Offering yourself kindness and compassion might not make sense to you or just feel uncomfortable; it is, after all, a radically different way of relating to yourself or responding to sufferings and missteps than what is practiced in our society! It is understandable, then that the process could be misunderstood and viewed with some skepticism or reservations. It initially seemed “way out there” to me, too!
Here are a few common uncertainties about the usefulness or helpfulness of self compassion that I will attempt to clear up:
As was mentioned in an earlier article (Go Ahead: Give Yourself Some Love), when we find ourselves in challenging or otherwise distressing circumstances, we tend to feel isolated or alone; as though we are the only ones to have such tough times, while other people are much better off and have an easier existence. Our interconnectedness with others goes by the wayside, while our personal suffering is magnified. “Woe is me!”
Self compassion helps us broaden this narrowed range of view; the element of common humanity serves as a reminder of our interconnection with everyone and everything else, as well as the commonalities among us humans. In particular, we all suffer, to varied intensities or durations, for sure but the actual experience of suffering and pain is shared by us all. Recalling this fact of life could also help us to take a step back from whatever the horrendous experience is and give ourselves greater “mental space”, with which the broader human context can be appreciated. “We’re all in this together!”
Another reason some people might be averse or disinclined to practice self compassion is with regard to concerns that doing so might render them self indulgent or complacent, as though being self compassionate is somehow like giving yourself “permission” to do anything. As an example, if a person were to devour an entire box of cookies after a really stressful day at work and say that he was just being self compassionate, giving himself a break from such a hard day, that is self indulgence rather than self compassion.
Self compassion means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term, even if there is some displeasure in the short term. Eating unhealthy ooey gooey or fried foods every day or sitting on a comfy couch all day every day are examples of self indulgent rather than self compassionate behaviours: yes, you get to savour yummy treats and continuously relish in the comfort of a plush couch but do either lead to a healthy and happy lifestyle? Caring and valuing yourself with self compassion involve asking yourself what you need in at the moment to help yourself best. By all means, take a rest when you need it! During that rest, explore your values and how you can act in ways consistent with them; use self kindness to guide your decisions.
Letting Yourself Off the Hook
Maybe you are also wondering how being self compassionate is any different from blowing off personal responsibility or passively resigning from things that need to be done; if so, you are definitely not the only one! Research (Breines et al., 2012; Leary et al., 2007, cf Neff 2003; Neff, 2003) has shown that just the opposite occurs: self compassion leads to taking more not less responsibility for our actions. When we can face ourselves with kindness and acceptance rather than with harsh self criticism and condemnation, it feels less scary and much safer to acknowledge and admit our faults or missteps; self compassion helps to see oneself clearly and see past illusions of control or perfection. Resilience and motivation to try again are additional benefits.
Self esteem and self compassion are two similar and yet different constructs. Self esteem refers to our evaluation of ourselves or our sense of self worth whereas self compassion refers to how we relate to ourselves and to the circumstances in life,
Low levels of self esteem are problematic for one’s overall mental and physical well-being; however, extremely high levels of self esteem are also not that great, either. Consider how it is that someone gains a high sense of self esteem.
In order to have high self esteem, it is necessary to do well, not just average, to stand out as someone special with certain traits and without other, less desirable ones. When all of these conditions are met, self esteem sky rockets; you feel great about yourself and exude confidence. Great! What happens to the self esteem of the same person if he happens to do poorly on a test or fail to perform to a set standard? Well, his self evaluation goes down the tubes, he feels really self conscious, and really down. Not-so-great. Acting out aggressively and putting others down are common routes to high self esteem and feeling good about yourself. As you can see, self esteem really depends on the situation you are in; not on you personally but on how successful or how popular at that moment, on that day. If anything, self esteem is like a roller coaster ride: ups and downs, twists and turns, you never know for sure. Not much consideration or recognition is given to other people or to relationships.
Self compassion, on the other hand, is not about evaluations of the self; instead, it is based on the recognition that all people deserve to be treated with kindness and that all people are, well, human! We all screw up sometimes; we also do really well at other times. Self compassion is not a roller coaster ride; rather, when we accept ourselves and our circumstances for what they are, without trying to change them or deny reality, it is possible to feel good about yourself no matter what. Motivation to change what can be changed is high. Down times and mistakes are inevitable; treating yourself with kindness, owning up to mistakes, remembering that all people suffer, and trying again do not involve negative self judgments or evaluations. It involves being there for yourself, regardless of the outcome.
Research has shown that high levels of self compassionate yield the exact same benefits as having high levels of self esteem – just without the drawbacks!
Help Yourself First
We don’t hear that often! In our society, helping others comes first and this is often an admirable intention. Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist, has offered a drastically different perspective: ““In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves” (2010, cf Desmond, 2016). Consistent with this, call to mind safety instructions given on airplanes: in the event the air pressure in the cabin drops, you are advised to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. , even small children. Why? We need sufficient amounts of oxygen before we can help others to do likewise. The same is true for self compassion: we need a good supply of it before we can help others find theirs.