I was recently asked by a friend to write a piece on the subject of self-compassion, a topic which is very dear to me. I did a quick internet search on the words alone which brought back several responses in the form 'how to practise self-compassion.' What seemed to be missing, or perhaps buried somewhere, deeply obscured in the search results (i.e. page 2 or more) is 'Why?'
So this could be entitled, 'why do I practise self-compassion?' or even 'why did I begin to practise self-compassion?' Firstly it is probably worth stating that even the phrase 'practise self-compassion,' which I've written five times now, could be improved with the word consciously. Compassion is an innate quality of who we are as human beings. We apply it all the time. It is one of the qualities which we revere in others and yet seem to have significant difficulty applying to ourselves when we're most in need.
My awakening into a conscious approach to improving my own compassion-consistency began several years ago when I spent a bit of time noticing just how I spoke to myself. It was readily apparent with only minor introspection that I used language that I would simply not use on another human being. Why is that ok? I wondered I don't deserve that! Possibly my first recognisable conscious act of self compassion. Instead of using hateful verbal abuse when I misplaced my wallet in a rush to go out, and other such dramas, I used more supportive language. If I deemed it necessary to insult myself at all I used words like 'daft' or 'silly' or something delightfully obtuse; I would use a ridiculous voice or a line from a TV show or movie that made me chuckle. The effects were startling from something so simple, I felt calmer, less prone to catastrophise and I tended to find my wallet or keys easier.
There seems to be a cultural phenomenon. I'm not alone in having used barbaric, hurtful and cruel language in the privacy of my head where no one can call me out on it. Moreover we live with a culture which values helping others to the point of martyrdom. To have a rest is to be considered 'lazy.' The first activities to be sacrificed in times of difficulty or just plain busyness are the things we do for fun – the very things that restore us and give us the vital energy we need to cope. It is no surprise to me when people say 'whenever I go on holiday I seem to get ill.' We often work so hard that we don't even have time to be sick, almost saving it up for the moment our bodies are permitted a little slack. Add to that the images from advertising, expectations around appearance, wealth and success. That's a lot to live up to.
The second time I remember being consciously self-compassionate was a time I was particularly struggling with the effects of deep depression. Is it not bad enough, I thought, that this feels so awful? I recognised something I was to read about much later on: that I was unconsciously contributing to my own suffering. I realised that there were circumstances in my life which were so difficult, so painful and at that point there was nothing I could do to change them. And then I was adding a whole heap of suffering with my expectations, insults and unfair comparisons. So here were two kinds of suffering. The stuff I couldn't help and the way I chose to respond to the stuff I couldn't help. Self-compassion is about choosing to respond in a way that is supportive and uplifting to the suffering we can't avoid. In that way help us stay with, to tolerate and to respond in open creative ways which assist us in moving through our difficulties, rather than trying to avoid them. When we react without choice it is inherently unconscious. So consciously practising self-compassion helps us have other choices available when we need them.
There are lots of great ways to actively practise self-compassion. I often include self-compassion messages in my own mindfulness meditations and the ones I lead in my classes. It could be said I was unknowingly, at the time, practising mindfulness of thoughts when I became aware of the types of words I used to describe myself. Inspired by the work of Kristen Neff , I similarly take inspiration from the Metta Bhavana practise of wishing well for oneself and others. I let myself not do it at all. And if I lose the practise completely and am utterly unable to give myself compassion directly, as happened recently for me in a particularly difficult situation, I reach out to my friends to help remind me what deep down I already know but have forgotten how to access. Good friends are a great source for learning how how to be your own best friend.
Mindful awareness and self-compassion really go hand in hand. Mindfulness helps us experience how things really are direct from our experience. We know when we're kidding ourselves. Trust that you know what is best for you. If you're tired and have a task to do give yourself permission to do absolutely nothing for 5 minutes. There's a good chance you may really enjoy the rest (then do!) or it might be totally frustrating and you feel more motivated to do the dishes or work on a project, whatever it is in the moment you are resisting. It turns out resisting something is a really great way of adding additional suffering to something which is already difficult (or we wouldn't resist it, right?). Practising self-compassion helps eliminate resistance by allowing us to choose what we really need in the moment. In the example above, is it to work or to rest? Is it to work a little, then rest or enjoy a different reward? There are too many possibilities to list and hopefully by this stage you are considering ways you might be more kind to yourself.
I would like to conclude this post by saying self-compassion is not 'letting oneself off the hook' it is recognising and skilfully working with the things in life that cause us suffering and choosing, through kindness, a course of action which most supports us. Self-compassion may mean making some really tough decisions; just because it is the kind thing to do it doesn't make it the easy thing to do. Self-compassion is not selfish. Giving all the time is simply not sustainable, we burn out. We have to care for ourselves so we have the most energy, the most patience and the most compassion available for others. Ultimately, self-compassion reflects outwardly.
There is one question that I ask myself so often it has become something of a mantra for me: What is the kind thing to do?