For many of us, being compassionate towards other people comes fairly easily. When we see someone we care about suffering, we want to alleviate their pain; we might listen to them and validate their feelings. We would never dream of calling someone we love weak, stupid, or worthless, especially when they are struggling. While it seems so natural to offer other people compassion, it is usually not our first reaction to our own suffering. We tell ourselves to “get over it,” and berate ourselves for feeling guilty, sad, frustrated, anxious, or depressed. We might tell ourselves that we should not feel a certain way, or ignore our suffering all together.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-Compassion is a self-help model that can teach you how to respond to your suffering in the same way you respond to others. Self-Compassion is a technique created by Kristin Neff, and has gained notoriety in recent years for its effectiveness in improving mental health. Studies of Self-Compassion have found that it can help reduce self-criticism, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism.
The Challenge of Self-Compassion
It is understandable why it can be difficult to be compassionate towards ourselves. When we make a mistake or fail at something, we are confronted with feelings of guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. We think we should have known better, and often judge ourselves for our shortcomings. Many of us learned this pattern from our earliest caretakers, who tried to better us with punishment and scoldings. If we have not been shown compassion by others, it can be difficult to believe that we are worthy of forgiveness and understanding.
The First Step Towards Self-Compassion
In order to be compassionate towards ourselves, we must first recognize that we are struggling. This can be more difficult than it seems. With our fast-paced lives and never-ending social engagements, it can be easy to stay distracted from our feelings. We cannot offer ourselves empathy if we do not realize we are struggling. After all, you would not be able to feel compassion for a friend unless you know that they are hurting. Accepting the reality that we are in pain is especially difficult if we have a tendency to criticise ourselves. In the same way that we would not want to tell a critical friend about our problems, we hide our suffering from ourselves to avoid judgement. The first step towards becoming more self-compassionate is to simply recognize that we are suffering without judging the experience.
The Second Step
Another important element of Self-Compassion is understanding that suffering is a universal experience. Feeling alone or believing we are the only ones suffering compounds our pain and keeps us stuck in moments of hardship. While we may find it acceptable when other people make mistakes, many of us expect perfection from ourselves. We can forget that making mistakes and having flaws is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Reminding ourselves that we are human and everyone makes mistakes is a way to begin offering ourselves compassion.
The Third Step
In order to be more self-compassionate, we must also learn how to adapt a more balanced approach to our pain . When we encounter suffering, we can easily be swept away in a sea of negativity. We begin attaching ourselves to our negative thoughts and judgements, adding even more pain to already difficult situations. Learning how to be more mindful of our suffering can help us keep it in perspective and approach it with more compassion. Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment without judging it or becoming lost in thoughts or feelings. A simple way of practicing mindfulness is to become aware of your surroundings for 5 minutes. Focus on observing your surroundings without becoming attached to any thoughts or feelings related to your observations. Instead, imagine that your thoughts are clouds that are passing by–present for a moment and then gone. Practicing mindfulness can help you achieve more distance from your suffering without ignoring it or becoming lost in it.
A Simple Exercise in Self-Compassion
One of the simplest and most effective ways to begin practicing Self-Compassion is to imagine that our hardships are those of our loved ones. If our best friend was having trouble getting out of bed after a breakup, how would we respond to them? Try writing down responses to your hardships as if you were talking to your best friend. This exercise can give you more clarity as to the types of things that would be helpful to say to yourself.
It is important to remember that being compassionate towards ourselves is not the same as letting ourselves off the hook. In fact, compassion can be far more motivating than punishment. If you are struggling with feelings of depression, anxiety, or sadness, know that you have the ability to give yourself the compassion you need. While it is a never-ending process, learning how to be more self-compassionate is a worthwhile endeavour on your journey towards greater peace and fulfillment.