Can we intentionally learn to be less self-critical and more self-compassionate? Based on her pioneering research, psychologist Kristin Neff has concluded that we can, She has identified three basic components of self-compassion: Self kindness vs. self-criticism, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification, and has developed practices for teaching and learning each of them. This week I’ll discuss the first of these.
The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” The significance of this is that, in order to experience compassion, we must first be aware of the presence of pain. When we reflexively tune out the presence of the homeless person on the street, we protect ourselves from experiencing their pain, but that also means that we can’t experience compassion.
Most of us have no trouble seeing compassion for others as thoroughly commendable. It involves many qualities such as kindness, tenderness, generosity, the desire to help, and so on. But, in our culture, we’re not so sure when it comes to compassion for oneself. For many, that connotes negative qualities such as self-pity, self-preoccupation, and just plain selfishness. Even many generations removed from our Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t constantly blaming and punishing ourselves we’ll become complacent and lose all motivation to reach our goals. This attitude is far from the traditions of Buddhism, which teaches practitioners to begin their lovingkindness meditations by evoking compassion toward themselves first, and then extending it outward to others.
Neff’s work suggests that the Buddhists have it right. First, she found that self-compassion is actually an antidote to self-pity, because it involves accepting, experiencing, and acknowledging difficult feelings with kindness — which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. She writes “Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.” She also found that “there’s now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment.”
So the first step in cultivating self-compassion is to understand that this quality helps rather than harms us. The second step is to form the intention to turn toward our suffering rather than away from it. When we don’t succumb to the temptation to deny our suffering, or to numb ourselves to it, and just face it head on, we’re liable to get what Neff calls a “backdraft,” a moment when our suffering actually seems to become more acute. But that is also the moment when self-compassion can arise. This is the moment to pause, breathe deeply, and acknowledge to ourselves that we are experiencing suffering. It can be very helpful to place your hand over your heart as you do this. It’s a gesture which many find instantly evokes self-compassion.
Since so many of us find it easier to be compassionate toward others than toward ourselves, Neff recommends that when we’re suffering, we think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is struggling in some way. Ask yourself how you would respond to your friend in this situation. Next, think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Do you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently? How you think things might change if, when you are suffering, you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend.
Along the same lines, you can do a meditation in which you focus your attention on your suffering, and then imagine that people (or even pets) who have loved you in your life are also able to feel your pain and are sending love in the form of compassion into the center of it – not to make it go away, or change it in any way, but simply to be with you in it. Doing this exercise is calming, and will evoke a warm self-compassion that makes it more possible to respond to your suffering in a clear-headed and wise manner.
Next time: Common humanity vs. isolation