“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” —Christopher Germer
Life isn’t easy.
It is extraordinary how we can show so much more compassion and understanding for others than we can for ourselves. Generally speaking, people seem to naturally be able to respond empathically to others experiencing problems and yet, when experiencing similar difficulties, a very different voice can be heard. And this voice can be heard in different guises, but it is often self-critical or disapproving. Why is it so hard to be kind and caring toward ourselves during times of difficulty? Where does that harsh, punishing or critical voice come from?
Many hold the belief that they should be able to cope with whatever life throws at them, that they have to keep pushing themselves, setting high expectations, that they ought to be able deal with anything and everything they encounter. When the idea of self-compassion is introduced, it can feel quite alien. For so many of us, the notion of taking a gentle and caring stance toward oneself can seem foreign and in some instances, it can even be met with a sense of contempt eliciting associations of weakness and vulnerability.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion can be understood to be a practice whereby “we learn to be a good friend to ourselves for when we need it the most” (Germer & Neff, 2018). How wonderful if we can be an ally to ourselves rather than an enemy! This involves, with time and practice, cultivating an attitude of warmth and kindness toward ourself. So, with self-compassion it is possible to learn to communicate and listen to ourselves as we might a close friend.
Showing ourselves self-compassion is not the same as being self-indulgent and giving yourself everything you want. It also isn’t self-pity, making excuses or weakness, nor does it undermine ones motivation to succeed—a common misconception. Being self-compassionate certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have high standards but it may mean you no longer feel the need to beat yourself up when you make a mistake.
In reality, self-compassion makes people more resilient to dealing with the difficult situations they are likely to encounter in life and research shows that self-compassionate people tend to have better overall psychological wellbeing.
How will self-compassion help me?
The research points to a powerful link between self-compassion and a demonstrably positive effect on mental and physical well-being. Studies show that individuals who are self-compassionate experience fewer negative states like depression, anxiety, stress, shame, and negative body image—and these same people are more happy in their life, are more optimistic, and have better physical health.
Indeed, practicing self-compassion can transform how you relate to yourself as well as the way you live your life.
There’s lots of ways to start practicing self-compassion and you may want to consider how to support yourself in integrating self-compassion into your life. A mindful self-compassion (MSC) course could be one means to develop your understanding and practice of self-compassion, and there is also the The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (Germer & Neff, 2018) referenced below that is a wonderful guide and often accompanies the MSC course.
However, the fundamental question in self-compassion is, “What do I need right now?“. Just by asking yourself this question, you invite a moment of self-compassion. It does not matter if you are unable to find an answer or meet your needs in that moment.
When we are struggling, we can offer ourselves self-compassion, not as a means to make the pain go away but rather to be kind to ourselves precisely because we are in pain. It’s important to understand that when you show yourself self-compassion, you may re-experience historic painful feelings because you are starting to create space for allowing your feelings in.
The term for experiencing any form of emotional, mental or physical uneasiness when engaging in self-compassion is backdraft. When this arises, you can instead ask yourself, “What do I need to feel safe right now?“. Using grounding techniques, like feeling the soles of your feet on the ground to anchor you, or comforting and supporting yourself in a practical way such as making a cup of tea or spending time with a pet, can be ways to help you.
There are lots of different self-compassion mindfulness exercises and meditations that you can try too. In particular, try taking a ‘self-compassion break’ or perhaps making use of ‘soothing touch’, such as placing one or both hands over your heart, placing a hand on your cheek or stroking your arms. You could also come up with different loving-kindness phrases that you can use to send yourself goodwill.
The words of my teacher always echo in mind from my own self-compassion journey—if it’s a struggle, it’s not self-compassion. It can really help to hold this in mind!
There is no controlling life. Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado. Dam a stream and it will create a new channel. Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet. Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground. The only safety lies in letting it all in – the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success. When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or sadness veils your vision with despair, practice becomes simply bearing the truth. In the choice to let go of your known way of being, the whole world is revealed to your new eyes.
by Danna Faulds
Germer, C., Neff, K. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive. United Kingdom: Guilford Publications.