Self-Compassion is not Self-Indulgence
Sometimes people are afraid to be compassionate with themselves because they think this means they will be self-indulgent. But it’s not the same thing.
Think of compassion in the way Buddhists use it, as “loving kindness” and it might be easier to see that self-compassion has nothing to do with indulgence.
If you are trying to lose weight, or just to eat more healthily, and you eat a sugar-laden cake that later gives you a headache and makes you feel sick – how on earth is that kind?
It would be far, far kinder to say to yourself, “It feels really hard right now when I see a cake and long to eat it. This is a moment of struggle for me, but I can be kind to myself. I can acknowledge how I feel and know I can get through it. I can let the feeling of longing come and let it go. I know that if I eat that cake it will make me feel uncomfortable afterwards, and I so I choose in this moment to be kind to myself.”
Self-Compassion is not Letting Myself Off the Hook
You treated someone badly. Shouted, lied, betrayed them or in some other way hurt them. Self-compassion is not saying, “Well I did my best, and so let bygones be bygones. I won’t worry about it any more.”
Self-Compassion is not avoiding responsibility for your actions.
With self-compassion, you say to yourself, “What I did hurt them. I wish I hadn’t done that. I don’t want to hurt people. Yes, I recognise that I felt attacked or was driven by a habitual way of trying to feel good about myself. While that explains my behaviour, it doesn’t mean I can excuse it and keep behaving that way. By lovingly taking responsibility now, I clear the way for a different response in future. I can apologise for what I did, and take steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. If it’s a long-standing pattern and I feel really stuck, I can see a therapist or counsellor. At the very least, I can recognise that I am suffering right now and so is the person I hurt. I can take steps to make amends, to repair the hurt or if it’s irreparable, to at least apologise and allow the other person to feel how they do.”
Self-Compassion is not: “I’m Okay, You’re Not Okay”
It’s not: “It’s their problem not mine.”
It’s not: “If you think like that about me there’s something wrong with you.”
It’s not: “Don’t you dare judge me, because that just shows you are a messed up loser. Don’t even dare to suggest I could do things differently.”
With self-compassion we don’t need to react aggressively to slights, real or imagined. We know that we are doing the best we can, and so are other people. Any sense of “us or them” dissolves and we feel empathy with ourselves and with others.
If the only way we can feel good enough about ourselves is to attack others or even to compare ourselves with others, then we are going to feel constantly on alert. We’re also going to feel lonely, because of this constant distrust of other people and because of the sense of separation we feel. There’s nothing compassionate about that.
Kristin Neff, professor at the University of Texas in Austin, has researched self-compassion for over a decade. She says that self-compassion includes a sense of shared humanity. It includes the recognition that everyone suffers; everyone “feels this way” sometimes.
Self-Compassion is not Self Pity
When we feel self pity, we think, “Poor me.” We feel alone in our suffering, and believe that it is worse than what other people go through. We might try to get other people to feel sorry for us, in the hope this will relieve our pain. But because of the underlying belief that our suffering is more than that of others, no amount of sympathy from others can relieve it.
When we recognise that we are suffering, and that others do too, we feel connected and that in itself reduces our suffering. We can take comfort from the stories of others who have gone through similar experiences and healed from them, instead of feeling that it will never happen that way for us.
Self-Compassion in not High Self-Esteem
Neff and many other researchers point out that high self-esteem can come from comparing ourselves to others and trying to be above average, to stand out from the crowd, to believe we are special. But everyone can’t be special all the time, and there will always be winners and losers in this way of thinking. So again, this can’t be self-compassion. It divides. Compassion doesn’t divide.
- Being aware of how you feel in this moment – also known as mindfulness or present moment awareness. Without awareness of how you feel, how can you be compassionate towards yourself?
- Recognising that you are experiencing a moment of suffering or struggle, and that everyone feels this way sometimes. You feel connected with others.
- Choosing to be kind to yourself, especially when things don’t turn out how you hoped.
- Feeling love for the wounded parts of yourself and taking steps to heal them, instead of trying to ignore or deny them.