The two-headed Roman god, Janus

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Self-compassion and self-care

The two-headed Roman god, Janus

It’s funny — I’ve known since I was 13 that January is named for the god Janus, who has two faces: one looking forward and one backward. But right now it strikes me how appropriate that is.

The period around New Year is a natural time to look back at and see what was good or wasn’t so good. We can also look forward into the coming year and think about what we might do, and what we might change.

Anyway, I want to tell myself that I’m not interested in New Year’s Resolutions. This is mainly because of youthfully naive attempts with them that I forgot within days. But I can’t help but look, Janus-like, at the year that’s just past and the year that’s just beginning.

A Good Year and a Bad Year

Last year was tough in some ways. Three people I had strong connections with, including my sister, died within nine days of each other. I re-injured my back quite badly by straining my left sacroiliac joint. I could barely walk for several days, and was still in pain months later. My elderly parents both got Covid, which was worrying, although they both pulled through. And a big concern was that a lot of Wildmind’s sponsors were forced to cancel their subscriptions for financial reasons. (Most of those were in the UK, where the post-Brexit economy is truly dire.)

It was also a good year in some ways. I had a book (“A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”) published on my birthday last year. I remained in that ever-shrinking group of people who have managed to avoid Covid. Toward the end of the year I rekindled a habit of walking daily. My meditation practice kept going, through thick and thin. Although the pandemic has reduced my social life almost to zero, I’ve adjusted to that being the case.

I spent the entire year writing on one topic, which I’ve never done before: on January 14th I sent out the first email in a course called “Politics as a Spiritual Practice,” and the last email of the course went out on December 29th. I’ve never before had an opportunity to explore one topic in such depth. In essence I wrote a book, and in fact I hope to find a publisher for it this year.

Sometimes the good and the bad are connected. Yes, I did a lot of writing. But that meant sitting for long periods at a computer, and that wasn’t good for my body, which led to me injuring my back.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: I’m pretty good at self-compassion but not very good at self-care.

Self-compassion is where we respond in a kind, supportive way to our own suffering. We give ourselves the comfort and reassurance we need in order to get through hard times, whether those hard times last for a few moments or for months on end. It’s a powerful practice. I’m pretty good at it. I even wrote a book about it.

Self-care is where we take care of our own needs so that we don’t create as much suffering for ourselves in the first place. Keeping our long-term happiness and well-being in mind, we do what we need to do in order to be healthy and happy. That includes things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from work, and getting regular exercise and stretching. The first two on that list I’m very good at. The third (taking breaks) I’m not bad at. The fourth (exercising and stretching) I’ve been very bad at.

Some people are good at self-care but not self-compassion. They might live very healthily but not be emotionally self-supportive. They might even be very self-critical. I’m good at self-compassion, but not at self-care. Ideally, we should be good at both.

My back injury was a good reminder of the importance of self-care. I really don’t want to go through that ordeal again, so I’ve been to a physical therapist and learned some stretches and exercises that will give my core more strength and give my body more flexibility. Together, those things should keep my back in reasonable health. And once this chest infection is out of the way I intend to get back to walking daily.

Lessons Learned

Based on the lessons I’ve learned from booking backward and looking forward, it feels appropriate to have an overall aim for the year, expressed in general terms. I’d describe that aim as “Thriving Though Self-Care.” I want to thrive — healthily, happily. I have an image of myself later this year, full of energy and joy. And I want to get there through practicing self-care.

It also seems that having general aims isn’t enough, so I’m setting myself the specifically goals of walking for a average of 30 minutes a day (at a minimum), and stretching at least once a day for five minutes.

If I miss a day’s walking (sometimes I’m sick, sometimes the weather makes it impossible) I’ll do more walking on other days to keep my average up.

I know from previous experience that accountability helps, so I’m going to check in about this daily in Wildmind’s community website, letting people know how I’m doing.

So I hope that will help me with my practice of self-care.

Two More Things

Two more things in regard to self-care:

First, toward the end of last year I started working a four-day week. I did this because of reading about an international study showing that when businesses switched to a four-day week they actually became more productive. I’ve been doing this for a month now, and I think it’s helping. I’ve noticed that I’m more creative than I’ve been for a while. I’m ending my workweek in a state of joy rather than exhaustion. I feel more relaxed at weekends, too.

