This saying is attributed to the Buddha: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and compassion than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody, deserve your love and compassion”.
Most of my formal learning about Self-Compassion is from the book, Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. I am part of a group of 10 women that has been studying this book, a chapter each month, since last fall. I also attended a workshop led by Neff at the Jung Center last fall. She is a pioneer in the field, who first established Self-Compassion as a field of study a decade ago. A professor at UT-Austin, she has done an enormous amount of research, much of it with Christopher Germer, Ph.D., with whom she leads 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion training programs. Randomized control trials of this training have demonstrated decreased anxiety and depression, and increased life satisfaction, mindfulness and self-compassion among participants. Neff has practiced insight meditation since 1997, according to her bio. I attribute all of the remarks in this talk to her book, Self-Compassion, unless I note otherwise.
What is self-compassion? It begins with the recognition that in our highly competitive society most of us don’t really feel good about ourselves. We all want to see ourselves as special and above-average, are incredibly hard on ourselves when forced to admit a flaw and get into self-judgment and self-condemnation cycles easily. The alternative, to quote Neff? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether, to stop trying to label ourselves as good or bad and to simply accept ourselves with an open heart. (Neff attributes a life-changing moment to discovering Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness, while sitting with a Buddhist meditation group in Berkeley). She learned that from a Buddhist perspective, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about others.
Self-compassion involves the exact same components as compassion does: that we 1) recognize suffering (mindfulness), 2) offer kindness to ameliorate the suffering and 3) recognize our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.
I’d like to discuss these Three Core Components of Self-Compassion in a little more detail:
To give ourselves compassion we first must recognize our own suffering. We often fail to recognize feelings of guilt, defectiveness, sadness, loneliness, etc. for a variety of reasons. Even if we acknowledge shortcomings, our minds focus on the failure they represent rather than the pain caused by the failure. And, even when things in our lives go wrong through no fault of our own, we tend to be brusque with ourselves. Mindfulness helps us stay aware rather than getting lost in story lines and helps us recognize that we’re having a hard time.
2) Kindness to Ourselves
More than just stopping self-judgment, being kind to ourselves involves asking, after acknowledging that we’re suffering, “How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?” We can offer warmth, gentleness and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, just as we might do for a good friend. We don’t use all of our energies trying to fix external problems without remembering to refresh ourselves occasionally. An obstacle to following this wisdom in our culture is the “John Wayne” ethic: be stoic and suffer silently.
3) Recognizing Our Common Humanity (We’re All in This Together)
This component of self-compassion honors the fact that all humans are fallible and that wrong choices and regret are inevitable. Whereas self-pity says “poor me”, self-compassion remembers that everyone suffers. We all cling to our narrow vision of how things “should be”, but this is our shared human condition.
What are some of the causes/conditions Underlying Our Negative Perceptions and leading to self-criticism? Neff identifies a number of these; e.g.,
1) Our Survival Instinct
This instinct causes us to wish to be safe and secure. We learn/believe that both self-criticism and self-aggrandizement will help ensure our
acceptance in the larger social circle.
2) Role of Parents
People deeply internalize their parents’ criticisms. Usually intended to keep children safe, out of trouble and better off, these criticisms can become running critical commentary in our heads, sometimes passed on for generations.
3) Role of Culture
In our culture the ethics of independence and individual achievement suggest that we only have ourselves to blame when things go wrong. Other cultures have other ethics or messages.
What are the Benefits of a Self-Compassion Practice?
1) Emotional Resilience
This benefit results from our learning not to flee from our own suffering. We see that it is our aversion to our suffering that hurts, nothing else. Neff uses this “formula’ to illustrate the point:
(Suffering=Pain X Resistance)
In her own practice, in moments of difficulty, she uses these phrases: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
2) Opting Out of the Self-Esteem Game
Self-esteem requires us to think positively about ourselves at all times, and, in reality, this usually boils down to contingent self-worth. Self-compassion is from the heart, not the mind, reflecting that we are each fine just as we are.
3) Motivation and Personal GrowthSelf-compassion (vs. self-criticism) is driven by love rather than fear. The potential for change results from self-acceptance.
Self-Compassionate Parenting (Chapter 10)
(I have chosen this particular chapter to discuss Dr. Neff’s ideas in more detail and to reflect on the personal connection of her ideas with my own life experience).
In this chapter, Neff discusses how self-compassion helps our children deal better with life and helps us as parents handle the frustrations and difficulties of parenting. She asks us to begin by acknowledging that we don’t always handle difficult situations with our children perfectly. When we realize that this happens to everyone at times, we can more readily admit our mistakes and apologize to our children (while not being overly critical of ourselves).One of the most powerful ways in which parents can model self-compassion in front of their children, she states, is to acknowledge their limitations and to repair their mistakes openly.
