Self-compassion = positive wellbeingBack to blog
Compassion for one-self is something I’ve been learning a lot about lately. I thought I’d share some of my learnings in the hope it might help you to be more compassionate towards yourself.
Until recently for me, the word ‘self’ didn’t exist in the word ‘compassion.’ In fact, looking back, it would appear I only had compassion for others until one day, someone spoke to me about the importance of including ourselves in the circle of compassion – the importance of compassion for ourselves as well as others, as treating ourselves with the same kindness, respect and concern we would give a good friend. This was a real light bulb moment for me – ‘what, you’re allowed to be nice to yourself!’
I realised for me it was exactly what I needed in my life.
Until recently, I demonstrated little compassion for myself.
- No matter how late I worked the night before, or how intense and hectic the day before had been, I would still get up at 5:30/6am
- No matter how physically or mentally exhausted I felt, I would never ask a friend if I could postpone a scheduled catch-up – it was going ahead no matter how poor I felt mentally or physically
- I would keep pushing myself to work harder and longer and start new projects and initiatives even if I felt completely exhausted and overwhelmed in order to keep others happy
In fact, I didn’t even know what self-compassion was in any kind of practical sense.
One of the world’s top researchers on the topic of self-compassion is an American woman called Kristen Neff. She did a great TED talk on self-compassion that I would strongly recommend listening to. She defines self-compassion as having three main components:
- Kindness – treating ourselves as we would treat a good friend. We often say things to ourselves we would never say to people we don’t like
- Common humanity – how am I the same as others? To be human means to be imperfect. Often what happens, irrationally, when things aren’t going well, we see ourselves as being abnormal – we are isolated in our suffering. In fact, this is what connects us to other people
- Mindfulness – being with what is in the present moment. We need to acknowledge and accept the fact we are suffering in order to give ourselves compassion. Oftentimes we aren’t aware of our own suffering especially when that suffering comes from our own self-criticism – but we don’t even notice the incredible pain we are causing to ourselves.
So why aren’t we compassionate towards ourselves?
As was the case for both Kristen and myself (and possibly you too), some people aren’t even aware that they can be nice to themselves.
The research has shown that many people think they need self-criticism (the opposite of self-compassion) in order to motivate themselves. For some people there is a fear that if they are nice and kind to ourselves, they will become self-indulgent and lazy.
For others, it is a desire to please people that gets in the way of self-compassion – the belief that the only needs that matter are the needs of others.
So what is so good about self-compassion?
In Kristen’s TED talk on self-compassion she shares what the research on self-compassion has revealed. All the research on self-compassion makes it clear that self-compassion is very strongly related to positive mental wellbeing – related to less depression, anxiety, perfectionism, as well as greater happiness, life satisfaction and interpersonal relationships.
The research shows when we give ourselves self-compassion we reduce our cortisol levels and release feel-good hormones such as oxytonin. When we feel safe and comforted, we are in the optimal state to do our best.
In a research paper I recently read called ‘Compassion in the landscape of suffering,’ there is a case study of a lady named Dawn. Dawn describes a turning point in her recovery. She says:
“There was a gradual realization that when I added a layer of judgment to how I was feeling, and was critical towards myself rather than demonstrating self-compassion towards myself, I suffered more. Instead of answering, ‘Why can’t I get out of bed?’ with ‘Because I am a failure,’ I came to see that this, my lethargy and negative thinking, were all part and parcel of a depression that would take time to lift. This provided a glimmer of hope that I could begin to cultivate. It was almost okay to be depressed and begin to nourish myself in small ways. Instead of fighting the depression, I started to be gentler with myself. Looking back, these were the first steps out of depression. -Dawn, aged 48.
At the end of the mindfulness classes Dawn wrote on her feedback form:
“It was as if my mind created an abyss of suffering, rehearsing all the bad things that have happened, worrying about what might happen, not being right in my skin. It as if my heart provided a way of crossing the abyss.”
What I have noticed for myself
The good news is that self-compassion can be cultivated. My own experience suggests this, as do countless research papers. These are some small ways I am nourishing myself and giving myself compassion on a semi-regular basis:
- If I’m up late the night before due to work, I don’t force myself to get up really early as I once did. I recognise that my body and mind needs to rest even if I struggle to stay asleep past 6am
- I am getting better at appreciating that I am not a human doing but a human being. This means I don’t feel like I have to keep organising catch-up with friends and family members, or overdoing socialising. I also give myself position to postpone a catch up with someone in the event I don’t feel well.
- I am longer pushing myself to work as hard as I once did.
- When I experience emotional suffering, as we humans do, I no longer react with the shame, anger, aversion and frustration that I once did. I recognise that it’s my emotional responses to my emotions that makes me feel worse. Instead, I respond with kindness and care as I know that this is exactly what I need in these moments.
None of these shifts have happened overnight.
I couldn’t have made these changes if I wasn’t aware in the first place that I lacked self-compassion in the first place.
So the first steps is to identify whether you demonstrate compassion for yourself. Kristen Neff has some great resources on her website. One of these is a questionnaire that tests how self-compassionate you are.
In a book called ‘the Mindful Way through Depression,’ the authors suggest that people can cultivate self-compassion by asking themselves the following questions:
- How can I be kind to myself right now?
- What is the best gift I can give to myself at this moment?
- I do not know how long this mood will last so how can I best look after myself until it passes?
- What would I do in this moment for someone I cared about who was feeling this way? How can I look after myself in the same way?
People often think self-compassion is self-indulgent and selfish. It is not. As Kristen says in her TED Talk, the more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves the more we have available to others.
- In what ways have you lacked compassion for yourself?
- When you haven’t been compassionate towards yourself, why do you think this is the case?
- In what parts of your life could you demonstrate more compassion for yourself? What examples do you have?