Self-Compassion:The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
by Dr. Kristin Neff , Ph.D.
“Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend”
The above quote sounds so easy to do but the reality is that it is hard to execute. When our best friend is suffering or distraught we would never say, “You are so stupid, why did you ever do that? Don’t you know any better? Stop being a baby and feeling sorry for yourself. ” No, we would most likely come up to them, put our arms around them and console them by saying, ” It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes. The world goes on and tomorrow will be another day, another opportunity to do better.” Why is it then, when we make mistakes, we often treat ourselves and engage in self talk like the former example and not the latter. Why do we treat ourselves cruelly, expect so much more and hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do others? For most of us, it comes naturally to show compassion to those that are suffering but it does not come so naturally to show self-compassion when we feel the same way.
Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” attempts to answer why we don’t show more self-compassion to ourselves and why showing ourselves self-compassion is more important and healthier for us than having high self-esteem. Dr. Neff then discusses how to effectively implement self-compassion into our daily lives.
This book is a powerful self help book that will change your perspective on how you should treat yourself to deal in a productive way with stressful and unpleasant situations. You may be surprised what a little self-compassion can do to help you live a happier and healthier life.
Why Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem
“There’s almost no one whom we treat as badly as ourselves.” A powerful quote to start a book. Self-criticism is socially accepted in our North American society and is common place when things don’t go as well as we expect they should. However, rather than improving the situation and feeling better, self-criticism results in insecurity, frustration, anxiety and often depression.
In her first chapter, Discovering Self-Compassion, Dr. Neff clearly illustrates that we don’t become a better person by beating ourselves up all the time when things go wrong. She states that self-criticism usually results from misperceived self-judgement as a result of trying to maintain a high level of self-esteem.
It is generally recognized that feeling good about ourselves and protecting ourselves against harsh external criticism is related to having high self-esteem, so we work hard at keeping it high. As a consequence, when we fail or fall short of expectations, we belittle ourselves because our positive self-esteem is threatened by failure.
Dr. Neff makes the argument that we should not focus on self-esteem to achieve happiness because it is outward looking. It is based on us comparing ourselves to an external standard and often at the expense of others. In other words, to feel good about ourselves we must feel superior to those around us and this leads to narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice and discrimination. These are destructive behaviours that lead to fear, negativity and isolation. Self-compassion on the other hand is inward looking, it is about giving ourselves kindness because we don’t need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. It is a powerful way to achieve happiness, optimism, well being and contentment in our lives.
The Core Components of Self- Compassion
Practicing self-compassion entails three core components that must implemented simultaneously :
1. Self-Kindness – be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
2. Recognition of our Common Humanity – feel connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
3. Mindfulness – hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggeration
Implementing self-kindness involves not just stopping critical self-judgment but involves actively comforting ourselves just as we would a wounded friend. We give ourselves warmth, gentleness and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves. This could involve self talk such as, “This is really difficult right now, how can I comfort myself in this moment?” or “I love and accept myself exactly as I am.” It can also involve physically touching ourselves compassionately with a hug or massaging of our arms, face or gently rocking our body.
Self-kindness allows us to soothe and calm our trouble minds. When we are kind to ourselves and begin to soothe our own pain we trigger the release of oxytocin which research has shown strongly increases the feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity and connectedness, and reduces fear and anxiety and helps reduce cortisol levels associated with stress.
It is important to be aware that we don’t need to look outside ourselves for acceptance and security in times of trouble, it is only a self kind word or self hug away.
Recognition of our Common Humanity
This second component involves an acknowledgement of the interconnected nature of our lives and that the human experience is imperfect. In other words, we all share the feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, frustration as well as happiness and joy. It is important to remember that we are not alone and isolated in experiencing these emotions. We are just being human.
Loneliness comes from feeling disconnected from others, even if they are only inches away. Those who feel connected to others, who recognize that we are all in this journey of life together are not as intimated and frightened by difficult life circumstances. Feeling interconnected allows us to more readily be able to roll with what life has to offer. In other words, to let life unfold as it should, the good, the bad and the ugly.
It is important to compassionately remind ourselves in moments of difficulty that these moments are part of the shared human experience. When we do so, these difficult moments become one of togetherness rather than isolation and we are able to deal with the situation in a more calm, effective and healthy way.
Dr. Neff makes another very powerful statement regarding interconnectedness. She states that we are all expressions of millions of prior circumstances that have all come together to shape us in any particular moment. Our economic and social background, our past associations with family and friends, our culture, our genetics. It is important to recognize that we don’t have complete control over how we think and act. Dr. Neff states that “the illusion of being in control is just that- an illusion.”
