Written by Ashley Young, October 2020.
As social beings we rarely hesitate to reach out and help others who we recognise are in need, for example, offering to make a meal for a neighbour when they are sick or providing a shoulder to cry on when a friend receives bad news. Yet when we find ourselves in a similarly vulnerable position, we tend to judge and criticize ourselves. This is especially the case for people suffering from depression and low self-esteem, who are frequently self-critical. For example some older people long for their loved ones to visit them yet are of the opinion their families are too busy with their own lives and shouldn’t bother visiting them. To inwardly direct the same level of care we show for others, is the art of practicing self-compassion.
Self-compassion has a long historical tradition in Eastern healing practices. According to leading expert on mindful self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff (2003b), the three core elements of self-compassion include self-kindness, common humanity vs. isolation ( a realisation that everyone makes mistakes and feels pain) and mindfulness (a conscious present moment experience). Dr. Neff further describes self-compassion as a perspective in which one espouses a positive view of him/herself and his/her emotional experiences. Proactively adopting a more affirming and compassionate self- dialogue, instead of using negative self-talk, will pave the way for nurturing a more positive attitude and perception of oneself.
Self-compassion provides an opportunity to create change during times of difficulty, especially when suffering arises from our own mistakes, failures or personal inadequacies. An acceptance of the perceived imperfections in our lives enables us to develop a strength and wisdom to cope with and optimise our inner and outer realities. Life for all of us is characterised by what we deem as “failings” and “mistakes”. Our ability to identify and acknowledge such moments as “learnings” will facilitate growth and wisdom, and cultivate a mindset which promotes positivity and allows progress to be made.
There is a growing body of research that suggests self-compassion is strongly related to psychological health. Higher levels of self-compassion have been associated with greater happiness, optimism, positive affect, life satisfaction, social connectedness and wisdom. Equally it has been associated with less depression, anxiety, self-criticism, fear of failure and perfectionism.
To develop self-compassion starts with an intention to practice. Keeping a diary or journal in which you process difficult events, through the lens of self-compassion, is one way to enhance mental and physical well-being. Formal therapeutic approaches using mindfulness, like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy offer other means of cultivating self-compassion.
As Joseph Campbell said “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are” (1991). So I invite you to start the process of embracing the fullness and wholeness of who you are, and try one of Dr. Kristen Neff’s self-compassion exercises – Self Compassion Break. When you affirm that you are experiencing suffering, a shared human experience, and state an intention to be kind, patient or accepting of yourself, then great relief arises.
To begin, bring to mind a situation in your life that is causing you stress or pain. Think about this situation and how it makes you feel, both emotionally and physically.
When you have this situation in mind and get in touch with the feelings associated with it, say the following things to yourself:
- “This is a moment of suffering.”
This will activate mindfulness; other options include “This hurts,” “This is stress,” and, simply, “Ouch.”
- “Suffering is a part of life.”
Saying this helps you realize that you have this in common with all other human beings on the planet – suffering is an unavoidable part of life. You can follow this up by putting your hands over your heart or using whatever soothing self-touch feels right to you. Other options include “Other people feel this way,” “I’m not alone,” or “We all struggle in our lives.”
- “May I be kind to myself.”
Alternatively, you can use other phrases that may apply better in your current situation, such as “May I forgive myself” or “May I be patient.”
We are all empowered to optimise our well-being though the choices we consciously make. Choose to view yourself as an ally instead of an adversary, and seek assistance from Amazing Ageing Psychology if you need a little help to navigate this path.
Campbell, Joseph (1991). Reflections on the Art of Living. Electronic Edition. San Anselmo: Joseph Campbell Foundation.
Kabat‐Zinn, J. (1991). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Dell Publishing.
Neff, K. D.(2003a). Development and validation of a scale to measure self‐compassion. Self and Identity,2, 223-250.
Neff, K. D.(2003b). Self‐compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.
Neff, K. D.(2009). Self‐Compassion. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behaviour (pp. 561-573). New York: Guildford Press.