Self-Compassion: An Observation of Hope
For almost a decade now, I have had the honor of working with students and clients in the field at Entrada. First as a field staff and now as the Health and Wellness Coordinator. For a decade I have witnessed a phenomenon that always gives me great hope in the face of even the direst of cases. Compassion. Even more importantly… self-compassion.
So, why is compassion, specifically self-compassion, so important? Compassion is the ability to sense suffering in others and possess an authentic desire to help end that suffering. The Latin root “compati” literally means “to suffer with.” Self-compassion is the same concept applied to self. It is the ability to observe our own hardships without moving to judgment or deferring to a “suck it up” mentality. Self-compassion moves one to figure out the best way to be present with, and hold space for, their suffering while also finding ways to comfort and support oneself through the difficulty at hand. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on this subject, defines 3 distinct qualities of self-compassion:
1) Self-kindness vs. Self-Castigation
Self-compassion entails being warm and gentle with oneself in the face of failure, hardship, or feelings of inadequacy. Individuals who have high self-compassion don’t push their feelings away nor do they move to self-criticism.
2) Common Humanity vs. Isolation
When one has self-compassion, they see their struggle as a part of the human experience. They don’t ruminate on their hardship from the perspective that they are the only one failing or experiencing difficulty. They tend to have a more measured emotional response to their suffering since they understand it as a shared and common part of being human.
3) Mindful vs. Over-Identification
Self-compassion requires a balanced approach to emotions. It offers a ‘middle road’ between suppressing or exaggerating difficult emotions or feelings. This more balanced stance on one’s suffering is fed by the ability of one to see their suffering in relation to the suffering of others. This attitude toward painful or difficult personal experience cultivates the ability to mindfully observe and hold space for difficult emotions, letting them be felt and, inevitably, healed.
“The most powerful relationship you will ever have is the relationship with yourself” Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
Our Ability to Cope. Our Ability to Heal.
From research on self-compassion,1 it appears that those who have higher levels of self-compassion can reframe negative life events in a less dire perspective. Known as Positive Cognitive Restructuring (PCR), this ability helps individuals stay motivated to solve their problems and lessens the chance that they will fall into rumination or victim-stance about their struggles – i.e., “Why does this always happen to me?” Self-compassion seems to guard against maladaptive coping strategies like avoidant behavior. People who exhibit high levels of self-compassion tend to take accountability for their situations and emotions. Because they inherently have less self-criticism or self-judgment, they can more readily accept their failures or hardships. This results in a greater ability to deal with and heal negative feelings or beliefs that arise with difficult experiences.
I was inspired to write this blog after coming home from another day in the field in which I had led one of my favorite practices, “The Future Self.” In it, I ask participants to daydream their most extravagant future wherein they are living their happiest, healthiest life, full of abundance and success as they define it. At the end of their daydream, I invite them to sit with their future selves and ask for any guidance, feedback, or affirmations that they need to achieve this desired life. Here’s the kicker… after teaching this practice for almost 10 years, a common outcome emerges so often that it bears sharing… I ask participants to describe how their future self regards them. Inevitably “kind, loving, and compassionate” are the most often used terms in describing this future self. Today I straight up asked the group how many experienced their future selves as being compassionate. Everyone raised their hands! This is where the hope lies. No matter how terrible the traumas, no matter how severe the self-harm or how long the states of depression have lasted, I repeatedly witness this amazing glimmer of soul-affirming grace within So. Many. Kids. Their imagination and their ability to go inward and seek out intuition or self-guidance reveals a powerful source of self-compassion. The best part is this, compassion is inherent within us2 and can be exercised and cultivated like working a muscle to make it stronger. There are a plethora of practices to help deepen one’s ability for self-compassion. Perhaps the most pervasive and well-studied practice is Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM). Please refer to my blog on LKM if you are curious about practicing it for yourself. I offer another simple practice here too:
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind and allow yourself to feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.
Now, say to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering
That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
This is stress.
2. Suffering is a part of life
That’s common humanity. Other options include:
Other people have felt similar ways.
I’m not alone.
We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Alternatively, adopt a soothing touch you’ve discovered for yourself such as the face or arms.
Say to yourself:
3. May I be kind to myself
Ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your situation, such as:
May I give myself the compassion that I need.
I accept myself as I am.
I forgive myself.
I am strong.
May I be patient.
This practice comes from the book, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive, by Dr. Kristin Neff.
Watching these numerous clients and students find self-compassion from a simple, short guided imagery exercise has given me great hope for their healing over the years. My hope for anyone reading this is that we too search for and cultivate our self-compassion so that we may spread more of it into the world.
Elise Mitchell is the Health and Wellness Coordinator for Evoke at Entrada. To learn more about Evoke Therapy Programs contact one of our admissions counselors.
1. Allen, Ashley Batts and Mark R Leary. “Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping” Social and personality psychology compass vol. 4,2 (2010): 107-118.
2. McGehee P., Germer C., Neff K. (2017) Core Values in Mindful Self-Compassion. In: Monteiro L., Compson J., Musten F. (eds) Practitioner's Guide to Ethics and Mindfulness-Based Interventions. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Springer, Cham