If we can embrace this understanding of ourselves, that we are interconnected to previous life events before this particular moment, then it allows us to be less critical and negatively self-judging and self-blaming in times of distress. She makes an analogy of our existence to that of a hurricane. A hurricane is an impermanent, ever changing phenomenon arising out of a particular set of interacting conditions such as air pressure, ground temperature, humidity etc. Like a hurricane, our lives are also an impermanent ever changing phenomenon arising out of a particular set of interacting condition such as our genes, friends, social history etc.
Dr. Neff concludes by stating that when we recognize that we and our daily existence and circumstances are the product of countless interconnected factors , many of which are out of our control, we don’t need to take our “personal failings” so personally. This allows us to have self-compassion for the fact that we are doing the best we can given the hand life has dealt us.
Mindfulness is the third component needed to successfully implement self-compassion and refers to the clear seeing, feeling and nonjudgmental acceptance of what is occurring in the present moment. We cannot be compassionate to ourselves if we don’t recognize the feelings of guilt, sadness, loneliness and distress at the moment that they are occurring. We have an innate tendency to move away from pain, so it is difficult to turn toward our pain, sadness, guilt and distress, and embrace it. That is why so many people shut themselves off from their emotions. It is the natural thing to do. However, we can’t begin to heal what we can’t feel.
As well, we have a tendency to emotionally overreact to stressful situations. It is common place to make mountains out of molehills especially when we are emotionally engaged. Mindfulness has the power to enhance an accurate awareness of the present moment and this provides the type of emotional balance necessary to implement self-compassion.
Mindfulness is what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing right now. When we can see our present situation with clarity and objectivity and don’t get loss in our negative thoughts and the emotions that narrow our ability to act wisely, we can be more compassionate to ourselves and take corrective action. Mindfulness allows us to respond compassionately rather than simply react emotionally.
If we can be mindful, of what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing at the present moment, and focus even for just a few minutes, on the pain associated with our failure, stress or hardship, we can respond to ourselves with kindness, a caring word or a gentle hug. As well, we can soothe and comfort ourselves with compassionate understanding because we can reframe our present situation in light of our common humanity, the reality that we are all interconnected and have experienced the same emotions and that we are all the products of previous experiences and events. In this way, we don’t feel isolated by adversity.
That is implementing self-compassion!
The Tip of the Iceberg
What I have presented here is just the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge, power and understanding that self compassion can bring to your life. Dr. Neff explains the benefits of self-compassion which include emotional resilience, opting out of the self-esteem game and improving motivation and personal growth. She also explains how self-compassion enhances your relations with others including becoming more effective parents, partners and lovers.
In her final chapters she discusses the joy of self-compassion and self-appreciation. The joy that comes from self-compassion arises from opening our hearts and minds to the pain, sorrow and distress that we are feeling. This seems counter-intuitive to feeling joy but Dr. Neff explains that by implementing self-compassion we can control our negative emotions in the warm embrace of good feelings, allowing us to respond, not react, in a positive and effective manner. Having control over our emotions is definitely joyful.
In discussing self-appreciation Dr. Neff explains that self-compassion allows us to be more fully appreciative of ourselves because the three basic components of self-compassion- kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness – are not just relevant to what we don’t like about ourselves, suffering sadness, distress, but are equally relevant to what we do like. She explains that we get so caught up in problem solving and coping with the pain in our lives that we give insufficient attention to that which gives us pleasure. As a consequence we suffer more than we need to. Self-compassion and self-appreciation are two sides of the same coin. The first is focused on what brings us suffering and the second on what brings us pleasure. One accepts our weaknesses and the other celebrates our strength as humans. Dr. Neff concludes by stating, ” Everyone of us has the capacity for resilience, growth and happiness, simply by relating to our ever-arising experience with both compassion and appreciation…we can embrace both the joy and the sorrow of being human, and by doing so we can transform our lives.”
Self-compassion is a powerful tool for dealing with difficult emotions. By dealing with these emotions in a positive effective manner we can rid ourselves of the bonds of critical self-judgment that hold us back from experiencing accurate self-awareness and lasting joy and happiness.
To effectively implement self-compassion we must;
1. Give ourselves kindness.
2. Remind ourselves that encountering pain, sorrow and despair is part of the shared human experience.
3. We must hold our thoughts and emotions in mindful non-judgemental awareness.
An effective mantra that you can recite when something goes wrong in your life is:
“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
Let me be kind and compassionate to myself at the is moment.”
For some of us being compassionate to ourselves will not come easy. Old habits are difficult to break. However, the rewards of being more mindful of our emotions, recognizing that they are perfectly normal human emotions and being kind to ourselves can be immense.
Try it, you may like it.
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself, by, Dr. Kristin Neff, Ph. D., William Morrow, 2011
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