The importance of self compassion
What is self-compassion? It’s my view that there really isn't a difference between compassion for self and compassion for others, it's just that we usually exclude ourselves from the circle of compassion.
When you have an experience of compassion for another person what goes on? What are the elements that comprise this compassionate experience? Well, the first is actually that you have to notice that suffering is occurring.
Let's say you are walking to work down the street and there is a homeless woman sitting on the street corner who obviously looks like she's had a tough time. Some days you might just walk past or not even notice her on your way to work because you're in a rush, but one day for whatever reason you do notice her and you notice that she's really struggling and then the next response, if it's a compassionate one, is it your heart goes out to her. You have some emotional response to her pain. Importantly, there's another element to compassion that shouldn't be overlooked and that is recognition of her humanity and your humanity and that we are all vulnerable. Not pitying the woman, not looking down on her, but remembering, there but for the grace of God go I. We are all potentially capable of finding ourselves in a situation like that.
Self-compassion has those same three elements, Notice suffering is occurring, A compassionate emotional response, Recognition of shared humanity.
The idea is of being kind and emotionally responsive to your own suffering. Sadly most of us are not kind to ourselves, most of us are very judgmental and critical of ourselves, very hard on ourselves. Stop and check in with yourself and think about what you just said to yourself last time you made a mistake or felt you failed in some way. Then consider would you say that to someone you cared about? To a friend? More often than not the answer is no. We tend to speak more harshly and even cruelly to ourselves than to anyone else in our lives. Not only does that cause a lot of pain it also takes away this great coping mechanism we have, which is our ability to soothe and comfort ourselves.
In self kindness we actively treat ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh judgement. We treat ourselves like we would a good friend, we’re there for ourselves when needed.
Recognising that our imperfection, the fact that we fail and make mistakes, the fact that we suffer in life, is part of the shared human experience, it’s something that we all go through. This is important, because often what happens when we notice something about ourself we don't like or something difficult happens in our life, we feel like something has gone wrong, this is abnormal in some way but actually, it's normal to be imperfect, it’s normal for your life to be imperfect and when you can remember that you can actually feel more connected to your fellow humans when things go wrong as opposed to feeling isolated, and isolation is the more common experience when we feel inadequate in some way.
Firstly though, we need mindfulness. Mindfulness entails turning toward painful emotions and being willing to sit with them. To be with them without immediately trying to change them and chase them away. We need mindfulness to be able to notice when we're suffering. If you're trying to avoid suffering or fight against it and resist it, we can't open to it, just like that homeless woman on the side of the street we have to be willing to look at her and acknowledge she's really hurting. We have to be able to do that for ourselves as well. On the other hand we don't want to exaggerate the pain either, we don’t want to run away with a dramatic storyline of how bad things are. Mindfulness sees our situation just as it is, no more and no less.
When we're in the role of self-critic, we're often completely consumed by that role, we don't even stop to realise the incredible pain we’re causing ourselves. Perhaps the reason for our pain isn't coming from our self-criticism but is instead due to some very difficult situation. Maybe you’ve had a car accident for instance; we typically go straight into problem solving mode in those situations, making phone calls, who do I have to call, how do I fix this, without first stopping, and pausing to say “that was really difficult, I'm struggling with this emotionally”.
Can you imagine if you had a friend who came to you and said she’d just totalled her car, what is the first thing you would do? Maybe give her comfort, show her you care, reassure her, check how she’s feeling, is she hurt? That's usually our natural response to other people, to comfort them when they're hurting, but it's not the case with ourself, often that’s because we aren't even tuned into our own suffering.
I'd like to lead you through a little exercise to get a sense of what self-compassion feels like and also what the lack of self-compassion feels like.
Take a couple of slow, deep breaths to start, just settle into your body and close your eyes.
I'd like you to put your hands in front of you and clench your fists really hard. Really tight. Just hold that there for a few seconds. While your fists are clenched, what do you feel? Are any emotions coming up for you?
Release your fists now and gently move your hands so your palms open and are facing upward. Do you feel a shift? What's coming up for you now?
Then place one hand on top of the other bring them firmly and yet gently over the centre of your chest, your heart space. Feel the warmth of your hands, your chest rising and falling beneath them. Just feel it. What is that feeling like for you now?
The first posture when we clenched our fists was a good metaphor for what self-criticism feels like. It feels stressful, feels painful, it feels uncomfortable, tight and rigid and that's our attitude toward ourselves when we criticise ourselves especially harshly.
Then when we open our hands most people feel a great sense of relief, a freedom, a feeling of spaciousness and that’s a very good metaphor for mindfulness or just allowing things to be as they are.
Then when we put both hands over our heart, this usually feels pretty good, feels comforting, it feels warm, caring, tender and that's what self-kindness feels like. We’re giving ourselves what we really want, really need.
These two different ways of relating to ourselves either with harsh self-criticism or with compassion, actually have different physiological underpinnings. All self-criticism does is it taps into our threat defence system, our fight, flight or freeze response, the amygdala the oldest part of our brain that tells us if there's a danger. Remember, we talked about this back in chapter one. This system says be prepared to fight or be prepared to run. When triggered that releases cortisol and adrenaline and it activates the sympathetic nervous system and it says ‘get ready there's danger’. This system was very helpful to us evolutionarily because if a lion’s chasing you, you better be prepared to do something about it if you want to survive. These days most of the time we aren't physically threatened but our self-concept is threatened. Whenever we perceive we fail or we see something about ourselves we don't like it's almost as if our self-concept is under siege, we react as if our very self was under siege and that's partly why we can be so hard on ourselves because we're trying to get rid of the threat and in a way we see the threat as our imperfect self. So, although self-criticism is painful and can cause us to be stressed and unhappy, we also don't want to be hard on ourselves for being self-critical because what the threat defence system is doing is actually trying to keep us safe. When we do notice some shortcoming we have, the reason our threat defence system is activated sometimes, not always but sometimes, there really is a problem that needs to be addressed, some way in which we aren't being our best. So even though its techniques may be very clumsy, self-criticism is trying at its heart to keep us safe, it's just not very effective.
To balance this, we have another evolved system designed to keep us safe and that's the mammalian caregiving system. What makes mammals different than reptiles is that mammalian young are born very immature and in order for them to become mature enough to survive on their own the parents, usually the mother, have to care for them, instinctually want to care for them, to soothe and comfort and keep them warm and conversely the infant has to be physiologically programmed to be able to be soothed comforted. Tender touch and soft vocal tones, these were all triggers that were evolved to make us feel safe and secure and when this happens we release oxytocin and other sorts of opiates, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is designed to calm us down and make us feel safe. So when we give ourselves compassion we're actually moving our sense of safety from the threat defence system to our own caregiving and attachment system and this is much more productive. The threat defence system and the self-criticism end up making us stressed and anxious and not in a good emotional mindset to really complete anything. When we give ourselves compassion, we feel safe, we feel emotionally balanced, we feel accepted and we feel loved and this actually puts us on the best footing to not only be happy but to reach our goals.