Taking the self out of self-compassion

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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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