Can we intentionally learn to be less self-critical and more self-compassionate? Psychologist Kristin Neff believes that we can. Based on her pioneering research, she has identified three basic elements of self-compassion: self-kindness vs. self-criticism; common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. over-identification, and she has developed techniques for strengthening each of them. This week’s subject is the second component.
When I was young I was confused by the fact that my life was such a struggle. I thought that I must be doing something wrong, because when I compared my insides to other people’s outsides, it appeared that most other people had it easier than me. I was sure that there must be some way of doing life so that (most of the time, at least) we don’t suffer, and that if life was so uniquely hard for me it must be because I just hadn’t figured out the secret yet. It wasn’t until I studied Buddhism that I began to understand how deluded my thinking was. The first of Buddhism’s four noble truths is that all sentient beings suffer. We’re all imperfect. We all experience pain, loss, disappointment, confusion, and failure. If there is any secret to life, it surely has more to do with learning how to respond compassionately to the inevitable pain in our lives than with a vain quest to make it go away altogether.
Kristin Neff believes that a recognition of our common humanity is an essential foundation of a compassionate life. She writes “The sense of common humanity central to self-compassion involves recognizing that everyone fails, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong sometimes….We are not alone in our imperfection. Rather, our imperfections are what make us card-carrying members of the human race. Often, however, we feel isolated and cut off from others when considering our struggles and failures, irrationally feeling that it’s only “ME” who is having such a hard time of it. We think that somehow we are abnormal, that something has gone wrong, and we forget that falling flat on our face now and then actually is normal. This sort of tunnel vision makes us feel alone and isolated, making our suffering even worse.”
I’m reminded of a friend whose grandmother had the amazing good luck to live her entire life almost completely free of illness. But at the age of 91, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her response: “Why me?” Somehow, apparently, she had managed to live a long life without noticing that sickness, old age, and death are pervasive in human existence. Her lack of wisdom meant that when her final days arrived, she couldn’t respond with compassion, but only self-pity.
Self-compassion means taking the stance of a compassionate “other” toward ourselves, allowing us to have a broader perspective on ourselves and our lives. Instead of feeling isolated when we suffer, we recognize our common humanity, which is a connected mindset that is inclusive of others.
Kristin Neff again: “One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. …[I]t makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness – which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.”
Here’s a practice that helps foster the sense of common humanity: Bring to mind any suffering you’re experiencing. It may be, for instance, that someone close to you has recently died, and you’re feeling intense grief. Close your eyes, place your hand over your heart and let go of any resistance you might have to feeling your pain. Next, think of all the other people in the world who, at this moment, are also mourning the loss of someone they love. From the center of your heart, radiate love in the form of compassion toward everyone who is grieving a loss right now, including yourself. A practice like this will not make the pain of loss disappear, but it will help you use your suffering to connect rather than to isolate. Your anguish will likely decrease as you find an expanded sense of connection and open-heartedness toward others through your shared suffering.
Next Time: Mindfulness vs. Over-identification