Many of us understand compassion—empathy, kindness, gentleness, comforting, and open-heartedness. We often show compassion and caring for others who are suffering yet hesitate when we consider it for ourselves. We may be confused about what self-compassion is, the benefits, how to apply it to our life, or have some misgivings about side effects.
Self-compassion is difficult for me. The process encourages me to view mistakes, failures, shortcomings, and imperfections through the lens of benevolence and gentleness toward myself. My usual reaction to adversity is humiliation and defeat because I believe I did not try hard enough, discounting how much time, energy, emotional investment, and whole-hearted passion I infused into the project. Thoughts and beliefs that tell me I am inadequate as a human being fill my mind. Mistakes, failures, and shortcomings glow with a blinding intensity and pile onto an already enormous heap. Depression and anxiety symptoms increase and my sense of self-worth plummets. When I say words of solace to myself, they sound abrasive and insincere. They are hard to hear in my voice. When other people offer words of compassion, they affirm they are attentive and care about me, connect with me, and give me permission to engage with and express my feelings even if their support is unspoken. Self-compassion offers me the gift of giving that same kindness, gentleness, and support to myself, as I give to others when they are hurting.
Self-compassion is not letting ourselves off the hook nor is it ignoring or discounting the situation or looking on the bright side of things. Rather, it means we acknowledge the reality of the situation and recognize all humans experience disappointments and make mistakes. It does not mean we wallow in self-pity which keeps us stuck in our pain. Instead, we free ourselves to acknowledge the full range of our emotional distress and express it safely. Self-compassion does not take away our want and need to act. Rather, it equips us with knowledge and insight that help us move forward. We look for the lesson in the disappointment, failure, or shortcoming and change what we can. Our plight becomes clear and options arise.
Self-compassion does not foster narcissistic ideas and behaviors. We do not get into the rumination loop that awfulizes our experience. Self-compassion acknowledges our vulnerability and our human propensity to make mistakes and experience the sting of misfortune. We neither elevate ourselves with words of grandiosity nor do we demean ourselves with words of judgment.
Testament to our common humanity, we are all subject to the inevitable unpredictability of life. We all have disappointments, mistakes, failures, shortcomings, and characteristics we wish we could change. Self-compassion helps us see those elements through eyes of kindness and gentleness and comforting, like draping a beloved blanket or quilt over our lap rather than punishing ourselves with judgment. With the necessary element of mindfulness, we view the reality of our circumstance without further emotional harm. Our thoughts do not take over our mind; we regulate our thoughts.
When we are unaccustomed to self-nurturing, our attempts to override ingrained beliefs may give us senses of coddling or untruth. Self-doubt may arise and tell us we are in delusion or denial. Hurtful messages about us whether they come from others or from ourselves, may make the initial practice of self-compassion awkward. Failures and conclusions of inadequacy seem too big and impossible to overcome. I counter supportive messages with words of self-doubt such as, “Yeah, right,” in a condescending tone. Old, ingrained messages die hard. Realizing the benefits of self-compassion takes practice. As we become more accustomed to the words we need for relief, we can conduct a self-compassion exercise anywhere, anytime, in a matter of seconds.
So, how do we practice self-compassion? In whatever way works for us. My practice invites me to:
- Recognize I am experiencing a hurtful situation.
- Acknowledge the pain as genuine and honor and safely express my feelings.
- Remember that I am human and all humans experience difficulties, setbacks, disappointments, mistakes, and shortcomings.
- Ask myself what I need. What words do I need to comfort me? Sometimes, I need stillness and solitude. Other times, I need the kind words I would say to a friend. Or, I may need to journal. I can say reassurances such as, “I care about you and will be here as you face this situation”; “This is frightening, but I know we can get through this.” (I use the term “we” to let my inner self know I support her.); “May I be safe, may I be well, may I be at peace.” I work to send messages of well wishes to everyone involved. While not always easy, the practice can bring relief and tranquility.
- In my new peaceful state, I can assess the situation and my position and work toward resolution whether that means solving the problem, coming to an understanding, gaining clarity, or extricating myself.
- Another tip is self-touch: gently stroke the back of your hand or forearm. The warmth of your touch can soothe you.
Self-compassion melds acknowledgment and safe expression of our pain, recognition of our common humanity, and mindfulness toward approaching our experience with kindness and tenderness. We support of ourselves with the same caring we share with others. Our suffering diminishes in frequency, intensity, and duration. Serenity, joy, and resilience enter our lives.
May you be well. May you be safe. May you be at peace.