In light of this description, are you self-compassionate? Do you and your clients or colleagues treat yourselves with kindness and concern? Not just occasionally, but regularly.
The manner in which you accept and take care of yourself, reflects your understanding of life. Those who offer self-compassion are aware we are all human and humans make mistakes. Humans are fallible. Furthermore, since we can all learn from mistakes and failures, they understand the power of being kind and gentle with ourselves, acknowledging what has occurred and seeing the outcomes clearly (including negative outcomes such as shame or self-reproach). Then, instead of perpetuating the negatives through self-recrimination or rumination, they focus on forgiving themselves and learning from their mistakes and experiences.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household where negative consequences followed negative (“bad”) behavior. I was highly encouraged to “think about what I’d done” during bedroom banishment (i.e. ‘time out’). Unfortunately, my small child-self intertwined my thoughts of what I’d done with how “bad” I was. Not how bad I’d acted, but how bad I must be, as a person. I also seem to have decided that the greater the punishment, the more likely I was to learn from it…and so I began to self-punish even as I matured and moved away from living with my parents and parental-punishment. I did not self-punish as some do now, with cutting or defacing my physical being, but by putting myself down. “How could I be so stupid?” “I should have figured that out!” and “I’ll never get anywhere (in life, in career, in relationships…you get the picture) if I continue like this!” I thought it about it longer than my parents probably suspected. Well, obviously that is true if I carried it into adulthood.
I am far from alone in carrying the belief that punishment for a mistake improves future behavior into my young adult life. If you’ve worked with anyone on a psychosocial level, including yourself, your family, your children or your friends, you know this! Reward and punishment. You did a good job – buy yourself a new shirt! You performed poorly – tell yourself what a loser you are!
Perhaps, you figured out that it really does NOT improve your future if self-penance is all that occurs. In fact, you may have discovered that putting yourself down can result in additional poor performance, as your motivation and enthusiasm wane. A person who feels poorly about him or herself may find themselves not wanting to continue to work in an area in which they believe they are not doing well or feel their work is not appreciated. In their despair (yes, it can yield despair), they may lessen attention to detail or quality in their work, they may move sluggishly through their days.
Does this have to happen?
Of course not. Instead, we can learn to have compassion for ourselves (or at least increase self-compassionate responses while decreasing uncompassionate responses). This increase in self-compassion has occurred following self-compassion meditation training3, affect training4, mindful self-compassion training5, and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training.6, 7
Why would you want to be self-compassionate? I once had a Soldier and mental health practitioner say to me during Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training “Why all this focus on ourselves? I don’t care about myself, I want to help the soldiers that need help. My focus is on them!” I understand, in a military community that emphasizes “selfless service”, the confusion that results. Self-compassion can be viewed as selfish and self-focused. However, this is not self-compassion and self-kindness does not mean you are weak in spirit or mind.
Self-compassion involves a sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others, and of oneself, as part of a larger community of humans (or even of all living creatures, such as our pets!). The definition of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”.8 The word compassion has Latin origins, interpreted as “co-suffering”, that is, sharing in and assisting with alleviation of distress.
Imagine you have a supervisor (or a friend) whom you have heard harshly criticizing a co-worker (not to their face, but perhaps to you). You know automatically that this supervisor might do the same thing in regard to your own performance (harshly criticize your performance in front of others, but not directly to you). Now imagine you have a supervisor whom you know is hard on him or herself, putting themselves down when something goes wrong, venting aloud their self-condemnation. That individual too, is likely to apply the same unforgiving attitude toward others, including you! Now envision yourself working for someone who is self-compassionate. When something goes wrong, they accept it, learn from it, make necessary changes, and move forward without recrimination, but with an expectation that they (and their work) will improve. They ‘still’ feel good about themselves. Which one would you prefer to work for or with?
A person who offers compassion to him or herself, is likely to offer compassion to others, to recognize that if one person has a difficulty, the whole team has difficulty. The offer trust to their team, their family, and their organization, as they offer compassion to them, even as they offer it to themselves.
How does instruction in mindfulness bring about self-compassion? Through self-reflection and recognizing one’s own actions, reactions, thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, and understanding how they all tie together to inform them of “their story”. Also, through recognition of this information as ‘data’, that is, allowing the information gained through self-reflection to be devoid of (or to minimize) their emotional attachment to the information. This allows the development of wisdom in decision making that involves logic, reasoning, and heart, instead of strong emotions such as anger, greed, or emotional pain.
Self-compassion takes courage, as you face and confront your own negative emotions and fear-based behaviors. It takes time. The time to sit, stand, or walk quietly, to listen to the inner voice of ones’ own heart. It takes action. Once awareness occurs, change begins. When opening to oneself (both positive and negative behaviors and characteristics), we understand that we are not isolated, we are not the only ones suffering, instead we are part of a humanity in which each person aches, as we do. As we begin to care for ourselves at our deepest levels, we commence to comprehending that others need the same care.
On this journey through mindfulness training, our compassion for ourselves and for others expands. We understand personal travails on an entirely new level and begin to respond accordingly. Our connections with ourselves, with others, and even with the activities we engage in, transform with increases in attention, engagement, and thoughtfulness.
Mindfulness meditation training increases self- compassion, as do compassion cultivation trainings.3, 5,6,7 However, one study identified direct application of compassion training to have a greater impact on self-compassion characteristics of empathetic concern and identification with all humanity than indirect applications, such as mindfulness7.
Regardless of how you get there, this is somewhere you may want to go. These are the people with whom you may want to spend your time. They are the ones who will ‘get you’ and with whom you can share yourself openly. These are the people with whom you can create a vital, meaningful life and through your own self-compassion, you are (or can be) one of them.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
1. Neff, K. D. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and
Identity, 2, 223-250.
2. Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude
toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.
3. Albertson, E. R., Neff, K. D., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2015). Self-compassion and body dissatisfaction in women: a randomized controlled trial of a brie meditation intervention. Mindfulness, 6, 444–454.
4. Hildebrandt, L. K., McCall, C., & Singer, T. (2017). Differential effects of attention, compassion, and socio-cognitively based mental practices on self-reports of mindfulness and compassion. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1488–1512.
5. Neff, K. D. (2016). The self-compassion scale is a valid and theoretically coherent measure of self-compassion. Mindfulness, 7(1), 264–274
6. Rice, V.J., Schroeder, P.J. and Allison, S. (submitted). Mindfulness training, self-compassion, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. International Conference on Mindfulness. Denmark
7. Brito-Pons, G., Campos, D., Cebolla, A. (2018). Implicit or explicit compassion? Effects of compassion cultivation training and comparison with mindfulness-based stress reduction. Mindfulness 9(5), 1494-1508.
8. “Compassion.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion. Accessed 3 December 2019.