Self-Compassion: “The Hardest Skill”

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

As a born perfectionist, I have naturally been terrible at self-compassion (the two do not play well together). I still struggle with it, even though I want to be kind to myself when I am in pain. In some areas, I’ve made great strides. In others, I still default to self-criticism over self-compassion. I just mentioned to a friend that I’m writing about self-compassion and she said, “Ah, the hardest skill.” Self-compassion is tricky business.

As a society, we are truly awful at self-compassion. We’re not good at it, we don’t understand it, and we devalue it. And that is costing us. Research shows that people who have high levels of self-compassion have better mental health, better relationships, higher motivation, take more responsibility for themselves, and have less depression, anxiety, stress, and perfectionism. By helping people suffer less, self-compassion makes room for them to thrive. Interested in any of the above? Read on.

Certainly, part of the reason we are so bad at self-compassion is because we misunderstand it. Self-compassion is misunderstood as self-pity or as an “excuse” to not do better. It is seen as “weak.” If it’s not those things, what is it, exactly? And why is it so hard?

It’s helpful to start with the basics, with what self-compassion actually means. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Self-compassion, then, is being with yourself in suffering. There is no judgment, evaluation, or criticism in compassion, whether it is directed at self or other. Self-compassion is offering yourself love, understanding, and kindness when you are in pain, as you would a friend.

It seems like this should not be so challenging to cultivate. Most people can easily feel compassion for someone else who is in pain. But the moment they are asked to turn that compassion toward themselves, it dissipates completely. This happens time and again with my patients. Something about adding the element of “self” to “compassion” creates an immediate roadblock. Compassion suddenly becomes confusing.

Kristin Neff, PhD, literally wrote the book on self-compassion. She breaks self-compassion down into three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. To be with yourself in suffering, you must first recognize that you are suffering. Sometimes suffering is obvious, especially when it comes from an external source. However, it most often comes from within ourselves, for example, in feelings of inadequacy and failure. To notice this as suffering, you must first slow down and be aware of the present moment without the bias of judgment. This is mindfulness. The second component, common humanity, means recognizing that we are all in the same soup. We all make mistakes. We all fail. We all suffer. These are unavoidable parts of being human. When these happen, we all deserve compassion, regardless of our achievements or perceived value. The third component, self-kindness, seems simple on its surface. To have self-compassion, you must approach yourself with kindness rather than judgment or criticism.

Each of these components naturally holds an obstacle to self-compassion. Some people get stuck on one of these obstacles, while others are stuck on two or three. Learning to be in the present moment without judgment, especially when the present moment is painful, is extremely challenging all by itself. Our monkey minds don’t want to slow down and be quiet. If you do the work to get to that slow, quiet pace, you next need to let go of any judgment about what shows up. Once you get there, to mindfulness, the next obstacle is noticing the suffering that flies under the radar, the “everyday” suffering. This suffering generally comes from our inner critic. Our inner critic provides a steady stream of judgmental, derogatory chatter that we’ve heard all our lives and we take as Truth. It’s so much a part of the background that we don’t notice it. If we don’t notice it, we aren’t aware of its impact on us. Mindfulness brings the inner critic’s chatter to the surface and points it out as an source of suffering. It takes courage to call out a bully. Fear of the inner critic’s retribution is one of the most obstinate obstacles to self-compassion.

The concept of common humanity is one that people especially struggle with. It is novel information to a lot of us that the entirety of humanity, not just ourselves and a select few, is imperfect. Self-judgment isolates us. We are taught to be ashamed of our mistakes and inadequacies; we don’t talk with others about them to hear that they experience the very same things. Not one person on this planet has a perfect life. Not one person has never made a mistake. Not one person has never felt pain. We all do it differently – we make different mistakes and fail in different ways and different things cause us pain – but we all do it. This connects us.

The larger obstacle is in the next bit: You deserve compassion even though you are imperfect. You don’t get to be singled out because you are more imperfect than everyone else. There is nothing that sets you apart from the rest of humanity on this one. Imperfection, pain, mistakes, failure – they are part of the shared human experience. They are unavoidable, and therefore they are nothing that can be held against you.

