“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”
Christopher K. Germer
Would you speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself in the secrecy of your own mind? Would you berate, be as hard upon, or demand such high standards from those you love as you do from yourself?
We have been told repeatedly by many gurus, masters, religions and spiritual disciplines that love of others begins with love of the self. What has come to be known as ‘The Golden Rule’, in fact, has been found to be embedded in every major world religion as can be articulated as ‘regard all others as you would regard the self’. Certainly we are called to treat others with compassion and kindness yet it may be useful to ask ourselves what this means on a deeper level if we cannot love and respect ourselves.
Albert Einstein once said; ‘a person experiences life as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this self-imposed prison and, through compassion, to find the reality of oneness’. Yogi Bhajan liked to remind his followers to ‘remember that the other person is you’. By this token, we too are the other person and the way in which we treat ourselves has a certain impact on those around us.
Self-compassion describes the way in which we show respect, kindness and love to the self. Dr. Kristen Neff, pioneer of self-compassion therapy, asks us to think about what the experience of compassion feels like. In order to have compassion for others, we first have to notice they are suffering. Second, we are moved by this suffering to the extent that our heart responds to their pain (the word ‘compassion’ literally means to ‘suffer with’). When this occurs, we feel caring, warmth, a sense of connection, and the desire to reach out to the other person in some way. Such compassion also encompasses the full embrace of a person regardless of any perceived shortcomings and mistakes, and is the firm opposite of harsh judgement. Finally, compassion for another means we recognise their suffering as being part of the human experience and something, therefore, with which we are are necessarily and naturally intertwined.
Self-compassion involves acting in these very same ways towards ourselves when we are struggling, when we believe ourselves to be failing in some way or when we notice something about ourselves we would rather not have as part of our person. Instead of ignoring or burying our pain, we acknowledge how we are feeling and consider how we can best care for and nurture ourselves.
According to Neff, the three elements of self-compassion are kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
The Dalai Lama offers us the following guidance; “be kind whenever possible. It is always possible”. Self-kindness means that we are gentle with ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. We allow room for mistakes and avoid barraging ourselves with criticism. An important part of this process is the acceptance of reality as it is, as opposed to constantly being in the business of trying to change ourselves, our lives, our circumstances and even the other people around us.
Suffering emerges when we struggle to accept our situation and ourselves. Even physical pain, when approached with acceptance, can be free from the experience of suffering. Frustration can often permeate challenging life events, springing from a sense that it is ‘I’ who is suffering rather than remaining in the awareness that all human beings suffer and that we all ultimately suffer as one. Self-compassion, therefore, involves the recognition that suffering and notions of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. In every possible sense, we are never alone in our pain.
Non-judgment is an inherent element of self-compassion. The practice of mindfulness invites us to pay attention to the present moment without judgement, assuming the observer’s view of our difficult emotions. Included within this is the willingness to observe our challenging thoughts and feelings with openness, holding them thus in mindful awareness. The practice of mindfulness requires that we refrain from becoming over-identified with our thoughts and emotions; these thoughts and feelings merely visit and leave us, waxing and waning on the theatre of a mind that says nothing about who we are at our core.
You may find it useful to take self-compassion breaks, as recommended by Neff, throughout your day, which could look something like;
1). Come into the present moment and name the experience; this hurts, this feels unsafe, this is stressful, this is scary.
2). Remind yourself that you are not alone in this experience. Then put your hands over your heart, feeling the warmth of these hands and their gentle touch on your chest.
3.) Say to yourself, ‘I am kind to myself’ or another similar phrase that speaks to you such as ‘I show myself the compassion I need’.
Compassion, like charity, begins at home. How will you show yourself some compassion today? How will you make self-compassion a daily practice in your life?