by Jason Wong February 2023
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Compassion, then, is not only a vital piece of our humanity, it is also an extremely effective tool for improving our lives and the lives of others. Unfortunately, developing compassion for the self can be far more challenging.
To define self-compassion, we start with what compassion is. The two are really one and the same. Compassion is an attitude that involves a certain set of feelings, thoughts, motives, desires, urges, and behaviours that can be directed towards any living thing (i.e., ourselves, another person, a group of people, a society, animals, the environment, etc.). Therefore, when we talk about self-compassion, we are specifying that this attitude is being directed internally towards ourselves.
Some literature states that these definitions emphasise four key things:
- Being attentive or sensitive to the fact that some sort of ‘suffering’ is occurring. Suffering could mean some distressing struggle with emotional pain, mental pain, physical pain, or all of the above.
- Recognising that experiencing this sort of pain is universal, we all experience pain at some point to varying degrees. The fact that we experience pain isn’t a fault or failing of ours, we are not to blame for our pain, and we are not alone in our pain.
- Not shying away from or ignoring the pain, but meeting this pain with feelings of kindness, care, warmth and concern.
- Focusing our energy on ways to alleviate the pain, which may be via providing further comfort and caring actions, providing a helpful perspective regarding whatever the issue is; and having the strength and courage to take other necessary actions to address the concern being faced.
Dr. Kristin Nerf, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, says:
“Self-compassion is simply the process of turning compassion inward. We are kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical when we fail, make mistakes or feel inadequate. We give ourselves support and encouragement rather than being cold and judgmental when challenges and difficulty arise in our lives.”
Research indicates that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience we have available to us, radically improving our mental and physical wellbeing. It motivates us to make changes and reach our goals not because we’re inadequate, but because we care and want to be happy. Therefore, it involves directing feelings of kindness and care towards ourselves, just as we might to someone we care about who is struggling.
Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.
We cannot always be or get exactly what we want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
Mental health and well-being benefits
Research has shown that self-compassion is strongly linked to our mental health and well-being. Studies have found that those who are more compassionate towards themselves tend to have less mental health concerns; like depression, anxiety and stress. These people also tend to have a better quality of life, a greater sense of well-being, and less problems in relationships.
Compassion is linked to the hormone oxytocin, often called the “love” or “affection” hormone. This is a hormone that promotes bonding and closeness, and therefore is particularly active at childbirth, during breast-feeding, during physical affection, during sex, when parents play with their children, when people play with their pets, etc. It is suggested that directing compassion inwards can equally trigger the release of oxytocin, and the calming benefits it brings. In essence, self-compassion goes hand in hand with general life contentment.
Why is it hard to be self-compassionate?
So, if self-criticism is just leading to more misery, then surely self-compassion is the answer. Unfortunately, most of us struggle to be more compassionate towards ourselves.
Early life experiences
It is proposed that for some people; experiencing limited care, kindness and nurturing from others growing up; may lead to the soothe system being underdeveloped. The soothe system thrives on and is stimulated by having compassionate experiences. Essentially, it is hard to learn something that we were never taught. So, if we didn’t receive much compassion from others in earlier life, then it is understandable that is can be more difficult to develop the ability to be compassionate to ourselves later in life.
The threat system
As already mentioned, our brain is hard wired to shift into threat mode pretty easily to protect ourselves. Seeing the negative is our default attention bias. Turning our attention to more self-compassionate endeavours overrides this attention bias, which is not something that comes naturally to us.
Lack of awareness
Many of us may not be aware that we are struggling, or aware of the unhelpful critical ways we may be treating ourselves. We can go through life on autopilot, doing what we have always done. We get tangled and stuck in our struggle, never pausing to consciously recognise we are struggling, and that maybe we could deal with this in the same way we might help others deal with something similar. It has just never even occurred to us that treating ourselves kindly is an option.
Negative beliefs about self-compassion
Some of us may cringe at the idea of self-compassion. Being self-compassionate is not something we are taught about or talk about a lot, and so it can carry some negative connotations. Some people think being self-compassionate is too ‘touchy feely’, and will lead to laziness, self-indulgence or self-pity.
Why is self-compassion challenging for some of us?
Some of us may experience what self-compassion researchers call “backdraft.” Backdraft happens when we are being compassionate to ourselves and end up feeling worse. “It’s a normal part of practicing self-compassion,” says Chris Germer, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry who, with Kristin Neff, developed a program called Mindful Self-Compassion.
When self-compassion backfires
Fear of or aversion to self-compassion can arise in those who grew up with insecure attachment to our parents—some 40% of us. In secure parent-child relationships, caregivers are consistently appropriately responsive to the child’s needs. The securely attached child grows up with a sense of safety.
With insecure attachments, parents are not consistently and appropriately responsive to the child’s emotional cues. A parent may be too disengaged, angry, or often too depressed to respond well. These children grow up with a degree of anxiety about the world.
Paul Gilbert, a clinical psychologist and the founder of compassion-focused therapy, first explored the relationship between attachment style and fear of self-compassion. He described how two emotional regulation systems, what he called the contentment system and the threat system, develop differently depending on whether we are securely attached or insecurely attached.
The contentment system, as he calls it, in securely attached children gives a child a sense of support from others. This creates emotional memories of feeling secure and supported that can then be activated by self-compassion. Because thoughts can trigger emotional memories, merely thinking of a compassionate mother’s hugs can soothe adults who were fortunate enough to receive them.
Insecurely attached children do not receive that sense of safety and reassurance from their caregivers. They don’t have the same stock of comforting emotional memories that become activated during the practice of self-compassion.
Worse, insecurely attached children have highly active threat detection systems, Gilbert explains. A gesture of compassion that an adult who was securely attached would find comforting, a child of insecure attachment could find threatening.
For example, say the child of rejecting parents experiences sadness. Instead of meeting that sadness with compassion, the parents of the insecurely attached child dismiss the child’s sadness with a scowl and tell her to toughen up. This experience of rejection threatens a child’s sense of social safety. The threat system is activated.
An alternate way to practice self-compassion
Mental practices can be re-traumatising, Gilbert says. Specifically, say, we help ourselves by saying it is OK to feel sadness. Instead of deriving comfort from our words to ourselves, we start to feel anxious because we have an emotional memory of being told that sadness is unacceptable (even if we aren’t conscious of it).
The alternative is to practise behavioural self-compassion, or figuring out what we want in the moment to feel soothed—for example, petting your dog or taking a short break from work.
“Everyone needs to customize self-compassion practice for their own, individual needs and life circumstances,” says Germer. “As a rule of thumb, behavioral self-compassion is safer than mental exercises.”
When we are upset, though, it can be difficult to practice behavioural self-compassion and figure out what we need in the moment. Germer recommends asking specific questions: What do I require to feel safe? To be comforted, soothed or validated? To protect, provide for or motivate myself?
Germer advises us to think about how we already care for ourselves and applying those practices. For example, we might care for ourselves physically with physical activity or a warm bath. We might care for ourselves mentally by watching a funny movie. We might care for ourselves emotionally by journalling or cooking.
These behavioural practices are best for when we want to establish a sense of safety in our practice of self-compassion. Psychological safety is feeling that we can put forth our ideas, make mistakes, and take risks without worrying that we will be humiliated or ridiculed.
In short, self-compassion entails treating ourselves with kindness, recognising our shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of ourselves. It is a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection.
Self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts and more caring relationships behaviour.