“Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional”. This is a quote from Kristen Neff’s book titled Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. A book I would never dreamed of reading a year ago, but my research on mindfulness and the healing power it has for stress, anxiety, trauma and pain led me to the topic and concept of self-compassion. At first glance, it sounded like a pity party…or some new age way to inflate one’s ego in a generation where ‘everyone gets a trophy’. But what caught my attention were the words “When we have trouble being vulnerable, ‘self-compassion’ can seem like ‘self-indulgence.’ But fessing up when we fall short can bring out our best, happiest, selves.” (Rockman, 2016: www.mindfulness.org). Surely our ‘best, happiest selves’ is what I want for my own life and the lives of my clients.
Research at Stanford University has demonstrated that self-compassion is related to decreased rates of depression, stress and anxiety. It leads to greater resilience and increased productivity towards both specific and general goals. When we can learn to forgive ourselves when we fail rather than criticize and beat ourselves up, we tend to push on in the face of adversity. Self-compassion can give us the strength, tenacity and hope that leads to success in all areas of life. Self-compassion has also been associated with more positive romantic relationships and is a stronger predictor of positive relationship behavior than trait self-esteem or attachment style (Neff & Beretvas, 2013). Further research has found a significant positive relationship between measures of self-compassion and all dimensions of emotional well-being (Bluth & Blanton, 2015). As numerous studies depict the mental, emotional and social benefits of self-compassion, how do we define and develop it?
Compassion includes the recognition of suffering, having feelings of kindness for people who are suffering and a desire to help get rid of the suffering. It recognizes our shared humanity, all our fragility and flaws, but without fear, judgement or condemnation. Self-compassion is applying these concepts to ourselves. It is not self-pity. Self-compassion is composed of three parts: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Think of self-kindness as support and understanding- the way you would treat a close friend or loved one. Common humanity recognizes that everyone fails, makes mistakes and gets life wrong sometimes. Disappointment is part of life, but not the end of the story. And mindfulness, (what led me to self-compassion in the first place) is being aware of the present moment without judgement, avoidance or repression.
In order to experience compassion, one must first acknowledge the presence of pain. This is precisely where mindfulness comes in. Rather than pushing away uncomfortable feelings, denying them or turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms to bury them, (addiction, anger, self-harm, etc…) one must acknowledge them. Anxiety, stress, sadness, fear, rejection, failure…this involves awareness. A pause. Stepping out of our head and usual frame of reference to feel the emotion. Only then can we give ourself the compassion we need to heal. While the concept is simple, it is not an easy task. It is not natural to turn toward our pain or discomfort. It is natural to run from it and avoid it. But until we learn to acknowledge it, become vulnerable to the fears, failures and pain, we cannot heal from them. The only way out of it is through it.
Below is an exercise in self-compassion. For more information, practical ideas and experiences please feel free to contact us at Fit & Faithful Wellness.
Bluth, K. & Blanton, P. (2015). The influence of self-compassion on emotional well-being among early and older adolescent males and females. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 219-230.
Neff, K. & Beretvas, N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Journal of Self and Identity, 12, 78-98.