Self-Compassion—The Transformative Effect of Being Kind to Yourself

“You can search the whole tenfold universe and not find a single being more worthy of love and compassion than the one seated here—yourself.”

—Buddha

What most of us do when we feel emotional pain is become self-aggressive. A failure or shortcoming turns into a reason to be hard on ourselves, and we shower ourselves with criticism. Sometimes that leads to isolating or shaming ourselves. Instead of staying with the initial impact of the painful emotional experience, we step into a habit of building a false story about ourselves based on damaging thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations that cause ongoing suffering.

Our self-criticism or shame becomes an aspect of our suffering. It is an add-on to pain or trauma we may be experiencing. An antidote to this self-criticism and shaming stance is to dip into the power of self-compassion. Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist and lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, shares a growing body of research in the Ten Percent Happier podcast, “showing that self-compassion is positively associated with emotional well-being and is consistently related to low levels of anxiety and depression.”

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is the act of allowing one’s heart to respond to personal pain. It is marked by an intention to be mindful and kind about our own suffering, caring for the part of ourselves that is feeling hurt. It is an act to treat ourselves with the same warmth and care as we would someone we love unconditionally. It is a turning toward suffering, like a companion, with gentleness and warmth, befriending the wounded parts. Self-compassion opens the heart to connecting with self and others, and contributes to psychological well-being.

What Does Self-Compassion Look Like?

The action of self-compassion consists of three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness toward self. Mindfulness is the innate ability and practice of paying attention, on purpose, to a chosen object, like the breath, without judgment. Common humanity is the understanding that suffering is universal—we are all connected by the joys as well as the struggles, heartaches, and fears of living in a human body. Kindness toward self can be described as genuinely accepting the hardship that is felt with warmth and a desire to help.

Researcher and author Kristin Neff created what is called a self-compassion break that combines these three components. The self-compassion break starts with being mindful that you are experiencing pain, noticing the “Ouch”! You might name the hurt, such as “This is painful” or “this hurts,” which validates that something feels uncomfortable in the body and or mind. With that, you invite a pause, similar to a pause we take in meditation practice, to turn toward pain and investigate it with curiosity, rather than habitually becoming paralyzed or overwhelmed by it. The pause can be a place of refuge, where you witness the pain as-is, without any aversion or self-judgment.

When we do this, we find some ease and freedom. There is a sense of freshness and open space. We find ourselves feeling more expansive and connected to the greater whole of ourselves and humanity. We can see that we are not alone. Our pain is shared human pain. We acknowledge that all humans experience pain. Others around the world feel the same as we feel. This way, we move from a place of feeling alone and isolated to connected, a part of something larger, and cared for, which is the second step, becoming aware of our common humanity.

The third part of the self-compassion break is to be kind, giving the pain kind attention, just like a good friend or a small child, and discovering its needs. There are many ways to do this. You might start by asking, “What do I need right now?” or “What would feel good in this moment?” as a salve for this wound. Or you may find you just need to rest in the feeling of being connected to someone and not alone. Maybe the physical act of putting your hand on your heart and feeling comforted helps. Often these small acts of kindness toward the self are radical and foreign, as we so often condemn ourselves before we take the step to care for ourselves. Practicing self-compassion, we skip over self-condemnation and move directly to self-care.

Self-compassion and Radical Acceptance

Tara Brach, clinical psychologist, author, and founder of Insight Meditation Community of Washington, uses the term “radical acceptance” to describe this kind of self-compassion; it is radical because it counters our primitive tendency, which is to react (fight), run away (flee), or shut down (freeze) when there is the threat of pain. This system of reacting made sense in the face of physical threats in the primitive world. However, when fight, flight, freeze is applied to the internal state of heightened emotions in the modern world, it can turn into self-criticism, self-isolation, and/or self-absorption. Depression, anxiety, or trauma often present with a critical, isolated, small self-state, and strong self-judgment. People experiencing these mind and body states feel alone and identify solidly with the negative story of themselves based on past experiences.

Self-compassion offers a break from this mode of response. Our brains are hardwired, we have the capacity, to choose to soothe with self-compassion. We can choose to attend to the discomfort or dis-ease that is here in this moment and befriend it. This movement toward the pain—connecting with it, being kind to it—is a movement out of our narrow self-identified view and into a greater awareness, especially of shared human suffering. We can open to an expansive, curious, larger state of well-being, seeing our situation as part of a bigger whole.

We move from feeling separate to feeling interconnected. This can bring great relief, refuge, and even transformation.

Steps to Self-Compassion

We all want to feel more alive, connected to ourselves, and our lives. One of the reasons people come to therapy is to reconnect to their “Being-ness,” reclaiming a sense of well-being that appears to have been lost or obscured over time. This means coming into contact with all kinds of unwanted or difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, memories, past behaviors, and unhelpful habits. Seeing ourselves more clearly as humans, with all our messiness, can feel uncomfortable and lead to self-shaming or judging. So, in order to face ourselves, accept who we are, and move toward well-being, in counseling we learn the skill of self-compassion, cultivating it so it’s hardwired into our everyday selves.

To understand more how you can bring the same kind of care to yourself as you would a good friend, contact me. Together we can explore how, when feeling hooked by a painful experience, you can learn to take a break, a self-compassion break. As the Buddha said, you are worthy of this love and compassion as much as anyone else.