When we think of compassion we usually imagine it as something directed towards others. So we might define compassion as the wish we have for others to be free from suffering, free from the causes of suffering, and to have the associated sense of happiness that arises out of this.
“Compassion requires both sensitivity to the suffering of others and a deep commitment to try to prevent it and relieve it.” (Dalai Lama, 2001)
Self-compassion is compassion too, but is directed towards ourselves instead of towards others. Self-compassion involves showing kindness towards ourselves in the face of all of our past mistakes and failures. We relate to the part of ourselves that we find difficult to accept and show those parts the same kindness we would show to a deeply beloved friend or relative.
And just to be clear, self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence, e.g. indulging in excessively sugary food may not be the kindest thing for our long term health. Nor does self-compassion involve self-pity, as self-pity is not grounded in our inter-relatedness with others in the way self-compassion is. Similarly self-esteem is not the same as self-compassion as this involves a critical process of self-evaluation.
All human beings deserve compassion regardless of what qualities or features they possess. Research has shown that employing self-compassion has particular benefits. It affords a higher level of emotional resilience than does self-esteem, less anger, less narcissism, a clearer sense of self and increased caring in relationships. (Neff, 2020). The kinder we are to ourselves, the kinder we can be to others. Consider, if we possess no patience with our own failings, then where is the inner resource be patient with the failings of others?
Many of us go through life with our inner worlds filled with secret shame and pain where little is openly said about it or how we might go about managing it. It is not unusual to want to push away painful emotions, people and situations in order to avoid them, but over time we find that the pain doesn’t really go away. What may be called for instead is for us to garner our courage and strength, face into the pain, and actively engage with it.
“Compassion, far from being lightweight, demands of us strength, determination and courage.” (Gilbert, 2011).
If you are considering engaging in therapy, then the simple act of taking the first step to book a session is a courageous act of self-compassion. You will be making a decision to face into your pain and suffering and to deal with the reality of it. The work of therapy involves slowly and carefully raising awareness of our inner experience so that we might develop insight and understanding into the difficulty. With this act of kindness towards ourselves, we can grow to know, understand and accept our experience. We may also realise that, just like every other human being, we are flawed and fallible too.
Many of the problems that we have that stem from the way our minds work are not actually our fault but are the consequence of evolution. We have brains with ancient reptilian parts to them that are in charge of our emotions and motives. These brain parts can be very useful to us in emergencies, for example, but which can also get us into trouble. In spite of these limitations to our anatomy, we do still need to take responsibility for how we live our lives. Self-compassion can help us to courageously engage with our suffering and begin to transform it.