What is Self-Compassion?

Photo by Hannah Grace

In my last blog, I described the 7 Powerful Benefits of Self-Compassion and it led many people to ask the question, “What is self-compassion?”

I think it is a great question and points to the importance of getting clear on what self-compassion is and is not. Many who hear about self-compassion fear that it is equivalent to “babying” yourself or letting yourself eat too much ice cream while avoiding responsibilities. I’ll clear all that up in this article so you can shamelessly give yourself love:-)

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, describes it as approaching yourself with kindness and understanding when confronted with personal failings, rather than criticizing yourself for what you or others see as inadequacies/shortcomings. This valuable practice reflects a beautiful Buddhist teaching that comes as a response to suffering. The core of the teaching lies in the discovery of your tender heart underneath the suffering you are experiencing, whether it be fear, anger, jealousy, or indifference. When you sense into the pain without the story, you also feel the tenderness of the vulnerable place and compassionate heart touched by the pain. This is the paradox of allowing and accepting what is – no matter how painful – for when you do, you also have the opportunity to experience the inherent kindness of your tender heart.

Dr. Neff explains further that self-compassion has 3 main components:

1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment 

Treating yourself with care and understanding, rather than with judgment, is the essence of self-compassion. Implicit in this component of self-compassion is the emphasis on action. It cannot remain a sentiment or theory. While self-kindness begins in the mind, actively soothing and comforting yourself is key to transforming this concept into a practice.

How often have you said to yourself, I know I should treat myself with more compassion and then turn around and actively call yourself stupid for forgetting something or making a mistake? You are not alone. The brain is actually wired to notice and remember the negative material more than the positive. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson says that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. In fact, the amygdala (aka the alarm of the brain) uses 2/3 of its neurons to scan for negative events and experiences as a protective measure. Offsetting this imbalance is one of many reasons to adopt a meditation, mindfulness, self-compassion practice, or another practice that focuses the mind toward positivity such as keeping a gratitude journal.

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation  

Seeing your own experience as part of larger human experience, rather than isolating is a difficult yet crucial aspect to being able to actively give yourself compassion in any situation. Why is it so difficult? I sense it is because we have so many ways to stay in the illusion of separation when pain arises with three main ones being (1)the belief that we should not have to suffer, (2)thinking we are the only one suffering, or (3)no one is suffering as much as we are.

When we make these assessments, we create the story that we are somehow different from everyone else and it can prevent us from reaching out or have us go to the other extreme of telling everyone our problems. Recognizing that everyone is vulnerable to suffering and life is imperfect is a step toward giving yourself some compassion when you do not meet your own or another’s expectations.

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Mindfulness, being intentionally aware of what is happening, as it is happening without judgment, allows you to be with painful feelings as they arise
. It helps you avoid extremes of suppressing or being immersed with painful feelings by cultivating a compassionate observer. Meditation teacher and psychotherapist, Tara Brach, points to two key aspects of mindfulness, the first being to see clearly what is true and the second holding with love what is seen.

Many people ask me how they can stop themselves from over-identifying with the feelings. When we practice mindfulness, we practice observing the feelings with a “touch and go” approach, acknowledging yet not getting hooked by the intensity. This is much easier when we let go of the story and stay mindfully compassionate with the emotion or sensations in the body. The story of how it should be or what you did wrong adds fuel to the fire of suffering and keeps you convinced that you are the feeling rather than you are having the feeling.

Self-Compassion practices help transform these feelings and experiences by teaching us to cultivate compassionate, connected, presence for ourselves. It helps us face ourselves and our most difficult moments with tenderhearted courage and care.

May we all discover our innate capacity to continuously show up for ourselves with kindness so we may experience life with a little less suffering and much more joy.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Facebook or LinkedIn. Thank you!

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in psychotherapy or self-compassion daylongs, feel free to contact me at: tamara@psychospiritualcounseling.net or 510-995-6499. I offer a 20-minute complimentary phone session so we can explore whether we are a good fit.

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