Second, I was so focused on finishing the year-long course I was teaching on politics that I did almost nothing in response to losing about a third of my income as supporters withdrew their sponsorships. This caused a fair bit of anxiety, so as part of my practice of self-care I will be working on building up my base of subscribers again. It’s hard to create when you’re worried about whether you can afford to pay rent. In fact, in the long-term I’d like to have someone working with me on Wildmind who is responsible for community growth and community engagement. I’d like to have someone to work with, and I’d rather devote 100 percent of my energy to teaching and not have to think about money.

So that’s what I’m learning, looking back at next year, and that’s how I intend to live 2023 differently, based on those lessons. (One last goal: I want to write in this blog three times a month for the rest of the year, even if the reports are brief. Some of those posts will be follow-ons from this one.)

Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year. If you have any thoughts about self-care, or about New Year’s aspirations, resolutions, aims, or goals, why not add them in the comments below?

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Self-compassion in the kitchen

Unmindfulness Increases Our Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

One of the kids asks for a drink, and I feel a surge of annoyance. Can’t they see I’m busy?

I heave a sigh and say, rather testily, “I just put the juice back in the fridge! Can’t you just wait two minutes?”

Now my child is upset, and I have yet another thing to take care of. I feel annoyed, but also disappointed with myself for having expressed my irritation. I’ve taken my original stress and added a whole bunch of new sufferings to it!

Mindfulness Leads to Freedom from Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

But I’ve been training myself to be more mindful of my feelings, and I’m starting to notice the stress building up in my body. I notice that there’s a tense edge to the way I’m thinking. I sense that emotionally I’m being hard on myself, like I’m becoming angry with everything.

In short, I’m aware that I’m suffering. I notice this just as a fact, not as a judgement. It’s normal to suffer. That’s OK. It’s just what happens sometimes.

Letting my awareness drop down into the body, and away from my thoughts, I can sense a painful knot of tension in my midriff. That’s where the suffering part of me is expressing itself. That’s how it’s communicating with the rest of me, trying to get my attention.

I regard this suffering part of me with an inner look of tenderness. It’s the same look I’d have for my children when I feel particularly loving toward them.

I say a few words: “I know this is hard for you. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.”

All of this takes just a few seconds. All of the time I’m doing this I’m still chopping and stirring.

When one of the kids asks for juice, I tell them, kindly, that I’m in the middle of something, and that it’ll be a minute.

I realize that part of what’s going on is that I’m overwhelmed with tasks at a time when I’m tired and my blood sugar is low. I experience this realization as a relief. It’s not that the world is a horrible place. It’s not that my kids are trying to make my life difficult. It’s not that I’m failing as a cook and as a father. What I’m feeling is just the physiological effect of trying to do a complex task when I’m hungry and tired from working all day. And so I continue cooking, feeling supported and cherished.

The kindness I’m showing myself spills over into the way I’m cooking. I enjoy the actions my body is doing. I enjoy the colors and textures and smells. It affect the way I’m relating to my kids. I behave to them in a way that’s calm and kind. They know I care about them and there’s a loving connection extending from the kitchen to the living-room and back again. A minute or two later, I get them their juice.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Being mindful of our feelings creates a “sacred pause” where we are less likely to respond with habitual volitions like anger, judgement, or blame.

Mindfulness of feelings puts gives us a chance simply to observe what’s happening. It gives us an opportunity to avoid doing things that will just cause more suffering for ourselves and others.

This sacred pause we create in moments of mindfulness not only allows us to temporarily let go of our reactivity. It also allows a space in which more creative responses can arise. It allows us to relate with patience and kindness to the parts of us that are suffering. And it gives us an opportunity to support ourselves, empathetically.

And when we support ourselves with kindness and compassion, we’re more likely to respond to others with those emotions.

The sacred pause gives us a chance to practice wisdom, with the kind of reframing that I illustrated above (recognizing that its normal to suffer, that the irritability is the result of physiological circumstances, rather than being a deep personal failing or a sign that the world is a horrible place).

Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion isn’t  always easy to practice, but the steps are simple once we’ve remembered to use them.

