The courageous, active aspects of self-compassion

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Compassion is not just cosy, gentle and receptive; it can be fierce and protective. In this sense, it has both masculine and feminine aspects. Like yin and yang, we need both in order to maintain balance.

Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says that the yin is its comforting, soothing form, where we validate our pain and acknowledge our difficulties. The yang is the more motivating form of self-compassion, where we protect ourselves or provide for others—generating feelings of fierceness and strength.

“Courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Compassion without courage is not genuine. You may have a compassionate thought or impulse, but if you don’t do or say anything, it’s not real compassion.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

Think of the fire-fighters who dive into burning buildings out of compassion for others. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to sit back and watch and think, “Poor them!”

Think of a mother lion with her cubs. One moment she’s tending to them, nursing them and showing them care. Yet if the lives of those cubs are threatened, she’ll stand up and fight. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to feel pity for the hungry attacker.

We can have these same brave, active quality in the way we treat ourselves with compassion. I’m thinking of the times we are really firm with our self-discipline, our motivation.

Saying no to others, sticking to a daily exercise routine or firmly disengaging from our to-do list in order to self-care are other examples. In the moment, we might need strength to break free from our habitual patterns. But actually this is an act of compassion, compassion for our long-term wellbeing.

Imagine a friend caught in a spiral of negative thinking. The more they tell you their story, the more and more they become overwhelmed. Is it kinder to sit back, listen and sympathise at this moment? Or is it kinder to interrupt (lovingly) and suggest they pause, look around, hold your hand, take a breath, or do something else to get them back into the present moment and avoid leaving them stuck in their emotional discomfort?

It would be kinder to our friend to interrupt. We can still validate their pain and soothe their discomfort, while nudging them towards a more mindful way of being with difficulty. We might also need the same strong resolve to interrupt ourselves when we feel stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving.

Research seems to suggest the same; that increased self-compassion actually increases our resilience. (1)

Sometimes this is called the ‘yang’ of self-compassion, and it’s an area of my personal practice I’m working on.

What about you? Do you feel your self-compassionate qualities lean more towards the yin or the yang?

What now?

If you’re feeling skeptical, or worried that self-compassion might turn you into a wuss, you might like to read the common misgivings about self-compassion.

You might also like to try the reflection exercise Being a friend to myself, and gain some more insight into your habits around self-compassion.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

(1) Wren et al, 2012

Misgivings about self-compassion

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Many people find that they are much kinder to others than they are to themselves. One of the obstacles to developing self-compassion is doubting its efficacy. These doubts are often founded on well-intended fears about being selfish or indulgent —and it’s useful to discern for ourselves whether we are choosing to be hard on ourselves for some useful purpose or whether we’re actually caught up in a habitual pattern of self-criticism.

Here are some of the common misgivings:

—Self-compassion is a pity-party

Self-compassion doesn’t mean we over-exaggerate our suffering and dissolve into a woeful mess. Mindfulness —the ability to let go of thinking and shift our attention to something present like the breath, physical sensations or the world around us— is a key component of self-compassion. Research shows that self-compassionate people are more likely to entertain a variety of perspectives rather than focus on their own distress (1) and are less likely to ruminate (2).

—Self-compassionate people are weak

Research shows that self compassion builds resilience and that self-compassionate people are better able to cope with distress, divorce and chronic pain. (3) Often we see self-compassion as a gentle, passive quality, but it also has a tremendously courageous, active aspect. Think of the fire-fighters who dive into burning buildings out of compassion for others.

—Self-compassion is selfish

Won’t I become narcissistic if I focus more on my own needs? Research shows that we habitually focus more on the needs of others around us. Self-compassionate people tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships (4) and are more compassionate towards others. (5)

—Self-compassion is self-indulgent

“What if I start indulging myself?” There’s a wisdom and an awareness in true compassion, a discernment of what is actually beneficial for us, both in the short-term and the long-term. Self-compassionate people tend to engage in healthier behaviours for long-term benefit like exercise (6), eating well (7) and drinking less (8).

—Self-compassionate people make excuses

I don’t know about you, but the times I’ve lied or made excuses are the times I’ve felt unsafe. I’ve chosen to hide my true feelings out of fear or shame or simply wanting to survive. When we feel safe, we are more likely to admit our mistakes, and self-compassion helps us build this resource. Research shows that self-compassionate people take responsibility for their actions (9) and are more likely to apologise if they’ve offended someone. (10)

—Self-compassion undermines our motivation

Self-criticism has actually been shown to undermine self-confidence and lead to a fear of failure. (11) Self-compassion actually encourages us to take care of our health and wellbeing, providing the support needed for change. Imagine having a coach: would you feel more motivated by a supportive, encouraging one or a harsh, critical one?

“Your finest work, your best movements, your joy, peace, and healing comes when you love yourself. You give a great gift to the world when you do that. You give others permission to do the same:
to love themselves.” ~ Melodie Beattie

What now?

Still having some doubts? Why not give the Self-Compassion Break a go for a week and see for yourself?

You might also like to test how self-compassionate you are and see what your personal strengths and opportunities for learning are.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

  1. Neff & Pommier, 2013
  2. Raes, 2010
  3. Wren et al, 2012
  4. Neff & Beretvas, 2013
  5. Neff & Pommier, 2013
  6. Magnus, Kowalski & McHugh, 2010
  7. Schonefeld & Webb, 2013
  8. Brooks et al, 2012
  9. Leary et al, 2007
  10. Brienes & Chen, 2012
  11. Brienes & Chen, 2012

 

The three components of self-compassion

1_OxPMWDQ1SXUdGG-EXgDBBQ.pngWhen things go wrong, how do we treat ourselves? What comes to your mind?

