“When you make mistakes or fall short of your expectations, you can throw away that rawhide whip and instead throw a cozy blanket of compassion around your shoulders.” Kristen Neff
If we believe that we are worth it, we can give ourselves the physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual resources we need. When we don’t believe we are worth it, we power through and run on low power mode. Self-compassion helps us to recharge our battery by asking ourselves what we need, whether it is what we need to be safe, to be happy, to feel seen, understood or loved. When we give ourselves what we need, we become more resilient so we can better cope with the challenges of life.
The problem is, if you are like me, you may not believe you are worth it. This feeling of unworthiness comes from the way we treat ourselves. When we make a mistake, we tell ourselves “I am a mistake.” When we let others down, we tell ourselves, “I am a terrible person.” Or “I am a selfish person.” When we fail, we tell ourselves, “I am a failure.” Or “I am so stupid”. In other words, we shame ourselves. Shame only grows if it is left in the dark and in silence. Because of the intense feeling of disgust, we shut down and isolate ourselves from others. Our energy is focused on hiding what we have done instead of fixing it. The ability to feel unashamed while seeing ourselves clearly is one of the most powerful gifts of self-compassion.
“The three components of self-compassion act as a direct antidote to shame: mindfulness prevents us from overidentifying with our missteps, common humanity counteracts feelings of isolation from others, and kindness allows us to feel worthy despite our imperfections. This allows us to clearly see and acknowledge our areas of weakness without defining ourselves by them.” Kristen Neff
The feeling of self-worth that comes from achievements, looking a certain way or winning someone’s approval doesn’t last. Self-worth is there when things are going well but disappears when you need it most. The worthiness that comes from self-compassion is more stable over time. You might look at self-compassion as an inner support system which provides you with resilience. You don’t have to earn it; all you need to be is a flawed human being. Then you can ask yourself, “What do you need to be safe, happy, seen, understood, loved?” Sometimes it is just a microjoy: a beautiful sky, a cup of tea, a photo of a loved one. These moments of joy won’t change or cancel what is happening in the present moment. But by allowing ourselves to experience a moment of joy, we find hope.
Self-compassion involves wanting health and well-being for ourselves. It is not putting our needs over the needs of others, but on par with their needs. We say yes when we have the energy and no when we don’t. We soothe our agitated minds with microjoys so we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong. Thus, we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.
Three Facets of Self-Compassion
The three facets of self-compassion are: mindfulness; self-kindness; and a sense of common humanity.
Mindfulness is the idea is that we need to see things as they are, no more, no less. This means that we need to see that we are suffering. We often fail to recognize negative feelings like loneliness, guilt, unworthiness, sadness, as suffering. We have trained our entire lives to deny our suffering. When we offer ourselves the same quality of unconditional kindness that we would offer to a friend, we can stop denying our suffering.
Our mind tends to focus on the failure itself, rather than the pain caused by failure. Most people tend to immediately go into problem-solving mode. We need to stop for a breath or two, acknowledge that we’re suffering, and provide ourselves with a kind, caring response. If we don’t, we risk getting exhausted and overwhelmed, because we’re spending all our energy trying to fix problems without refreshing ourselves.
It could be something as minor as making my missing a turn when I was running late for Mindful Moments. I didn’t stop and soothe myself. I went into problem solving mode and drove just above the speed limit. And as I was driving, I was beating myself up. “Why didn’t you allow more time?” You are a mindfulness guide, why can’t you pay attention when you drive?”
- Think of a recent time when things did not go like you wanted them to go. Someone’s actions triggered your anger or disappointment. You made a mistake. You weren’t as productive as you would have liked to be.
- Stop and notice how you felt when that happened. Maybe you felt mad, frustrated, sad, disappointed. Did you allow yourself to feel that emotion in real time?
- What did you say to yourself when it was happening? Did you ignore your feelings?
- Was the world 100% bad?
