Self-compassion is a powerful practice that changes the way we interact with others and ourselves. Compassion is defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) Dr. Kristin Neff, the co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, defines self-compassion as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
Basically, it’s about self-kindness as opposed to self-criticism.
Many people know what it means to be self-critical and yet may not know that being kind to oneself doesn’t translate into being selfish. Practicing self-compassion through mindful meditation is a radical act of kindness directed at ourselves.
Empathy and compassion
In order to understand self-compassion, clarifying the difference between empathy and compassion is helpful. Brené Brown, in her highly acclaimed book, Dare to Lead, writes about wholehearted leadership. She explains empathy as “connecting with someone else’s suffering.” Pema Chodron, a zen Buddhist monk, and author of The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times wrote about self-compassion. “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear of pain.” In other words, compassion is empathy supported by the action of feeling another’s pain. Self-compassion helps us move through our own suffering by being fully conscious of the pain.
Self-compassion is being kind to oneself as if we were a person we cared deeply about.
Empathy is directed outward, whereas compassion is directed inward. One may also explain empathy as understanding someone’s suffering, whereas compassion is actually feeling someone’s pain. With self-compassion, we are turning inward with kindness and acceptance, even when we feel the pain deeply and would rather push it away and ignore or deny it. “As it turns out,” explains Brené Brown, “we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.”
The elements of self-compassion:
· Accepting others and our self- To be more compassionate, it is important that we accept others and yourself unconditionally and without judgment. We need to always practice kindness.
· There are boundaries around compassion– It is acceptable to have boundaries around compassion. We hold ourselves and others accountable for behaviors without making excuses. Compassion isn’t enabling behaviors; it’s accepting ourselves as we are, with kindness and patience.
· Self-compassion is scary– Accepting oneself may bring up fear and painful memories that may leave us feeling vulnerable. It takes courage to be vulnerable, and yet it is the greatest starting point to self-compassion.
· Being compassionate requires deep awareness and understanding- Sending kindness to the fear and pain helps us acknowledge what we are experiencing. Seeing with kind awareness is important to understand our suffering. Be can then nurture the pain with loving-kindness.
Compassion requires awareness
Compassion is also a concept that Buddhist philosophy explains this way: in order to have compassion, we need to be able to clearly see. This seeing means we do not turn our backs on an experience or a memory or even the present moment. By offering awareness to our suffering with equanimity means we see and genuinely accept what’s going on without grasping for meaning or having an aversion to that which is unpleasant.
In the Foreword of Susan M. Pollack’s book “Self-Compassion for Parents,” Chris Germer (a colleague of Dr. Kristin Neff) writes that “there are many obstacles to self-compassion… there are the misconceptions that self-compassion is a lot like self-pity, self-indulgence, selfishness…” When life doesn’t go our way or when we aren’t sure how to keep going, self-compassion is a healthy way to meet challenges with kindness.
Mindful meditation is a path to self-discovery
Using mindful meditation, we can learn how to focus on acceptance and understanding of inwards when experiencing difficult emotions. Mindful meditation helps us bring gentleness to the path towards self-compassion. Focusing awareness on the breath, body sensations, and sounds are anchors that are grounding for beginning a self-compassion practice. Another awareness is to see ourselves as a person who needs a hug. What would you say to someone who needs a hug? “It’s ok. I’ve got you. We’ll get through this. You are strong. You’ve been through difficulties before…” and so forth.
Simple phrases, delivered with kindness, can have lasting effects on the heart and mind.
Yet another mindful practice to cultivate self-compassion is to label (note) the feelings or emotions with simple words. For example, anger, sadness, frustration, confusion are labels that identify what we are feeling. Simply noting emotions and sensations is often enough to desensitize the pain and suffering from our mind because it moves the feeling from the limbic brain to the thinking brain.
Self-compassion is a practice that is accessible to everyone, and mindful meditation can help.