Compassion: Why Being Gentle to Yourself is the Foundation of Happiness
It took me a very long time to work out the difference between being kind to myself and actually being kind to myself. I used to think a long hot bath, a yoga class or a new pair of shoes would suffice to ease a low patch or quieten my noisy inner critic. These gestures may have helped a bit, but they remained just that – actions representing a kindness rather than actions that also felt kind to myself when I did them. I could practise yoga for an hour and still feel bad. I might even feel rubbish at yoga and leave a class feeling even worse. Learning to be truly kind, compassionate, and even loving toward myself meant some pretty hard work. This 'self-compassion' starts off as a skill, and like many other skills, a tricky one to start with but well worth the effort put in. And, if all goes well, it could end up as much more than a skill but a way of being.
We all know what compassion is and what it looks like - the Dalai Lama being one great example of compassion in action. A simple way to describe it is that it involves a sympathetic response to suffering with a desire to alleviate it. It may even be felt in the body - I can't imagine feeling compassionate and tensed up at the same time. The quickest way I can conjure it up is when I imagine a hungry newborn baby crying – I feel tender and open-hearted and an overwhelming desire to feed it. Turning these qualities inward toward ourselves however may take some convincing to do – how many people do you know openly talk about loving themselves when they feel miserable? If you take a moment now to turn to a part of yourself you dislike (your performance at work or your teeth or your competitiveness say) in this loving way, I bet it feels a bit self-indulgent or even 'squirmy' as it has been described to me.
The research is fairly new and developing fast, but it points firmly in the direction that the therapeutic benefits of self-compassion are potentially huge. Christopher Germer (Harvard Medical School) and Kristin Neff (University of Texas) have teamed up over the recent years to pool their research and development of the practice of self-compassion. Like the 8 week mindfulness programme for stress and depression that is now delivered both sides of the Atlantic, they have devised an 8 week group programme of meditations and practices to encourage a re-wiring of minds bent on self-criticism.
Neff defines a self-compassionate mind as made-up of a blend of self-kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness. Self-kindness, if not obvious, involves a warmer inner dialogue which may include the type of soothing feeling you would experience with a loved one. It's not about letting ourselves off the hook when we cock up either, but involves motivating ourselves through a desire for wellbeing. An analogy I like is to think about the inspiring, encouraging teacher as against the Victorian one with a cane – both want good results and no mistakes, but via different routes. The big red cross penned over my illustration of the Battle of Hastings when in primary school did nothing for my confidence in drawing.
'Common humanity' recognises that we're never alone when we suffer – so there's no space for a self-pitying 'woe is me' attitude, as this automatically excludes the experience of others. Keeping in mind that we all eat, breathe and suffer may encourage us to keep connected with the world – we can often feel alone or even 'abnormal' when we are in distress. I often hear people's belief that other people find life easier than them, but appearances can often deceive when it comes to wellbeing.
Be gentle with yourself
Mindfulness may need little explanation here as welldoing.org has often explored the practice. One summary is that it involves a turning toward our thoughts and feelings, however painful, in the present moment, without judgement but acceptance. As we can't feel compassion for something we ignore – it becomes essential to be mindful of our suffering. While mindfulness seems to be saying 'feel your suffering and it will change', self-compassion seems to be saying 'be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering and it will change.' So, as compared to mindfulness, self-compassion tunes more into the relationship between ourselves and our distress.
Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem – a notion that gripped the self-help community in recent decades. This is an important distinction and Neff makes every effort to distinguish the two. She isn't a fan of the latter as a valuable marker of health, using plenty of research to bolster her argument. She tracks self-esteem as stemming from a feeling of how much we feel above average or different from the rest – a 'keeping up with the Jones' familiar to much of the privileged Western world. But, she argues, this can lead to self-absorbed behaviours and the demeaning of others. Self-esteem is also inherently fragile – it will fluctuate according to our latest success or failure.
Self-compassion, by contrast, isn't based on self-evaluations – it doesn't need us to feel better than the others in order to feel good. It rests on the idea that every human deserves the same kindness and understanding, regardless of waist size or IQ – back to 'common humanity'. Neff's research also suggests that compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, less reactive anger and more caring relationships. Well worth giving it a go I reckon.
Formal trainings in self-compassion, as they exist in the US, have yet to make their way to the UK but they will, I'm sure. In the meantime there's plenty of literature and self-practice to be getting on with here:
Kristin Neff's website is a brilliant resource on the research. Don't miss her video on self-esteem http://www.self-compassion.org/
Christopher Germer's website has more information, including meditations to download.