In Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Kristin Neff asserted that people who are more self-compassionate lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are self-critical.
“Self-Compassion doesn’t mean that I think my problems are more important than yours, it just means I think that my problems are also important and worthy of being attended to.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Rather than condemning yourself for your mistakes and failures, therefore, you can use the experience of suffering to soften your heart. You can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction.
Compassion for Others
Compassion is not only relevant to those who are blameless victims, but also to those whose suffering stems from failures, personal weakness, or bad decisions. You know, the kind you and I make every day.
Compassion, then, involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help—to ameliorate suffering—emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.
Compassion for Ourselves
First, it requires that we stop to recognize our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Of course, sometimes the fact that we’re in pain is blindingly obvious and we can think of nothing else. More often than you might think, however, we don’t recognize when we are suffering.
Downward Social Comparison
Psychologists use the term “downward social comparison” to describe our tendency to see others in a negative light so that we can feel superior by contrast. If I’m trying to gild my own ego, you can be damn sure I’ll try to tarnish yours.
Components of Self-Compassion: Self-Kindness, Common Humanity and Mindfulness
- First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
- Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
- Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.
Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.
Common Human Experience
Acknowledgment of the interconnected nature of our lives—indeed of life itself—helps to distinguish self-compassion from mere self-acceptance or self-love. Although self-acceptance and self-love are important, they are incomplete by themselves. They leave out an essential factor—other people. Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect. Why else would we say “it’s only human” to comfort someone who has made a mistake?”
Self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong choices and feelings of regret are inevitable, no matter how high and mighty one is. (As the saying goes, a clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.)
“When we judge ourselves for our inadequacies, we typically assume that there is in fact a separate, clearly bounded entity called “me” that can be blamed for failing. But is this really true? Who we are, how we think, and what we do is inextricably interwoven with other people and events, which makes the assignment of blame quite ambiguous. ”
Mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s occurring in the present moment. Facing up to reality, in other words. The idea is that we need to see things as they are, no more, no less, in order to respond to our current situation in the most compassionate—and therefore effective—manner.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.—JON KABAT-ZINN
The moment we see something about ourselves we don’t like, our attention tends to become completely absorbed by our perceived flaws. In that moment, we don’t have the perspective needed to recognize the suffering caused by our feelings of imperfection, let alone to respond to them with compassion.”
And it’s not just the pain of personal inadequacy that we tend to ignore. We are surprisingly brusque toward ourselves when the more general circumstances of our life go wrong through no fault of our own.
Our sense of self becomes so wrapped up in our emotional reactions that our entire reality is consumed by them. There’s no mental space left over to say, “Gosh, I’m getting a bit worked up here. Maybe there’s another way to look at this.” Rather than stepping back and objectively observing what’s occurring, we’re lost in the thick of it. What we think and feel seems like a direct perception of reality, and we forget that we are putting a personal spin on things.
“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy when seen in a long-shot.” – Charlie Chaplin
Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment and provides the type of balanced awareness that forms the foundation of self-compassion. Like a clear, still pool without ripples, mindfulness perfectly mirrors what’s occurring without distortion. Rather than becoming lost in our own personal soap opera, mindfulness allows us to view our situation with greater perspective and helps to ensure that we don’t suffer unnecessarily.
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
Suffering stems from a single source—comparing our reality to our ideals. When reality matches our wants and desires, we’re happy and satisfied. When reality doesn’t match our wants and desires, we suffer.
Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional.
Mindfulness allows us to stop resisting reality because it holds all experience in nonjudgmental awareness. It allows us to accept the fact that something unpleasant is occurring, even if we don’t like it. By mindfully relating to our difficult emotions, they have the chance to take their natural course, arising and eventually passing away. If we can wait out the storm with relative equanimity, we won’t make things any worse than they already are. Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. – Serenity Prayer
Three Doorways In
The beauty of using self-compassion as a tool for dealing with difficult emotions is that it has three distinct doorways in. Whenever you notice you are in pain, you have three potential courses of action.
- You can give yourself kindness and care.
- You can remind yourself that encountering pain is part of the shared human experience.
- You can hold your thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness.
The Beauty of Self-Compassion
The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously. This is important—ensuring that the fuel of resistance isn’t added to the fire of negativity. It also allows us to celebrate the entire range of human experience so that we can become whole.
“We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” – Marcel Proust
Focusing a lot of our energy on helping others can lead to “compassion fatigue,” a syndrome that frequently occurs with therapists, nurses, and other caregivers. Compassion fatigue is a type of exhaustion and burnout experienced as a result of continually dealing with traumatized patients. When listening to tales of abuse or horror, or when tending to bodies that have been ravaged by sickness or violence, caregivers often relive their patients’ trauma. For this reason, compassion fatigue is also known by the name “secondary traumatic stress.
“It’s like those little videos they always show on planes before takeoff, which tell adults to put on their own oxygen mask before helping children to put on theirs. We need to have a steady supply of compassion available to ourselves in order to have adequate resources to share with others. If we’re knocked flat on our backs because our own resources are depleted, what use are we to those who rely on us? In many ways, then, self-compassion is an altruistic act, because it puts us into the optimal mental and emotional mindset to help others in a sustainable, long-lasting way.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.