Bad things happen to good people. As much as we wish it weren’t true, it’s a reality of life. New research shows that one of the best ways to manage this unfortunate bad stuff is by developing self-compassion.
What is “Self-Compassion”?
Think of self-compassion as treating yourself the way you would treat a beloved friend. What would you say to this friend in the situation you find yourself in? Probably not, “You’re such a jackass,” or “You always do this to yourself,” or, “This is clearly going to be a disaster.” Yet many of us — me included — talk to ourselves this way.
Kristin Neff from University of Texas at Austin and Christopher Germer from Harvard are two of the leading researchers on self-compassion and they describe the three key tactics of self-compassion as:
Mindfulness – Over 20 years of research (and 2000 years of practical experience) show that mindfulness, or clearly seeing negative emotions without judgment, is essential to moving through these emotions in a healthy way. Through years of conditioning, many of us immediately suppress negativity or distract ourselves from it while others wallow in it, over-identifying with the negativity and exaggerating it. Mindfulness is about taking a balanced approach of simply noting what is happening in our emotional world. This allows us to more readily work through difficult emotions, to learn from them and move on. I’ve discussed mindfulness at length in this blog – a good overview of mindfulness can be found here, and links to more can be found here.
Common Humanity – It may seem obvious, but suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human condition. No one can live and love in this world without feeling these things. When we recognize that we’re not alone in our pain, it can help us feel more connected to others which is another important path through. It can also help us reach out for help and support, rather than isolate ourselves which compounds our negativity.
Self-kindness – The most important component of self-compassion, however, and the core focus of Neff and Germer’s work, is self-kindness. Self-kindness is simply bringing warmth and understanding to yourself when you suffer, fail or feel inadequate. Many of us are mean and judgmental towards ourselves when things don’t go our way. Imagine how much better life would be if you — the one person who is ALWAYS with you — defaulted to kindness and understanding when things don’t go according to plan.
Self-Compassion is Healthier than Self-Esteem
Over the last 30 years, there has been a huge focus in the ‘self-help’ world on building self-esteem. The challenge is that self-esteem is largely rooted in comparison to others; high self-esteem has a built-in “I’m as good as/better than others like me.” To feel good about ourselves in this self-esteem model, we need to be the best at something – the best parent, employee, boss or the most attractive or hard-working person we know in order to feel of value.
Research has shown a number of serious problems with this approach. Always competing with others can lead to a sense of isolation and separation. And once you’ve got self-esteem, it’s a constant effort to keep it, as any failure creates doubts of our value. Self-esteem has also been linked to aggression, prejudice and anger towards those who threaten that sense of self-worth.
Self-compassion is a much better path forward. By bringing kindness to our failures, to our shortcomings and to our imperfect selves, we limit the amount of damage we do to ourselves. By acknowledging our weaknesses and loving ourselves anyway, we provide much more stable basis for confidence and ability to step back up and try again. We see ourselves more clearly and can make whatever changes are necessary to address our suffering.
As a success driven person, I initially balked at this approach. If I give myself love no matter what happens, then might I lose my drive and motivation? But I found just the opposite. As I stepped into self-compassion, I found I was willing to make more mistakes and fail more which pushed me to take more risks and find even bigger success.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Most of us have lots of opportunities to be kinder to ourselves. When your day is full of self-critical comments, work on listening in to what’s happening in your mind. Then practice being kind and understanding to yourself – just as you would a young child still figuring out their way in the world. It only takes a few instances of self-compassion to change your day and bring in more light.
A more proactive way to build up your self-compassion and self-kindness muscle is to use the self-compassion meditations created by top researchers in the field. These integrate the three main components of self-compassion and help retrain your mind to tap into the benefits of this practice. You can download them on their websites: Kristen Neff, Christopher Germer. Or get started right here with two of my favorites (left-click to listen or right-click to download with ‘save link as’).
Mindful Self-Compassion Meditation (from Dr. Germer)
Self-Compassion/Loving Kindness Meditation (from Dr. Neff)
Give yourself 10-15 minutes of quiet time when you listen and follow along with the instructions in the meditation. Each is self-explanatory.
1) Find 3 opportunities to change your thinking over the next week. Practice bringing some compassion and kindness for yourself when things get a little rough
2) Download one of the above meditations and listen to it at least one time this week. Give yourself the gift of love.
Self-compassion is a powerful tool to help you work through whatever negative stuff comes up in your life. I takes practice to learn these skills, start today.Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach