“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” (Buddha)
When we talk about compassion, it is usually in the context of compassion we feel for others; maybe friends who are going through a difficult time like a divorce or a bereavement, or wider world events like migrants stranded at Calais. This feeling of care for others is important, but what about our care for ourselves? Do we look after ourselves first, or after others first? Does one come before the other, or are they equally important?
These are questions worth asking. I grew up in a family that was strongly focussed on public service and giving support to others, a Father as a Teacher and a Mother as a Nurse. Taking time for oneself or feeling for oneself in a difficult situation was considered self indulgence, or worse, self pity. My parents were people of their generation, emerging after a world war, the birth of a national health service, and part of a society where collectivism and social purpose was strong; perhaps we have changed in today’s society where individualism is prized.
Self compassion defined
We have found through our own learning and working with other people, that how we treat ourselves in difficult times is crucial. Many of us are familiar with the concept of compassion towards others. Being compassionate towards ourselves is for many of us, somewhat harder to talk about and live…
Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others; to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. Compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realise that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience: “there but for fortune go I.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen)
You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honour and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.
Components of self compassion
There are a number of pioneer researchers in the field of self compassion. Two of the best known are Kristin Neff and Paul Gilbert. Kristin Neff’s approach to self compassion involves three main components; (1) being kind and open to one’s own suffering (2) an awareness of sharing experiences with others (common humanity) and (3) practicing mindfulness approaches.
In terms of the self kindness component: being self-compassionate recognises that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so being gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals is the kind of approach that will help. In terms of common humanity self compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.The Mindfulness component stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
The 8 week Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) course that has been developed internationally is a direct result of the collaborative work of Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. By background Chris Germer is a psychologist and psychotherapist, with a strong interest in self compassion. Neff, by contrast is an academic researcher, rather than a clinician. The MSC programme is a product of their combined experience and began in the USA.
Gilbert is Professor of Clinical Psychology, at the University of Derby. He has written extensively about Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). He has written about the neuroscience of a compassion focused approach and the social, political and economic implications on society.
How to work on self compassion for yourself
With ever increasing pressures at work and home, taking time out to be kind to ourselves might at first glance appear to be self indulgent or even a sign of weakness. We might even think that it might make us feel better, but will it actually make us get better?
There is now a wealth of empirical evidence which indicates that profound improvement in our well being can be achieved by learning and employing this approach. This translates into amongst other things: better creativity, problem solving, interpersonal skills, improved physical and psychological health, reduced absenteeism, and increased performance at work.
There are a number of approaches one can learn that include things like short meditation exercises such as SOLES OF THE FEET and FINDING LOVING KINDNESS PHRASES. Maybe though, the initial challenge is to ask ourselves how compassionate to ourselves are we currently?
We are starting to run an 8 week course in 2016, with post course support, on building Resilience with Mindful Self Compassion tailored specifically for the workplace. This is an immensely powerful course for any individual or organisation that values well being and resilience in professional and personal life. Further details can be found in the BUILDING RESILIENCE COURSE FOR INDIVIDUALS 2016. We can tailor bespoke courses for teams or organisations on request.
David has been and remains “work in progress” in this area. This is the work he is doing and will continue to do to look after himself better; whilst he remains an imperfect example, it might highlight a few ideas to think about in terms of self care. His approach is:
- When things go wrong, as they inevitably do from time to time, I try not to castigate myself too much for what I could have done better or differently and am kinder to myself than I have been previously; if there is learning to be had from a situation, I take time to reflect on what I could have done differently and what I have learnt, instead of using self criticism to motivate myself and “beat myself up”
- I undertake a daily self compassion meditation that I have written and recorded, that takes some of the mantras from The Gilbert and Neff approaches (“may I be safe, may I be peaceful, may I be healthy in mind and body, may I live with ease”)
- I have identified my stress points and take particular care to try and avoid them or if I find myself stuck in them, to be kind to myself in dealing with them; for example when I’m stuck in traffic and feeling harassed and harangued because I know I’m going to be late for an appointment, and should have left earlier, I practice compassionate breathing and accept I’m going to be late, and it won’t be the end of the world
- When I have too much work on, which happens from time to time in self employment, instead of feel lost, confused, or overwhelmed about how to solve it, I try giving myself compassion, understanding, and kindness for the lost, confused, overwhelmed feelings
- There are times when I break one of my “rules” for example around eating or exercise, and my initial thought is everything has “gone to pot”, so might as well give up with the rules; I recognise more that this is “boom or bust” thinking or what is sometimes called catastrophising
- There are times when I have done “avoidant coping” and I suffer the negative consequences e.g., when I have avoided having an awkward conversation and now the situation has turned into a potentially bigger confrontation: I’m working on taking more of these courageous conversations on, as and when they need to be
Peter’s perspective: like many of us, I internalised from a young age, authoritative voices, for example parents and teachers, as my own. In difficult times, times of challenge, setbacks, disappointments and perceived failures, a harsh and critical voice would manifest as my own self talk. Quite a different voice from the one used to comfort, nurture and encourage others in difficult times. Unconditional acceptance of others, compassion and kindness is something most folks would agree is the most useful approach if one is to help others be the best that they can be. Even a moment of kindness from others, can be enough to propel us forwards no matter what. What if we could do this for ourselves? How much more, not less, would we achieve?
My own recent health difficulties have been an area in my own life that has been met with a very harsh, critical, sometimes even cruel and unremitting voice. That voice was not coming from friends, family or even strangers. It was coming from me. Like many people, I gave permission for this kind of self talk, because I thought it would actually help; something that I needed! This might sound familiar to you with your own story.
I learnt that whilst it wasn’t my fault, it was my responsibility to look after myself. It was within me, to find a way through. The most effective way came through nurturing warmth and comfort of self compassion, rather than the cold, scornful way. I found that with self compassion, I was able to navigate my way far more easily and take much more effective action. This in itself has been remedial with my own health. The unnecessary stress was making matters worse, not better.
By looking after myself, I am in a far better position to serve others in both social and professional relationships. I’m sure others have found me more pleasant to be around. Two people, who do not know each other, recently said to me: ‘You are more like your real self’
Kristin Neff’s self compassion scale; a self assessment exercise
Some alternative mindfulness self compassion meditations
Kristin Neff TED Talk; the space between self esteem and self compassion
Paul Gilbert talk: Strengthening the Mind through The Power of Self-Compassion
Article co-written by David Crowe and Peter Kershaw