Kristin Neff, PhD has done a wonderful job of explaining the pieces of how we come to have compassion for others.
- We must first take notice that someone is suffering.
- We are moved by their suffering and have an internal response to it.
- Our response then is warmth, kindness, non-judgment, and desire to help end their pain.
Dr. Neff argues that having compassion for ourselves works in just the same way. We first must notice we are experiencing suffering. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I find that this is one area where people often get stuck in the process of practicing self-compassion.
As I talked about in my previous blog,“How To Combat Your Inner Critic”, self-compassion is not something that comes naturally to everyone. However, it is easy for us to acknowledge suffering in others and to label it as such. It’s easy to say, “Yes, my friend who just lost all her hair because of cancer treatments is suffering, that must be really tough”. But when it comes to ourselves, we may be more likely to not label it as suffering and instead think something harsh and judgmental like, “Oh my gosh, why am I upset about this?? It’s just hair! I should just be thankful for being alive/getting treatment/etc.”
What happens when we do that is that now we’re not only feeling the initial painful feeling (i.e. grief about losing one’s hair), we’ve now heaped a nice portion of shame and self-criticism on top. Not helpful, right? But we do it.
I believe that one tendency we have that really gets in our way of extending ourselves the same compassion and understanding we so freely give to others, is that we acknowledge they have the human capacity of feeling more than one emotion at a time.
“Of course you can be upset about losing your hair while still being thankful for treatment and being alive!”
When it comes to ourselves, however, it seems we suddenly believe that having one emotion seems to cancel out all others.
“Look at you, just feeling sorry for yourself. You need to start being grateful!”
I often discuss these concepts with clients who tend toward self-criticism and at this point in the conversation I always address one pitfall people tend to fall into (stay with me here, this can feel a bit circular). It’s tempting for folks to believe that if they begin practicing self-compassion, the self-critical statements will stop coming. And then when the self-critical thoughts inevitably show up, a self-critical person will then criticize themselves for having the self-critical thought.
“What is wrong with me? I can’t even have compassion for myself! Why can’t I just stop thinking these things??”
Now they’re criticizing themselves for criticizing themselves.
Self-compassion does not mean never having difficult thought and feelings. It means that when difficult thoughts and feelings come, we make an effort to approach them with warmth, acceptance, and non-judgment. And when, at times, we have trouble doing that, we can have self-compassion for that as well.
“You’re having a hard time extending compassion to yourself. Those self-critical thoughts are there. It’s very hard sometimes.”
So the question is, why is this so hard for us to do? I believe it has a lot to do with society and the messages we get from a young age. I think they seep into how to respond to ourselves, other people, and even into our parenting. Knowing what false messages we are unconsciously living out is one key in successful change. Keep an eye out for my next blog where I will discuss that further.
Take care of yourself.