Self-Compassion

Self-Compassion: When we are kind and caring to ourselves, as if to a close friend, especially during times of suffering, failure, or perceived inadequacy.

The word Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with.’  You most likely have heard of the concept of being compassionate toward others. This saying is commonly misinterpreted as having pity towards others, or feeling as though they are less than us for being in a state of suffering. Pema Chodron, in her audio lecture series  “Coming closer to ourselves,” clears up this misunderstanding, stating that compassion is not about helping others or looking down on them.

Compassion is a relationship between two equals.

The essence of compassion is found in the line of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem The Invitation:

“I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.”

Compassion is also not about “wrong-making.”  Meaning, it is a practice of not criticizing others for their behavior, but to accept them for who and how they are.  It is also not about pity or trying to “save” others.

To practice self-compassion is to turn these concepts towards ourselves.
It is the radical act of sitting with our own suffering and truly accepting ourselves (as opposed to judging our thoughts, feelings, behavior, or personality as inadequate or unacceptable).

As within other components of self- love we have discussed in this section, self-compassion is a practice. Like learning anything new, it will take time to digest and apply to your daily life moments.

A leading expert on Self Compassion is Dr. Kristin Neff

She shares, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

She acknowledges that when unpleasant / frustrating things happen, we often exhibit these behaviors:

  1. Criticize ourselves
  2. Isolate ourselves
  3. Become self-absorbed

She offers a counter choice to these ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to uncomfortable moments in life:

  1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.
  2. Common humanity vs. Isolation.
  3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.

Neff’s Exercises

Self Compassion vs. Self-Judgment

To choose self-compassion instead of self-judgement looks like turning toward ourselves with warmth, curiosity, empathy, and kindness in times of both ease and challenge. Instead of ignoring our pain or punishing ourselves with self-criticism, we practice sitting with ourselves in moments of struggle with love and patience.

Common Humanity vs. Isolation

When things don’t go as we want them to, it’s easy to isolate and feel like we are the only person who is suffering.  Self-Compassion includes the recognition that to be human innately means we are imperfect and are vulnerable to life’s disappointments.

Suffering is a shared human experience. We are not alone in it.

The following video walks through some simple steps of being kinder to oneself in the face of suffering:

  1. Think of a situation in your life that is difficult and causing you stress.
  2. Call the situation to mind and see if you can feel the stress/ emotional discomfort in your body. ( maybe in neck or shoulders for ex.)
  3. Say to yourself “this is a moment of suffering” or “ this hurts” or “this is stress” or “this sucks”
  4. Say to yourself “ suffering is a part of life” This is part of your connection to humanity. “Other people feel this way” or “I’m not alone”
  5. Put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and say
    “May I be kind to myself.”  or“ May I give myself the compassion that I need” or “May I  forgive myself”or “May I learn to accept myself as I am.”

Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

To practice mindfulness is to be in a receptive state of mind, in which one can observe thoughts and feelings without suppressing or exaggerating them.

The Below Exercises Come directly from Kristin Neff’s site and will take you directly there. You can explore more of her exercises to cultivate self-compassion HERE.

Exercise 1: How would you treat a friend?

How do you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when he or she is suffering?

Exercise 2: Self-Compassion Break

This exercise can be used any time of day or night and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion in the moment you need it most. Also available as an mp3.

Exercise 3: Exploring self-compassion through writing

Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel shame, to feel insecure, or not “good enough.” This exercise will help you write a letter to yourself about this issue from a place of acceptance and compassion.

Exercise 4: Supportive Touch

In this exercise you will learn how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by using supportive touch to help you feel calm, cared for and safe.

Exercise 5: Changing your critical self-talk

By acknowledging your self-critical voice and reframing its observations in a more friendly way, you will eventually form the blueprint for changing how you relate to yourself long-term. This exercise will help you learn how to do it.

Exercise 6: Self-Compassion Journal

Keeping a daily journal in which you process the difficult events of your day through a lens of self-compassion can enhance both mental and physical well-being. This exercise will help make self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness part of your daily life.

Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem

In this video she shares the different avenue of her research, differentiating between Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem:

She describes Self Esteem as a global evaluation which asks the question “am I a good person or am I a bad person?” Research shows that self hate and low self esteem can lead to mental health issues. Having high self esteem can also create issues.  In the culture of the United States having high self esteem requires you to feel better than the average person. There is an expectation to feel special, therefore we find ways to put ourselves above others to feel better about ourselves. From this pressure to feel special and “better than” comes a myriad of problematic behaviors: narcissism, bullying. Neff suggests that prejudices also come from this root issue of having to think your group or set of values is better than the others. Learn more from watching the video linked above.

You can also check out her favorite self-compassion resources Here.
Also, check out our section on Social Comparison.

