Life can be difficult at times. No one succeeds without experiencing some suffering. People die, health crises happen, relationships fall apart, we make mistakes, and even our modern day to day can bring overwhelming stress, and anxiety.
Imagine you’re going through any of the above. Let’s say you’re finally back out in the dating world after a bad break-up, and you meet someone you really like. You have a few dates, are excited about the possibilities - and then, he ghosts you. Ouch, that hurts, so you call a friend. “I’m so disappointed. It took a lot for me to open up, and he just disappeared.” you say.
Your friend responds, “Well, he probably found someone better than you. I mean, you’ve put on a few pounds and you’re pretty out of shape. Your skin is ‘crepey’ and that outfit didn’t really look great on you. Also, you talk too much. What did you expect?” Wait. That’s not your friend. That’s you. What kind of friend would speak to you that way? Wouldn’t a friend say, “That’s terrible. I am so sorry. Of course, you’re disappointed.” Your friend would treat you with compassion, which would make you feel better. So why don’t we treat ourselves the same way, by offering what is known as self-compassion? Self-compassion isn’t just a sweet-sounding self-help catch phrase. It’s a scientifically proven cornerstone of well-being, happiness, and realizing one’s full potential. However, self-compassion can be fairly elusive, especially for women. A lack of self-compassion can occur, not only in how we talk to ourselves, but in our actions as well. How many times have you equated resting, with being lazy; or forced yourself to do something you really didn’t want to do? Such self flagellation and self-defeating behavior only perpetuates suffering. So, what exactly is self-compassion?
Kristen Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and a pioneer in researching the topic, summarizes it this way, “Compassion is concern, with the alleviation of suffering. Self-compassion is turning this inward, towards yourself.”
Over the last decade, there has been an enormous amount of research into self-compassion by behavioral scientists like Dr. Neff. The conclusions are inspiring. Individuals who are more self-compassionate, tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, academic failure, crises like the pandemic, and even combat trauma.
Neff defines self-compassion with these three pillars:
1.Self-kindness. In contrast to self-criticism, or ignoring our pain, self-compassion invokes a nurturing approach of kindness and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. At the heart of self-compassion, is an acceptance that life doesn’t always meet our ideals or desires. Rather than fight against painful experiences with frustration or self-criticism, which exacerbates suffering, a self-compassionate person accepts these difficulties with sympathy and comfort, which leads to emotional balance.
2. Common humanity. There’s a common experience of isolation in those lacking self-compassion, a feeling that their suffering or their mistakes are unique to them. Feeling isolated only makes someone feel more inadequate and bad about themselves. When we realize that all people suffer and have inadequacies, we are able to feel part of a greater human experience, which makes us feel better.
3. Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive state of mind through which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain, and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness also requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we get caught up and swept away by negative reactivity. The mindfulness of self-compassion allows us to balance our emotions.
Now that we see what self-compassion is, here’s a look at what it isn’t:
Self-compassion isn’t self-pity. There’s a difference between being understanding and kind to yourself, and the single-focused and, often exaggerated, state of self-pity. Self pity lacks the interconnectedness and knowledge that we are not alone in our feelings. For example, in a self-compassionate statement, you might say to yourself “Yes, what I am experiencing right now is very difficult, but it’s normal and natural for human beings to struggle at times. I’m not alone.”
Self-compassion isn’t self-indulgence. Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean stuffing your face with a pizza, and a half gallon of ice cream, and sitting on the sofa for days. A slice and a scoop might be a nice self-compassionate act of comfort, but overindulgences and pleasure-seeking activities like drugs, drinking etc. more often than not, can lead to more pain and suffering. The idea with self-compassion is to make changes that will naturally alleviate the suffering.
Self-compassion isn’t self-esteem. This is a very important distinction to make. Our culture is heavily invested in the self-esteem we gain by being the best and achieving and receiving the positive feedback we get from being exceptional. While self-esteem can be healthy, research shows that our overemphasis on it, has led to a giant increase in narcissism, and putting others down to make ourselves feel superior. Self-esteem can become a bottomless pit, as there will always be someone who appears to have more than you, and you will never be happy with yourself as you are. The idea of self-compassion is more egalitarian, finding our shared humanity, and releasing the need to be exceptional in order to be loved. With self-compassion, we are accepted simply because we are here, and we are ourselves.
Self-compassion may just be the nicest thing you can do for yourself. Making it a part of your life consistently, can make you more resilient, which will help you avoid some of the suffering in the first place. In fact, a randomized, controlled trial demonstrated that mindful practice significantly increased self-compassion, compassion for others, life-satisfaction, as well as decreased depression, anxiety and stress.
To get started, you might want to take this quiz to see how self-compassionate you are currently. You can also check out these guided practices, and other exercises that will help you shift from being your own worst enemy, to being your own best friend. Neff also offers books, audio classes and a workbook.
Remember to be patient, as you learn this new way of relating to yourself and your thoughts – you have nothing to prove. This practice is for you, and your wellbeing.