What is Self-Compassion?
Prepare before your journey.
Most people I know hold themselves to a higher standard than they hold others. This is pretty normal. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else possibly could. You know all of the ways in which you are flawed – and we all have a discursive self-dialogue – and when things aren’t going your way and you believe that you are responsible, you likely let yourself know. Often in not so kind ways.
To understand self-compassion we first must look at compassion. Compassion literally means to “suffer with”. It means tuning into someone’s suffering and wishing that they are relieved of that suffering. We talk to ourselves in our heads. We have a relationship with ourselves. And so, we have this ground to stand on in relation to ourselves. Self-compassion is the practice of compassion directed inward towards our very being. There is no word in the english language for Karu??, which is the Pali word for Compassion and Self-compassion. So this is a very common blind spot for Westerners.
Fun fact: Self-compassion is the essential ingredient in order for us to have compassion for others and there is evidence to support the claim that self-compassion practice makes people more compassionate.
Why You Should Develop a Daily Practice
In a word: Healthier. Many health benefits associated with positive self-talk can be found in a prior article I wrote on the blog called Recognizing the Importance of Self-Talk. Let’s actually start by looking at the absence of self-compassion. When things aren’t going our way, and we’re criticizing ourselves, we tap into the bodies built in threat-detection circuitry. Self-criticism is often our first automatic train of thought when things go wrong. When threat circuitry is activated, the stress response kicks in right along with it, and you probably don’t need me to tell you about the negative health effects from acute and chronic stress.
Self-compassion directly serves to counter this cascade of firing neurons, deactivating the threat system and activating the mammalian care system. Self-compassion decreases sympathetic activity – lowering cortisol and interleukin-6 (a marker of inflammation) and it increases parasympathetic activity including heart rate variability; Also there is research that shows it enhances immune system function and decreases physical symptoms of illness.
How Do I Develop the Skill of Self-Compassion?
Develop basic mindfulness skills.
You cannot practice self-compassion unless you are aware that you have the choice. In order to practice self-compassion you must first wake up from the spell of reactivity. For my thoughts on how to develop this prerequisite skill please see my article Reduce Stress in Your Life: It Just Takes a Little Practice.
Beware of self-compassion’s traps.
- If you try to use self-compassion to avoid your painful feelings it’s not going to be very effective.
Self-compassion works because you are fully recognizing and accepting the painful story playing in your head. You can let that story go and discover a more adaptive story; One that is showing yourself kindness; One that remembers that things are not either perfect or a failure.
- Fully opening to your experience can be very uncomfortable.
Showing yourself compassion in a moment of pain requires paying more attention to your senses, particularly the heart and full chest area. When you open your heart to show it loving kindness, the heart can also remember pain from the past. Sometimes this pain can be so overwhelming that the best response is to pull back and practice grounding techniques.
You rewire your brain with focused attention and repetition.
The most important part of getting started is making a commitment or setting an intention to practice every single day. Your practice can be very very small. 1 minute even. Just so long as you are doing it regularly, that’s the part that your brain cares about. If you want to change the way you think, you must change the way you behave. My “Getting Started” launchpad for my clients is Dr. Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion Exercises page. Here you will find 8 core exercises and numerous self-compassion guided meditations to get you started.
For Those Who Enjoy the Research
I’m not allowed to repost the academic journal articles… but Kristen Neff is! So just head on over to her extraordinary collection of publications that you can have access to without any gated institutional restrictions to contend with. Enjoy!
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.