The word compassion evokes a warmth and softness in us when we hear it. When we think about the word compassion, we may think of helping someone in need, comforting a loved one, or feeling a sense of sadness and pain in witnessing another person experiencing misfortune. Compassion is an incredibly powerful sentiment that can influence us to take action, connect with others and see in others reflections of ourselves.
Despite our general awareness that compassion is a vital part of connection, comradery and belonging, we often get swept up in feelings of stress, anger, worry, and anxiety. These emotions have a way of leading us to only focus on our own lives, and be less inclined to reach out to others.
And yet, everything that brings joy, connection, love, and belonging into our lives starts with love and one of the key ingredients to love is not only compassion for others, but compassion for ourselves. It’s often said that we cannot give others what we ourselves do not have. Thus, we cannot love fully or have compassion for others fully without first filling our cup with self-love and self-compassion. When you try to visualize compassion, you may think of someone’s hand reaching out to hold yours and the comfort, assurance and consolation that can bring you. Just as we can feel the calming impact of someone else treating us with compassion, we must also learn to treat ourselves with compassion. Again, only through self-compassion can we learn to love ourselves and thus love others. Before talking more about this, though, let’s get a better handle on what self-compassion is.
Self-compassion is kindly holding out a hand to ourselves when we need it the most. It’s being kind and patient with yourself regardless of what you’re experiencing. Self-compassion means that we lovingly accept ourselves as we are now, independent of the past or the future. It’s the most sincere and genuine form of love, always helping us to be our best selves not only for own our fulfillment but for the benefits of others. Should we be experiencing challenges and emotional turmoil, self-compassion allows us to cope with any struggle in an assertive yet calm and peaceful manner. Self-compassion acts as a compass that guides us in creating healthy boundaries so that regardless of what we’re experiencing, we’re able to feel more certain about what is required of us and what is not.
Self-compassion is a practice that enables individuals to form a healthy, solid relationship with themselves. When we approach ourselves with the same consideration we would show to someone who was going through a difficult time, we are able to form a lasting friendship with ourselves.
One consideration to note with regards to ourselves, is that our “self” is frequently caught between happiness, contentment and serenity and enduring disruptive and stressful situations. Fortunately, the more we’re able to practice self-compassion, the better we’ll be able to cope with the negative emotions and situations we experience. When confronted with a challenging situation, rather than feeling destructive emotions such as shame, self-criticism and self-blame—emotions which do not help us resolve any issue—we will be more inclined to acknowledge our mistakes or the mistakes of others in a more productive manner. Additionally, when we feel disappointment, sadness or anger as a reaction to the actions of others, self-compassion will protect us from acting outside of our integrity and help us to continue honoring ourselves and others. That’s not all though; self-compassion has an incredibly powerful impact on our Sympathetic Nervous System, affecting our overall health.
When your mind senses a physical threat, it will automatically defer to the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic Nervous System. When this happens, the mind perceives emotional or spiritual problems as physical threats as well and, unable to cope with these problems, retreats into itself. As a result, we tend to isolate and doubt ourselves, thinking solely of our own welfare and needs. It’s like when Dostoyevski said: “Whining is nothing more than deepening an already bleeding wound.” That means that when we criticize or inflict shame and blame on ourselves, we’re actually hurting ourselves. And when we are hurt, it is much more difficult to apply love, compassion and understanding with others. As the popular saying goes, ‘Hurt people, hurt people’. By showing ourselves compassion, we can be free of this torture we put ourselves through and foster an openness and willingness to be compassionate and loving with others.
The more an individual practices self-compassion, nourishing peace of mind, patience, love, and kindness within themselves, the more those same sentiments will spill over into all of the other parts of their life. Instead of making decisions or behaving from a place of shame, self-criticism, fear, or anger, their lives will be guided by understanding, calmness, patience, and acceptance.
By practicing self-compassion, we begin to accept ourselves, just as we are right in the moment. As we change day by day, we continue to learn more about ourselves and accept our characteristics, values, habits, and thoughts, without judgement or pressure. That means that when we’re enduring pain and discomfort, we approach ourselves just as we would someone we love. Rather than using harsh, critical words with ourselves, we begin to be kinder and more understand with ourselves. That doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves accountable; that’s an important distinction to make. Just because we are compassionate with ourselves and others does not mean we do not hold ourselves accountable and question our decisions and judgements.
What it does mean is that as we continue to approach ourselves with compassion, rather than our minds and bodies going into a flight-or-fight mode, seized by fear and powerful negative emotions, we will be able to assess and resolve the situation with a sense of calm and clarity.
The compassion we show to ourselves will eventually spread out throughout our environments. The way we approach the world will evolve as we practice and learn from compassion, eventually helping us to show more compassion and love to others as well.
According to studies conducted by Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion is made up of 3 components: Being kind to yourself, knowing that everyone sometimes feels the same way we do and intentional awareness.
Being kind to yourself is the opposite of judging yourself. When things don’t go the way we want them to, the most common response we have is to blame and judge ourselves. Self-compassion reverses this tendency; instead it helps us to accept matters with understanding and tolerance, even when they don’t go our way.
Knowing that everyone in the world has shared the same pains we’re experiencing, often saves us from feeling alone and isolated. When we suffer, we have the tendency to wonder: “Why me?” When we ask this question, “why me?”, we create the impression in our minds that everyone, apart from ourselves, leads problem-free lives, far from suffering, while we’re here stuck in a dark tunnel. By showing ourselves self-compassion, we internally remind ourselves that we’re not alone, that many other people go through these same emotions and situations, that there are so many other people who can and have felt this same pain.
Intentional awareness is being aware of what’s happening right now, paying full attention to it with no judgements whatsoever and accepting it open heartedly. Intentional awareness is a must in the path to self-compassion because we need to feel the pain we’re in. Being able to hold out a loving hand to our pain, after experiencing it is self-compassionate awareness.
The fact that we’ve encountered compassion and recorded it into our emotional intelligence enables us to create a new self formed by self-compassion. The universal desire of all beings, “being happy, away from suffering, safe and at peace” opens up more room for self-compassion. Transforming the compassion inherent in every being into self-compassion and developing it is like developing a muscle. All it takes is a little work.