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What is Self Compassion?

June, 2022


By Janelle Campbell, MSW, RSW

Owner and operator of Self Wellness Counselling and Mental Services


Many people are able to show kindness and compassion to others who are struggling. It doesn’t seem too difficult, right? For example, if a friend is going through a difficult time, I’m pretty sure most people would be able to provide comfort and support. Throw in a few encouraging words, listen without judgment, and there you have it, you are a compassionate person. If it’s so straightforward, why do many people have a hard time being compassionate toward themselves?

This post will discuss:

· What is self-compassion?

· Why is it difficult to be compassionate?

· How to maintain self-compassion


WHAT IS SELF-COMPASSION

Self-compassion is recognizing your pain and the ability to express kindness, care, and warmth toward yourself. By not acknowledging your pain and being “strong”, you will become critical and judgmental of yourself. You may be more susceptible to mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Repeat after me, “kindness to myself does not equal weakness.” It’s important to show up for yourself the way you show up for those you care about. Dr. Kristen Neff is a known leader and expert in self-compassion. She breaks it down into three elements: Self-kindness, Common Humanity, and Mindfulness.


Self-Kindness

Being kind to yourself can be challenging. Especially, growing up in a household or environment with parents, siblings, teachers, or students that were critical and unkind. You may have a core belief that impacts how you view yourself. Awareness is important to challenging and changing negative behavioural patterns. Identifying your critical voice will go a long way when engaging in self-kindness. The goal to self-kindness is to break the cycle of negative self-talk and become more caring and accepting of one’s mistakes and shortcomings.

For example: Joe calls himself an idiot for not getting the position he interviewed for. Instead of being critical he can try to be more caring and compassionate. “It’s disappointing that I didn’t get the job, but I know I tried my best. I will keep applying for more opportunities.”

Common Humanity

Failing at a task or making a mistake during an interview is a normal part of the human experience. When a mistake is made, those who don’t practice self-compassion tend to feel shame and rejection. Their inner critic comes alive and tears them down for not being perfect. Some of those individuals tend to put themselves on a “lonely island”, experiencing the feeling of perceived rejection and suffering all alone. Common humanity is recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and everyone is flawed. Perfection does not exist. One’s critical voice might say, “I can’t afford to make a mistake…I should know better.” Self-compassion appreciates that life can be unfair and suffering exists. Pain and suffering are a part of the shared human experience.

For example: Joes realizes that he isn’t the only one looking for a new position. “There are many people out of work and looking for a job. We can’t all be hired for the same position, some of us will be turned away and that’s ok. It doesn’t take away from my experience and what I have to offer.”

Mindfulness

Conscious awareness of the present moment describes mindfulness in a nutshell. Those who suffer from anxiety may have a difficult time being present as their mind tends to be in the future. It’s important to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and physiological responses in the present. Mindfulness is fundamental to self-compassion because it allows folks to be present with their emotions. It helps guide people through perceived negative emotions without becoming stuck in a cycle of rumination. Awareness of present mind is the first step to identifying negative self-talk in order to fully engage in self-compassion.

For example: Joe was able to acknowledge how not getting the job made him feel. “After speaking with my wife, I realized I had feelings of shame and rejection. I was worried she would think I’m a disappointment but I was wrong. I sat with my feelings and even though I was uncomfortable, they eventually passed because I remembered it’s important to be kind to myself, and that I’m not always going to get every opportunity I apply for.”


WHY IS IT DIFFICULT TO BE SELF-COMPASSIONATE?

In order to understand our lack of self-compassion, it is important to understand components of the brain. The amygdala is the unconscious awareness part of brain that stores emotional memory. The hypothalamus which is the power centre sends signals to the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary physiological processes such as heart rate among other things. This system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathic nervous system. What does this have to do with self-compassion? A lot!

The sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight, flight, freeze mode which according to Neff & Germer is also know as, self-criticism, isolation, and rumination. See the chart below.


Neff & Germer (2018)

Stress Response Stress Response Turned Inward Self-Compassion

Fight Self-Criticism Self-Kindness

Flight Isolation Common Humanity

Freeze Rumination Mindfulness


As children and youth, we learn how to cope and adapt to our surroundings. When an emotion is activated (amygdala) it sends a signal to the hypothalamus which activates the sympathetic nervous system. Depending on the persons coping style, it determines if flight, fight, or freeze (self-criticism, isolation, or rumination) will be activated.

Keisha is a PhD candidate who is very critical (fight) of herself when she doesn’t meet a deadline, or when she doesn’t get an A on her assignments. Keisha remembers feeling anxious as a child before every test. She was placed in special education in grade 7 because she was behind the other students. The students used to bully her and call her “slow”. Keisha’s initial response was flight (avoid) and freeze (ruminate), but as she got older her response became mainly fight (self-criticism). Keisha internalized the negative words and she became her own bully.

Engaging in self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness is imperative for Keisha to establish a healthy balance of emotions. Once self-kindness is activated, Keisha will have empathy, warmth, and patience for herself. She will no longer isolate herself and assume she is the only one experiencing anxiety about the pressures of school (common humanity). She now realizes that many students find higher education challenging. She is now present with her emotions (mindfulness), and less likely to ruminate (freeze).

For example, “I realize I am being triggered by emotions from my past. My behaviour is to be mean and critical of myself but that is not productive. After speaking with my peers, they are also having a tough time balancing school, family, and work. I am not the negative things I’ve said about myself. I am smart, capable, and worthy of being in higher education. My past does not define my present.”


HOW TO MAINTAIN SELF-COMPASSION

Self-compassion is a never-ending journey with the self. It is not a linear process to say the least. Set-backs are normal so embrace them. Sitting with difficult emotions can be challenging for many people. Even though emotions can be uncomfortable, they are not negative. People tend to view emotions as negative because they pair them with a negative thought. The job of emotions is to provide people with information about the present situation. Once you add compassion and common humanity to the thought, the emotion becomes easier to face, and it is no longer “negative”. Keep a journal with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Review your journal and notice healthy and unhealthy patterns of behaviour, create a mantra of kind words and positivity, seek therapy to work through past trauma, reach out to friends and family who are kind, caring, and compassionate. Changing a pattern can be scary, but always remember you are worth the hard work.


DISCLAIMER

I am a registered social worker who provides psychotherapy in private practice. The above information provides you with brief psychoeducation on self-compassion. Consult a therapist for further information, resources, and treatment options.





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