Mindfulness and Compassion courses. These seven aspects do not always arise in a linear sequence. Paying close attention to one naturally leads towards a shift in the others.
1. Recognising the absence of self-compassion
Noticing negative patterns in ourselves is an uncomfortable but necessary step. We cannot address something unless we recognise what it is. But how can we recognise what we cannot see? The mindful path to awareness starts with the body. It is here that we notice how we are feeling. Being more connected to our body and mood makes it easier to be aware of our thoughts. We find that we can watch the mind, while being less in thrall to its commentaries. We can learn to listen to our internal dialogues, as if with the objectivity of a bystander. It requires honesty to acknowledge the tension of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. But if we can do so, we will become aware of unhelpful attitudes and habits. We begin to sense how much friendlier our inner landscape could be. This awareness can lead to changes in behaviour and a new sense of freedom. A regular meditation practice can help, but also time spent by oneself to be still and quiet.
2. Cultivating self-compassion
Seeing the possibility of something different can inspire us to continue. Self-compassion is a learnable skill that we can develop with practice. We look out for how we talk to ourselves and seek kinder and more positive responses. We can take up specific practices to aid us, such as meditations to develop loving kindness. It can also help to write a regular journal detailing what we notice in our life. We can question the assertions of the inner bully, rather than assuming them to be true. It is important to recognise that we are not going to ‘get it right’ straight away. There is a need to be patient and have the resolve to keep going, understanding that change takes time.
3. Seeing ourselves with kindly eyes
As self-compassion grows, we see that much of our suffering is not our fault. Unpleasant experience is part of the human condition. From unwanted emotions to conflict with others, we all have unpleasant experiences. It is also normal to interpret difficulties as a sign of failure. Advertisers regale us with images of people enjoying the good things in life. They infer that not experiencing this perfect life is a failure in us - until we buy their products! Yet difficulties are not a sign of personal failure, but rather a sign of our humanity. Even when we see that we have created problems, we can ease off being hard on ourselves. Nobody is perfect! This is not to condone hurtful behaviour. In fact, being kinder to ourselves makes it easier to acknowledge when we have been at fault. In the face of our own missteps, we can respond with encouragement, as we would with someone we love. We can learn from our mistakes. This perspective is freeing. It lifts a burden we did not even know we were carrying.
Often, we look to others for support rather than ourselves. The help we wish for may or may not be forthcoming. But as self-blame reduces, we are able to see our own deeper needs with greater clarity. This empowers us to take responsibility for ourselves. There are many ways we can do this. We might choose to take restorative time alone, or quality time with a friend. We may recognise a need to set clearer boundaries within our work or family. Even if that is hard to do, we can start in small ways. The more we practice self-compassion, the more we become aware of what helps us to flourish. We can choose to do things that nourish us and build up our resources. We can also get clearer as to what we are or are not able to give to others. This allows us to offer what help we can in a manner beneficial to both ourselves and others.
5. Seeing the bigger picture
Researcher and writer Kristin Neff names 'common humanity' as key to self-compassion. This is the understanding that everyone suffers. When my father died after some difficult declining years, I sank into my own bubble of grief. A terrible thing had happened in my life. One day an acquaintance shared with me her feelings about losing her dad. In that moment I glimpsed a bigger reality, in which loss is part of life – for everyone. I had somehow assumed that watching the enfeeblement and death of a parent had only ever happened to me. It was healthy to move beyond my grief-bubble and empathise with another human being. Knowing how painful this loss had been for me, I was able to recognise her pain. As we become more tender to our own suffering, we can be more responsive to others. Self-compassion expands into compassion for our fellows. A deeper recognition that we are all in the same boat opens the heart.
6. Accepting ourselves
It is often thought that being hard on ourselves helps us to be more motivated in achieving our goals. It may be seen as a motivator to be our best self. In fact, research shows the opposite. Too much self-criticism reduces confidence. When even minor failures lead to an emotional backlash, we are less likely to take the risk of trying something new. With self-compassion we do not mind too much if we get it wrong. There is no need to spend hours or days berating ourselves. We understand that mistakes are an essential part of learning. With self-compassion we are less fearful and better able to look after ourselves. This begets self-confidence.
7. Relax. Enjoy.
Self-compassion leads to a loosening of the tensions we often experience in our lives. Much of our suffering originates in our own mental habits. That means it can be alleviated through finding new, more beneficial ways of viewing ourselves and the world. It is not that all our difficulties melt away. They still arise, but now we can respond with clarity, confidence and kindness. And with meaningful compassion towards others. This reduces stress in our lives. We can relax and enjoy life.
So, is the cultivation of self-compassion a worthwhile goal? Does it make us more, or less selfish? I am certain that learning to be kinder to myself has helped me to be more understanding of others. Self-compassion and compassion for others sit side by side; you can’t have one without the other. The more forgiving we are towards ourselves, the more natural it is to treat others kindly. But don’t take my word for it. I hope you can see this for yourself through your own growing self-compassion.
Photo by John Diez