self-compassion: how to use it to make a difference in your life

Garden of Mind by Davide  Brusa and Leonardo Dentico Last week, I wrote about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why building a self-compassion practice offers even more benefits for our daily lives and overall wellbeing. Today, I'll go into a brief "how to" on self-compassion to offer a better understanding of ways that you can begin to actually DO it. First and foremost is noticing the word "practice." Just like most worthy ventures in life, self-compassion is not a goal you can check off a list, but a value you can strive to live out through patterns of committed actions (to put it into an ACT framework) -- a direction you can go in, not a destination you can reach. Dr. Kristin Neff provides numerous free exercises for self-compassion on her website, and of course, even more in her book. I'll also offer some of my own suggestions below.

In her research and personal experience, Neff discovered that self-compassion seemed to consist of three primary components:

"First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness -- that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it."

All three elements are required in order to practice true self-compassion. Let's break each of these down a bit more.

Self-Kindness This component requires that we question the voice of our all-too-familiar inner critics. Are you willing to speak to yourself the way that you would speak to a dear friend in the same situation? Self-kindness does not mean coddling ourselves or excusing inappropriate or ineffective behavior. Spiritual and meditation guru Tara Brach writes, "Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance." This reminds me of a line from one of my favorite comic illustrations, "Fat is Not a Feeling" by Corinne Mucha (click through for the badass full comic):

"Hate is not a magic wand that shrinks your thighs."

Along those lines, one of the concepts that changed my life was when I realized I do not have to hate my inner critic, either. I could maybe even be kind to that part, and understanding of the part who did the self-destructive things that infuriated me so much. I was lucky to learn that at the young age of 19 (not that I've practiced it perfectly since then!) at a Geneen Roth workshop when I was still entangled in an eating disorder. When Geneen briefly introduced Internal Family Systems Therapy, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I had to learn that the part of me who binged -- in a reactive fear of my past anorexia -- needed to be loved, too, even though it felt like a monster that took over my body and turned it into something that repulsed me. That part was just trying to protect me from having to experience the fear of what hunger represented, to keep me anesthetized of all my other insecurities. And if I waited to be kind to myself until my body looked the way I wanted it to, I'd be waiting forever. I'll never forget the day that I stood naked after a shower in front of a bathroom mirror at that retreat, put my hands around my belly button in the shape of a heart, and cried. I was forgiving myself, and making a decision in that moment to start practicing kindness with all the parts of me, even when it was really hard to be kind.

Although I didn't know it in that moment, one of the things that I was doing with that gentle touch was giving my body a shot of oxytocin (the hormone of love and bonding, or sometimes adorably referred to as "the cuddle hormone"). As Neff describes, physical touch releases oxytocin, which "provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress." Her research has gone further to show that it does not have to be the physical touch of another -- our own touch can release the same soothing hormone. So whether it's a hand your heart, a massaging stroke on the back of your neck, or wrapping your arms around each other with a loving squeeze -- basically anything works if it's done with the intent to self-soothe. And some ways are perfectly subtle enough to be done surreptitiously in public without others wondering what the heck you're doing.

Common Humanity One of the mind's favorite things to tell you when you're struggling is that you are alone: you are the only one in this situation, the only person who could have let things happen this way, and the only one who feels like this. In these moments, it's critical for us take a step back and remind ourselves that our suffering is not what makes us unique, it's what makes us human. Neff points out that the word compassion actually means "to suffer with." Try not to get caught up on the specifics of your situation that "no one else could possibly understand" -- what's more important is to remember that this intense grief or fear that you're feeling is something that others in your life -- and across the world -- have felt for as long as humankind's existence. When we know we're not alone in our pain, it doesn't make the pain go away -- but it allows us to connect, which can provide soothing in the moment healing in the long run. As a Unitarian Universalist, I have to throw in that one of our seven principles is "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." When I remember that I am part of this interdependent web, it brings me a sense of peace and belonging. Connecting to our common humanity also reminds us that none of us are perfect -- and when you think others' lives are perfect, remember that you can't compare your insides to someone else's outsides.

Mindfulness It's pretty difficult to be compassionate with our own pain if we're not mindful of it! Mindfulness in regards to self-compassion involves stepping back from our autopilot mode to be present to the difficult experience rather than jumping into reactivity or getting stuck in our unhelpful stories about the situation. I love this analogy that neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson uses:

"Imagine that your mind is like a garden. You could simply be with it, looking at its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. Or, you could pull weeds by decreasing what’s negative in your mind. Or, you could grow flowers by increasing the positive in your mind. In essence, you can manage your mind in three primary ways: let be, let go, or let in. When something difficult or uncomfortable happens—when a storm comes to your garden—these three ways to engage your mind give you a very useful, step-by-step sequence."

Hanson describes that different people have different tendencies with pain: some tend to want to jump right over the pain into happiness, and others tend to wallow in the pain long after it's useful. (This parallels ACT's core indicators of psychological inflexibility -- experiential avoidance and fusion, respectively.) Are you aware of your own tendency? If you are a jumper, then you need to practice just being with your garden -- observing it -- before giving into desires to "fix" or move past it. If you're a wallower, first mindfully observing your garden and then truly allowing yourself to move through the pain (pulling weeds and planting flowers) is critical.

Recently on Conan O'Brien, comedian Louis CK poked at about our culture's desire to avoid any ounce of pain, and how this prevents us also from fully experiencing other emotions such as joy and happiness. The clip already has over six million views, and if you haven't already seen it, it is well worth your five minutes! Being mindful of our pain means neither avoiding nor fusing with it, neither minimizing nor exaggerating it, but seeing it for what it is and allowing ourselves to be with and then move through it. 

I hope this post has been helpful you to consider ways that you can integrate these three core components of self-compassion more into your day-to-day life. I appreciate any comments about the post or what helps you practice self-compassion. If you're interested in digging deeper into this concept, Kristin Neff has a wonderful list of links on her website to all kinds of self-compassion resources.

What I listened to while writing this post: Horner, James - Braveheart - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.