Self-Compassion Not self-pity
I have long been met with a resistance whenever I mention self-compassion, comments such as “that’s just self -indulgent”, or “that’s just self-pity” or even “but that selfish.” What some people struggle to understand is that self -compassion is not just about looking after yourself, recent research has recognized that self-compassion and mindfulness can lead to a happier, more motivated, healthier life. It can help ease anxiety and depression. It helps to build resilience, helping a person cope with the stressful lives we face today.
The definition of self-compassion is; extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. The word compassion means to suffer with.
Dr.Kristen Neff has defined self-compassion as being composed of three elements, 1) self-kindness, 2) common humanity and 3) mindfulness.
To show compassion for others you must first be able to notice that they are suffering, meaning you are feeling moved by that other persons suffering. Think about what it is like to experience compassion from other people, you feel a warmth from that person, an understanding, a caring, a kindness. When showing this kindness and caring you are acknowledging that suffering and failure is a part of human experience, a shared one at that. We all go through life having periods or moments of suffering and experiencing failure, this is just life.
Self-compassion involves showing the same kindness, caring, and understanding to yourself as you would a friend, at times of suffering or feeling a failure. Understanding that even though things may be tough and painful right now, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge, this will pass, nothing is forever. After all who ever said you were supposed to be “perfect”. What is perfect? Who defines perfect?
Self-pity normally involves the phrase “why does it always happen to me”. The difference is the word “me”, indicating it is not a shared human experience, just a solely personal experience, the one who has self-pity cannot acknowledge that life is hard and painful for everyone.
To try and explain a little deeper the three elements, self- kindness is not self-judgement.
Self-kindness involves understanding and warmth and that we have periods of failure, suffering. It is recognizing that imperfection and failing gives us an opportunity to learn and grow. Life is full of ups and downs, and obstacles that are thrown in our paths.
The second element, common humanity is you are not on your own. At times of stress or failure we tend to revert to using the “I” am the only person who is suffering, “why does this always happen to me?” Common humanity is just that, common. All humans suffer, self-compassion is having the knowledge that being “human” means we are vulnerable and imperfect and not immortal. We have all had similar experiences, what you may be feeling right now is not happening to you alone.
Mindfulness the last element, requires a balanced approach to negative emotions. Mindfulness can help to have these feelings, so that they are neither suppressed or over exaggerated. This balanced approach helps us to accept our experience and relate it to others’ who have or are suffering enabling our own situation to be put into a larger perspective. “it’s not just about me”. Mindfulness allows the negative thoughts to be accepted as just that, negative thoughts. Giving them more clarity just allowing them to exist in a non-judgmental manner.
By showing ourselves compassion, kindness and warmth at difficult times, things can start to change and feel a little easier to cope with. When we self -criticize we start to activate our body’s defense system. When this system is activated the human brain experiences it as a threat. When we feel threatened, we feel stress both in the mind and in the body. If this stress is continuous then we can experience anxiety and depression. Therefore, self- doubt and criticism is so bad for emotional and physical well-being. The human becomes both the victim and the attacker. When we can show ourselves compassion, we are removing the threat and deactivating the nervous system in turn releasing oxytocin and endorphins helping to reduce anxiety and increasing the feeling of safety.
Some myths that appear to go hand in hand with self-compassion are.
Self-compassion will make you weak and vulnerable, this is not true. In fact, self-compassion can help build your emotional strength and resilience, research proving self-compassionate people are better able to deal with stressful events such as divorce or bereavement.
Self- compassion is selfish or self- indulgent. Self-compassion helps to build long term health and well-being. Research has shown that self-compassionate people engage in healthier behaviours like exercise, better eating habits etc.
Self-compassion is an excuse for bad behaviour, not so when self-compassion allows the safety to accept or admit mistakes. Not just blame someone else. Research shows self-compassionate people accept responsibility and are more likely to apologise.
Self- compassion removes self-criticism which in turn removes any motivation. When in fact self-criticism leads to low self-esteem or low confidence allowing fear to grow. By acknowledging our mistakes and insecurities we can learn to grow helping to achieve our goals.
I recommend the value of self-compassion because I have learned to show myself compassion. I admit this was hard to do at first. All my life I have only seen my own suffering. Everything I did had to be perfect putting immense pressure on myself. This took its toll on me and everything negative I took as a personal attack. Always saying “It is me, I am cursed” or “if it’s going to happen it will happen to me”. I was asked by my therapist why I felt this way? I told her that so much negativity and bad things have happened in my life, why would’nt I feel this way. She asked me to think back, to think of other people in my life and what had happened to them. Then she asked me what would I say to these other people when they were struggling? There had been many occasions where several family members and friends were suffering too. This is when the penny finally dropped for me, I was not alone in my suffering. My therapist gave me some tips on how to show myself some compassion, such as understanding this time will pass, and it is ok to be not ok. That if I could offer myself some kindness the pressure of having to be perfect all the time would ease, to just be me. The main task was if I could learn to talk to myself as I would a friend. This was hard for me at first after all I had had a lifetime of thinking a certain way, but eventually I began to feel calmer and less stressed, and more motivated. I now acknowledge I am not alone in my pain and this suffering will pass. I now practice self-compassion regularly and I will always recommend anyone to try and see how nice it can feel.
Whenever you are experiencing difficulty, pain or feeling failure, try to listen to yourself as you would a friend and then start to tell yourself any guidance or caring words that you would offer that friend. It is a small step in learning how to practice self-compassion.