The Courage to Have Self-Compassion

A guest post by Bobbi Emel of The Bounce Blog.

Kristin Neff was traveling on an airplane with her husband and her young son, Rowan.

All was going well until Rowan suddenly threw a tantrum.

And not just any tantrum.

This was a crying, screaming, flailing on the floor kind of tantrum.

Kristin was mortified. She took Rowan from his seat and led him, literally kicking and screaming, up the aisle of the airplane, hoping to get him into a bathroom where she could work toward settling him down.

“I could feel the daggers coming from the other passengers’ eyes,” she said. “They all assumed he was just some kid who was acting out terribly.”

What the passengers didn’t know is that Rowan has autism and sometimes there was not a lot that could be done about his tantrums.

Reaching the airplane bathroom, Kristin saw the dreaded red-letter word: occupied.

With Rowan still screaming and struggling, Kristin did something unexpected and very courageous: she was kind to herself.

Quietly, while hanging on to Rowan and facing row after row of irritated, staring passengers, Kristin repeated to herself:

This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is a part of life.

May I be kind to myself.

May I give myself the compassion I need.

Why is self-compassion courageous?

Kristin Neff was able to be compassionate with herself not only because of her years of practice in loving-kindness meditation, but also because she is one of the pioneering researchers in the field of self- compassion.

Her ten years of study have shown that one of the biggest obstacles to self-compassion is the fear that it will lead to self-indulgence and laziness.

As these latter traits aren’t exactly valued in our culture, you might have created a common way to motivate yourself: self-criticism.

The opposite of self-compassion, inner criticism motivates through fear of failure, humiliation, not being good enough, and a whole host of other worries.

But, according to Neff, self-criticism also gives you an illusion of control. If you just worked harder, looked prettier, or acted nicer, you could achieve that perfection that is just out of your grasp, right?

You know the answer to that question, but the pursuit of perfection and the lure of control are hard to shake.

That’s why self-compassion is a courageous act. It requires you to let go of control and admit that you are flawed, that you make mistakes and always will. Rather than struggling with an impossible reach for perfection, self-compassion requires you to drop your resistance to the human condition and go with it instead.

How to see self-compassion clearly.

But doesn’t being self-compassionate just mean we are wallowing in pity or indulging ourselves unnecessarily?

No. And we can see why in a head-to-head comparison:

  • Self-compassion is about common humanity – we’re all in this together; we all make mistakes.
  • Self-pity is about “woe is me.”
  • Self-compassion is about creating health and well-being.
  • Self-indulgence does not care about anything, including health and well-being.
  • Self-compassion provides the safety you need to see yourself clearly so that you can gently critique yourself and make changes in your life when necessary.
  • Self-criticism is about whipping yourself ceaselessly in order to make impossible changes.

Here are 5 ways to learn self-compassion:

1. Notice your suffering and pain.

Learn to acknowledge your emotional pain and validate how you are feeling. You have likely been conditioned to ignore, deny, or suppress your pain but this will only result in more suffering down the road.

2. Practice self-kindness.

Alleviate your suffering through gentle self-care rather than harshly judging yourself. Talk to yourself as a loving friend would talk to you if she knew you were going through a tough time. Place your hand over your heart, wrap your arms around your shoulders in a hug, or practice other ways to physically soothe yourself.

3. Remember the idea of common humanity.

You are a part of the greater whole of humanity and, as such, remember that all humans are flawed, make mistakes, and are deserving of compassion.

4. 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. When Kristin Neff stood with a screaming Rowan at the front of that plane, her practice of mindfulness allowed her to see clearly what her situation was and be self-compassionate rather than becoming angry with Rowan or berating herself.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Check out Barrie's book, Peace of Mindfulness: Everyday Rituals to Conquer Anxiety and Claim Unlimited Inner Peace for some great ideas to help you.

5. Try this exercise from Kristin Neff.

Hold your arms out and squeeze your fists tightly for ten seconds. Notice how your body and emotions feel. This action represents self-criticism.

Now hold your arms out in front of you with your palms facing up. Notice how that feels. This represents mindfulness.

This time extend your arms out in a semi-circle as though you are hugging someone. This represents common humanity as you “hug the world.”

Finally, place one hand over your heart and the other hand on top of the first. Close your eyes. Notice how you feel.

Say this loving-kindness meditation silently to yourself:

  • May I be safe.
  • May I be peaceful.
  • May I be kind to myself.
  • May I accept myself as I am.

