Updated: Mar 29
Self-compassion is the recognition of our suffering, and the ability to forgive, accept, and love ourselves despite our deficits or failures. It calls for extending the same empathetic leniency we’d offer to a friend, only directing it inward and being a friend to ourselves. For many, this doesn’t come naturally. Luckily, with tools in place, it’s something we can learn to make part of our everyday lives.
When we notice others struggling, we rarely consider their problems to be permanent parts of their characters. Instead, we respond with compassion, recognizing weaknesses as part of the human condition. When they make a mistake, we frequently offer forgiveness, viewing imperfections as innate and unavoidable. It’s less of a challenge for us to acknowledge someone else’s suffering and justify reprieve.
In contrast, when we’re going through personal struggles, we often over-analyze and criticize our flaws. We revert to a mentality that chastises us for our shortcomings, convincing ourselves we’re supposed to be stronger or braver. While we see the same faults in our peers and extend our understanding, we don't give ourselves the same leeway. It’s harder for us to accept that our own limitations aren’t always a vice or something we need to admonish.
What it Means to Have Self-Compassion
Before we arrive at that point, we need to examine the concept and make sure we understand all it entails.
Having self-compassion means embracing our failures and owning our faults. We’re often our own biggest critics, striving to portray ourselves as perfect individuals. Yet making perfection the end goal presents a glaring problem: Without exception, it remains a trait that’s unattainable. Mortality means obstacles, missteps, and inhibitions; no one is immune.
That’s why, under self-compassion, we never dismiss their existence. We acknowledge all adversities, making sure they aren’t suppressed and left to spread subconsciously. We don’t let them consume us, though.
Instead, we practice mindfulness. Once we accept human error as something unavoidable, we choose not to venture any further down a path of negativity. We use each struggle to our benefit, rather than our deficit. Having a balanced approach when it comes to owning our mistakes dismisses the need to be endlessly penitent about our fallibilities. It also allows us to nurture a non-judgmental state of mind, which keeps us from over-identifying with emotional responses and being controlled by our feelings.
Moving past our shortcomings isn’t quite enough. Self-compassion also means we give self-absolution. Most of us are well-versed in forgiving someone else. By doing so, even if for our own sanity, we show them love, mercy, and grace. Forgiving our own indiscretions works in a similar manner. If we see mistakes as stepping stones, rather than personal potholes, we’re less apt to bury our guilt and regret. We foster more positive feelings of self-love and future potential. We also empower our predispositions towards self-soothing and recovery. Last but not least, we elevate self-acceptance and lower the need for another's approval.
Under self-compassion, we give ourselves the same empathetic leniency we’d offer to a friend. As mentioned in the point above, when someone we love messes up, we usually respond with love. We try to offer words of comfort or encouragement, assuring them that everybody sometimes falls off course. We allow them to acknowledge their negative feelings, then guide them from negative mindspace to a place of positive advancement. Self-compassion calls for us to treat ourselves exactly how we’d treat another, essentially being a friend to ourselves.
All the components seem simple enough, most even overlapping in a unifying way. So why is self-compassion such a tricky thing to master?
The answer: societal stigmas. For centuries, society frowned upon treating ourselves as we would someone else.
Overcoming Social Stigmas to Practice Self-compassion
Social conditioning encouraged individuals to conduct themselves according to the predominant mindset within their society. It took socialization one step further, focusing on adopting collective personality traits, rather than customs and ideologies. Its practices were integrated into many societal patterns and structures. Examples include education, employment, religion, and family life.
Historically, social conditioning has affected self-compassion by imposing societal norms. The concept of nature vs. nurture, which outlines the ways our behavior is determined by the environment, states that those norms are derived from collective behaviors, not intrinsic traits. While overall compassion has always been deemed an exemplary quality, self-compassion used to attract mostly negative parallels. It was often inaccurately lumped with bad traits, such as self-pity, self-indulgence, self-centeredness, and selfishness.
More recently, these views have somewhat shifted. It took several decades to redefine, then reinvent, them. But more and more groups now acknowledge self-care and self-compassion as beneficial to our overall well-being. Research has linked it to greater resilience and more endearing dispositions. It’s also been shown to lower anger and diminish arrogance.
Sadly, not all groups are eager to change, fearing loss of self-punishment makes it too easy to stray from good morals. Phrases like “practice being selfless” and “the greatest achievement is selflessness” still abound on social platforms, dismissing the value of self-care and leaving out balance entirely. Several religions also still emphasize selflessness and label self-love as a sin. As a result, letting ourselves off the hook when we falter can still feel a little taboo.
