What Self-Compassion Can Do For Us
Hand in hand with noticing our thoughts (read my last blog post), is the notion of self-compassion. But what does self-compassion mean?
Let’s take the word compassion first. The dictionary defines it as ‘a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for other people’s suffering or bad luck, and a desire to help.’
So applying that to ourselves, self-compassion is about extending compassion to yourself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering.
It’s first and foremost about recognising your thoughts and feelings, and then about helping yourself.
Easier said than done, I know!
This first point about recognising your thoughts and feelings, can be difficult when you’re caught in the midst of a thought storm and it’s accompanying unpleasant feelings.
Which is why I always talk about ‘noticing’. This feels more accessible to me than ‘being mindful’.
Now I realise that noticing is simply the first step in mindfulness, because mindfulness also involves detachment, or rather taking a balanced approach to negative emotions so that your feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.
It means not attaching thoughts, emotions or meaning to what you notice. Simply observing with openness and curiosity. Being non-judgemental, yet receptive. Not trying to suppress or deny the thoughts and feelings you notice. And conversely, not over-identifying with them and becoming cold or hard on yourself. Simply observing them as they are.
Kristin Neff (Associate Professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin) defined self-compassion as having three main components:
Being warm towards yourself when you notice pain and personal shortcomings, rather than ignoring them or hurting yourself with self-criticism.
#2. Common humanity
Recognising that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
While cynics, myself included in the past, may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting it has a deep evolutionary purpose.
This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, resulting in our wanting to care for ourselves or others. It’s a great predictor of resilience.
For me, what I’ve noticed is that the more curious I am about my thought patterns and their links to the way I feel, the easier it becomes to be compassionate with myself.
The less I need to “try” to go easier on myself. To be kinder. To recognise the adverse effects of continuing my negative thoughts. Because these negative thoughts never get me to where I want to be - which is usually to feel motivated to do the things I realise I’ve not been doing!
Which means using your will or will-power, is not a great long term strategy.
Because motivation doesn’t come from striving, trying and willing something to happen. It comes from wanting. From a real desire for something to be different or for something to happen. And it comes from recognising that whatever you notice about yourself in any given moment, you also have a choice in that moment, to bring yourself gently back to focus and to take action from a place of ease and love (the care-giver within), rather than through force or a feeling of self-loathing (the enemy within).
So what can self-compassion do for you?
It can enable you to live your life and do your work with a sense of ease, love, peace, or joy. To be a resilient person. Because our underlying sense of wellbeing is there when we can peel away the layers and see it.
Which means life and work become less about having to get somewhere or get things done; about frantic searching outside ourselves for answers…
And more about life and living, and going within. About realising that when we do this we uncover our own answers, our inner knowing. And we get to experience the simplicity and wonder of life, and living as human beings.
If you want to check your own levels of self-compassion, you can take the Self-Compassion test developed by Kristin Neff - https://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/