What is Self-Compassion?

How can you care for yourself in this moment?

Having compassion for ourselves is really no different than having compassion for others.

Think about it.

To have compassion for others, we first have to understand or notice that they are suffering. If we walk past or ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is.

Secondly, compassion involves feeling moved by another’s suffering so that your heart responds to their pain.

The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.”

When you are moved by others suffering, you feel caring, and a desire to want to help them. When we have compassion it also means that we have an understanding when others make mistakes rather than judging them harshly.

And when we have compassion for another as opposed to pity, it means we realize that suffering, failure and imperfection is part of our shared human experience.

By the same token, self-compassion involves acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, when you fail or when you notice something about yourself you don’t particularly like. Instead of just ignoring your pain and pretending it’s all ok, you can stop to tell yourself “This is no fun right now, this is really tough, I’m having a tough time” and ask yourself how you can care for yourself in this moment.

What if instead of endlessly judging and criticizing yourself for what you believe are inadequacies and shortcomings, you are kind and understanding when confronted with your own personal failings?

That’s self-compassion.

Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your own humanness. Things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to. You’re going to encounter frustrations, losses are going to occur, you’re going to make mistakes and bump up against your limitations. You might even fall short of your own ideals. This is the basic human condition, something shared by everyone you meet.

The more open your heart is to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans.

According to Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research and a professor at UT Austin, there are three elements of self-compassion:

1. Self- kindness versus judgment

Being warm and understanding of yourself when you suffer, fail, feel inadequate as opposed to self-criticizing.

Be gentle with yourself as you experience life’s difficulties and understand their inevitability.

Remembering that when we fight or deny our suffering, it increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. But when we accept our current reality with sympathy and kindness, we have an opportunity to experience greater equanimity.

2.  Common Humanity versus Isolation

Sometimes when things don’t go our way, we believe it’s just us who are suffering. We feel as if we’re the only ones who experience loss, inadequacies, frustrations. But, all of us suffer to varying degrees. Having self-compassion means that we can recognize that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. It doesn’t just happen to “me” alone.

And finally, the third element Neff suggests is:

3.  Mindfulness versus Over-Identification

When we are able to take a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed or exaggerated, that is self-compassion. We can relate our own personal experiences to those of others who suffer. This in turn helps us put our own situation into a larger perspective.

Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive state where we can simply observe our thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.

It’s the process of simply allowing.

Noticing and allowing.

We can’t ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. 

Being mindful as opposed to over-identified with our thoughts and feelings keeps us from being triggered and swept away by them.

Pay attention to your inner dialog. Ask yourself if it’s kind, loving, compassionate or are you hearing yourself be harsh, impatient, unkind?

Can you make a mindful attempt this week to notice that internal dialog when it shows up and instead of allowing it to take over, turn it around with self-compassion?

Remember, it’s all a practice. Perhaps consider joining us for our new IN-PERSON course: Introduction to Meditation. You can start with the basics and work your way into regular practice. You are not alone on this journey.

You got this!