The Power of Self-Compassion
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is a process of being skillfully self-supportive. In simple terms, it means treating ourselves with the same care we would a close friend for whom we want the best outcomes.
The three elements of it are acknowledging suffering or discomfort (not suppressing it, which can lead to increased intensity), identifying the feeling and responding with kindness (by naming the experience and offering support in response, its impact is reduced), and recognising the ‘common humanity’ of discomfort (normalising the experience and so reducing a sense of isolation).
Self-Compassion sounds soft. What is the tangible value?
There is a cost to having a lack of compassion towards ourselves, a cost that can vary from simply never achieving the levels of happiness and joy in life we are capable of, to the even higher costs of persistent anxiety and damaged relationships at work and home.
In a complex and competitive world, where ‘winning’ and ‘success’ are concepts embodied in us from an early age, we tend to be unforgiving of anything that threatens them. When we lose or fail, even in the smallest of ways, or sometimes even only fear that we might, we can experience emotions of ‘fight, flight or freeze’. We are inclined to turn these inward with self-criticism, isolation or rumination, and outward with anger. None of these responses support our well-being, or our capacity for healthy professional and personal relationships.
A regular practice of self-compassion not only makes us feel better, it can help us to do better.
Will Self-Compassion keep me from action? Will I stop being effective and successful?
We think we need to be self-critical to stay on track or to keep motivated to do better, but research shows that being self-critical has the opposite effect. It has the impact of undermining self-confidence and increasing anxiety.
Do your friends become soft and lazy when you support them? Do they start to fail at things when you show them understanding and care?
If a colleague were upset over a mistake he had made and you spoke to him in a reassuring and supportive way, is he likely to recover and perform well?
If a colleague were upset over a mistake she had made and you told her that you expected no better of her, that she always makes stupid mistakes, that she shouldn’t be in that role in the first place because she’s not able for it, that she should be ashamed of herself, is she likely to recover and perform well?
Most of us are hard on ourselves when we perceive a flaw or shortcoming. We heavily criticise and sometimes shame ourselves. Our orientation is to beat ourselves up and then cover up. This doesn’t create an appetite for healthy self-evaluation. Self-compassion allows us to be kind to ourselves when we see something we need to change, just as we would be with a child or friend. It is about awareness of ‘what is’, acknowledging it and creating a space to move on productively and positively. That kindness allows us to accept where we can grow. ‘Inner-compassion’ gives us the support and encouragement to move forward rather than the ‘inner critic’ who whips us for being where we are.
So how, and where, do I start?
1.Notice the suffering or the critical voice
This sounds obvious but is not necessarily so. When we beat ourselves up about something our immediate action is to move away from the pain of it, to ignore or hide it, or rush to fix it. We don’t acknowledge the stress, embarrassment or whatever the uncomfortable feeling is. We go straight to problem solving. We can sometimes mistakenly do that with others too, even though we know how hard it is to be on the receiving end of someone rushing to solutions when we simply want to be heard.When someone notices that we are suffering in some way, and acknowledges that, it immediately helps.
So that is our first step for ourselves: Notice and acknowledge the uncomfortable feeling.
2. Name the feeling and respond with kindness
The positive impact of correctly identifying what we are feeling is surprising. What exactly is theemotion? Is it embarrassment, frustration, shame, anger or something else? Naming it shifts ourperspective from having an experience to understanding the experience, and so weakens its grip.
When you have labelled what the feeling is, respond to it as you would with a child or someone you cared about, with kindness and care.
Use positive and supportive language: “I know you feel awkward and it’s uncomfortable, that’s OK.” “You’re feeling a little embarrassed, it’s natural, we all feel like that at times.” “It’s understandable to feel this anger now, who wouldn’t? It will pass in time. Remember your strengths...”
Allow yourself to hear the words and accept the comfort.
Developing a regular practice of self-compassion can help create lasting positive change in our lives.
The first thing to do, and you may be doing this already as you read, is to think about an area in your life where you tend to be self-critical. What does the self-critical voice in your head tend to say to you? Take a page and write it out. Write down all that you are saying to yourself on this area. It can be surprising to see the strength of negativity written in front of you, the tone and words used. Then consider how you would respond if you heard a friend or loved one being spoke to in that way. What would you say to help them? Or what would a wise and caring friend say to you if they could hear the self-critical voice in your head? Write down the compassionate and supportive responses.
Now look at both lists and notice how you feel as you read them. As you consider how those feelings might play out in your life, the impact they might have, you begin to recognise that you have more control than you realized.
Working through this process helps you craft supportive and restorative responses to offer yourself when your self-criticism kicks in.
Our self-compassionate statements are meant to comfort us and encourage us. They are not to flatter or deceive us, but to affirm our worth in a way that can lead us back to what we most want for ourselves.
Take the time to write down some of these compassionate, encouraging responses. And even if it might feel a little awkward, practice saying them out loud. Let yourself hear them. And try to let them in.
The second thing is to identify a physical gesture that symbolizes caring for you. This might seem a little strange, but touch is a powerful way of connecting and giving comfort. Think of the power of a well-timed hug, a hand hold, a hand on your shoulder. Our physical senses respond to the reassurance of touch and communicate the comfort to our mind and body. Physical touch calms and soothes, even when we are giving it ourselves. Finding a physical way of connecting communicates the offer of comfort to yourself.
Experiment to find what feels comfortable for you. Perhaps placing your hand on your heart, holding one hand in the other on your lap, stroking your arm, placing a hand on your stomach. Feel the support. These gestures help stimulate the release of oxytocin which has a positive impact on our emotional responses and contributes to relaxation, trust and stability.
As with any practice, self-compassion requires repetition over time. It might feel a bit awkward at first, as when developing any new skill, but the evidence is compelling that it’s a practice that helps us live with greater joy, resilience, and accomplishment.