A Path With Heart

Jack Kornfield, is an author of many helpful books. He is one of the pioneer teachers who introduced mindfulness practice to the West. The following quotes are excerpts about compassion from his book, A Path With Heart.

“Compassion for oneself is often neglected in spiritual practice.”

“The ground for compassion is established first by practicing sensitivity toward ourselves.”

“Mature spirituality is not based on seeking perfection, on achieving some imaginary sense of purity. It is based simply on the capacity to let go and to love, to open the heart to all that is. Without ideals, the heart can turn the suffering and imperfections we encounter into the path of compassion.”

“There is no formula for the practice of compassion. Like all of the great spiritual arts, it requires we listen and attend, understand our motivation, and then ask ourselves what action can really be helpful. Compassion exhibits the flexibility of a bamboo bending with the changing circumstances, setting limits when necessary and being flexible at the same time. Compassion allows life to pass through our hearts with its great paradoxes of life, love, joy, and pain. When compassion opens in us, we give what we can to stop the war, to heal the environment, to care for the poor, to care for people with AIDS, to save the rainforests. Yet, true compassion also loves ourselves, respects our own needs, honors our limits, and our true capacity.”

“True compassion arises from a healthy sense of self, from an awareness of who we are that honors our own capacities and fears, our own feelings and integrity, along with those of others. It is never based on fear or pity but is a deep supportive response of the heart based on dignity, integrity, and well being of every single creature. It is a spontaneous response to the suffering and pain we encounter. It is our feeling of mutual resonance and natural connectedness in the face of the universal experience of loss and pain. As our own heart is opened and healed, it naturally seeks the healing of all it touches. Compassion for ourselves gives rise to the power to transform resentment into forgiveness, hatred into friendliness, and fear into respect for all beings. It allows us to extend warmth, sensitivity, and openness to the sorrow around us in a truthful and genuine way.”

“The fearlessness of compassion leads us directly into the conflict and suffering of life. Fearless compassion recognizes the inevitable suffering in life and our need to face the suffering in order to learn. Sometimes only the fire of suffering itself and the consequences of our actions can bring us to deeper understanding, to feel kindness for all beings, and to liberation.”

The Mindful Path

Another leading author and teacher in the work of Self-Compassion is Christopher Germer. In his book The Mindful Path of Self Compassion, Christopher Germer names how self-judgment can wreak havoc in our lives. He kindly acknowledges that it’s a hard pattern to break.  Simply telling yourself to “stop judging yourself!” doesn’t work, as you’re likely to create an extra layer of judging yourself for judging yourself! He advises to simply ‘witness’ ourselves judging ourselves… allow the judgments to be seen coming and going.

To dive deeper into meditations that can support you in cultivating self-compassion , try Germer’s exercises here.

The topics include:

  • Affectionate Breathing
  • Loving-Kindness for Ourselves:
  • Giving and Receiving Compassion
  • Loving-Kindness for a Loved One
  • Compassionate Body Scan:
  • Compassionate Friend:
  • Compassion for Self and Others
  • Self-Compassion in Daily Life
  • Forgiveness of Others
  • Forgiveness of Ourselves

Neff  and Germer have teamed up to bring the conversation of self-compassion to more people around the world by developing the Mindful Self Compassion training program. Learn more about their collaboration here.
If you haven’t already we’d recommend checking our our sections on Mindfulness and Presence.

Maitri

Pema Chodron is a world-renowned Buddhist teacher, author, and nun. She shares that the practice of maitri is the basis of compassion and the seed of happiness. She describes it as being at home in oneself.

Watch her speak about maitri here

She goes deeper into explaining the practice of maitri in her course Coming Closer to Ourselves describing maitri as unconditional acceptance and friendship with oneself. She encourages us to not give up on ourselves, and to come to know ourselves with tremendous compassion, which takes bravery and kindness.

Maitri is an act of developing loving kindness for oneself. This practice means being completely honest with oneself about who you are and what you do.  Our go-to mode is often to act out or repress this truth, opposed to being honest and gentle with what is really going on inside of us. To develop compassion for ourselves, the base is cultivating unconditional friendship with oneself.

Self-Friendship

Unconditional friendship with oneself…what does that mean, exactly?

It can appear easier to be friends with oneself when things are going as you had hoped: You get the job you applied for, you give birth to a healthy child, or you have a supportive community in your life.
It can be harder to be friends with oneself when things aren’t going as you’d hoped. Instead of blaming or abandoning yourself, you have the choice to turn toward yourself with kindness.

Here are some real life examples to better illuminate this concept:

~ A man in his 50’s has a falling out with his business partner and loses an opportunity to create a documentary they had been planning for years.  Instead of blaming himself or his former partner, he seeks support in therapy to understand how he got himself into this situation. He begins to look at his part in the equation and grieves for the loss. He forgives himself for it not working out and reminds himself that he is a work in progress.  He is friendly toward himself, which includes holding himself accountable.

