The courageous, active aspects of self-compassion

firefighter low res

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.


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

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