The value of self-compassion: part 2 - common practices
In part one of this blog, you learnt why self-compassion is so beneficial. But if you don't know how to practice self-compassion it doesn’t add up to much. So here you’ll learn the common ways of using self compassion. In part three you'll learn methods that are less commonly known, but highly effective at getting to the deeper roots of the problems you may encounter.
In her book "Self compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind", Kristin Neff explains that there are three main components to self compassion. Each one is like a doorway into self-compassion, this is helpful as you are not reliant on a single method.
The first element: self kindness
The first element is being kind to yourself. This is perhaps the most obvious part yet potentially the most powerful. This can be difficult and a bit of an alien concept as we're generally very good at practicing the opposite. So what does it look like? Imagine if a dear friend or loved one was going through whatever it is you're going through. Treat yourself how you would treat them. This applies to big major crises as well as little annoyances.
This is not just wishy washy feel good stuff, it's a vital part of being human. Neff points out that while it's true we have a "fight-or-flight" response for when there is danger, we also have a "tend and befriend" instinct. Kindness and caring is literally wired in who we are.
The “tend and befriend” instinct has garnered less light in the public eye but it is just as important to our survival. If a lioness cares for her cubs, and protects them from threat, there is a higher chance of the cub's survival. As humans, the same principle applies. Think about it, if a mother gave birth to her baby and then just left the baby to fend for itself, that baby would very quickly die. Therefore nature has created a strong bond between parent and child. In other words, being protective isn't just a motherly/fatherly warm fuzzy feeling, it's a crucial mechanism for survival - at least amongst mammals. Without it you wouldn't be alive and the human race would probably be extinct.
Here Neff points out a particularly strong point about self-compassion. That is: we give it to ourselves. Having loved ones who care about us and are there for us is more important than we tend to realise, but that support isn't always available. With self-compassion, we don't have to have someone else behave the way we want them to, we don't need our external circumstances to be exactly the way they were in our dreams in order to get the benefits of self-compassion. We can practice this regardless of what others do or say, regardless of the circumstances in our lives. In fact, it is precisely when things go bad, when the unexpected comes up, when everything else deserts us, that self-compassion is most useful. This makes it an invaluable practice to employ wherever we go and whatever happens.
This is also a benefit when comparing self-compassion to self-esteem. In that, when you need self-esteem the most, is when it's least likely to be there.
To practice self-kindness we can do several things. We can consciously talk to ourselves in more caring ways. For example, rather than letting our self critical voice berate us with "you're not good enough / smart enough / rich enough / healthy enough" etc, we can consciously tell ourselves "you know what, I gave it my best shot" or "I am still enough despite this thing that happened" or "yes, this bad thing happened, but I'm OK, it's doesn't make me_____________(fill in the blank with whatever meaning you've made up)". or "this is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?"
I would like to point out that this is different from some kinds of positive thinking. You're not saying "I crushed it" when you failed miserably. Instead, you're acknowledging the suffering you're experiencing in a kind and compassionate way. Rather than ignoring the mistake, you're giving yourself the chance to process it in a healthy, honest and genuine way.
You can also give yourself a hug. This may sound strange, but the physical comfort it provides in distressing times can be similar to if someone else hugged you. You can even do this in a subtle way if you're in public by touching the elbow of the opposite arm with your hands and squeezing a little. Or you can cross your arms over your chest, but instead of having your hands in fists, put the hand that goes on the inside, under your armpit so that your palm touches your side, and gently apply pressure towards your body.
You can also do things like:
Taking a hot bath
Getting a massage
Going for a walk in nature
Listening to music
Sleeping longer etc
The second element: common humanity
The second component of self-compassion, as outlined by Neff, is to recognise that suffering is a common human experience. You acknowledge that we all suffer, we all fail, encounter setbacks and challenging times. You admit that there are things that are out of your control no matter how much you want to have control over them. You recognise that we are all constantly being influenced by other people and situations. The mood someone else is in often affects your mood. The way you treat another person will likely have an effect on the next person that the individual encounters and so on.