  1. Notice that you’re suffering. Let suffering become a trigger for self-awareness.
  2. Drop the story you’ve been building (“This is so frustrating! Why can’t the kids leave me alone while I’m busy?”)
  3. Drop down to observe your suffering as felt sensations in the body. These are mainly around the heart, diaphragm, and gut, usually.
  4. Offer kindness to the part of you that is suffering, by talking to your pain, looking (with your inward eye) at it with loving eyes, and even with a loving and reassuring touch.

To practice these four steps it’s helpful to imagine or remember stressful situations. That gives you a safe space in which to memorize and practice the four steps so that they become second nature. Rehearsing in this way makes it more likely that in the future we’ll spontaneously respond with compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

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The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of meditators chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources that support their sitting practice. Click here to find out more.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

See also:

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of people chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources. Click here to find out more.

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Self-compassion is not self-indulgent

grey wolf

One common concern about self-compassion is that it’ll make us lazy and self-indulgent — that if we become more self-compassionate we’ll lack motivation. Self-indulgence means avoiding difficulties, which may benefit us in the short term, but which is detrimental in the long term. Self-indulgence is when we cop out. So we might imagine that when faced with doing something difficult, being “kind” to ourselves means that we’ll let ourselves off the hook. But that’s the opposite of what actually happens.

Self-compassion means giving yourself support, understanding, and encouragement when you face difficult experiences. It helps you to face your difficulties.

Self-compassion recognizes that your long-term happiness is served not by avoiding challenges, but in offering yourself support as you go through them. Self-compassion gives us courage.

Let’s say you’ve had to give a presentation, and it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. A typical non-compassionate response might be, “What an idiot I am! I’m always messing up. I made a complete fool of myself. I was stupid even to try!” The next time you’re asked to do a presentation you’ll probably be even more nervous, which will make it even harder for you to do well. Or perhaps you’ll find a way to avoid doing the next presentation altogether. That avoidance is self-indulgence. It’s a protective response to stop you from having to face the discomfort involved in doing something challenging.

What would be a self-compassionate response to the same situation? Perhaps you’d take a breath, acknowledge your pain, and say something like, “I know this hurts, but I’m here for you.”

Perhaps you’d remind yourself that you’re not perfect and that since giving presentations is something you’re still learning, it’s natural that you’re not going to do it perfectly. Maybe you’d reflect on the ways you could have been better prepared, to improve your performance the next time.

Or maybe you would ask a colleague what they thought of your presentation, since sometimes our “failures” are largely or even entirely in our own minds. You could ask for feedback about specific things you could have done differently in order to make your presentations more effective.

It’s almost impossible to do those very helpful things when we lack self-compassion. When we’re hard on ourselves we don’t want even to think about our failures, because to do so just gives us one more opportunity to beat ourselves up. We certainly don’t want to reflect on our failures in order to learn. All we want to do is to forget they ever happened.

At the same time, when we lack self-compassion we often can’t forget our failures! Our mind keeps reminding us of the thing we did imperfectly, and so we get recurring, and very painful eruptions of shame and humiliation.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resilience to be able to bounce back from failure. It helps us to have the courage to pick ourselves up and try again. Self-compassion is what allows us to turn toward the painful feelings of fear, frustration, and shame that arise when we face challenges, and it’s what allows us to keep going through difficulties. Self-compassion is not indulgent. Self-compassion and self-indulgence are, in fact, opposites.

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The components of self-compassion

sunflower like the sun in hands isolatedThis post is taken from one of the emails from our online course, How to Stop Beating Yourself Up: Learning the Art of Self-Compassion.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the kindness, respect, and gentleness that we would offer to those we most love.

There are four components of self-compassion.

There’s mindfulness, which is the ability to observe our experience rather than merely participating in it and being swept along in it. Mindfulness requires that we stand back from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and see them as objects separate from ourselves, rather than as what we are.

There’s equanimity, which involves accepting difficult experiences rather than denying them, ignoring them, or obsessing and ruminating over them.

There’s self-kindness, where we treat ourselves with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Self-kindness requires that we recognize that we are feeling beings and that happiness and well-being are states we desire. These states can only arise when we treat ourselves kindly.

