Self-Compassion is learning how to treat yourself the way that a really good friend would treat you.
It does sound obvious that we would aspire to treating ourselves like this, and yet many of us don't. There are moments in my life when I've said things to myself that I wouldn't say to a dog. Because language is so powerful, and because there is part of ourselves that believes what we say, it is very sensible to practice relating to ourselves in a compassionate way. Much excellent work has been done in this area by Dr. Kristin Neff. The following is a simple and very helpful self-compassion exercise inspired by her work. It’s a practice that you do alone.
First, gather three chairs and place them in a triangle. You are going to be talking to yourself out loud, so you probably want to do this some place private, unless you are okay being watched talking to yourself out loud. Then, sitting in one of the chairs, think about something you’ve fucked up. It could be something in your personal life, or something at work, in a relationship, or with a colleague. Something you’ve gotten pretty darn upset with yourself about. Now, take a deep breath. From the first chair, you will speak, out loud, in the same voice that you use when you talk to yourself in your head (self-talk) when you are upset with yourself. Stop reading this page, do this now. (Blatant narratorial intrusion: Now you have to decide if you are going to listen to the narratorial voice, or just continue reading. Obviously, this is your choice, but you will find the practice more effective if you don’t pre-read it. So if you can’t do this practice now, or don’t feel inspired to, perhaps skip to the next practice and come back to this when you want to do it. Narratorial exit.) From the first chair speak to yourself out loud in the voice you use to talk to yourself when you are upset, as if the self you are talking to is sitting next to you. When you are done, take a deep breath. Now, move to the empty chair you were just talking to. From this chair, take a deep breath. Say out loud how it feels to be spoken to like that. Just notice. How do you feel emotionally? What comes up for you? What are the sensations in your body? What are the thoughts in your mind? What is happening in your heart? Good, now take a deep breath. Finally, switch to the third chair. From this chair, imagine that you are one of your really good friends (you don’t have to actually have a specific friend in mind here). This is someone kind who knows you well, and really has your best interests at heart. Imagine that they’ve just witnessed both how you talk to yourself, and how you feel being talked to like that. In this situation, what would they say to you? Now say that out loud.
Sometimes this is a very emotional exercise for people, because they realize, for the first time, how intensely critical and severe their self-talk is. Remarkably, you have the power to change this right this minute. You can talk to yourself in a different manner. You can treat yourself differently. You have the authority to make that choice. The first time I did this, I realized how angry I got with myself. And how much the part of me that was listening to that anger (somehow it didn’t occur to me when I was angry with myself that there was a part of me that was receiving the anger) felt shame as a result of this. It was both distressing and impactful. For those of you who think in terms of Polyvagal Theory, I realized that when I was upset with myself, I went into fight, and that another part of me, when receiving that fight, was paralyzed by shame, and went into shutdown (dorsal vagal). All self-induced. When I treated myself like this, I was making myself sick. I also noticed that when I was upset with myself, I tended to globalize and make universal statements, e.g., You are like this. My self-talk wasn’t specifically about what happened. It was more like, You are a…
Some of the harshest things I’ve ever heard anyone say, I’ve spoken to myself, or thought about myself. We are not the worst things we’ve ever done. We are not the worst things that have been done to us. I don’t talk to myself like that anymore. I just stopped.
Dr. Neff says that self-compassion entails three elements:
1) Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
This means being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than turning away from the pain or criticizing ourselves. It means recognizing that we are imperfect, and that failing and experiencing difficulty are inevitable. Self-compassionate people tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences, rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. We don’t always get what we want: when we accept this with sympathy and kindness, we experience more emotional equanimity.
2) Community (common humanity) vs. Isolation
This means recognizing that suffering and failure are part of our universal human experience, and that it actually connects us to others, rather than isolates us. This is often a challenge for modern people raised in an individualistic, achievement-oriented culture to understand. (White people: narratorial intrusion) When we can relate our personal suffering to others who are also suffering, it re-contextualizes our experience as part of a larger story. The contraction into an isolated suffering self is part of what disconnects us from compassion and self-compassion.
3) MINDFULNESS vs. Over-Identification
When we stand in a larger human story and are able to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, non-judgmentally, without either suppressing or ignoring them, but without getting swept away in negative reactivity (over-identification), we are able to maintain equilibrium. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. This is a capacity that we can develop: to hold our own emotions with stability, to embrace our full emotional and felt experience. See FEEL YOUR FEELINGS, and EMOTIONAL YOGA for practices that build this capacity.
We want to emphasize that this is not a just a feel-good, woo-woo type self-help attitude. This is science. If you want to understand it better through a linguistics lens, check out the Examine How You Use Language practice
Video: Distill | Photography: Stein Egil Liland | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.