~ A woman in her 40’s is diagnosed with a condition in her hip that could result in major surgery. She holds herself to high standards and travels a lot for her work. Instead of pushing herself to keep going , she decided to cancel her upcoming work in order to not add stress onto her body. She takes the time to address her previous agreements while holding integrity within herself and the others she had committed to. She is a friend to herself and does not beat herself up for changing her plan to take care of herself.

~ A couple who has been married for years struggles to get pregnant. The woman has a condition that could be “ the issue” around conception. She metabolizes this loss by allowing herself to experience the pain, but does not turn on herself. She does not ONLY love her body if it is able to bare a child. She unconditionally loves her body in this form as well.

~ A man in his 30’s runs over his dog and kills her. At first it is very tempting to hate himself… to loath himself for not being more aware. After seeking support from his community he can see that this is not going to help him with his grief process. He is able to care for himself during this time of loss by trying to eat well and go to the gym even when it’s hard to get motivated.

Practice: Placing Self-Friendship

Take a moment to consider an area in your life where you could practice more unconditional friendship with yourself.
Meaning, no matter your level of performance, you can practice loving yourself through it.
This act is not about checking out from tracking your growth or holding yourself accountable. This practice is about holding yourself like you hold your best friend when things aren’t feeling as joyful as they’d like them to feel.

Pema teaches the concept of cultivating confidence in our basic goodness; the idea that, in essence, we have a pure heart and mind, like a clear shining sun. Despite the clouds, mist, fog, and storms that will come- we have the capacity to remember ourselves as the shining sun.

“Like a mother
Holding and guarding the life
Of her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Hold yourself and all beings”
-Buddha

“I am larger and better than I thought.
I did not think I held so much goodness.”
-Walt Whitman

Getting Intimate and Being Willing to Stay

As we get intimate with the emotional clouds, storms, mist, and fog of life, we can bravely practice staying with ourselves. Knowing that the sun is always shining inside (basic goodness) we can practice breathing through each present moment ( even the uncomfortable ones) as opposed to finding ways to escape them. Pema jokes, “Never underestimate our low capacity for discomfort.”
Let’s get real: WE DO NOT LIKE DISCOMFORT!

What escalates suffering? Running away.
What de-escalates suffering? Learning to stay.

There is some instant relief and gratification from escaping. However, there is also the “hangover stage.” Drinking alcohol is not the only way we know the feeling of being hung over from our choices … there are many ways we escape from uncomfortable feelings, experiences, relationships etc. Some of us shop, some of us exercise obsessively, some of us ensure we are never alone, some of us use sex to check out of pain, some of us play video games, some of us over-eat, some of us over-work… the list goes on. We can also escape from the present moment in subtle ways- like checking out emotionally in a challenging conversation, numbing, closing our hearts, suppressing our emotions or taking them out on others. “Running away” is essentially a flight response in which we hope for alternatives to the present situation. Buddhist teachings of staying with ourselves, is one concept to consider on the path of learning how to love yourself. As mentioned previously in our musings on self love, we are not here to push one way of being- one spiritual path- or one leader as the Truth. We invite you to take in what feels nourishing and leave the rest.

So how do we practice staying?
We can practice seeing ourselves as the full humans that we are. Being honest and gentle, you can begin to see that you are not perfect. Like everyone else, you lose your temper, you experience failure, you have lied, you have been lonely, you have known loss… you too experience discomfort. You can learn to stay with yourself during all of these storms and all of this truth of who you are.

The Gift!

As we become less afraid of ourselves, we become less afraid of other people. The more we learn to stay with ourselves, the more we learn to stay with other people.

The degree to which you are brave enough to face your own fear, negativity, and failings the more your capacity grows to be in the face of that which arises within a relationship.

As we have discussed in other parts of the Self Love Section, a part of being in relationships with others is the experience of getting triggered by their behavior. The more you have been able to make friends with what others trigger in you, the more you can respond with open eyes and an open-heart.

“That is the true meaning of compassion …Complete feeling of kinship or openness…” – Pema Chodron

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a potent  part of the process of loving another. It is also an important part of loving ourselves.

Here is an excerpt from Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance:

“Forgiving Ourselves: Whether our anger or resentment is directed at another or at ourselves, the result is the same- it removes us from the deeper pain of our hurt and shame. As long as we avoid these feelings, we remain trapped in our armor, locked away from love for ourselves and others. We forgive ourselves by letting go of blame and opening up to the pain we have tried to push away. But when we have deeply turned against ourselves, forgiveness can seem impossible. No matter what appears- burning rage, gnawing anxiety, cruel thoughts or utter despondency- by offering forgiveness directly to each, we give permission to our inner life to be as it is.”