To live a bold and fearless life, have the courage to be self-compassionate.

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Altos, Ca. and is the write at The Bounce Blog, a blog about resiliency. She has over 20 years of experience in psychotherapy and has worked with the concept of resiliency since 1999.

Comments

  1. I just want to tell you that your posts are like a “great big hug” when you really need it. I can tell you truly care about people. Thank you very much, I really appreciate you! Have a blessed day!

    • Hi Marcia,

      I’m not sure if you are addressing me or Barrie with your comment (or both of us), but I’ll say thanks, anyway!

  2. Hi Barrie (and Bobbi!)

    Thanks for the post – I really identified with the meditation practice but also the fact that you ask people to look at the self- side of everything. Thanks for the tips!

    • Hi Pascale, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sounds like you have a meditation practice so you are most likely practiced in compassion as well!

  3. Wow, what an amazing article. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful insights and suggestions. This is something we all need to work on and, I believe, would make everyone happier and kinder in general. It’s funny but sometimes taking the steps to love yourself more makes it easier to love everyone else just as much. Thank you. xo

    • Thanks for your kind feedback, Erin! I think you’re right that practicing self-compassion can only lead us to greater compassion for others as well. Great insight!

  4. Gorgeous, Bobbi! Something we all need to practice more of! I really loved the loving kindness meditation

    Thank you so much
    Claire

  5. What a heart warming post Bobbi!

    I love the exercise by Kristine Neff.

    Using these simple sentences could really change our world and our life!

    Say this loving-kindness meditation silently to yourself:
    May I be safe.
    May I be peaceful.
    May I be kind to myself.
    May I accept myself as I am.

    Thanks so much, you really made my day and I will pass it along.

    With loving kindness, Susan

    • Thanks, Susan! Yes, I love the loving-kindness meditation, too. It’s been very helpful for me and I hope it blesses your life as well.

  6. I too used to believe that being compassionate would make me a pushover, selfish and lazy.
    Since I have been practicing mindfulness I am less of a pushover because I have learned to be aware of how I really feel and mostly respond more honestly from the heart, not out of duty.
    I am less selfish as mindfulness helped me be aware of hidden resentment that I held.
    As for being lazy unless I was driven and pushed myself. I discovered that this method exhausted and drained me when I hit mid life.
    Loving kindness has motivated me to a far greater extent to want to do what the right thing.

    • I’m so glad that have found loving-kindness to be your best motivator, Priska! And I also love how your mindfulness practice has allowed you to be less of a pushover. Some people fear that being mindful and compassionate will turn them into doormats, but you are proof that doesn’t have to happen.

  7. Bobbi your post has so much warmth and hope in it you can not even imagine.

    Although the topic is not from the most ”happy” ones, you managed to show the light and the positive angle.

  8. sophia fernandes says:

    Hi Brad,
    its been quite long that i have not communicated to you, but i have been following your gracefilled and strength based approach to life..This blog is so beautiful and heart warming. its a very good feeling to know that we need to be compassionate to ourselves. infact i have realised that each time we do it to ourselves, we do it to others too….
    Its so true, we learn to accept all that is given to us in an attitude of serenity, when we are in this blissful state.
    Thanks so much Barrie for being so connected to us and reviving the failing spirit.
    All the best and warm regards to you

  9. Self compassion as courage? So counter-intuitive, but spot on. Hm… this is the third or fourth post I’ve read from you on self-compassion, and each time I read one it becomes more clear to me it is an area I need to work on (oh no, self-criticism!). You listed 5 exercises in the post; do you recommend any other resources?

  10. I really enjoying reading this I think it’s a great reminder not to be so hard on ourselves. It shocks me when I realize how critical and self destructive I can be even when I think I’m in a good mood !!

    • Yes, I’m right there with you, Ciara. I have to really be very conscious and aware in order to practice self-compassion. It’s a steep learning curve for me, but certainly worthwhile!

  11. Joel Zaslofsky says:

    Hi Bobbi,
    I love reading your articles posted anywhere on self-compassion. And I love how you alternated between self-compassion and self-pity, self-indulgence, and self-criticism.
    The resiliency you show people how to have is really a gift. Please keep spreading it in as many places as you can.

  12. Love what you say about self-compassion Bobbi — nice reminder of how innocent we are to our mistakes – they just happen in spite of our best intentions.