There’s the ability to put our suffering in perspective, which is where we recognize that we, like everyone else, are doing this difficult thing of being human. We all desire happiness, and find happiness elusive. We all wish to be free from suffering and yet encounter suffering over and over again. When we lack perspective, we tend to assume that there’s something uniquely inadequate and even broken about ourselves. We see our difficulties as a sign of failure. When we have a wiser perspective, we don’t judge ourselves, and in fact we may find that we have compassion not only for ourselves, but for others too.

These four factors work together in order to produce self-compassion. They’re not entirely separate from each other, but are manifestations of each other. For example, mindfulness, equanimity, and perspective are all expressions of self-kindness. When we’re kind to ourselves, these three other qualities are how we act.

These four qualities will be woven into all of the writings and guided meditations in this course, although at different times some will be emphasized more than others. Our first meditation, the “kindfulness of breathing” from yesterday’s email, principally brings together mindfulness, equanimity, and kindness.

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Six ways to start practicing self-compassion — even if you believe you’re undeserving

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For many of us being kind to ourselves is hard. It’s hard even when we’re struggling — and need compassion most. Instead, we get mad. We tell ourselves to buck up. We wonder why we’re so weak. We criticize and hurl insults. We withhold our favorite things — telling ourselves that we don’t deserve to participate in enjoyable activities, because after all, we screwed up everything.

But the good news is that we can learn to cultivate self-compassion. Which is vital. Self-compassion helps us to meet life’s challenges in a supportive way, said Amy Finlay-Jones, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, compassion teacher, and researcher who specializes in self-compassion. In fact, according to research, self-compassion has a measurable effect on our mental health and well-being, she said. (See here and here.)

Self-compassion is “the intentional cultivation of a relationship with oneself that is respectful, kind and compassionate,” said Celedra Gildea, Ph.D, a psychotherapist in Portland, Ore., who leads Mindful Self-Compassion, Compassion Cultivation Training and Mindfulness groups. Below are six ways you can start cultivating self-compassion, even if you’ve been berating yourself for years.

Reduce disparaging times, and up kind moments

Simply notice when you feel most self-critical and aggressive toward yourself, Finlay-Jones said. Maybe it’s when you’re tired or overworked. Maybe it’s when you’re spending too much time on social media. “Whatever it is, see if you can refrain from it a little.”

Also, pay attention to the times you feel nourished and comfortable with yourself, she said. This might be when you’re taking a walk in nature or hanging out with friends or working on a creative project. “Whatever it is, see if you can cultivate a little more of it in your life.”

This can give us more space to be gentle and curious with ourselves, Finlay-Jones said.

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Take a self-compassion break

Gildea suggested trying an exercise created by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, which helps us recognize and soothe our suffering. Put your hand on your heart or any place that feels comforting.

Simply say, “This hurts” or “This is suffering.” Next, say something that acknowledges that you’re part of a community of people struggling, such as: “I’m not alone” or “We all struggle in our lives.” Lastly, offer yourself some kindness, such as: “May I be kind to myself,” “May I accept myself as I am,” or “May I be patient.”

Speak tender words — like you would to a child or your child

“Many of us think that we don’t have the capacity or words to give ourselves compassion,” Gildea said. She shared a powerful story that reveals we do. Gildea was volunteering at a women’s abuse shelter, trying to teach a group of women the self-compassion break. Because of all the pain they’d endured, they couldn’t find any words of compassion for themselves.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Another volunteer brought in a baby who was crying. The mom took her baby into her arms and started whispering loving words, like: “Don’t you worry sweet one, we are going to be OK. I’m right here and no one is going to hurt you anymore.” She was able to effortlessly shower her child with compassion.

“Deeply touched, we all put our hands on [our] hearts and spoke the same words of compassion, imagining our little child sitting next to our adult selves safely in our hearts,” Gildea said. “They had found the key.” You can try the same.

Try this loving meditation

Another way to start practicing self-compassion is by bringing to mind a loved one and noticing the feelings of love and warmth that tend to arise, Finlay-Jones said. “Step-by-step, we become more skillful at mobilizing this capacity, so that after a time, we are more able to include ourselves in the circle of compassion.” She created this beautiful meditation for readers to try.

