We live in an incredibly competitive society that bombards us with messages about what we need in order to feel okay about ourselves. These messages include information about: what kind of career we need; how much money we need to earn; what we need to look like; and so on. The standard is set that we must be above average in order to feel okay. And not surprisingly, we all eventually (or often) fall short in some way or another. And when we do feel good about ourselves, it’s often a fleeting experience. Here one minute, and gone as soon as we notice someone else is doing better than us in some way.
We are often told that the key to our mental health is having a high level of self-esteem. But there is a problem with focusing too much on this elusive construct. Self-esteem tends to be tied to comparisons with others. Self-esteem is high(er) when comparison indicates we are doing better than others, and low(er) when we determine others are out-doing us. In this sense, how we feel about ourselves is not only conditional, but also can be very unstable.
So what is the answer?
“Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal we are trying to live up to. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.” Pema Chodren
Self-compassion includes three elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Mindfulness is at play when we acknowledge that there is something painful in our current experience, and we are able to hold the experience without becoming overidentified with it. In other words, saying to ourselves “This is what anxiety feels like” rather than “I AM anxious” or “I AM an anxious person.” The painful experience is something we are experiencing, not WHO we are.
Common humanity tells us that whatever it is we are experiencing is simply part of the human experience. We ALL experience sadness, grief, self-doubt, failure, etc. because we are human. Acknowledging common humanity counteracts the sense of isolation that often comes with perceived inadequacies and failures. We say to ourselves “This is what disappointment feels like…for everyone.”
Self-kindness is intentionally being kind to ourselves in the presence of hardship or failure instead of being self-critical. We might say to ourselves “May I accept myself as I am” or even “May I learn to accept myself as I am.”
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” Kristin Neff
Barriers and Misconceptions about Self-Compassion
Belief: “I’ve got to be hard on myself, to be tough, or I’m never going to get it.”
Reality: Harsh dialogue and/or harsh self-criticism is NOT necessary to motivate ourselves to achieve goals. In fact, it actually undermines motivation. AND, research as shown that self-compassionate people have less fear of failure and have greater intrinsic motivation to master tasks.
Belief: “This is too soft for me. Are you trying to turn me into a wimp?”
Reality: Socialization teaches us to believe that compassion in general is soft, unmanly, and somehow weak. It’s considered a ‘secondary virtue’ in our competitive culture. The truth is compassion is a powerful tool for transformation and connectedness, and can be fierce. Think Mother Theresa, MLK, Jr, and others.
Belief: “This is just about feeling sorry for yourself, isn’t it? I don’t want to wrap myself in self-pity.”
Reality: There is an enormous difference between self-pity and self-compassion. Self-pity enhances the sense of self as we wallow in “Why me’s” and “Nobody understands what I’m going through.” Self-compassion is quite opposite. As we tap into common humanity we begin to understand that this pain is part of our shared human experience. “Others have felt this, too.” “This is what it feels like for everyone who experiences this type of loss/failure.”
Belief: “This is so indulgent. Isn’t it like stuffing yourself with chocolate cake?”
Reality: Self-indulgence wants short-term pleasure; self-compassion is fundamentally interested in your long-term health and well-being. So it’s more like kale than chocolate cake!
Self-Compassion and Research
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” Christopher Germer
The concept of self-compassion in Western society is relatively new. However, available research on the benefits of cultivating self-compassion is growing exponentially. We now know that self-compassionate people report greater equanimity and more happiness, optimism, social connectedness, positive mood, and life satisfaction. It’s also been found that as self-compassion increases, people experience related decreases in depression, anxiety, rumination, emotional avoidance, and anger. More information on available research can be found at www.self-compassion.org.
Beginning a Self-Compassion Practice
To begin cultivating self-compassion try the following self-compassion break exercise available as a recorded guided practice on www.self-compassion.org.
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Now, say to yourself:
This is a moment of suffering. (This is mindfulness. Other options include: this hurts; ouch; this is stress.)
Suffering is a part of life. (This is common humanity. Other options include: other people feel this way; I’m not alone; we all struggle in our lives.)
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. And say to yourself:
May I be kind to myself. (You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as: may I give myself the compassion that I need; may I learn to accept myself as I am; may I forgive myself; may I be strong; may I be patient)
This practice can be used any time of day or night, and will help you remember to evoke the three elements of self-compassion when you need it most. Many other self-compassion practices are available both online and on the free Insight Timer app for Apple and Android.
May you find the inner resources to be free from suffering!
Laura Abbruzzese, MS, LPC, LCDC is a licensed professional counselor with Enrichment Training and Counseling in Waco. Her areas of specialty include trauma, anxiety/depression, substance abuse, and relationship discord. All of her work, as well as her personal life, is grounded in mindfulness and compassion, and she regularly teaches an 8-week introduction to mindfulness course for Wacoans who would like to learn how to more skillfully manage the challenges of modern life. In her free time Laura enjoys yoga (especially hot yoga), reading, and travel. Laura is a native Texan, but relatively new to Waco and is having a great time building her local tribe of fabulous friends. Laura is currently accepting counseling clients and can be reached at 254-235-3500 or firstname.lastname@example.org