You can’t withhold compassion because you are not perfect, or because you made a mistake. Or because you are not as “good’ as you think you should be. Or for any of the reasons that cause your suffering. Compassion is not something that is earned. This unconditional kindness and understanding can feel confusing for people who are used to being valued based on achievement or success. It can feel quite painful for people who believe that they are not worthy of love or regard at all. These are obstacles that have roots in the person’s core, which is what makes them so challenging.

The third component, treating yourself with kindness rather than judgment, seems straightforward. However, as a society, we have been trained to judge ourselves, and to judge ourselves harshly. We judge how we look, how smart we are, what we wear, what we eat, how we speak, and how we choose to spend our free time. All. The. Time. Self-criticism is our default. We have also been trained to think that kindness is something that is “deserved,” at least when it comes to ourselves. And our expectations for ourselves are so unrealistically high that we easily decide we have not done well enough or are not enough to deserve a particular moment of kindness.

Once you’ve got those three obstacles worked out, you have to contend with a fourth, and it’s a big one: the prevalent belief that self-compassion reduces motivation. People staunchly believe that if they show themselves compassion they are sanctioning laziness and indulgence. This obstacle is easy to address simply by citing the research that found that self-compassion actually increases motivation and taking responsibility for yourself. It’s quite clear. Harsh self-criticism, by the way, has been found to be demotivating.

The data prove it, but that alone doesn’t change everyone’s mind. So I ask you to close your eyes and think about what happens when you approach a friend who is in pain with an attitude of kindness and understanding. Do you believe you are doing them a disservice by sitting with them in compassion? Do you believe they are less likely to get up and at ‘em because you let them know that they are not alone in their pain?

So why do you think it would be different for you? (If your response is along the lines of “Because I’m different,” I refer you gently back to the paragraphs about common humanity.) If you have self-compassion, you are creating an environment of generosity and nonjudgment toward yourself. You are giving yourself some love for having experienced something painful/unpleasant/terrifying/icky. That’s it. You are not wasting time judging yourself for having experienced it or criticizing your reaction to it. You are not stuck in “I should have known better.”

Self-compassion allows you to move on from the suffering. It allows you to skip the useless step of fighting against self-judgment and move on to figuring out what you want to do next. It gives you more energy to focus on what is meaningful to you. Self-compassion also gives you the room to look at yourself honestly. You are more willing to own your actions and decisions when they are not going to be met with a litany of criticism and judgment.

Clearly, it’s good stuff, this self-compassion. But, even when you’re a psychologist who has read the literature and believes it to be true and wants to change, it still takes lots of work. One useful strategy is to pay attention to what you say to yourself when you’re in pain. If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself. Stop being unkind to yourself, and ideally, try being kind. Try saying the same things to yourself that you would say to your friend. Do it for a day or a week if you are willing. The longer the better. It will take time for your brain to change gears and get on board.

Another strategy I use with my patients is about connecting to yourself as a child. For most of us, it is easier to feel compassionate toward children than adults. Think about a time when you were a child and in some pain. Remember what you looked like, what you were wearing, and what your surroundings looked like in as much detail as possible. Then imagine yourself as you are now, as an adult, walking into the scene with your child self. Sit next to the child. Look into their eyes and see yourself. Let them know that you see their pain and you understand. You understand what they are feeling and you love them. You understand what they are feeling and they are not alone in it. You are here with them, and you will be here with them. Sit with them for as long as you like. Tell them whatever kind, loving, understanding things you want. Hug them if you want. Let them know that they are not alone. Then say good-bye, and exit the scene, remembering that you can come back and visit that child anytime you want.

Kristin Neff has some meditations and other exercises aimed at cultivating self-compassion on her website.

Is self-compassion the hardest skill out there? Well, it ain’t easy. But it is one of the superfoods of mental health, in my mind. It supports positive mental health by releasing unnecessary, negative beliefs. And it just feels really good to be kind to yourself instead of heaping criticism on top of pain.

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References

Neff, K., & Dahm, K. A. (2015). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In Brian D. Ostafin (Ed.) Handbook of Mindfulness and Self-Regulation (pp. 121-137). New York, NY, US: Springer.

Neff, K., & Davidson, O. (2016). Self-compassion: Embracing suffering with kindness. In Itai Ivtzan & Tim Lomas (Eds.) Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The science of meditation and wellbeing (chap. 2). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow.