What self-compassion is and isn't

I recently facilitated some small group sharing on the topic of self-compassion.  I had done some reading that inspired me to think about this topic in some new ways and I wanted to share that.  However I was a little worried that the topic might not fly well in a mixed group.

I was wrong.  Everyone had something to say about what it meant to be compassionate with themselves and how they were doing with that.  I like to think that we all deepened a little more fully into treating ourselves with love.

Something to think about

 Says Jack Kornfield:   If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
 How compassionate are you with yourself?

How do you treat yourself when confronted with your own personal inadequacies and failings — or when facing difficult situations?  Are you kind to yourself? Or do you berate and get down on yourself?Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. I know that my inner critic is tougher on me than I would ever be to someone I love.  This is true for many of my clients too. Sometimes, when a client is being hard on herself, I will ask how she would treat a dear friend in the same tough situation as she is in. Her tone usually softens immediately.

For me, one of the perks of growing older has been an increasing acceptance of myself, warts and all, and a growing capacity to treat myself with compassion. It’s a work in progress; however I notice that the more self-compassion I can bring to any challenging situation or painful experience I’m having, the more inner resources I liberate to cope with my situation.  And I feel so much better in the process.

A helpful definition

In this endeavour to be kinder to myself, I’ve been inspired by the work of Dr. Kristen Neff and her research on self-compassion.  She makes a compelling case for the health, happiness and relationship benefits of practising self-compassion and provides the research (done by herself and others) to back up her claims.

So what does self-compassion actually mean?  Drawing on the writing of various Buddhist teachers, Neff defines self-compassion as being composed of three core components:

  1. Self-kindness:  This entails being gentle and understanding with ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate, rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.  We acknowledge that being imperfect and experiencing difficulties is an inevitable part of life.
  2. Recognition of our common humanity: Harsh self-judgement or adverse circumstances can lead to feelings of isolation, comparing ourselves negatively to others or feeling that life is “unfair” to us alone.  Self-compassion entails feeling connected with others, knowing that others also suffer; rather than feeling isolated or alienated by our suffering.
  3. Mindfulness:  Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, receptive state of mind in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are.  We hold our experience in balanced awareness.  We don’t ignore our pain nor do we exaggerate it.

This rich and nuanced definition can serve as a great guide to knowing whether I am being truly self-compassionate – or sliding into one of the less desirable attitudes of self-pity or self-indulgence.

Myths about self-compassion

Our ambivalent relationship to self-compassion may interfere with practising it.  In their publication The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook authors Neff and Germer outline the misgivings many people have about self-compassion. They also dispel misconceptions by drawing on research.

Here are some of the questions they hear — and what the research actually shows:

1. What if self-compassion leads to a “pity party” and “woe is me”?  
While many people fear falling into self-pity, Neff would argue that self-compassion is actually an antidote for self-pity.  “While self-pity says “poor me”, self-compassion recognizes that life is hard for everyone.”  This is where the recognition of our common humanity comes in.  We remember that everyone suffers from time to time and we are not unique or alone in our suffering.
2. What if self-compassion makes me weak or wimpy, when I need to be strong?
Although it is changing, there tends to be a big fear of being weak or vulnerable.  In fact, self-compassion is a reliable source of strength and resilience.  Says Neff and Germer: “Research shows that self-compassionate people are better able to cope with tough situations like divorce, trauma or chronic pain.”
3. What if being self-compassionate makes me selfish when I should be thinking of others?
Giving compassion to ourselves may actually enable us to give more to others.  Again, research shows that self-compassionate people tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships, more likely to compromise in relationship conflicts and are more forgiving toward others.
4. What if self-compassion makes me lazy and unmotivated?
People worry that self-compassion might undermine their motivation to achieve.  Many people believe that self-criticism is an effective motivator, however it comes at the price of undermining self-confidence and can lead to fear of failure.  Self-compassionate people may have high personal standards, however they don’t beat up on themselves when they fail – which may mean they are more likely to try again and persist.
5. What if I’m so compassionate towards myself I let myself get away with hurting others or messing up?  
Self-compassion is not a form of making excuses for bad behaviour.  It actually provides the safety needed to admit mistakes, rather than blame others defensively.  Research shows that “self-compassionate people take greater personal responsibility for their actions and are more likely to apologize if they’ve offended someone”.

It’s a gift to us all

The benefits of self-compassion for you, your health and your relationships is well documented and researched.  As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has said regarding the Buddhist practice of Maitri or loving kindness:  “Without loving kindness for ourselves, it is difficult, if not impossible to genuinely feel it for others.”  Rest assured that what you give to yourself by way of self-compassion will flow back to all of us.

Invitation to action

The next time you are dealing with a sense of personal failure or inadequacy or an external situation that is causing you suffering, review the definition of self-compassion for inspiration in practising it.  Remember the 3 components and ask yourself:

  • Self-kindness (Am I treating myself with kindness not criticism?)
  • Recognition of our common humanity (Am I remembering I am not alone — that others also struggle and suffer at times?)
  • Mindfulness (Can I be aware without judgement, neither ignoring nor exaggerating the pain?)

Notice how you feel when you shift to a more self-compassionate stance.  And notice how you treat others when you are feeling compassion for yourself.

**For further exploration of self-compassion, visit Neff’s website which is rich in resources, including her Tips for Practice.

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