It is helpful to remember this element because when we are down, it can often feel as though everyone else's life is perfect and shiny. If you're sick, you tend to think "everyone else is feeling great today". When you don't get as much work done as you would like, you think "everyone else did all their work without a hitch". Logically we know this isn't true. So if you can pause, take the time to recognise that this isn't the truth you will begin to shift things.
Research shows that if you feel connected (as opposed to feeling isolated and alone), you're not as fearful of challenging times and you're better able to cope with setbacks and unexpected situations. When you make a mistake yet feel connected, you're less likely to be completely devastated (which exacerbates an already unpleasant situation). By recognising that other people also make mistakes, you can in a sense, feel more connected to others in the very moment that bad things happen.
Some practical things you can do to internalise this element of interconnectedness are:
If there's something about yourself that you don't like, see where it comes from. Did you perhaps pick it up from someone close to you? Does it only rear its head around a particular person or circumstance? Was it a coping mechanism you developed because of another person's way of being? (for example: a child who has to scream or throw a tantrum in order to get their parents attention because they are ignored if they simply talk at a normal volume). This may shed some light for you on how we've all been somewhat shaped by our circumstances.
Google "famous failures". You will see that some of the greatest people in history have had some of the most devastating setbacks. This can help you not feel so isolated in your troubles. You may even find someone who was where you are now, and you may find a solution from that person that you hadn't thought of yourself.
Think about the difficulties that people you know have gone through. See if you can recognise that we all have ups and downs and just because they're not experiencing it now doesn't mean they never have or never will again.
The third element: mindfulness
The third element of self-compassion is being mindful. You're not ignoring your suffering / mistake / shortcoming, nor are you exaggerating it. Instead, you are looking at it as truthfully and clearly as you can. You're accepting the reality without any pretence, in a mindful way. You are mindful of the thoughts you think, of the feelings you have and of the situation you're in. As the saying goes, the first step in solving any problem is recognising that there is one.
Ignoring suffering and stress is a whole other topic, but just a brief note here: there are devastating consequences physically, mentally and emotionally when you repress or ignore your suffering. Just like there would be severe consequences if you decided to ignore the fact that your leg was broken and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened.
Cultivating mindfulness also creates more balance. You have more objectivity and can make better decisions. However, if this step is done in isolation of the other two (being kind to yourself and recognising the common human experience) it can be confronting and make you want to run away, shut down or have a negative stress response. Sometimes the truth is highly uncomfortable. This is why all three elements of self-compassion work so well together. They become greater than the sum of their parts. If you can be mindful of the truth while being kind to yourself and recognising that you're not an isolated case, it's much easier and yields better results. This also means you're more likely to actually practice self-compassion.
It's natural to want to move away from painful things in our lives and towards those things that give us pleasure. In the short term, it's easier to pretend the problem doesn't exist. But something interesting can happen when you start regularly practicing self compassion. You can sometimes want to look at what's not working because you know that the practice of self compassion is there to support you. The more you do it, the more you'll see the benefit of going straight to the problem because you know that's where there are the greatest rewards.
You can begin practicing this right now by becoming mindful of reading these words. You could develop a practice where every time you sit at your desk you start off with a few moments of being truly mindful of your body, where you are, the work you have to do etc. You can also question yourself more often with genuine honesty. Try to call yourself out on things you say to yourself that may not be true. A good question to ask yourself is "is that really true?" or "is there another perspective to this that I'm not considering right now?" For example, you might think "this will never work". This can prompt you to ask yourself "is that really true? Is there any evidence that shows it could work?" You can also set an alarm on your phone that goes off a few times a day to remind you to be mindful.
If this resonates with you, start practicing what you’re drawn to. There’s no right or wrong way to approach self-compassion. Remember, these three elements are like three doorways, by using one, you will have greater and easier access to the other two. You don't have to nail it the first time around, cultivate it over time, explore it for yourself, see how it can best work for you.
references / resources
Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff
Cover photo by Igor Érico on Unsplash