All of those notions, however, discount self-compassion’s belief in the human condition. To reiterate earlier sentiments: it doesn’t dismiss, but expects, human error. It rejects the age-old adage that love is entirely selfless, while also avoiding the other extreme, self-entitled arrogance. Heavily relying on the equal distribution of two conflicting theories - one selfless, one self serving - eliminates the dangers of becoming self-absorbed.
Comparing Self-compassion with Other Acts of Self
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion expert and creator of the self-compassion scale, further breaks the distinction between self-compassion and other acts of self:
Self-compassion differs from self-esteem. Self-esteem encompasses feelings of self-worth, such as looks, smarts, and talents, whereas self-compassion isn’t based on self-appraisals. Rather, it looks at shared deficits that unify all people. This distinction means you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. You also don’t need to feel bad about failures in order to note their existence. In addition, self-compassion isn’t situational. It’s more a learned technique applicable to every situation, and readily available no matter what issues arise.
Self-compassion differs from self-confidence. Regarding one’s abilities, both natural and taught, self-confidence carries risks of drastic overestimations. In contrast, self-compassion encourages admission of personal debilities, allowing a person to look at themselves more objectively.
Self-compassion differs from narcissism. Too much selfishness leads to narcissism. Narcissistic individuals are usually egomaniacal and foster a victim mentality. Unable to see past themselves, they often neglect to reciprocate care or concern about others. This results in ignored commonalities, and universal suffering becomes a foreign concept. Self-compassion differs with its humble recognition of analogous experience. It cultivates an authentic awareness of self, while narcissism focuses on inauthentic interactions and strives to prove supremacy.
Staying Grounded: Having Daily Self-Compassion
Now that we know what it means to live with self-compassion, how can we use it to cope with some of society’s current events? Now, more than ever, many are fighting a battle against their mental health. COVID-19 regulations have most of the world using self-isolation in hopes to decrease further spread. Sadly, many used their social groups to counteract depression. Even those who normally wouldn’t consider themselves as depressed individuals are openly talking about mental wellness. No one seems entirely immune from days of darkness.
The halting of social engagements isn’t the only obstacle. Financial insecurity is trending in all social classes. Many have lost their employment, either due to layoffs or owning a business dependent on social engagement. As if all these things weren’t concerning enough, thousands are grieving the loss of their loved ones as COVID continues to spread. I’ve also lost four people since the beginning of lockdown. Two died from unrelated causes, but two were very young and relapsed during their recoveries. I can’t help but wonder how COVID altered their day-to-day means of support.
There are so many ways to make sure we stay grounded when negative thoughts threaten our mindsets. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions for being self-compassionate during these difficult times. They were authored by Chris Germer and Dr. Kristin Neff, and can be found in their entirety on the CMSC website (Center For Mindful Compassion):
Label Emotions And Feelings
Isolation is unnatural for many human beings. Being alone with our thoughts for extended lengths of time can bring up negativity and challenging emotions. Labeling what we’re feeling while we’re feeling has a calming effect on the body. Finding the emotion in the body and giving it acknowledgment anchors the experience, providing us with compassionate connections we’ve likely needed all along.
Practice Affectionate Breathing
According to Germer and Neff, another helpful practice for grounding ourselves when we feel overwhelmed is tuning in to the soothing rhythm of our breath. The gentle internal rocking motion of the breath can be soothing.
Do a Compassionate Body Scan
Germer and Neff also mention that when we scan our own bodies for physical symptoms of COVID, the body begin
s to feel less like a home and more like an alien. We need to remain friends with our bodies though, especially if we fall ill. The body is already working as hard as it can, and it needs all the mental support it can get in times of increased illness. The Compassionate Body Scan is a way to become more intimate and comfortable with our bodies no matter what condition we may be in.
The steps can be found on the Chris Germer website: Compassionate Body Scan
Practice Savoring and Gratitude
Eventually, we all grow tired of constantly focusing on the pandemic. Fortunately, as Germer and Neff have reminded us, joy is close at hand if we give ourselves permission to enjoy the simple things we have. Some of their examples include savoring a meal, or taking what they’ve labeled a Sense and Savor Walk.The first part of the practice involves enjoying your surroundings, by focusing on what you find aesthetically appealing The second part, living with gratitude, is another way to bolster joy. Germer and Neff say we do this by noticing the small things we often overlook.
The Bottom Line
There are many other ways for us to exercise our self-compassion. It may seem insignificant, but depression and anxiety both lie about our worth. At the least, negative self-talk counteracts our self-compassion. At the most, it can threaten our lives. As an admin of a Facebook group for women who deal with depression, I recommend several self-care applications that foster self-love and self care. To learn about those resources, check out part two of the post: 10 Great Apps for Self-compassion
No matter what you face today or how you choose to handle it, don’t forget to love yourself and be your own best friend.
Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves ~ Pema Chodron
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