Updated: Apr 28, 2020
On Saturday 25th April I shared an online workshop for Paradigm Explorers London. This was part of a series of workshops on building resilience in association with the Scientific and Medical Network. The workshop was surrounding the importance of self-compassion to cultivate resilience as we navigate our way through the current pandemic. In the workshop I define self-compassion, share research to support the benefits of it and also discuss some common misconceptions. I also offer a meditation practice based on self-compassion, which will also be available in my new book, Resilience: Navigating Loss in Times of Crisis.
In this post I will share an introduction to compassion, self-compassion and some of the myths surrounding our definition and understanding of compassion. I'll be offering more posts on this topic in the folloiwng weeks!
What is compassion?
The word compassion literally means to ‘suffer together’. It is an ability to empathise and recognise that difficulties and pain are a part of life and then having the desire and willingness to reduce the suffering of ourselves, others and the world.
It is an unconditional, non-judgmental quality. Everyone deserves compassion, we are not compassionate based on how good or bad we are as a person, but we offer compassion because we are all worthy of receiving kindness, forgiveness and care. This is based on the belief that we all have a fundamental, inherent goodness about us. We understand that a person’s actions and choices often stem from their own struggles and pain; we all make mistakes or hurt ourselves and others through our actions. So, compassion is interlinked with an ability to forgive ourselves and others and let go of things like resentment or feelings of anger.
We know, from experience, that offering unconditional forgiveness and compassion can be very difficult. That is because we hold expectations, values and beliefs for ourselves and others. If those are compromised then we might start to feel judgement towards others.
However, the research has shown that we have a tendency to be more self-critical and much harder on ourselves than on other people. Ironically, when we are going through difficult experiences, we tend to treat ourselves far more unkindly than we would treat a loved one in similar circumstances. Often underlying this self-criticism is a fear of disapproval, losing the acceptance or love from others – and this can increase the presence of negative emotions such as shame, guilt or unworthiness.
Before we can have true compassion for others, we need to foster compassion for ourselves and be willing to actively alleviate our suffering through conscious practices. I feel very passionate about this topic because I've always thought myself to be quite a compassionate person, but self-compassion has been difficult. In the past, I held a lot of beliefs that it's not okay to make mistakes, there has been self-judgement and a very strong inner critic. So, bringing awareness to this inner critic, be-friending it and offering self-compassion has been hugely transformative for me. It's an ongoing practice which feels especially important right now, considering our current circumstances.
Self-compassion is helpful for alleviating difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, loss and grief and because we are going through a very turbulent time, individually and collectively, this calls for us to offer a lot of kindness and compassion towards these difficult emotions. If we find it difficult to be present with our suffering, or the parts of us that are in pain–then it is very difficult to be with the pain or suffering of others and the world.
On top of this - we can fall into the trap of believing that our difficulties are not worthy of attention, we might think ‘others are suffering more, others have more pain that I do’ or ‘I should be grateful’. It is true that there are millions of people in the world who are going through excruciating difficulties and the chances are, we do have a lot to be grateful for, but if we only focus on gratitude there is a danger of by-passing our struggles and our pain.
Three Components of Self-Compassion
One of the biggest researchers on self-compassion is Kristin Neff. She explains that self compassion includes three components: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation and mindfulness vs. over-identification. Self-kindness refers to being caring and understanding with ourselves rather than judgmental. Common humanity is about recognizing that being human means being imperfect and knowing that we do make mistakes and it is not only us who struggle – but everyone goes through difficulties. This idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ feels especially important right now to feel less isolated. Mindfulness is about holding space for our experiences and what’s present in us. This allows us to bring more equanimity to our emotions–so neither getting too attached or repressing them or pushing them away.
Self-compassion is not..
Self compassion is not feeling pity for ourselves or being a victim. Being a ‘victim’ invites a sense of separation from the world, but self compassion is about remembering our interdependence with the collective and again, know that suffering, or pain is a shared human experience.
It is also not self indulgence and it involves wisdom. When you’re compassionate towards yourself, you want to alleviate your suffering–so if you over indulge in some unhealthy food, then I you are getting some short-term pleasure from that, but it’s not necessarily compassionate because in the long term it might compromise your physical health.
We need wisdom and we really need to know ourselves, know our needs and know what is important to us. This enables us to be clear on when our needs are being compromised or if something is harmful or damaging to us. So, compassion does not mean avoiding conflict, always saying yes or letting people violate our boundaries. It’s about knowing when to say no, respecting our needs, and for this reason sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is to walk away from a situation or to say no to something.
Lastly, compassion is not a weakness, but it is a strength. It takes a huge amount of courage to open our hearts to ourselves and others. Compassion requires a certain level of vulnerability and an ability to observe what is present in us, and the courage to stay present with those emotions, even if they are uncomfortable, and to make room for them. it involves the willingness to feel pain and leaning into this pain or suffering.
Find out more...
I will be sharing more about the topic of compassion and self-compassion in future posts. For now, if you’re interested to learn more please check out the recording of the online workshop by visiting The Scientific and Medical Network or stay in touch with my up-coming newsletters. I will be talking more about new book, Resilience: Navigating Loss in Times of Crisis, due to be published in the first week of May. It will include a whole chapter on the relationship between compassion, self-compassion and building resilience during times of crisis.