Today, we are going to talk about something that can help you handle intense, uncomfortable feelings: the practice of self-compassion.
It’s not uncommon for people to have no idea what I am talking about when I mention self-compassion. Or, they guess that self-compassion is some new age, touchy-feely concept when in fact, it’s just a way of being kind to ourselves in the same way we are kind to others when they are suffering. We may completely understand and accept the idea of having compassion for someone else who is suffering but the idea of turning compassion towards oneself might be a totally new concept.
What is Self-Compassion Anyway?
Let’s begin first by defining regular compassion: Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. When you practice having compassion for someone who is suffering, you feel a mix of empathy, care and a desire to help them feel less alone. You do not take on their suffering but you hold them with an open heart and concern for their well-being as they go through their experience.
Building upon that definition of compassion, self-compassion is turning that same attention towards oneself in the face of suffering. To describe it in more detail I’ll use a quote by Kristin Neff, a professor, doctor, author and teacher that has significantly helped the concept of self-compassion to become more widely known. Kristin says: “Self-compassion is extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion is composed of three main components – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”
Self-Compassion in Action
As I frequently like to do, I will give an example of how practicing self-compassion looks in real life. But first, confession time: I am a people-pleaser. I like to be liked. And while I am working to let go of these old patterns, I must admit that one of my biggest shame triggers is disappointing others. A couple months ago, it was called to my attention by a friend that I had done something that hurt her feelings. While I did not intentionally hurt this person, I had to accept the fact that I did and she may not like me very much for awhile as she tends to her hurt feelings. Oh boy! My shame triggers started sounding the alarm. Shame sirens were going off everywhere and my inner shame demons started having a complete field day. Do you have an image for your inner shame demons? I imagine my inner shame demons as little medieval trolls who gang up and beat me with spiked clubs. Yeah, it’s pretty awful. The physical feeling I get when shame washes over me is an intense gripping in my stomach, and my head starts to feel lightheaded and dizzy. It’s almost like a feeling of terror. I want to cry and hide away from the world. It’s as if the whole world can now see how awful I am and my deepest fear has been exposed; that I am an unworthy person.
For many people, shame is probably one of the most difficult emotions to deal with. It’s the avoidance of feeling shame that usually gets in the way of apologizing when we hurt someone’s feelings, which I talked about more in depth in a previous blog post. In my situation with this friend, I had no problem apologizing. But once I did, I now had to face the inner shame demons. I knew I was going to have to sit with this shame and it would take a few days for the feelings to calm down. I mustered up as much self-compassion as I could. I called on the support of the people I know who love me unconditionally. But, inside the shame was just not loosening its grip. In the midst of this inner battle, I recalled one of the intentions I have been working with which is, “I choose not to live in fear”. It wasn’t fully working because, well, if I’m not choosing fear, then what can I choose instead?
And then it came. Love. The antidote to fear is love. I tried to imagine how a young child would need to be held if they were feeling ashamed and afraid. I could imagine embracing a young child with total love and acceptance. Love understands if you make a mistake. Love is like a protective field that holds you safe inside. Think of how it feels when you are embraced by someone who loves you unconditionally. You feel safe and warm. That is exactly what I needed in my experience of deep shame. I needed to know that even though I messed up, I was still loved and worthy of love. That is precisely what self-compassion is. It is turning that same kind of unconditionally loving and accepting quality towards yourself when you are suffering.
Self-compassion also includes the recognition that every human being is fallible and we all struggle with pain, loneliness, fear, shame, sadness and loss. Practicing self-compassion includes the larger perspective that we are not alone in these experiences.
How to Practice Self-Compassion
Would you like to put self-compassion into practice? You can try these steps when you find yourself struggling with an intense or difficult emotional experience:
- Begin by becoming mindful of what is happening inside you; your body, your thoughts and your feelings. Notice how you talk to yourself. Do you berate yourself? Do you have that sick, sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? Do you want to hide in a hole? Or, do you want to lash out? Notice how you handle your shame or whatever intense emotion that is arising.
- Then, see if you can conjure up the memory or sense of someone in your life who loved or loves you unconditionally. This could be someone you remember as a child or someone currently in your life. If you can’t think of someone you know personally, you can think of any person in our culture or history who embodies the qualities of unconditional love. What would this person say to you? You can then try saying to yourself, “You made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s okay. I still love you. You are not alone.” Or, “You are feeling _________. Everyone feels ________ sometimes. It’s okay. I still love you. You are not alone.” You can fill in the blanks with whatever emotion you are feeling.
- Finally, really allow every part of you that is hurting to be held in this loving, unconditionally accepting space. Can you imagine being surrounded by that protective, loving embrace? See if you can continue to extend this loving attitude to yourself until the pain of your suffering begins to soften.
Positive Effects of Self-Compassion
The miracle that happens when you practice self-compassion is that your suffering begins to lighten. It is a very freeing experience! The more you practice embracing your vulnerability and your imperfections, you begin to ease up on yourself. You also begin to create a more gentle, safe and loving space within yourself that you can draw upon to cope with the inevitable suffering in your life.
I am very passionate about helping others to cultivate more self-compassion as I have seen how it has transformed how I take care of myself when I am suffering and I have seen how it has helped others be able to work with difficult experiences. Creating a friendlier relationship with yourself is a skill that can grow more and more over your lifetime. Having a higher level of self-compassion makes it possible for you to be honest with yourself without the expense of self-torture. Being kinder to one’s self also just plain feels better than treating yourself with criticism, judgement and rejection. I wish you luck as you put self-compassion into practice!
“Love, connection and acceptance are your birthright. To claim them you need only look within yourself.”– Kristin Neff
Find a list of resources, including Kristin Neff’s book on Self-Compassion, here.
Take this survey to see how self-compassionate you are:
If you are ready to take the step towards beginning therapy, please contact me and I am happy to offer a free 15 minute consultation to address any questions you may have about the counseling process or to book your first session.
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