Why Self-Compassion is the Pathway to Inner (and Outer) Peace
A post from Elisha Goldstein got me thinking about self-compassion, and it reminded me of a course I participated in last year with Kristin Neff.
This is what Elisha shared that caught my attention:
“In all the time I’ve been practicing and teaching mindfulness as a way of life, I’ve come upon a phrase that helps give me perspective during the difficult moments of life and in the more wonderful moments.
It is what it is,while it is.
This simple phrase allows me to be grateful for the good moments and more graceful during the difficult ones. It gives me access to the essential healing agent of compassion.”
In order to be compassionate toward others:
1) you notice that they are struggling in some way
2) you are moved by their situation, and
3) you want to help them by offering understanding and kindness, rather than judging them.
When you are compassionate, you realize that imperfection, failure, and difficulty are all a part of the shared human experience. ‘They’ are no different than you.
Self-compassion means that you extend to yourself the very same things that you would extend to another person. Instead of ignoring the pain or difficulty you are experiencing, you pause and say something comforting to yourself, like ‘this is a really difficult time right now’, or ‘this is a challenging time’. Then you think about how you can care for and comfort yourself in that moment. Instead of judging or criticizing yourself, you are kind and understanding toward yourself.
You might decide that you want to do something different or to change something about yourself for moving forward; the key is that you are motivated to change because you care about yourself (not because you are somehow flawed or worthless as you are.)
Kristin Neff’s explanation of the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem truly resonated with me:
“Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.? In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. It is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We also tend to get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.
In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available, especially when you fall flat on your face! Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”
Neff outlines three elements of self-compassion:
Self-Kindness: being warm and understanding to ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring the pain or engaging in self-criticism.
Common Humanity: recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is something that we all go through, we are not alone in making mistakes, or experiencing suffering.
Mindfulness: observing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, rather than trying to suppress or deny them.
Recently, I attended a sporting event. The players were teenagers. One team (the ‘winning’ team) laughed at, teased and mocked the other team throughout the entire game. The winning team was clearly superior in their skill level and certainly, they have every right to celebrate their success. They were not celebrating, however. They were comparing, demeaning, and ‘rubbing it in’ to the other team. We spectators could easily see how the lack of compassion started to affect the ‘losing’ team, who started out motivated and excited to play the game, but started to lose energy as the game went on (and the laughing and insulting continued). One of the players from the ‘losing team’ commented ‘wow, that team’s parents sure didn’t teach them about manners’.
While one might argue that sports are all about winning and losing, and kids have to learn to ‘suck it up’ and lose gracefully, I wonder what kind of world we might have if we all entered the field (the board room, the classroom) and saw each other with a sense of common humanity. This, to me, is a clear example of the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. I think we can celebrate our wins without having to demean and put-down those who lose. Because, realistically, in one way or another, at some point in time sooner or later, we will all find ourselves on that other side.