Imagine a situation where the person you love (child, partner, a friend of a family…) comes to you visibly upset. She made a mistake that she could no longer correct or failed in a venture that was of great importance to her. She is overwhelmed with disappointment, sadness, anger, discouragement … What are you going to say to her?
Now change the scenario in one detail. That person is you. Try to imagine what thoughts would first come to your mind if you were in this situation? What would you say to yourself?
Many of us are more inclined to judge and judge ourselves much more than (other) people we love. Confronting the inner critic and building acceptance of ourselves as we are is an integral part of many therapeutic processes, including those in which clients are psychotherapists themselves. Although we know how nourishing and healing compassion is, it is much easier to give to others than to ourselves. Can compassion have the same strength if we direct it to ourselves? This question was intensely addressed by Kristin Neff, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas, who, fifteen years ago, was the first to scientifically define the notion of compassion for herself.
What lies behind the concept of self-compassion?
Kristin Neff describes compassion for herself as a touch and openness to her own suffering, from which there is an urge to alleviate her through tenderness and understanding. The understanding of self-compassion resulting from the research conducted led her to conclude that compassion for self is made up of three components: awareness of one’s own suffering, shared humanity, and affection for oneself.
- Focused awareness as opposed to identifying with difficulty – As with the compassion we show towards others, in order to be supportive, we must first become aware of the presence of suffering. To comfort a loved one, we must first note that she is disturbed. To focus on helping vulnerable children, the elderly, or people who have lost their home, we need to be aware of their suffering and distress. Equally, to give ourselves the same tenderness and understanding we provide to others, we must take a moment and ask ourselves: What is my emotional experience now? What do I feel? The first aspect of self-compassion involves holding emotions in focused awareness rather than identifying with them. In other words, we view our emotional experience as it is . We’re not trying to change it. We do not diminish its weight or escape from it, nor do we indulge in the waves that carry us into overreacting. We view it as a current and transient state, not something that defines us.
- Common humanity versus isolation – An important concept that makes compassion common is humanity – experiencing our experiences as part of a broader human experience, that is, awareness that we are not alone in our suffering. How many times have you been faced with failure or suffering asking yourself, “Why me?” Awareness of our shared humanity reminds us that life’s challenges, suffering, and our imperfection are part of life, that is, an experience we share with others. And to make mistakes and to feel it is simply human.
- Gentleness toward oneself versus criticality – Finding an appropriate kindness translation is challenging, but the concept it signifies intuitively is very clear. Self-esteem is defined as the empathy, sensitivity, warmth, patience, and forgiveness that a person provides to all aspects of himself, including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and impulses. Faced with the emotional burden of failure or suffering, people who nurture compassion for themselves tend to give themselves the same tenderness and understanding they provide to others. Aware that challenges are imminent, they choose to treat themselves with gentleness rather than pouring oil on the fire with excessive criticality and overbearing.
Why make self-compassion part of our lives?
From the first look at self-compassion from a scientific perspective, a number of studies have been conducted to date that clearly link self-compassion to greater psychological well-being and quality of life . Among other things, research shows that people who show greater compassion for themselves:
– more often they feel comfortable emotions such as happiness, relaxation and pride
– rarely experience unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, fear of failure, sadness and shame
– experience less stress
– are more inclined to use emotion and stress coping strategies that are more conducive to our psychological well-being (eg, acceptance, positive framing, and active problem-solving)
– are less prone to strategies of coping with emotions that impair psychological well-being (eg repression, avoidance and unproductive preoccupation with negative thoughts about something from the past)
– they are more optimistic
In other words, people who are more sympathetic to themselves show a range of traits and behaviors that actually make us more psychologically resilient and safeguard our mental health . Within the mental health protective role that has been validated in research, some studies also point to the protective role of self-compassion in the context of traumatization. Specifically, individuals who are more sympathetic to themselves after traumatic events show lower levels of symptoms related to post-traumatic disorder.
What does empathy teach us in times of crisis?
Self-compassion is an important aspect of our psychological resilience, which is clearly underlined by numerous studies. In the midst of the crisis, reinforced by the many negative information we are exposed to in the media, caring for our mental health is becoming a priority. How can we nurture our resilience with compassion?
- Let us give ourselves all our feelings. – What are you feeling right now? Whatever you feel is fine. There is no right way to deal with the crisis emotionally. You may feel intense agitation, anxiety or distress, perhaps you grieve for a sense of security or freedom. Maybe what you see fills you with anger and frustration, maybe you feel empty and dull. You may have no idea how you feel. And that’s fine. Feel the depth of emotions that pervade you, watch them and let them slowly, at your own pace, leave you – as clouds come and go through the sky.
- Recall that we are all in this together. – We all experience uncertainty, insecurity, sadness, helplessness in life … Challenges and difficult emotions are part of life. In different ways, with different power, they have affected every person and every generation before us. Although perhaps in different ways, this difficult period hits us all at once. We have to emphasize one important thing here – no, this does not mean that we have no right to say that it is difficult for us, that we have no right to worry, to be anxious, to be angry… It just means to feel human and not in that experience alone. Although away from each other, we are in this together!
- We give ourselves the same tenderness and understanding that we give (other) people we love.
The situation we find ourselves in for many of us has shifted the ground under our feet. We have been assigned some new roles (eg educators, homeworkers) that collide with one another and the most important, parental role. At the same time, at a time when we are in crisis ourselves, many have temporarily lost many sources of support and assistance. Lower your expectations of yourself and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can at all times. Take care of your needs so you can take care of others.
From theory to practice
This time we will introduce ourselves to the concept of compassion for ourselves in a similar way to how we started it. The exercise before you is taken from Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and adapted for our purposes:
Recall something that is challenging, difficult, or unsuccessful at this time. Pay attention to the feelings that come to you when you think about it. Try naming them. What feelings are there?
Now imagine an imaginary (or real) friend who is infinitely sympathetic. He knows everything you have gone through in life, knows your weaknesses and strengths, and fully accepts you as you are.
Write a letter to yourself from that friend’s perspective. What would he or she tell you? How would you express your acceptance and compassion? How would they support and understand you?
Refresh your letter and return it when you feel the need. As you read it, focus your awareness on the feelings that pervade you.
By: Tea Brezinšćak, MSc. psychology
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