Pay attention to how you’re practicing

“Self-compassion is not about self-improvement,” Finlay-Jones said. She stressed the importance of paying attention to how you’re practicing self-compassion. Do you have an attitude of impatience or harshness? Are you being considerate and comforting?

Many of her clients share long lists of self-care practices they’ve tried. These lists might include everything from yoga to psychotherapy to meditation to running. Yet, they feel anything but cared for. Instead, they feel exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, Finlay-Jones said. “This is often because they are demanding and aggressive with themselves in the process — treating themselves as though they are a problem to be fixed, and self-care is the solution.”

To be truly self-compassionate, she noted, it’s important to work on acknowledging that we are all acceptable exactly as we are.

Delve into your needs and values

Self-compassion goes deeper than supporting ourselves in the moment. According to Finlay-Jones, it “involves understanding what our deeper needs and values are, and aligning our behavior accordingly.” For instance, one deeper need all of us have is connection. As she writes in this piece, you might meet this need by spending time with friends, playing with your pet, listening to music, and helping others.

You might be thinking, but what if I don’t deserve self-compassion? What if I don’t feel worthy or loveable or deserving of kindness?

As Finlay-Jones said, start practicing anyway. “[S]elf-compassion is so important precisely because we don’t feel worthy, or deserving, or loveable. There is, therefore, no better time to start.”

Original article no longer available

 

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Why you should ditch self-esteem for self-compassion

close up of an african american baby hand in mother's handIn the field of education it’s common to assume that self-esteem and academic performance are closely linked, and that if you want to maximize students’ potential you need to boost their self-esteem.

Its also common to hear that bullies are people with low self-esteem, and that if you want them to be more respectful of others then their self-esteem needs to be boosted.

Most of this received wisdom has been shown to be highly questionable, or even untrue. It seems that people who do well academically have high self-esteem as a result—not the other way around.
And I’m sure almost every student can think of times they were convinced they were going to fail an exam but performed excellently, or were confident they were going to do well and instead did miserably. Where was the correlation between self-esteem and performance there?

Also, the term self-esteem covers a wide variety of behaviors, from an honest assessment of one’s strengths to outright narcissism and conceit. Bullies, in fact, frequently esteem themselves as being more important than others. They bully in order to remind themselves—and others—of their high status. Misguided attempts to “boost” their already high self-esteem merely leads to greater self-inflation.

Self-esteem is where our sense of well-being comes from thinking that we, as a whole, are worthy because of particular abilities or qualities we have. One definition is “a feeling of satisfaction that someone has in himself or herself and his or her own abilities.” Another is “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities.” We base our confidence and feeling good about ourselves on our ability to be good at things. We think well of ourselves because of the part of us we’re proud of. And so we may relate to ourselves with a certain degree of kindness when things are going well.

But what about when things aren’t going so well? Our self-esteem may crumble when our weaknesses are exposed, or when things in life aren’t going well. If we focus on self-esteem, then when we’re faced with challenges we’re less likely to be kind to ourselves. The very fact that we’re experiencing difficulties may be taken as a sign that we’re not competent and that we’re not worthy. We may blame ourselves for failing, or even just for suffering, and this makes us suffer even more. We may end up choosing to “protect” ourselves from an awareness of difficulties by pretending they don’t exist, or by blaming others or by focusing on their faults to distract ourselves from our own. We may chronically avoid challenges, because it’s possible to convince ourselves that we would have succeeded had we wanted to.

Self-compassion is very different from self-esteem. Self-compassion is simply relating to ourselves kindly, especially when things are tough. When we discover weaknesses in ourselves, we don’t need to deny them. We simply acknowledge the fact that we are imperfect, and offer a kind and compassionate response to ourselves. Rather than rejecting parts of ourselves, we accept ourselves.

Self-esteem means making judgements about parts of us being “bad” or unacceptable. Self-compassion simply recognizes that parts of us suffer, and offers support to any part of us that’s struggling. Self-esteem is divisive. Self-compassion integrates and heals.