With regard to correcting children while also encouraging self-compassion, she suggests finding ways to correct a child’s behavior that lets the child understand why it’s important to change but without feeling bad about themselves. She recommends validating the emotions underlying the misbehavior before trying to correct it and conveying that it’s OK to make mistakes since mistakes are just a part of life. She discusses the work of Dr. Rebecca Coleman, who teaches mindfulness and self-compassion to parents of children younger than 5. Her methods include teaching empathy for the need for close attachment of children of this age and teaching parents to mirror their children’s emotions and to help their children regulate their emotions.
The many wonderful and moving examples that Neff provides in this chapter affected me greatly as I was reading them. I recognized the absence (but longing for) in my own childhood of the feeling of being understood that her words and examples reflect. I was saddened that validating of children’s emotions wasn’t practiced in my family of origin and that the ideas of parents admitting their own mistakes and imperfections (or even conveying the common humanity of making mistakes) was unfamiliar in my childhood experience.
I realized anew, in fact, that it wasn’t only that my feelings as a child weren’t validated but that I received the message that I didn’t really feel what I thought I was feeling! This was especially true with regard to negative feelings such as sadness, jealousy or anxiety. Instead, I was told that these were wrong, silly or useless states of mind and should be replaced with something else (being strong, getting busy, “moving on”, etc.).
When I was in graduate school and my fellow students and I would discuss our parents’ styles of parenting, many got a good laugh when I described my parents as exhibiting the ‘tabula rasa” style (children are blank slates without any significant content until they are taught what to think, feel and how to act). That description has not seemed humorous to me for many years as I have had to work hard well beyond “adulthood” at being in touch with my emotions (and continue to find the process challenging).
On a more positive note, Neff’s book and this chapter in particular have also reminded me of the importance of my mindfulness meditation practice and have led me to a deeper sense of forgiveness for myself that I haven’t totally conquered my challenge with self-validation of feelings. They have also significantly deepened my forgiveness for my parents, whose child-rearing intentions I know to have been positive and good.
Still, I like to try to imagine how different the world would be if everyone had great self-compassion skills and taught these/modeled these to their own (and to all) children. By this I mean, what if most people could validate their own emotions/actions mindfully, consider the common humanity of their feelings and actions and could offer kindness to themselves and others?
In closing, I offer words from Tara Brach’s “Awakening from the Trance of Unworthiness”, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2001:
“We habitually relate to our inner life in the same way that others attended to us. When our parents (and the larger culture) don’t respond to our fears, are too preoccupied to really listen to our needs or send messages that we are falling short, we then adopt similar ways of relating to our own being. We disconnect and banish parts of our inner life.
Meditation practices are a form of spiritual re-parenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience, nothing is missing or wrong.”
FORGIVENESS AND LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION
Make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes and begin to attend to your breathing. Follow your breaths just as they come, naturally. Begin to receive a sense of your body, heart and mind as they are right now. You might want to try to bring attention to your chest and breathe through the heart area.
We begin with a short forgiveness offering, then flow into loving-kindness.
Begin first to feel forgiveness toward yourself. Soften and bring warmth to your heart as you think of anything you regret in the past as a parent. Recognize pain, if it is there, but forgive yourself now for all past omissions and commissions, intentional or unintentional actions, reactions or states of mind. These are long gone. See that you were a different person when these occurred. Understand that we are all imperfect, all make mistakes and all are products of complex conditions. The person you are now can forgive the one that you were. Feel that as deeply as you can.
Think next of your parents. Try to feel forgiveness in your heart toward them for anything they did that you have blamed them for and anything they may have done to harm you, whether intentional or unintentional. Understand that they too were, or are, products of complex conditions, were imperfect and made mistakes. If they are still living, understand that they too are different persons now. Picture reaching out to your parents in your heart and surrounding them with forgiveness.
Now, visualize your own child or children in your mind’s eye, at any stage of their lives that seems right to you. Feel your heart opening to their basic goodness. With this image in mind, recite the following phrases silently, beginning with your child’s name:
“_____, May you be happy; May you be healthy; May you be safe; May you be loved.” Repeat these phrases for each of your children.
Imagine your child or children seeing YOU now as you truly are: loving and filled with the best intentions for their well-being. Imagine your child/children extending these same blessings back to you, as I speak the words for them:
“May you be happy; may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be loved.” Allow yourself to open and feel their wishes and love for you.
Now imagine you and your child or children reciting these phrases together. Picture and include others in your family chain if that feels right:
“May we be happy, may we be healthy, may we be safe, may we be loved.
If you wish, you may extend these blessings to those in this circle and/or to all those beings beyond the circle in the wider world. “May all beings be happy, etc.”
As we end, bring your attention back to yourself as you breathe into your heart. Recognize the goodness in you. Recognize the effort you are making in the present. Feel the warmth and ease that comes from forgiveness and loving-kindness directed both inward and outward. Cherish these feelings for a few moments and then slowly open your eyes.