What Keeps Us from Showing Self-Compassion?

Busting the five myths of self-compassion.

| Summer 2016

  • Self-compassion includes an element of wisdom — recognition of our common humanity.
    Photo by Shelby Steward/www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyann18/
  • Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are.
    Photo by Bestiary/www.flickr.com/photos/bestiary/
  • Self-Compassion is vital to emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help us avoid the inevitable consequences of harsh self-judgment — depression, anxiety, and stress — it also engenders a happier and more hopeful approach to life.
    Photo by D. Sinclair Terrasidius/www.flickr.com/photos/24258698@n04/

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable quality. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities: kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Even many generations removed from our culture’s Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t blaming and punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.

Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old marketing executive with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and hard worker, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model. But Rachel’s in therapy because her levels of stress are so high: she’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes — to her horror — snaps at her husband and kids. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Yet she’d never consider trying to be compassionate to herself. In fact, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, giving herself some kindness and understanding, strikes her as somehow childish and irresponsible.

And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people in our culture have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it looks like, much less how to practice it. Often the practice of self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. But while mindfulness — with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our own suffering without being caught up in it and swept away by aversive reactivity — is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more — embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.

Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom — recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals, just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the everything-will-go-swimmingly-until-the-day-I-die plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering — that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition — can make a radical difference.

I remember being at the park with my son, Rowan, when he was about 4 years old, at the peak of his autism. I was sitting on the bench, watching all the happy children playing on the swings, chasing each other, and having fun while Rowan was just sitting on the top of the slide repeatedly banging his hand (something known as stimming). Admittedly, I started to go down the path of self-pity: “Why can’t I have a ‘normal’ child like everyone else? Why am I the only one who’s having such a hard time?” But years of self-compassion practice gave me enough presence of mind to catch myself, pause, take a deep breath, and become aware of the trap I was falling into.

With a little distance from my negative thoughts and feelings, I looked out at the other mothers and their children and thought to myself, “I’m assuming that these kids are going to grow up with carefree, unproblematic lives, that none of these mothers will have to struggle as they raise their children. But for all I know, some of these kids could grow up to develop serious mental or physical health issues, or just turn out to be not very nice people! There’s no child who’s perfect, and no parent who doesn’t go through some form of hardship or challenge with their children at one time or another.” And at that moment, my feelings of intense isolation turned into feelings of deep connection with the other mothers at the park, and with all parents everywhere. We love our kids, but damn — it’s tough sometimes! As odd as it may sound, by practicing self-compassion as we muddle through, we don’t feel so alone.

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