Why is it so hard to extend the same care and support to ourselves that many of us so readily offer to others?
Sharon Salzberg, a renowned author and meditation teacher, suggests that it may be because Western cultures tend to view compassion as a gift, rather than a need. As such, we may feel more comfortable giving compassion to others, viewing compassion for oneself as selfish or indulgent. Eastern traditions, by contrast, consider self-compassion a fundamental part of being human. It is thought that if we’re not able to relate to our own struggles with care and understanding, we’re unlikely to develop the internal resources needed to support others well.
In Western cultures, self-compassion is often misunderstood as self-pity, self-absorption or self-indulgence. People often worry that self-compassion means letting yourself off the hook too easily, risking becoming lazy and non-achieving. There is a pervasive belief in our culture that self-criticism keeps us motivated and on track. In fact, self-compassion is actually far more motivating and sustainable as it still involves holding oneself to account but in a way that is encouraging, rather than punitive. We’re actually far more likely to learn from our mistakes and continue trying when we’re being self-compassionate. Self-criticism on the other hand often leads to giving up prematurely and can negatively impact our sense of self-worth, confidence and mood.
Even if you already view self-compassion as something worth exploring, it can be difficult to know how or where to begin. The good news is that research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology is confirming what Eastern meditative traditions have known all along:
Self-compassion is a skill that can be developed and strengthened at any age. It is not an inherent quality that we either have or don’t have.
The first step towards developing self-compassion is to understand exactly what it is. Let’s take a look at the three core components of self compassion as identified by Kristin Neff, a leading researcher who has been studying self-compassion for over a decade now.
The Three Core Components of Self-Compassion
1. Being kind to yourself, not critical
The first part of self-compassion involves being kind to rather than critical of yourself. When you are struggling in some way - when you fail or feel inadequate for example - as we all do at times, self-compassion is about turning towards your suffering with the same care and kindness you would offer someone dear to you. Most people agree that they would never dream of speaking to the people they care about in the same harsh, critical way they often speak to themselves.
Being kind to yourself requires accepting that none of us, as human beings, is perfect. Failing and experiencing challenges and painful emotions is an inevitable part of life. When we are able to accept this reality, rather than rail against it, we are much more likely to develop the capacity to be kind to ourselves, which over time and with practise leads to greater emotional equanimity and contentment. When we resist this aspect of our humanness we only perpetuate our suffering.
2. Recognising that you are not alone in your suffering, all humans suffer
The second component of practising self-compassion is connecting to the reality that all humans suffer. Part of being human is being imperfect, vulnerable, making mistakes, having regrets and experiencing painful emotions. Whether we like it or not, these are all an inevitable part of being human.
When we are able to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering, it is easier to be more understanding and accepting of our struggles. Focusing on what we all share in common, rather than on our differences (e.g. that all humans experience sadness, loneliness and rejection at times; that all humans make mistakes; that all humans want to feel valued, respected, loved and understood) helps us to have compassion for ourselves as well as others.
3. Taking a balanced approach to your painful emotions, neither repressing or exaggerating them
The third component of self-compassion involves being mindful of painful emotions - that is, recognising and turning towards them without (1) down playing or repressing them; or (2) over-identifying or exaggerating them. When we are able to turn towards our pain with mindful awareness - with openness and curiosity - we become better at being with, rather than pushing away, what is showing up. Being mindful of our suffering also means that we are not over-identifying or exaggerating our emotions. Instead we stay grounded in reality.
So, how do we go about developing and strengthening self-compassion?
Just like mindfulness, self-compassion requires a commitment to practising! And just like mindfulness it is a skill that takes time to develop. Know that it is perfectly normal for self-compassion to feel quite foreign, maybe even a bit contrived, at first. Try to go gently with yourself and see if you can bring the attitudes of mindfulness - openness, curiosity and non-judgement - as you begin.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Try out our 10 minute Self-Compassion Meditation in the ‘Relationships’ program of the Smiling Mind App.
— Consider how you would speak to a friend
Think about what you would say to a friend if they were experiencing the same difficulties you are. Write it out on paper and read it back to yourself when you need reminding.
— Notice and Name
When you are feeling a painful emotion, try and name it. Either silently in your mind or by writing it down. As you name the emotion see if you can become aware of the corresponding sensations in your body, as well as what you are believing about yourself as you feel that particular emotion. Pause and acknowledge, rather than criticise, your experience by speaking to yourself kindly (e.g. “I’m in pain right now”, “I’m noticing that I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself right now”).
It can be helpful to watch out for “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” in your thinking (e.g. “I should be more disciplined”). When you notice “shoulds” pause and try rephrasing them with more encouraging language (e.g. “Ideally I’d like to be more disciplined, this is something I’m working on”). Notice how different these statements feel.
— Supportive Touch
When you notice a painful emotion, place one hand over your heart and take 2-3 deeper breaths. Notice the contact between your hand and your heart. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your chest beneath your hand as you breathe. Intentionally direct care and nurturance inward through the touch of your hand against your heart. If this doesn't feel comfortable, explore other ways to offer yourself supportive touch.
Examples of supportive touch:
- Placing one hand over your heart
Holding one hand in the other and giving yourself a gentle squeeze
Giving yourself a hug
Placing one hand against your tummy
Ready to start practising self-compassion?
If you’d like some additional support in recognising and naming your emotions, try our range of meditations.