What is Self-compassion and Why Do We Need It?

In some situations, we can be unconsciously critical and harsh with ourselves. We fill up with negative comments, accusations and judgments. Self-compassion is a great tool and inner resource we have to transform and refine this attitude. We all need self-compassion. Some of us are harsher on ourselves than others, but almost everyone experiences some version of this daily. It is possible to soften this unpleasant attitude towards ourselves through self-compassion practices. So when exactly do we need self-compassion? And how does self-compassion relate to mindfulness?

How does self-compassion relate to mindfulness?

Some people tend to be harsher on themselves than others. There can be many reasons for this. In general, these feelings are triggered by social rules, common beliefs and our ideal human image. We try to mold ourselves into certain forms because we believe them to be “right” or have been taught that they are, and when we fail to do so, our reaction can be harsh and negative. Similarly, not being able to draw healthy boundaries can cause us ultimately to form a destructive relationship with ourselves. If you don’t set healthy personal boundaries, you can start giving to others without factoring in your own needs, prioritizing others’ expectations, and listening to your mind rather than to what your body is trying to tell you. When these healthy limits are violated, our body starts sending us signals. There are many tools we can use to notice the effects of this attitude on ourselves. These include being aware of our behavior in our relationships, receiving psychotherapy or doing group therapy. I think we all need self-compassion–or, will need at least someday–especially as we move forward with the practice of mindfulness. Why? Here are some reasons …

Why should you show compassion towards yourself?

To better understand the practice of meditation, it is crucial to look closely at the nature of the mind. Think of your mind as a factory tasked with producing unlimited thoughts. Our minds can come up with all kinds of thoughts and judgments if we do not make conscious choices. Imagine that there is a decision that you need to make about the future. Your mind starts to generate thoughts and possibilities. A wide range of options, feelings, people and conversations spin around in your head. Most of these thoughts are flawed; that is, they do not reflect reality. In addition, another task of this factory is to keep us alert and prepared against possible dangers. In order to perform this task, the mind comes up with a wide range of negative and unlikely scenarios. Therefore, we either rehash the past over and over again or create new scenarios about what to do differently in the future. We assign roles to characters and make assumptions about their underlying motives for their current or future actions, because that’s how our minds work. When this happens, we can interrupt the flow of our thoughts by noticing how our mind is interfering, and start to keep a distance from our thought process. As a result, we will be able to see the products of our minds as if they were revealed to us, rather than getting lost in infinite possibilities.

Applying self-compassion in daily life

So, what happens once you start noticing these judgments? This is when you start to use your awareness in daily life, not just when you meditate. The more you meditate, the better you get at noticing and following those judgments without getting caught up in them. As this skill develops, you begin to see and recognize the harsh thoughts that you unconsciously direct towards yourself. 

This brings us to emotions. According to cognitive psychologists, emotional states are shaped by the content of our thoughts. When you say to yourself  “I can’t believe how careless I am! I had it coming!”, you may feel angry at or disappointed with yourself, and your body reacts to these feelings. For instance, anger can manifest as a faster heartbeat, and a chest tightness can be a sign of disappointment. Another point emphasized by cognitive psychology are the “cognitive distortions” that we all experience. You can think of these distortions as “thinking errors”. We distort the actual situation by wrongly interpreting it. These distortions include being critical of both ourselves and our surroundings. One common distortion is taking a single event that happened to us and expecting the same outcome even in different contexts. After making a single mistake, we might say, “I always give the wrong answer anyway, I’ll probably never be successful.” Meditation provides a space for you to recognize these distortions. However, it’s not enough to be aware of the harsh criticisms we project onto ourselves. We need to show ourselves self-compassion to move these distorted realities into an understanding and gentle space, and to be able to look at what is happening in an unbiased way. Otherwise, our distorted  judgments can affect our general mood in the long run. Moreover, these judgments can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies when we get caught up in them, and we end up with even more reasons to feel inadequate and mistreat ourselves. Ultimately, we end up drying up the resources that we feed on and motivate us. This is also known as ‘burnout’. When we are burned out, we find it very difficult to turn awareness into action. Have you ever felt totally exhausted? If someone had asked you what you really needed and exactly met your needs, how would that have made you feel? Asking yourself these very questions is the beginning of self-compassion.

Approaching yourself with understanding

woman holding red flower

Self-compassion gives us the ability to treat ourselves with affection rather than constantly judging ourselves. This is the first element of self-compassion. Imagine that a very close friend is beating themselves up about a situation and blaming themselves. How would you treat them? You could probably look at the situation much more objectively, reminding your friend of their strengths and good sides. However, when it comes to ourselves, it is not that easy to switch to this attitude. Self-compassion makes these transitions easier. As we practice self-compassion, we begin to accept and understand feelings such as pain, failure and inadequacy, instead of getting angry at ourselves and ignoring them. Imagine someone you feel very safe with, such as a family member or your partner. Wouldn’t it be easier to show that person your vulnerable side and share your burden with them? Because when we feel embraced and safe expressing ourselves, we are better able to accept ourselves as we are. Every person has their curves and edges, ins and outs–like the pieces of a puzzle. When we see these as they are, we begin to feel like a part of the whole as well. Instead of feeling disappointed, we can accept and let go. We need to remind ourselves that we are experiencing normal, human feelings. Focussing too much on our individual experiences makes it hard to accept things, as we see problems that need to be “corrected”, deficiencies that are needed to be “filled”, and we see our suffering as separate from that of others. This is the second element of self-compassion: choosing to see the common ground experienced by all humans rather than isolating yourself and your emotions. When we depend on other people or situations to feel compassion and feel like we are in a safe space, a part of us remains unseen and misunderstood. You are the only person who can take care of you for the rest of your life. That’s why making space for self-compassion helps everyone.

But self-compassion does not mean simply accepting every state and situation. Self-compassion is not about turning everything negative into a positive. Of course, it is natural to see the negatives, mistakes or deficiencies in ourselves or in situations. We can always choose to change or correct them, but when our distorted judgments get mixed into the situation, we lose the power within us to transform. Self-compassion helps us to use this power and capacity, neither too much nor too little, just as much as is needed. It helps us look at ourselves in a gentler way. And this brings us to the last element of self-compassion: looking at each state with awareness and authenticity.

Try to catch yourself when you criticise yourself, even if it is for very minor things. When you notice these, can you make space for all the needs and situations you feel and experience?

Translated by: Ebru Peközer

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