—Perhaps some self-criticism, being hard on ourselves?

—Feeling isolated or avoiding others for fear of shame?

—Ignoring our own painful feelings and distracting ourselves with entertainment, food, drink?

If, in recalling and reading this, we find we’re feeling a bit down about ourselves, we could place a hand on our heart or give our arm a reassuring rub. We could tell ourselves it’s okay, we’re all hard on ourselves at times. And we could perhaps encourage ourselves with some self-talk like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” Taking a moment to really feel that warmth and reassurance.

Here, we just practised all three components of self-compassion.

Mindfulness

In order to soothe our suffering, we first need to recognise our suffering. So mindfulness means simply being aware of our feelings and how painful they are, without getting carried away in the drama of the storyline.

Common humanity

How many times, when we fail or something goes wrong, do we feel, “This shouldn’t be happening!” Remembering others face the same challenges helps us feel normal. We’re not alone in our suffering. We all make mistakes, all of the time. Can we start to see this as part of the human condition?

Self-kindness

This means actively soothing and comforting ourselves when we experience suffering. Genuinely wishing ourselves to be happy and expressing that in our words or actions. Over time, this rewrites the scripts in our brains that trigger self-judgement, and self-kindness becomes our new default.

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” ~ Chris Germer

I’m very grateful that I recently experienced this. In a future post, I’ll be sharing a personal story of using self-compassion in the face of unexpected suffering.

Still feeling skeptical? Worried that self-compassion might turn you into a wuss? Coming soon: what the research says about self-compassion as a key factor in building resilience. We’ll also be exploring the courageous, active aspects of self-compassion.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

 

Being a friend to myself: a self-reflection exercise

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This reflection exercise can help us understand if there’s a difference in the compassion we show to others and the compassion we show to ourselves.

During this reflection exercise, we’ll be reflecting on how we treat our friends and how we treat ourselves. We can do this either with pen and paper, or without.

You’ll need to put aside about 10 minutes to do this.

“Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.” ~ Wilfred Peterson.

Taking a few moments to sit and settle into the present moment. Making ourselves comfortable. Allowing ourselves a few easy, deep breaths… with a sense of ‘letting go’ on the out-breath. Then allowing the breath to settle into a natural rhythm. Closing the eyes and scanning through the body from head to toe, noticing any areas where we’re subtly holding onto tension… and bringing some kindness to those areas. Perhaps even offering ourselves a silent inner ‘Awww…’, allowing our heart to melt a bit with each ‘Awww.’ If we like, using the out-breath as an opportunity to let go of tension a little bit more each time.

Now bringing to mind a time a close friend was suffering in some way. Maybe they made a mistake or felt rejected or inadequate in some way. How did you respond to your friend? What did you say? What tone of voice did you use? What gestures did you use? Did you hug them or make physical contact in some reassuring way?

Writing down or remembering what we have discovered.

Now bringing to mind times we have suffered. Maybe we made a mistake or felt rejected or inadequate in some way. How did we respond to ourselves? What did we say? What tone of voice did we use? What gestures did we use? Did you hug ourselves or use a soothing touch to reassure ourselves?

Writing down or remembering what we have discovered.

Now letting go of any images or memories and comparing notes. Is there a difference in the way we treat ourselves and others?

If we find a difference, can we bring some acceptance and forgiveness to this discovery? Perhaps placing a hand on our heart or giving our arm a reassuring rub. We’re all hard on ourselves or others at times. This is normal. So it’s okay, if you discovered that.

Perhaps there’s some intention you’d like to make, coming out of this exercise?

And if you find this experience has been difficult for you, you might want to try using a Self-Compassion Break… and feel free to get in touch.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

Self-compassion break

Hand on Heart

Self-compassion break

This short practice trains us to bring mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness to our suffering.

If we’re currently experiencing emotional discomfort or suffering, we can work with this.

Otherwise, we’re invited to think of a situation in our lives that is difficult, that is causing us stress. Calling the situation to mind, and seeing if we can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in our body.

Now, saying to ourselves:

1. “This is a moment of suffering…”

This is mindfulness, acknowledging what is happening.

Other options include:

“This hurts.”
“Ouch!”
“I’m feeling stressed.”

2. “Suffering is a part of life…”

This is common humanity. We all suffer from time to time.

Other options include:

“Other people feel this way too.”
“I’m not alone.”
“We all struggle in our lives.”

Now, placing our hand over our heart, feeling the warmth of our hand and the gentle, touch of our hand on our chest. Or adopting a different soothing touch; perhaps a reassuring rub on the arm, the tummy, folding the hands…

Saying to ourselves:

3. “May I be kind to myself…”

We can also ask ourselves, “What do I need to hear right now, to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to us in our particular situation, such as:

“May I give myself the compassion that I need.”
“May I learn to accept myself as I am.”
“May I forgive myself.”
“May I be strong.”
“May I be patient.”

This practice can be used any time of day or night, to help us remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when we need them the most.

“Self-compassion really means
being on your own side.”

…any questions? Problems? Feel free to get in touch.

Listen to an audio of the Self-Compassion Break.

If you’re interested in the theory of how this works, see the three components of self-compassion (coming soon).

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.