We generally feel good about ourselves when we’ve achieved a meaningful goal, believe ourselves to be “on top of things”, and receive positive feedback from others. The challenge lies in dealing with those times when we’re off our game, disappoint ourselves or someone important to us, or fail to get something we value. At such moments, practicing self-compassion can help us with emotional balance, resilience, and tolerating our pain.
According to leading self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, self-compassion is defined as “extending compassion for the self for one’s failings, inadequacies and experiences of suffering”. Neff describes self-compassion as consisting of three components:
Mindfulness. The first step is to accept our current experience as it actually is. Not how we think it “should” be nor by getting caught up in thoughts about the past, the future, or fantasy. Defined by the “father of Western mindfulness” and professor Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”, mindfulness is a powerful antidote to jumping to conclusions, including the thought that we are defective, hopeless, or not up to the task at hand. With mindfulness, we don’t push our feelings away or disconnect from them, nor do we over-identify with them.
For example, let’s say that you forgot about your best friend’s birthday, and you are feeling remorseful. With a mindful approach, you would accept your remorse and allow yourself psychological room to feel the pain. You could put words to your feelings, such as “this is really painful” or “I’m feeling embarrassed right now”. You wouldn’t harshly judge your feelings or attempt to bury them by taking on more work at the office or drinking too many beers. However, you wouldn’t allow your remorse to overwhelm you and lead you to isolate you from supportive friends and family or neglect other important matters in your life. You would not become intertwined with your emotions – part of you would remain in your experience as a merciful and curious observer (your Wise Self).
Common humanity. Often when something painful befalls us, we can feel alone and as if nobody understands our prediction. This can compound our problem, since the feeling of loneliness can be excruciating. The self-compassionate alternative is to recognize that just about everyone has felt something similar to what we’re currently feeling, although perhaps not due to identical circumstances. We are part of the human race, and what we’re going through is not unique. As human beings, we are not perfect, and life is bound to contain pain at times.
This is not to minimize our situation or feelings, but to remind us of our similarities and common bond with other people. Just knowing this can be helpful in and of itself. Going one step further, bolstered by the recognition that other people may be of assistance through shared human experience, we might attend a support group or seek counseling to deal with our current challenge.
Self-kindness. Rather than berating ourselves for what we deem to be falling short of our own expectations or those of other people, we treat ourselves with love and mercy. Note that this is not an excuse to continue acting in ways that cause harm, but that we commit to being friendly and patient with ourselves. We do not tell ourselves to “snap out of it” if we’re suffering emotionally, nor do we resent ourselves for having behaved a certain way.
Instead, we ask, “How can I offer kindness to myself in this moment?” We look as what we might learn from the situation, what factors might have contributed to the unfortunate situation, how we might conduct ourselves differently in the future, or simply resolve to take good care of ourselves. Our intention is to provide for our soul’s well-being. In such a supportive environment, change is more possible than if we indulge in self-criticism. Since we realize that while we may have made a mistake, we are not a mistake, so we do not crumble when we err.
For instance, if you accidentally dent your neighbor’s car while backing out of your driveway, you refrain from yelling (either out loud or in your head), “How could I be so careless? I’m such a mess!” Instead, you might take a deep, slow breath, put a hand on your heart, close your eyes, or give yourself a hug. You might realize that you hadn’t slept enough the previous night, had skipped breakfast, drunk too much coffee, or had an argument with your spouse or child that had distracted you. You could approach your neighbor or leave a note on their car with your contact information. In other words, you would be kind to yourself while also being accountable.
In some instances, there’s nothing we could have done to alter the course of events. In such cases, we can nurture ourselves with healthy meals, sufficient sleep, a massage, a walk in nature, or a talk with a trusted friend. We can refrain from taking responsibility for situations that are not our fault. Sometimes we attack ourselves verbally before someone else does, thinking that this gives us some element of control – but in reality this just contributes to our growing tolerance for self-abuse. If we’re practicing kindness, we have a humble self-love and actively support ourselves.
As psychotherapist Thom Rutledge states, “When we let go of constant attempts to solve the content of our lives, and attend to the important process of how we treat ourselves and others, we have a real chance for peace of mind”. Self-compassion is a crucial step towards connectedness with ourselves and others.