What is Self-Compassion?
Sharon Salzberg defines compassion as,“the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to seeing pain or suffering.” When we sympathize with or feel the pain of another and wish to alleviate that suffering, that is compassion. When that suffering is in oneself, it becomes self-compassion. Put simply, self-compassion involves relating to yourself the same way you would relate to a friend who is experiencing difficulties.
Misconceptions About Self-Compassion
Often times, we are much more critical towards ourselves than we would ever dare to be toward someone else. People are often of the understanding that being harsh towards themselves is somehow helpful- that it helps keep you on track whereas adopting a kinder approach would lead to letting yourself "off the hook," but this is not what the research suggests. Rather, the research shows that adopting a more self-compassion stance is linked to greater personal initiative.
Learn more about self-compassion in my book!
Despite this, whenever I begin talking to clients about trying to be kinder to themselves, they are often hesitant. They imagine that their inner critic is serving them somehow helping them improve themselves. When I ask them to examine the evidence and observe the ways in which their inner critic is helping, they often begin to realize it is a myth. In fact, being self-critical might be maintaining their sense of worthlessness, their depression, their feelings of hopelessness.
"As long as we judge ourselves harshly, it can feel as if we're making progress against our many flaws. But in reality, we're only reinforcing our sense of unworthiness."
It might also be preventing them from taking steps to improve their lives. How? Well, being self-compassion allows you to see yourself flaws and all. This is incredibly important when it comes to the process of change as the first step in making any kind of change is awareness. Seeing yourself from a self-compassion perspective can allow you the opportunity to make real and important changes by accepting even those parts of yourself you may not like.
"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
For example, if you mess up and say to yourself, “I am the worst [student, employee, spouse, parent, person] ever” are these thoughts motivating? Does relating to yourself in this way help you to be better? I don't think so! Let’s say that instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake, you respond with kindness and say to yourself, “I feel bad about making this mistake. That is not the kind of [student, employee, spouse, parent, person] I want to be, but I am human; I mess up just like everyone else. This _______________ is more in alignment with my values and what I am going to make a commitment to doing next time." Now that is more like it!
The Research Supporting Self-Compassion
Research also shows that mindful self-compassion has a number of benefits including less anxiety and depression. You can learn more about the science of self-compassion here.
The Relationship Between Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
There is a special relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion. Why? Because, when awareness, or mindfulness, increases, so do many difficulties. This is why as awareness or mindfulness increases, so must compassion. In the Buddhist tradition, they often talk about mindfulness as one wing of the bird and compassion as the other; you need both to fly. In other words, as you become more aware of some of the difficulties in your own life, you need compassion to sustain it.
How Do You Practice Self-Compassion?
Like mindfulness, compassion is something that can be practiced and strengthened. So how can you practice self-compassion? When you are experiencing self-critical thoughts or feelings I would encourage you to practice three simple steps:
1. This hurts. This is painful. This is suffering.
2. I am not alone in this. I am a human being and pain is a part of my shared humanity.
3. May I be kind, gentle, and patient with myself as I learn and grow.
You can practice self-compassion by doing some of the exercises at either Kristin Neff or Christopher Germer's websites. They both have books on self-compassion, Self-Compassion and the Mindful Path to Self Compassion respectively, and a workbook, the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. You might also be interested in taking the 8-week course on Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), which you can find in your area here or take online here. You can also learn more about MSC in my new book, which can be purchased here.
Please note that this information is intended for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for psychological or medical care. If you are looking for professional help, visit my resources page for guidance on how to find a therapist. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.