Tara offers a helpful tool in how to move toward a state of forgiveness. It can be hard to unwrap our sense of self from our emotional experience. She brings in the awareness that we can forgive our experience.

“Rather than forgiving a “self” we forgive the experiences we are identified with. “ I forgive the shame” “I forgive the rage” Rather than trying to forgive a “self” we forgive the experiences we are identifying with.”

This kind of presence and distinction of experience and self can offer perspective, which frees up space for more self respect and love.

Forgiveness can be a transformational process that permeates one’s entire life. Louise Hay is known for her books on self-healing. In the late 1970’s she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, in which she chose to love herself through her healing. She used visualizations, nutritional cleansing,affirmations, and psychotherapy. She was able to safely process her childhood abuse and rape that she felt had contributed to her illness. After six months of practicing forgiveness she was healed.

PRACTICE: Forgiveness Meditation

And excerpt from Radical Acceptance

Bring to mind some aspect of yourself that feels unforgivable. Perhaps you can’t forgive yourself for being a judgmental and controlling person, or for how you have hurt others. You might hate yourself for being cowardly, for not taking the risks that might make your life more fulfilling. You might not be able to forgive how you are ruining your life with an addictive behavior. You might feel disgust for your mental obsessions or feelings of jealousy. Sense what feels so bad about your unforgivable behavior, emotion or way of thinking. How does it make you feel about yourself? How does it prevent you from being happy? Allow yourself to feel the pain that makes you want to push away the addictive, insecure or judgmental part of yourself.

Now explore more deeply what is driving this unacceptable part of your being. If you have been addicted to food, nicotine or alcohol, what need are you trying to satisfy, what fear are you trying to soothe? When you are judging others, are you feeling fearful yourself? If you have wounded another person, did you act out of hurt and insecurity? Out of the need to feel power or safety? As you become aware of underlying wants and fears, allow yourself to feel them directly in your body, heart and mind.

Begin to offer a sincere message of forgiveness to whatever feelings, thoughts, or behaviors you are rejecting. You might mentally whisper the words: I see how I’ve caused myself suffering and I forgive myself now. Or you might simply offer yourself the words. ‘Forgiven,Forgiven.’ Meet whatever arises– fear or judgment, shame or grief- with the message of forgiveness. Allow the hurt to untangle in the openness of a forgiving heart.

As you practice you may feel as if you are going through the motions and are not actually capable of forgiving yourself. You might believe you don’t deserve to be forgiven. You might be afraid that if you really open and forgive yourself, you’ll come face to face with an intolerable truth about yourself. If these doubts and fears arise, acknowledge and accept them with compassion. Then you say to yourself, ‘it is my intention to forgive myself when I am able.’ Your intention to forgive is the seed of forgiveness- this willingness will gradually relax and open your heart.

Forgiveness is a life-changing practice, often misunderstood in our world. We have an entire section devoted to its inner-workings. Find it here:

Inspiring Poetry

The Guest House
-by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Wild Geese
-by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

India Arie sings:
Prayer for Humanity

Lyrics below:

If we can learn what it means to really love ourselves
Then we can learn to love our neighbors as we love ourselves
And we can live in harmony, see ourselves as a family
This is my prayer for humanity

That we respect our women, and protect our girls
That they feel safe in every corner of the world
That we can live in harmony, see ourselves as a family
This is my prayer for humanity, oh-oh

That every man will be a father to someone
By loving every boy as if he were his only son
That we can live in harmony, see ourselves as a family
This is my prayer
This is my prayer for humanity, oh

That we know that nobody really wins the war (really wins the war)
And every leader knows what power is really for
That we can live in harmony, see ourselves as a family
This is our prayer (this is our prayer)
This is our prayer (this is our prayer)
For humanity, yeah, oh

And every man, woman, boy, and girl
Will hear these words all across the world
And every man, woman, boy, and girl
Will hear these words all across the world
And every man, woman, boy, and girl
Will hear these words all across the world
This is my prayer (this is my prayer)
For humanity

“When the animals come to us,
Asking for help,
Will we know what they are saying?
When the plants speak to us
In their delicate, beautiful language,
Will we be able to answer them?
When the planet herself
Sings to us in our dreams,
Will we be able to wake ourselves, and act?”
Gary Lawless

“ Community cannot take root in a divided life. Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must be present as a seed in the undivided self: only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.”
Bell Hooks

“…some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth—

That men and women…
Who give each other
Light,
Often will get down on their knees

And… with tears in their eyes,
Will sincerely speak, saying,

My dear,
How can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more
Kind?”
Hafiz

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