Why Self-Compassion Matters
There has been a lot of writing lately in the therapy world and the greater blogosphere about the topic of compassion and, specifically, self-compassion. I trace much of the popular interest to Kristin Neff's accessible and useful book on the topic, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. It is a concept I hold when working with clients and one which I think is an important part of our well-being. But, what is it, anyway?
What is self-compassion?
Compassion is pretty easy to wrap our heads around. We can purposefully focus our thoughts and attention on another and consider their suffering. It is an active stance that we take towards another. We can wish for an end to their suffering and wish for their health and happiness. This is especially easy when this compassion is directed to someone we love and hold dearly. It can be internal feelings we have toward the other, feelings of warmth and lovingkindness. It can also be outward behaviors that we direct toward the other.
Self-compassion is the same stance, feeling, and behaviors, but instead of directing these towards another, we direct them to ourselves. For some people this isn't such a difficult task but for others it can be quite difficult to do.
Why is this important?
I find the need for self-compassion showing up often in my work with clients where we are working on issues such as anxiety. When working with clients who feel overwhelmed by anxious feelings and thoughts, we often incorporate mindfulness into our work together. This can take many routes, but usually involves being present to what is going on internally and accepting it as it is, without judgment. With anxiety this means being able to notice and sit with feelings of dread and fear, and thoughts that are often catastrophic and racing.
As mindfulness work continues, clients often find that other thoughts and feelings come up that at first seem unrelated. Harsh, critical thoughts like:
Why can't I get over this anxiety?
Why do I keep having these doom and gloom thoughts? I'm such a freak.
I should have solved this by now! I'm a failure.
I'll never get better.
and many, many more...
In addition, perhaps feelings of shame occur, shame related to not living life the way one "should," or shame that anxiety can be so crippling and have such a huge effect and cost.
What I notice is that the two experiences, anxiety and shame, are often interlocked. There is the fear of the future, or speaking to others, or flying on planes, and the self-criticism around being this way; a double whammy of difficult feelings and thoughts that seem to multiply and amplify each other. So, in addition to changing our relationship to anxious feelings and thoughts, we also have to look at how to relate differently to ourselves. Often these feelings of shame lead to a self-defeated stance and it can be hard to imagine that change is possible.
How Self-Compassion Can Help
If you're experiencing anxiety and also noticing self-criticism around this, shifting to a more soothing and compassionate stance can help loosen the grip of the anxiety by helping you sooth yourself in the moment. It can help provide some space from self-critical thoughts and feelings of shame around the issue of anxiety and allow for change to occur.
There are a number of ways to do this. One is the practice of tonglen, the practice of cultivating compassion for others and for yourself (you can try a simple tonglen practice here). Another thing to try is a quick self-compassion break. When you notice self-critical feelings, or feelings of shame or overwhelm, try stopping for a moment and doing an exercise that allows you to create some space and shift your mind and heart:
- Notice what is going on for you. Perhaps you are angry or scared or frustrated or just stressed. If you can, call it what it is: "I am suffering right now" or "This is hard."
- Remember that pain is a part of being a human. Note that it is something we all have in common. This condition is universal and others are in the same place.
- See if you can be kind to yourself in this moment. What would that look like? It doesn't have to be much. Perhaps it is a quiet reminder you give yourself such as:
May I accept myself as I am.
May I be strong.
May I be patient.
Or some other soothing phrase that allows you to soften in the moment. Or it could be choosing to do something that is soothing and calming, some way to show gentleness and compassion to yourself.