I’ve been reading a lot recently about shame, resiliency, addiction, and empathy. To tell you the truth, it’s been very challenging trying to weave all these complex themes into my quest for wholehearted living, but I decided to turn myself over to the process and allow myself the space to adopt, and in some respects adapt to, a new way of looking at the world and a new way of interacting with the world. This being attuned to the possibility to reframe my life has left me so much more receptive to the wisdom that lies before me.
I’d been meaning to write a blog post on “self compassion”, so I planned on sitting down at the computer when I got in from work today and finally working through some ideas, and that’s when the universe gave me exactly what I was waiting for. I was listening to a podcast on the subway on my commute home when I heard this great quote from Quincey Jones. He said, “Next time you tell yourself you’re at a critical point in your life, remember to tell yourself that you’re not at a critical point, but rather, you’re critical about the point you’re at.” How’s that for gem of an idea!
When it comes to the field of self compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff is the leading expert, and if you get the opportunity, I highly recommend her Ted Talk, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion”. According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion is akin to the feeling of compassion we may have for others. There is a definite identification that some level of suffering is at play, and mistakes are treated with understanding and kindness rather than with blame and judgement. Another important element of compassion in general is its universality. We all are interconnected, so our pain and suffering is also interconnected. Just as we must be attuned to others’ suffering, we too must be willing to acknowledge our own need for self-compassion. Neff is quick to point out that approaching suffering in our own lives with that “stiff upper lip” approach to problems is definitely not the way to practice self-compassion. Other destructive coping mechanisms that we rely on to get us through suffering in our lives include: numbing with drugs, alcohol, food, and other addictions, ignoring the problem in general, and looking for the “quick fix” rather than long-term wellness.
Dr. Neff believes that self-compassion incorporates three aspects: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness comes when we accept difficult times in our lives as a normal and healthy part of human existence. Responding to these periods in our lives through anger and self-blame shuts the door on self-compassion aiding us through these painful moments. Recognizing that there is an element of common humanity in our suffering means that suffering, and thus perceived injustice, does not happen to me alone. Neff goes on say, "It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by external factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.” Finally, the component of mindfulness means that we are not consumed by our negative emotions, but instead, we recognize pain, suffering, frustration, and self-doubt as transitory feelings; they do not have the power to take hold of our lives if we are willing to simply be with them rather than be identified by them.
For me, one of the most important distinctions is that self-compassion is not to be confused with self-pity. When we gravitate towards self-pity, we close ourselves off to the interconnectedness of our lives, and we turn the lens inward instead of projecting outward to where a possible solution or wellness can be found. Self-compassion provides us a safe harbor to work through discomfort without self-blame and self-censure.
So, where do I see the role of self-compassion in my life? Five months ago, when I disclosed about the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood, I immediately curled into a fetal position and entered a vicious cycle of shame, self-pity, and disconnection. Anyone who is familiar with the stages of grief or trauma, knows that my initial reaction was typical of someone who has undergone such an experience. But what I came to realize quite quickly, was that no form of healing or acceptance can come from this vicious cycle. What I needed to nurture was self-compassion. This process has meant me learning to lean into the discomfort of the volcano of emotions spewing out of me, and most importantly, learning to accept that joyfulness (a long term sense of well-being) is what I ought to invite into my life, rather than happiness (a short term sense of well-being that is derived from external sources, and numbing through addictions). What has been the greatest eye-opener for me has been finally realizing, for the first time in my life, that I am worthy of love and that having a sense of “hope” is the best way to inoculate myself against self-pity and frustration. If I look around at the people I admire most in my life, the people who seem to be the most grounded and joyful, it doesn’t take me long to recognize that these people share one thing in common. They give back to their community, and acknowledge the importance of interconnectedness and self-worth.