One of the enemies of mindfulness is overidentification—becoming so carried away by our personal drama that we can’t clearly see what is occurring in the present moment. “I am such a space cadet, I will never be mindful.” That is the opposite of being mindful: aware and accepting of the present-moment. Accepting means that we are not believing that our present-moment experience should be different from what it is. The foundation of self-compassion is the ability to turn mindfully toward our discomfort and acknowledge it.
Self-kindness, begins with stopping the constant self-judgment and negative stories on our “top ten” list. But self-kindness involves more than merely stopping our inner critic. It includes actively comforting ourselves, just as we would to a dear friend. We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it and treat ourselves kindly. For some of us, talking kindly to ourselves is like learning a new language. When I attended my meditation teacher training, Tara Brach would encourage us to say things like, “It’s OK sweetheart.” My thought was there is no way I can call myself sweetheart, that is too corny. Over time, as I practiced the language of kindness, it began to feel more familiar. In the past year, I have found myself calling myself sweetie.
“When we consistently give ourselves nurturance and understanding, we also come to feel worthy of care and acceptance. When we give ourselves empathy and support, we learn to trust that help is always at hand. When we wrap ourselves in the warm embrace of self-kindness, we feel safe and secure.” Kristin Neff
When faced with our human flaws, we can respond with kindness and care, or with judgment and criticism. Responding with kindness provides us the resources needed to cope with the challenges in life. Which neuropathway do you want to strengthen?
Sense of common humanity acknowledges that we are all perfectly imperfect. We are not the only ones who have failed, been made a fool of, been disappointed or rejected. Instead of pitying ourselves, we remember that everyone suffers. So instead of getting absorbed by feelings of not good enough, we see the bigger picture and more possibilities come into view.
The recognition of common humanity that is at the core of self-compassion requires that we’re neither self-focused nor other-focused. Instead, we use wisdom to see the larger whole and figure out what’s fair, balanced, and sustainable.
Tender or Fierce?
There are two types of self-compassion. Tender self-compassion is soft, yielding, receptive and nurturing. Like a mother holding and comforting a crying baby. It involves “being with” ourselves in an comforting, soothing and accepting way. We care for and nurture ourselves. However, if we limit ourselves to tender compassion, we can end up being a doormat.
Fierce self-compassion is firm, forceful, commanding and goal oriented. With fierce self-compassion, we act in the world to uphold our true self and stand up for our rights and needs. Think of it as having a backbone with the ability to set healthy boundaries. When our back is strong, we don’t need to harden or close-down our front. If we walk through the world with a soft back, we have very little stability in difficult times and often close our hearts.
As we act to protect, provide for, or motivate ourselves, fierce self-compassion sometimes expresses itself as anger. If the fierce expression of anger is balanced with tender concern, it can be a healthy and constructive force. There are times when we need more tender self-compassion and other times when we need more fierce self-compassion, but we always need some of both.
- On the in-breath, feel the strength in your back.
- Rest in the awareness of the strength, composure and stability that your strong back provides in your life.
- On the out breath, relax your chest to feel your soft front
- Our soft front allows us to remain open to life as it is without resisting or closing our hearts.
- Let’s practice letting our strong back allow us to maintain a soft front with an acceptance of things as they are.
- Think of a time when you needed to get fierce with yourself or someone else.
- How would you express yourself with a strong back and a soft front?
- What words would you use? What tone of voice?
- When you are ready, slowly and gently opening your eyes.
“Tender self-compassion allows us to accept the discomfort of an unwanted task and to be nonjudgmental about our desire to put it off. Fierce self-compassion then propels us to take action so that we do what’s needed. The self-compassionate heart is like rocket fuel for getting things done.” Kristen Neff
When we are self-compassionate, we acknowledge that our needs matter, we have the strength to be true to ourselves, and we trust that even when we blow it, we will be supportive to ourselves. We don’t get so upset when we get things wrong because we know that is part of being human. We are works-in-progress so, tender self-compassion reassures us when we don’t succeed; and fierce self-compassion energizes us to try again.