Self-compassion is a radical act which can soothe suffering, build empathy and acceptance, and improve your relationships. You may consider yourself a compassionate person but do you actively apply compassion to yourself? Most people are unfamiliar with generating compassion for themselves when they struggle emotionally or things don’t go their way. Yet even the most difficult life circumstances can be eased with self-compassion.
Most of us have had a direct experience of compassion towards others when they are suffering. Compassion is a desire to lessen or alleviate suffering – and many acts of kindness arise from it. It feels good to be compassionate. Think of how communities band together when there is a natural disaster such as bush fire or flooding. We often see people at their best as they seek to help.
For some, compassion comes up quickly and naturally in the face of any suffering. For others it is a quality that only arises when the suffering is overt, for example an illness, natural disaster or death. Some people find it easy to develop compassion for another’s suffering if the circumstances are outside that person’s control but may find it harder if they perceive the person could have made a better choice. While everyone’s baseline level of compassion is different it is a quality that is malleable.
Thankfully compassion can be developed with practice. The Mahayana Buddhists practice developing deeper and deeper states of compassion in order to move towards enlightenment. Positive states of mind such as love and compassion are correlated with healthy self-esteem and more robust physical health. Actively cultivating compassion changes you on a cellular level and can be witnessed and measured in brain activity. In a study on how meditation can change the brain, Buddhist monk and author, Matthieu Ricard, displayed an impressive ability to generate compassionate states of mind on request. Imagine feeling angry or sad and being able to change your state to compassion in an instant.
While most of us naturally experience compassion towards others, we don’t often think to develop compassion for our own suffering. Even when I was teaching love and compassion weekly and practicing generating these states, it didn’t occur to me to apply them to myself. It was only when I was studying to become a therapist that I discovered the research that self-compassion reduces depression and anxiety and increases wellbeing and self-esteem. My supervisor encouraged me to practice self-compassion so I could learn to be kinder to myself and teach my clients to do the same. I began in earnest and had no idea at the time how life changing that decision would be.
Prior to that I experienced over 30 years of often not feeling good enough and sometimes wondering if there was something wrong with me. I felt a constant level of worry in my relationships. Thinking I was alone in feeling that way fuelled a sense of shame, so I hid my insecurities from others. Outwardly I was successful and valued at work but put pressure on myself to keep it up. In my personal life I worked hard on trying to anticipate the needs of others and tried not to be a “burden” to anyone. A strong self-critic accompanied my every move. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to address these things,, I couldn’t shift them on my own.
I have been practising self-compassion now for over a decade. I have worked to accept myself and understand why I do the things I’d rather not do sometimes. I actively apply self-compassion when I am struggling, make a mistake or run the not good enough story. I consider it a life’s work. There are still moments of extreme stress where my feelings feel too much and my not good enough story runs, but I can recognise this and soothe myself with kindness. I tell myself it is only an old pattern and is not accurate. Self-compassion is an ongoing practice because life has its ups and downs and there is no such thing as perfection.
Practicing self-compassion is a worthwhile endeavour which enables me to experience improved self-esteem along with healthier relationships. The beautiful ripple effect of developing self-compassion is the more we learn, the greater capacity we have for love and compassion in our relationships. Those are some pretty amazing benefits.
Like any skill set, self-compassion is a practice which develops and deepens over time. Before you begin, please be aware that these practices may highlight where you do not feel acceptance and compassion so expect some initial discomfort. The discomfort is a sign that you are on the right track. It is because the discomfort needs soothing that you learn to develop acceptance and compassion toward it.
When I first started practicing self-compassion I could not say “You are ok, Amy” without my inner critic screaming “You are definitely not OK!” and telling me all the things I needed to do better. So, I started with what I could tolerate, “You will be ok. You’ll get through.” With practice I can now wholeheartedly say “You are enough,Amy. You’re doing the best you can. This will pass.”
The following practices will help you to form a foundation for self-compassion. They can be done as formal meditations where you make time to sit and contemplate them, or as conscious practices in response to difficult situations in your daily life.
Practices to develop self-compassion
1. Recognise when you are struggling and acknowledge you are deserving of the same compassion you show to others. Treat yourself with kindness and encouragement. Do not deny or minimize your suffering. Remind yourself: “You’ll be ok, everybody struggles at times, this will pass.”
2. When you are experiencing difficult emotions, wrap yourself in a hug and rub your upper arms in an up and down motion. Alternatively, rub your heart-space in a circular motion. This will soothe your nervous system. You can further help to calm your nervous system by gently rocking and giving yourself kind words of encouragement.
3. Speak to yourself kindly. For example, “I’m ok”, or, “I will be ok”. For extra power say this in the third person. (Research has shown this is more effective than “I” statements). For example, “You’re ok”, or “You will be ok.” “This will pass, everything does,” is a helpful reminder too. (Practice each of the variations to see which is best for you.)
I recommend starting with just one of these practices that you can commit to regularly. Small, regular steps are the key. This reduces overwhelm, which is a motivation killer. If there is too much to do, there is a tendency to become overwhelmed and do nothing. So, pick one and integrate it into your life. Watch the benefits unfold in your own life…