We’ve just had Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year the theme was kindness. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about self-compassion, which is the biggest kindness we can show ourselves.
In its literal definition, compassion means ‘to suffer with’. It involves noticing the suffering of others, feeling moved by their pain and experiencing a desire to help support them through the situation with a lack of judgement. Self-compassion merely requires you to turn that light of non-judgemental kindness onto yourself. Easy, right?
Having self-compassion involves three key elements – self-kindness, an awareness of our common humanity and mindfulness.
Rather than ignoring or dismissing your suffering as just part and parcel of your everyday life, to take a self-compassionate approach to oneself involves huge kindness when you are having a tough time, fail at something or notice behaviours in yourself you don’t like. Taking a moment to care for yourself, acknowledge that you are moving through a difficult period and show yourself some understanding is hard but it’s a huge gift you can give yourself.
You will not always succeed in everything or receive everything you want. Unfortunately, that is the reality of the human experience – there will be failings and disappointments along the way. The compassionate response to show yourself is one of acceptance. Rather than railing against the perceived injustices of the situation, take a gentle approach when confronted with painful experiences and you will pass through the hardship far quicker and with much more ease, bypassing a lot of stress, frustration and self-criticism.
I’ve written before about cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, and the temptation to overlook the shared nature of the human experience and instead focus purely on our individual condition in isolation is a good example. We are all connected and nothing happens to you within a bubble – your circumstances are dictated by myriad external factors and influences. Recognising this makes it easier to approach your own difficulties with compassion – no one has complete control over what happens to them and therefore no one can hold themselves entirely accountable when things go wrong. It will also allow you to show more compassion to others when they are struggling.
That is not to say the negative emotions should be ignored entirely or dismissed as nothing to do with you, however. A mindful approach which takes a balanced view of what you’re experiencing and allows you to step back and view your thoughts with clarity will help you to gain the perspective you need to be kind to yourself.
It is worth noting that there is a big difference between self-compassion and self-pity or self-indulgence. Self-pity tends to involve a self-absorbed state which disregards the experiences of others, and self-indulgence, with its focus on immediate gratification, doesn’t help you to improve your situation in the long-term. As great as that ice cream tub looks right now, it’s not the sustainable kindness you ought to be showing yourself for your overall wellbeing.
The difference between self-compassion and self-esteem may be a little harder to identify but it is also important. Self-esteem is based around self-worth and doesn’t leave much room for acceptance of failure and difficulty. Unlike self-esteem, which can fluctuate with each personal success or failure, self-compassion is a constant, more emotionally resilient tool for you to use on yourself.
That inner voice which makes a point of telling you about all of your perceived shortcomings and personal failings is not speaking from a place of compassion. You wouldn’t use its language and judgemental tone on someone else you saw suffering, so why are you using it on yourself?
Try the following over a period of a few weeks and you will see a difference in the way you relate to yourself:
- Pay attention to your inner critic. That voice is so internalised that many of us don’t really notice what it is saying, we just absorb the sentiments. Take time to really pay attention to what it is saying and how. Spot any patterns: are there particular words or phrases which come up all the time?
- Actively try to soften your inner critic. Start a dialogue, request gentleness from this voice and make it clear when you are being negatively impacted by the hurtful things it is telling you.
- Move on to reshaping the observations made by your inner voice. Imagine you are directing the thoughts to your best friend and modify them accordingly – the compassion you would show a loved one is no more than you should be directing towards yourself.
It will take time, but you can learn to direct more kindness inwards so why not give yourself the gift of self-compassion?