Be honest: when was the last time that you offered yourself genuine support and care during a time of struggle or suffering? Did warmth and openness characterize your physical gestures and vocal tone? Would your responses be different if it was a good friend having the tough time and in need of some support and kindness? Curious, isn’t it: comparable situations yet very different responses. It is common in our society to want to offer support and a helping hand to others in distress but not so common to respond likewise when the person in distress is oneself. In fact, studies have shown that 75% of people report that they are significantly more compassionate with other people than they are with themselves (Neff, 2003).
Passion is the Latin word for suffering; com the word for with. Taken together, compassion means to “suffer with”. So, when we sit and cry with a friend in tears or offer support and kindness when listening to a dear one grieving a loss, we are offering them our compassion. Let’s add the word “self:” to this equation: self compassion. What? Suffer with myself? What good would that do? A lot.
Dr. Kristin Neff, pioneer in the research on self compassion in Western cultures, has demonstrated that giving ourselves compassion during difficult or trying times is both beneficial for our own mental and physical health as well as for the well being of those with whom we interact (2003).
For a more concrete way to understand and define self compassion, Dr. Neff has broken the process down into three elements: self kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Though it may seem like it would be blatantly obvious for anyone to see or feel their own suffering, this has proven to be quite difficult for many. This is understandable: just think of how we have been conditioned or taught to react to any kind of suffering: “Don’t be a sissy! Tough it up!”; “Ignore it and fake it ‘til you make It.”; “Suck it up and get on with it!”. It is no wonder it is often difficult to outwardly and openly acknowledge our times of suffering! Being harshly critical of ourselves might seem like a good motivator and help us to get things done or perform with precision, but it has quite the opposite effect. As a result of fear and harsh self condemnation if we should somehow falter, we often do perform quite well, in the short term; after employing a self flagellation or a carrot and stick contingency plan, it is likely for a person to quickly give up trying and could foster a hopeless sort of mindset.
Self compassionate individuals, on the other hand, are warm and accepting of the times they feel inadequate or fall short. It is inevitable that we will mess up at one time or another; it is part of the human condition to be fallible and imperfect! By not trying to deny the inevitable or change the unchangeable, self compassion actually helps persons to see themselves clearly, accept their shortcomings, and foster greater motivation and resilience. As we can’t heal what we can’t feel, it is essential and to our own benefit to acknowledge and relate differently, with greater kindness, to our inevitable missteps. How would you treat or motivate a young child? By threatening, discouraging, or demeaning her? Of course not! Doing the exact opposite would be more conducive to success and encouragement. Doing so does not at all mean that you especially like or dislike the circumstances; nor does it entail acting with resignation or passivity to the events in your life. Being self compassionate does not equate to being a “back-seat driver” in your life; it is actually quite active and intentional! (What Self Compassion is Not)
The body naturally and instinctively responds to feelings of comfort for the purposes of safety, security, and nourishment: it has been found that the body releases oxytocin (a natural feel good hormone) in response to a tender touch. Think of a mother or father cradling their child in their arms while speaking in soft and soothing tones; oftentimes, this has the effect of calming or settling discomfort in the child. When we are compassionate to ourselves, we can stimulate the release of such hormones, as the body receives the nurturing and care it needs in order to feel safe and secure from his or her own self. It does not matter where or from whom the gentle caress or soothing tones come from: holding or caressing yourself in a kind way, perhaps with soothing or calming vocalization could result in just the right release of oxytocin to help you feel the kindness and care your body needs.
When things do not progress or turn out in the way we would like them to, it is very common to feel isolated and helpless, as though we are the only ones to have ever experienced such a catastrophe or that everyone else has it so much easier; we know this is illogical but still, we somehow forget that all persons suffer in some way, shape, or form. No one is able to control exactly how situations or circumstances unfold.
Self compassion helps us to recognize and take into account that suffering and imperfection are parts of the human condition. No one is without his or her own inadequacies or foibles: we’re all in the same boat! Said another way, self compassion helps to remind us that we are never alone in our struggles.
Seeing our own situation from a larger perspective (common humanity) and relating to it with warmth and active self kindness help us to frame our experiences in a more balanced and non-judgmental manner; rather than exaggerating or minimizing the reality of what is happening in the here and now, being self compassionate fosters a whole new way of relating to negative emotions: with openness and acceptance. Simply observing thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to alter them in some desired way, being open to and accepting of what reality brings without judgment characterizes Mindfulness. Consider it to be a “middle path” of sorts: suffering and pains are recognized and acknowledged just as they are, without over-identifying with the thoughts and feelings, which could otherwise overwhelm us or sweep us away. Rather, all of it is lovingly held in Mindful awareness.
Simple but Not Always Easy
Taken together, self compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and support, recognizing the humanness of suffering, and observing, rather than over-identifying with or attempting to alter or deny the presence of certain thoughts and emotions; treating yourself like you would treat a dear friend.
Self compassion is a skill and like any other skill, it requires some effort. Since many extant practices in daily life are quite contradictory to what constitutes self compassion, this practice might seem tough at times, so we need lots of Practice, Practice, Practice! We all also need lots of loving, connectedness, and a little presence; this very loving, connected presence is a gift that can be received by practicing self compassion. A gift to you from you.