Self Compassion, a habit worth cultivating.
Why should you care about self compassion? Is it just another gimmicky self help practice? What does self-compassion even mean?
I was raised to practice compassion—learned it from my parents, in school, through my yoga and mindfulness training and teaching. Compassion is necessary. Compassion consists of a pastiche of qualities—empathy, benevolence, sympathy etc. Compassion is integral to the well being of this planet.
What has been in the shadow of compassion is self-compassion. In our culture that still teaches us, especially women, that giving is our raison d’etre, and that giving to self, is being selfish and self-centred, and self-serving, self-compassion gets ignored, gets a bad wrap.
Research being done on self compassion shows that practicing kindness and acceptance towards ourself is integral to well being. Without self-compassion we are left vulnerable to harsh self-criticism, anxiety, depression and other psychological issues.
Sometimes people believe that practicing mindfulness automatically assumes self -compassion; however, self compassion stretches beyond mindfulness. Mindfulness is an integral part of self compassion in that we need to make a space between our thoughts and ourselves, we are not what we think, and mindfulness requires an openness to, and awareness of, our feelings without being hijacked by them. However, self compassion reaches further in that it requires the experiencer—us—to not only accept our experience but extend to ourselves the kindness and warmth we would offer another. Especially when we make mistakes, fall down, suffer.
What I love about self compassion is the connection I feel to a larger whole. When I was going through an extremely rough period in my undergraduate years, when depression elbowed its way into my life, recognizing I was not alone in my suffering would have been an enormous help. I felt isolated. I felt shame. I felt hopeless. Not that the depression would have disappeared but I don’t think I would have suffered as much knowing there were others out there experiencing similar feelings.
We all experience pain, know suffering, screw up. This knowledge that we are all flawed humans who have our own struggles is what Kristin Neff refers to as a feeling of common humanity: “…remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference. Kristin Neff Psychotherapy Networker Sept/Oct 2015
Kristin Neff in her research on self compassion illuminates several myths surrounding this practice.
The first myth she challenges claims that self compassion is a form of self-pity: “Research shows that self compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts…” When we are self compassionate we can face difficult feelings with kindness and in so doing do not push them away but are able to deconstruct them and feel them in order to let them go. An ability to let go means less ruminating and more protection against anxiety and depression.
Self-compassion and weakness are not compatible despite being thrown together often. Researchers are finding that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us.” (Psychotherapy Networker, Sept/Oct 2015)
When I was going through that period of depression to learn how to be kind and compassionate with myself, to not judge and flagellate myself for dealing with depression, absolutely would have helped free up some energy to take small steps forward instead of staying stuck in the cycle of negativity. “It’s not what you face in life but how you relate to yourself when the going gets tough (Psychotherapy Networker, p. 33, Sept/Oct 2015)
Some argue that self-compassion breeds complacency. The thinking is that without being self-critical and cracking the whip, we will not move forward. However, the negative reinforcement tends to be an energy suck and only causes us to spiral down into negativity and depression about what we are not doing or how we failed. When we are self compassionate, we can acknowledge our failures. This kindness towards ourselves frees us to understand our mistakes—when we have hurt someone for example—and apologize and learn for the future.
I remember one therapist asking me if I would treat my friends as I treated myself—with such relentless, scathing self-criticism. If I did that I wouldn’t have any friends I told her—an eye opening moment for sure.
Although awareness is so critical in change, I then had to take the steps to make change happen. Change is scary. Even healthy change. Catching the self-criticism and becoming more understanding and forgiving of myself felt awkward. Being self-critical felt familiar, like slipping into a birkenstock. Being kind to myself felt strange and uncomfortable. And yet, part of me knew I had to practice and accept the unfamiliarity and deal with the fear to save my well being.
Is self-compassion narcissistic? If anything the emphasis on self-esteem encourages narcissism. According to Neff, “high self esteem requires standing out in a crowd—being special…it is impossible for everyone to be average at the same time…In other words, self esteen requires feeling better than others whereas self-compassion requires acknowledging that we share the condition of imperfection.”
Am I being selfish by being self-compassionate? Because we are kind and understanding towards ourselves, does not negate being compassionate to others. Ironically, when we are immersed in self-judgment and self-criticism, we have little energy left over for anything else. “In fact, beating yourself up can be a paradoxical form of self-centredness.” (Psychotherapy Networker Sept/Oct p. 35). Being kind to ourselves allows for us to spread the kindness outward.
Learning how to be self-compassionate is a win win situation. The kindness and understanding you give to yourself opens the heart and allows us to open our hearts to others and this planet as a whole.
Give yourself permission to like you, to accept you, to realize we are all in this together flawed and at times flailing and in this together.