Although self-compassion is a recent buzzword, it is actually an ancient practice and is scientifically studied.
Compassion is the ability to show empathy, love, and concern to people who are in difficulty, and self-compassion is simply the ability to direct these same emotions within, and accept oneself, particularly in the face of failure. Self-compassion involves responding in the same supportive and understanding way you would with a good friend when you have a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. While compassion is “old” in the central nervous system, the practice of self-compassion doesn’t come quite as instinctually.
Practices of self-compassion have roots in wisdom traditions and has been taught by inspirational leaders from Gandhi to Oprah.
Kristin Neff, a contemporary self-compassion researcher and the first to define the term academically, describes self-compassion as having three elements.
- Self-kindness, or refraining from harsh criticism of the self.
- Recognizing one’s own humanity, or the fact that all people are imperfect, and all people experience pain.
- Mindfulness, or maintaining a non-biased awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either ignoring or exaggerating their effect.
It is the human condition to be imperfect, and some struggle with lack of self-compassion that leads to a sense of inadequacy. I’m finding many have difficulty with the concept of self-compassion and confuse it with arrogance. However, self-compassion is different than entering a crowded room and thinking, “Yeah, I’m the hottest one here.” Others feel it is irresponsible. That is to say, they incorrectly think self-compassion is a way of “letting yourself off the hook” for mistakes. Lastly, some find it difficult to foster a kinder inner critic.
The difficulty with cultivating a consistent self-compassion practice has been studied, as have the benefits of practicing self-compassion. In this podcast a student of Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn shares his practices of self-compassion for healing and transformation.
SELF-COMPASSION USES A DIFFERENT BRAIN MUSCLE, BUT EVERYONE CAN LEARN
Many struggle with self-compassion and default to the notion that “it’s not working.” An understanding of the process behind self-compassion may enhance persistence.
Much of our cognitive processing is automatic, or effortless. For example, without much effort, we can determine if one object is closer than another. There are other types of cognitive processing that require effort, such as mindfulness and self-compassion. Learning the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion will require effort initially.
Richard Davidson, respected Neuroscientist who studies emotion, shares his main talking point that, “wellbeing, compassion, gratitude should be understood as skills that we can develop, rather than something intrinsic about who we are or about our personality.”
If learning to plan a musical instrument or speak another language, the expectation would be, “it’s hard at first, but then we start to get it.” For a lot of us, when practicing mindfulness or self-compassion, when going through that initial hard stage, we think, “I’m not good at this. I can’t do it.” That’s a mistake in view that can make it harder to develop these qualities. Everyone can do it with practice.
In this podcast, Tim Desmond describes 4 types of self-compassionate presence:
- Motivate selves with compassion vs. criticism to do better. Studies show encouraging with self-compassion enhances perseverance through difficulties, whereas criticism fosters fear of failure.
- Have self-compassion during times of difficulty. Allow your internal voice to be your own internal caring and compassionate friend.
- Use self-compassion to heal pain and trauma from the past. Allowing compassion to sink in can feel soothing and comforting.
- Learn to have compassion for every part of our self. Not just the parts we like. But also relate to, befriend the parts of yourself we have a hard time with. Embrace hard thoughts and feelings like you are holding a crying baby.
Think about it this way…compassionate presence is one of the qualities a therapist offers in working with clients – a healing quality. When in distress, this is the most significant healing factor of therapy. We can empower ourselves when we practice and apply a self-compassionate presence.
Further, the practice of self-compassionate presence can have reciprocal benefits. With practice, we feel more confidence in self, and we can find compassion more easily for others; feel less irritable. It benefits everyone to connect with this ancient practice!
Here are some links for further information to begin or sustain your own practice of self-compassion:
Books by Tim Desmond, a mindfulness teacher, psychotherapist, and longtime student of Thich Nhat Hanh
The Practice of Mindfulness and Compassion | Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 2012.10.14
Explore this informal mindfulness practice to foster a sense of connection and belonging.