Compassion and self-compassion
Having compassion for ourselves is really no different to having compassion for others. When we show compassion, we can see that another person is suffering in some way and feel moved by their experience. When we feel compassionate towards another person, we feel warmth, caring and a desire help and support them.
When another person is compassionate towards you it helps you to feel understood and to experience a sense of kindness and non-judgement towards your circumstances. There is a sense that as humans we all make mistakes, or don’t know the way at that point in times, and the other person provides comfort and care.
Self-compassion is really no different. This article discusses the ways in which we can start to be compassionate with ourselves and move away from judging and criticizing ourselves for our perceived shortcomings.
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Aesop
Childhood trauma and self-compassion
When those who care for children are not attuned to a child’s needs or if a child grows up in an environment that isn’t psychologically, emotionally and/or physically safe that child can grow up without the opportunity to develop the skills they need for some of life’s challenges. Children learn about themselves through their relationships with those who care for them. If the messages that the child receives about themselves and their self-worth are harsh, critical and judgemental, the child can and often does internalise those messages. Those messages can become fixed beliefs over time. We call this negative self- talk and it can mean that the child can find it difficult to be compassionate and caring towards themselves as they grow up.
Many survivors struggle with a sense of feeling worthwhile and good about themselves. However, with the right support and practice these skills can develop over time.
Being compassionate to ourselves is as important as being compassionate to others. Many people who have experienced childhood trauma find it easier to be compassionate to others, than they do to be compassionate towards themselves. Self-compassion means that you honour and accept your humanness and this means accepting that you will make mistakes, fall short at times and have limitations. However, this is a shared human experience that doesn’t define you as a person.
For many survivors, self-compassion is very challenging. It takes time and practice to begin the process of opening your heart to being kind to yourself, understanding that you are human and taking a balanced approach to managing the negative self-talk developed in childhood and the emotions and patterns of thought that accompany them.
“The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish” says Kristin Neff, the pioneering self-compassion researcher, author and teacher.
Neff and her colleagues have conducted research over the past decade. The results show that “self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation… The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.”
The first place to start is to acknowledge that for many of us, it doesn’t come easy. Being kind to yourself builds self-compassion and a sense of wellbeing, and little steps can be the way to go. Here are some suggestions that you might like to try and remember – everyone’s different, and if it isn’t the right time for you to start, that’s okay too.
The state of mindfulness is a way of paying attention to what is happening in the present in a non-judgemental manner. It is a skill that we can develop over time. It can teach us to be more self-aware as well as less reactive to negative events. Through a mindfulness practice we can become aware of the times that we have critical or harsh thoughts about ourselves and others and make choices about how to manage these patterns.
With mindfulness and awareness, you may start to notice not only how you typically judge and criticise yourself but also become aware of the language that you use. You might then start to reframe your language to be more kind, supportive and understanding, remembering that you are human, acknowledging your vulnerabilities and flaws a take a continued learning approach to life. What can I learn about myself in this situation and how can I be more understanding and curious about why this happened?
Start with finding a comfortable and safe place, either sitting or lying down. You may
- fluff your pillow/cushion, pop another one under your arm
- place a warm rug on your lap
- move your chair
- stretch your arms
- turn on some soothing music, dim the lights, light a candle
- Place one hand on your chest/heart space.
Bring your attention to your breathing. Notice where you feel your breath. Some people feel it in their nostrils, perhaps a cool breeze on the upper lip. Other people feel the rising and falling of their chest. Others feel their breath in their abdomen as their belly expands with every inbreath and contracts with every outbreath. Gently explore your body and discover where your breathing is easiest to notice. Just stay with your breath for a while – when you notice your mind wandering bring it back to the breath.
Some people find it easier to pay attention to just their inbreath or their outbreath. Just let your body breathe for you and notice how the breath moves through your body. Now place your hand on your heart for a moment to remind yourself that you will be bringing kind attention to your breathing. Be aware how your breath nourishes you whether you are paying attention or not. It has been with you from birth and has sustained your life wherever you go. If your mind wanders gently bring it back to the breath with gratitude and appreciation. Rest in the experience of your body and when you are ready gently open your eyes.
There are a number of strategies that people may use to help develop self-compassion aside from mindfulness and self- awareness. These include:
Healing Heart Activity
Place one hand on your chest/heart space. Consider perceiving your hand as a ‘healing hand’. As it rests on your chest you might like to notice your breath. Perhaps this calms the mind for a few moments – spend a few minutes getting really comfortable. You might place both hands on your chest and notice the difference between one hand and two. You may make small circles with your hand. Feel the natural rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and out. Linger with this feeling for as long as you like.
Prepare a drink or some food which you might find comforting and which is healthy– maybe a cup of tea, bowl of porridge, hot chocolate – do you have a comfort snack? You might like to write a list of comforting foods and keep it handy for times when you might need a reminder to be kind to yourself. Make sure that these are not only comforting but also health promoting and nutritious. Notice when you are eating or drinking these and bring your focus on the gratitude you feel for this nurturing that this food/drink is giving your body.
Accept that you are not perfect and be gentle with your shortcomings. Understand that you don’t have to be a certain way to be worthy of love. Some people have sayings that help them and remind them about this, such as: “There is no sense in punishing your future for the mistakes of your past. Forgive yourself, grow from it, and then let it go” Melanie Koulouris
Employ a Growth Mindset
There is a lot of research about the impact of our mindset on wellbeing. Viewing challenges as opportunities to learn and grow rather than obstacles to enhance our wellbeing.
An Island of Calm
“Self-compassion provides an island of calm,
a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive &
negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop
asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’
By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness,
acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition,
we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.
It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime,
but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax,
allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself.
It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.”