If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others. – Dalai Lama
Dr. Kristin Neff was teaching a workshop I recently attended about self-compassion.
She had the workshop participants get into pairs and sit facing our partners. Then, one person closed her eyes while the other looked at her and silently repeated a loving-kindness meditation Dr. Neff shared with us.
I didn’t know the person I was paired with. But, as I looked at her and silently directed the meditation toward her, I felt waves of compassion and kindness and even love for her.
We switched roles and as I sat with my eyes closed, I could feel the same kindness and warmth coming from her.
After a short break, we were then directed to close our eyes and repeat a meditation designed to provide compassion toward ourselves.
As I repeated the words internally, my inner critic started up. She had been quiet during the loving-kindness meditation directed toward another person, but now she was wide awake.
“You don’t deserve to be safe and healthy and peaceful.” “Who cares that you might have been wounded when you were a kid? Quit being a whiner and suck it up.”
Afterwards, Dr. Neff asked us, “How many of you found it more difficult to be self-compassionate than to feel compassion toward another person?”
The majority of hands in the large audience went up.
The four myths of self-compassion
She went on to explain that when the Buddha taught about being compassionate, he often had his disciples get in touch with the compassion they felt for themselves so they could direct it to others. This was effective and appropriate for his time and culture.
But, Neff said, in our culture it’s the opposite. We – women especially – are conditioned to put the other person ahead of ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of our own ability to be kind to ourselves.
Why is this? Why is it so hard to have compassion for ourselves?
I think it boils down to four myths that are actually not true:
- Self-compassion is selfish
- Self-compassion is indulgent
“If I’m nice to myself and let myself off the hook all the time, won’t I just become lazy and self-indulgent?”
Because, as Dr. Neff explains, self-compassion is about your health and well-being while self-indulgence is about getting anything you want when you want it without thoughts of well-being.
Self-compassion is about noticing and being with your pain. Self-indulgence is about numbing and denying your pain.
- Self-criticism motivates you
Many of us have a subconscious belief that listening to our inner critic or engaging in other kinds of self-criticism is what motivates us and keeps us in line.
While it’s possible the inner critic evolved to perform this function, you don’t need it anymore. Being self-compassionate gives you the confidence you need to motivate yourself.
- Self-compassion is wimpy
In our individualistic society, you are supposed to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and tough things out. Be kind to yourself? Quit being such a wimp!
Again, self-compassion actually serves to heal and strengthen you. It is, in fact, the strongest and most resilient among us who have the courage to be kind to themselves.
We are taught to care for everyone else but themselves. Self-compassion can thus be seen as selfish, that taking care of yourself means you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing: taking care of someone else.
But ask yourself in all honesty: How can you take care of others with loving-kindness and authenticity if you haven’t established those things for yourself first?
Three ideas to generate self-compassion
Kristin Neff is a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and has spent the last decade gathering research about self-compassion. In her book, Self-Compassion, she outlines three ideas to generate compassion for yourself.
- Practice self-kindness
Imagine that a friend comes to you and is devastated because she lost her job. Would you say to her, “Quit whining! You need to stop being lazy and get out there and get another job”?
No, you wouldn’t. (But your inner critic might say that to you if you were in her position.)
You would probably give your friend a hug and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible! You must be feeling awful. Let’s go get some coffee and talk about it.”
When you hear your inner critic go on a rampage, stop and ask yourself, “Would I speak to my friend like this?”
Talk to yourself as though you were talking with a friend. Self-soothing practices are also healing and generate self-compassion. Just as you would give your friend a hug, embrace yourself by placing your hands on the opposite shoulders and squeezing gently.
Or find the place in your body that is holding your pain. Is it your heart? Your stomach? Your toes? Place your hands lovingly on the spot as you think about your pain and say kind words to yourself. “Oh, sweetheart. This is really a hard place to be right now. This really hurts.”
Touching your own skin actually releases oxytocins that give you a sense of comfort and well-being. So don’t be afraid to soothe yourself as you would a friend, your spouse, or a child.
- Remember your common humanity
One of the reasons it can be hard to be self-compassionate is that, as human beings, we tend to feel isolated within our own experience. This isolation leads us to believe that we are the only ones who have a particular flaw or weakness in our personalities. Thoughts like these then result in feelings of shame and self-doubt rather than confidence and compassion.
The important thing is to remember that we have a shared humanity. We all are flawed, we all make mistakes, we all have weaknesses.
And again, just as you would have compassion for a flawed friend, it’s okay and necessary for you to have compassion for yourself.
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention to what is happening, while it is happening, on purpose.
Rather than running away from or suppressing pain, mindfulness allows us just to be with these feelings as they are. So, the next time your inner critic starts up, just notice him and what he’s saying.
Notice your feelings. Have no judgment toward either of them. Remember that self-compassion isn’t so much about getting rid of the pain, but to be with the pain in a way that is kind and loving toward yourself.
Pre-flight safety demostration
Finally, I want you to visualize this: You’re sitting on a plane and, as it begins to taxi, the flight attendant starts the safety review. You’re so used to this that you hardly hear what she’s saying.
But I want you to pay attention to something she says that is very important: “Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs.”
In order to be most present and compassionate with others, you must first practice loving-kindness and compassion with yourself.
Go ahead. You deserve it.