Self-Compassion Isn't Selfish

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If you’re like many people, you spend a good deal of energy and time beating yourself up! You may frequently engage in an internal monologue about how lame it was for you to have said something or how you’re not successful enough, or not good looking enough. This toxic internal self-speak merely adds to your troubles. Self-compassion, on the other hand, helps us build resilience to difficulties that have the potential to sink us into a state of self-defeat. When we make mistakes or experience a rough day, having self-compassion allows us to get back in the game and try again, rather than being swallowed by a self-centered swamp of self-pity. ​ ​What Exactly Is Self-Compassion? Self-compassion is the antidote to self-deprecation. Sadly, many people put themselves down with self-loathing comments. In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen plays a character named Alvy who says, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” Some people think putting themselves down is cool, funny or charming. In Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, renowned self-compassion advocate, psychologist, professor and speaker, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., promotes a very different message. Neff explains that self-compassion is a must in today’s day and age. She states that it is very different from selfishness. Neff says self-compassion is comprised of three distinct ingredients: mindfulness, empathy and connection.

Mindfulness By now, you have likely heard the word Mindfulness a few hundred times. It is quite the buzzword these days! But what exactly does it mean to be mindful and how does mindfulness relate to self-compassion? Mindfulness means being aware of what is. It does not require changing anything. Rather, mindfulness means paying attention to or drawing our awareness to our own thoughts, feelings, reactions, emotions or surroundings, in the moment. Sounds simple, right? Well, not so much because we often go through life reacting without thinking. Have you ever driven to work and then wondered how you got there or not remembered anything about the drive itself? Often, we ruminate about something that occurred in the past or worry about something that could occur in the future, so much that we have little awareness of what is occurring right here and now, in front of us. Mindfulness draws us in to notice and become more aware of what is--a requirement of having self-compassion. You cannot have self-compassion if you are not mindful of what is.

Empathy The second ingredient of self-compassion is empathy. When we have self-compassion, we treat ourselves with the same empathy that we would a good friend. Why must we be quick to forgive our friends when they make an honest mistake but we hold ourselves to such high demands that we cannot do the same for ourselves? We are only human, after all. We pride ourselves on being empathetic to others’ needs, treating others with kindness and love, just as we should. Yet, at the same time, when it comes to how we treat ourselves, we are downright relentless. What would happen if we gave ourselves the same sort of empathy that we provide so freely to others? How might that change the way we operate in our daily lives? I believe we would feel calmer, cared for, happier and more peaceful.

Connection Neff describes the third and final ingredient of self-compassion as connection or connectedness to others. When we notice our connection with others and appreciate that we’re all human and “we’re all in this together,” it makes facing life’s challenges more tolerable. Conversely, when we believe that we are the only ones in the world with a particular difficulty, we become self-absorbed, we isolate ourselves further, and we pity ourselves. In effect, we become more selfish and self-centered. Whereas, when we feel a connection with those around us, we have confidence that everything will turn out ok—that others face this difficulty too and if we can’t tackle it by ourselves, we know people who have already faced a similar challenge who can help us.

Take Care of Yourself So You Can Take Care of Others I attended a workshop about a year ago led by Neff who instructed participants to think of the video that airlines show passengers before taking flight on an airplane. The video instructs you to first place an oxygen mask on your own face before helping others with their oxygen masks because if you cannot breathe, you cannot possibly help anyone else. Similarly, when we practice self-compassion, we are better equipped to help those around us. Without adequate self-compassion, we sink into self-absorption, making it more difficult to support others. This is the distinction between self-compassion and selfishness. It is with mindfulness, empathy toward ourselves, and the recognition that we are all in this thing called life together, that we can practice self-compassion, and more effectively help ourselves and each other. This recipe can be difficult to follow but if you keep at it, the end result can bring you more satisfaction in life.