There are always people who think that accepting and being kind to ourselves when we fail to meet our expectations is going to cause us to fail even more. They think that self-compassion will lead to reduced expectations and to letting ourselves off the hook. But this isn’t the case. People who score highly for self-compassion have greater emotional resilience. They know how to deal with failure and difficulties. They’re able to give themselves reassurance and support as they face challenges. And as a result, they’re less likely to give up when the going gets tough.

When we’re self-compassionate we recognize that some of our actions and habits are unhelpful and lead to ourselves and others suffering. And when we see such things in ourselves we don’t encourage them. In fact, we see that our long-term welfare is connected with overcoming such flaws. But we don’t beat ourselves us, since we recognize that doing so is just another unhelpful habit to be overcome.

Self-compassion gives us a good feeling about ourselves, because kindness and compassion lead to reduced inner conflict and to feelings of well-being. Compassion has also been shown to activate the brain’s “pleasure centers.” Self-compassion helps us to feel confident about ourselves because our default mode is to offer ourselves encouragement. Encouragement leads to confidence, as most of us know from experience.

In this way, self-compassion offers us the potential benefits of self-esteem (confidence, feeling good about ourselves) without its drawbacks (avoiding challenges, self-inflation, and self-blame).

Moreover, while high self-esteem can lead to us behaving unkindly to others (think of any narcissistic boss you’ve ever had) self-compassion naturally leads to our having compassion for others. When our default response is to offer kindness and support, this doesn’t stop at the supposed “boundaries” of our own being, but spills over into our relations with others. Self-compassionate individuals are compassionate towards others as well.

As the Buddha said, “Looking after oneself, one looks after others; looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

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Building a community of self-compassion

wildmind meditation newsBetsy Hanger, Mindful Schools: At the Brooklyn public high school where I worked as an English and mindfulness teacher, the principal came in one afternoon during a guided practice on self-compassion. He quietly took a seat among my ninth grade students and closed his eyes. Though he’d encouraged me to start the school’s mindfulness program, he hadn’t witnessed our daily practice.

We were silently repeating short statements meant to cultivate self-compassion. “May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I experience joy in my life.” I offered students the …

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Taking the self out of self-compassion

man looking at universe

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever seen was by James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, who is now associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

Poets are particularly prone to taking their own lives, and Pennebaker and Stirman were interested to see if the writings of poets who had killed themselves contained linguistic clues that could have predicted their fate. They matched together, by age, era, nationality, educational background, and sex, poets who had and had not killed themselves, and ran their works through a computer program that looked for patterns in the language they used.

What they found was that the poets who had killed themselves were far more self-referential than those who hadn’t. Right from the beginning, those who ended up committing suicide used the words “I,” “me,” and “my” in their writings far more often than those who died naturally or are still alive. Also, the suicidal poets became increasingly self-referential as time passed, using first person singular pronouns more and more often, right up until they took their own lives.

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Poets who didn’t kill themselves, on the other hand, used those words more rarely, and instead referred more often to “we,” “us,” and “ours”—words that embed a sense of connection. And those words were used more and more often over the course of their lives.

Part of our conditioning tells us that if we want to be happy we need to focus on “number one.” And yet, as the Harry Nilsson song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Connecting with others, and thus reducing our focus on ourselves, is an important form of emotional buffering, helping us to deal with life’s ups and downs, and also providing the rich and nourishing experience of loving and being loved. Those who disconnect and withdraw into themselves experience greater suffering, to the extent that life can become unbearable.

So what does this tell us about self-compassion? After all, isn’t the word “self” right there in the name? Does this mean that focusing on ourselves might actually make us less happy?
In self-compassion, one part of us sends compassion to a suffering part of ourselves, not because the suffering part of us is a part of us, but simply because compassion is the appropriate response to pain. It doesn’t actually matter whether the suffering is inside us or outside us, part of us or not part of us—the compassionate part of us has compassion for suffering because that’s what suffering needs.

In a way there’s no such thing as “self-compassion.” There’s just “compassion.” There’s just the desire to care for anything that’s suffering, and to remove the suffering if possible, with no regard to whether it’s “our” suffering or not. By cultivating compassion for suffering within ourselves, we automatically become more compassionate toward others, and thus become more connected to them, and thus become happier. With self-compassion we don’t see ourselves as different from others because of our suffering, but see ourselves as connected to others because we all suffer.

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