Updated: Aug 30, 2018
To have compassion for another, three things must happen. First, you have to notice their suffering. Consider a person laying on the horn in the car behind you. You can’t feel compassion for them unless you see their struggle (e.g., “Whoa, that person is peeved- that can’t feel good”). Second, compassion means that you are moved by another’s suffering such that you have an emotional experience in response to their pain. Part of this emotional experience includes feeling warmth, caring, and positive regard for the other. When put into action, this also means that you offer understanding and grace when you bump up against the imperfections of others. In the case of the angry driver, that probably means leaving a certain finger holstered even if they’ve earned it (after all, that person is clearly already having a hard time, why make it worse?). Lastly, feeling compassion includes feeling connected to those who are in pain by acknowledging that suffering is a universal human experience (e.g., “Everyone has things that push them to the limit,” or “We all know how hard it can be to practice patience at times").
Having compassion for oneself is not much different than having compassion for another. Self-compassion is when we treat ourselves the way we would compassionately treat another when we fail, make mistakes, and are in pain. Instead of ignoring our own suffering, it is mindfully acknowledging “Gosh, I’m hurting right now.” Instead of harshly criticizing ourselves for our imperfections and short-comings, self-compassion means we offer ourselves kindness, warmth, and understanding. Importantly, it also includes acknowledging and accepting our humanness. We will make mistakes – sometimes big ones. We will fail to reach our goals. We will feel hurt by others. Sometimes we will be the ones doing the hurting. This is the inescapable reality of being human.
So why does this matter?
Over the last 10-15 years, research has shown a positive correlation between self-compassion and well-being- physical and psychological, alike. People who have self-compassion tend to enjoy greater social connectedness, higher emotional intelligence, increased happiness, and more frequently engage in health-promoting behaviors like exercise and healthy eating. Self-compassion has also been shown to correlate with decreased anxiety, depression, shame, and fear of failure. Although the academic community is still trying to figure out the mechanism through which self-compassion contributes to positive outcomes, some researchers hypothesize that regular self-compassion helps us to regulate our emotions and stress response system.
Great. How do I do it?
Well, there are lots of ways. First, though, you should know that practicing self-compassion doesn’t guarantee that you will feel good. Even though it’s designed to help us feel better, we can’t always control our circumstances or our pain. A self -compassionate stance sets the stage for us to create supportive conditions that allow ourselves to bear our suffering. Like a fire that intensifies when oxygen is rapidly re-introduced, some folks may even experience an increase in painful experiences as they begin to practice self-compassion. Sometimes this most self-compassionate response one can take in this circumstance is to temporarily pull back, focus on grounding skills, and engage in healthy self-care activities. A good therapist can be really helpful in this process :-).
With that disclaimer made, here is an easy way to begin practicing self-compassion. You’ll want to grab something to take a few notes with if you can.
Imagine that a close friend is really feeling badly or is really struggling. At your best, how might you respond to this friend? Write down what you might do, what you might say, and how you might say it (think tone of voice).
Now think about times when you have had a hard time, have felt badly about yourself, or have struggled. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Write down what you might say to yourself, the emotional tone with which you say it (i.e., belittling, scolding, etc.), and things you might do in response.
Compare how you imagine treating a friend to how you treat yourself. Did you notice a difference? If so, why do you think that is? Write down any factors (or fears) you think may be driving how you treat yourself.
Lastly, write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
Test it out. Try treating yourself like you’d treat a good friend.
If you were socialized in a western society, then you’ve likely spent your life in a context where self-esteem is based on how different (in a positive way) we are from others; a context where being seen as average is often hurtful or insulting. This context also incentivizes narcissistic behavior and putting down others in order to feel good. With self-compassion, we feel compassion for ourselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because we are above average in some way. It’s a radical way of treating ourselves with kindness that doesn’t require us to see ourselves as better than others.
Give it a try!