Self-compassion is an important tool to learn in these uncertain times of being in a global pandemic, but it’s also helpful for just being human. Self-compassion is simply applying compassion to yourself. Compassion is the sensitivity toward the suffering of yourself or others, coupled with a motivation or a commitment to do something to alleviate that suffering, to be helpful, not harmful. So self-compassion is when we direct that compassion towards ourselves. A very well-known principle of self-compassion is to consider how a good friend would treat you (or how you would treat them) in this situation and then treat yourself the same way. This can guide your actions when you’re having a hard time.
You Can Run But You Can’t Hide
When we are hit with an anxiety-provoking situation, the natural reaction is to want an escape. Sometimes, we assume that the natural desire to relieve our suffering means that we should follow through with action, perhaps removing ourselves from the situation and its discomfort. Avoid a trigger, and you can avoid uncomfortable feelings. So the thinking goes.
There is a lot of talk in mental health about overcoming avoidance. Sometimes, when we try to alter or remove unwanted emotions and thoughts internally, they end up being amplified. As we say, “What we resist persists.” Suppression and avoidance really drive most of the anxiety issues. I like to think about how alleviating emotional suffering involves coming to terms with the nature of the mind. Doing this with true effectiveness sometimes means we must acknowledge, tolerate, and sit with many of our internal experiences, rather than just getting rid of them, the way we might get rid of some unwanted substance.
New Muscles for Personal Growth
Practicing acceptance is kind of like practicing a set of new rules. Sometimes, we construct many walls to protect ourselves. Of course, that makes sense in a way—no one wants to feel anxious; everyone wants their suffering to end. But if growth requires us to derive meaning and vitality, we won’t get there through avoid what’s really going on. To develop the muscles we need, we must prepare both the mind and the body for mindfulness, acceptance, and positive change. This means getting ourselves into the right physical and mental states and engaging ourselves with compassion. In simple terms, we are attempting to do mental push-ups, and growing in this way is quite like strengthening a muscle. It takes effort and practice to get the right kind of strong for this kind of work. In order to change, we have to drop our defenses.
Growth Doesn’t Happen with Our Defenses Up
When we are operating in reaction to a perceived threat, our attention will narrow, causing our behavior choices to narrow. When our minds perceive that we are in danger, then we naturally hyper-focus on the threats. When our threat mode is activated, we will not be very flexible and open to change. We behave rigidly because we’re acting like we’re in a danger zone. The thing is, we read a lot of things as threats—many of which don’t fit the criteria. We’re programmed to respond to ambiguous stimuli as if they were dangerous. We physiologically respond to social threats as if they are real and present dangers. We even respond to our thoughts as if they were facts a lot of the time.
Self-Compassion Can Open Us Up to Growth
How can we develop flexible, open, effective ways of acting and being in the face of anxiety? The way we do that involves grounding ourselves in emotional safeness, restoring our default setting, which is best expressed in caring relationships. Practicing self-compassion allows us to clear the deck, focus, and activate a stabilizing influence. In this state, we are free to be flexible and make decisions that are not governed by heat-of-the-moment feelings and anxiety.
Let’s Do It: But How?
Firstly, we need to train our bodies through breath to focus our attention. We train ourselves to engage in a resting response, releasing unnecessary tension as much as we can. We can gradually train our minds to gradually rest in the awareness of compassion and care so we can return to that baseline of feeling safe. This makes it safe for the part of us that is ready to deal with difficult things to awaken. We must be consistent and relentless in returning to that point repeatedly without taking the bait of what our thoughts are telling us. A good question to ask when a persistent thought is pestering us is whether the thought is a fact. Our work is really to tend to ourselves the way we would tend to others. We each deserve the same loving-kindness that we show to others.
All humans are born with this innate inclination to care for others. It’s a natural impulse to say, “How can I help you?” when we see someone struggling. That’s exactly how we need to treat ourselves. Just stop and say to yourself, “Okay, you are in pain. Let’s tend to the pain.” Our work here is to tend to ourselves the way we would tend to others, to respect ourselves the same way we respect others. There is simply no exception to this. You truly deserve kindness every step of the way.
The Impact of Self-Compassion
The exciting thing about self-compassion is that it has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety and improve our quality of life and treatment outcomes. So, let’s learn to practice self-compassion and honor how we are truly feeling, giving ourselves that same loving-kindness that we show to others.
If you’re working on growing in self-compassion, a therapist can help. Some therapists use Mindfulness-Based Interventions and/or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in their practice. To find a therapist who incorporates these modalities, search for a therapist in your area and filter your results by selecting options under Types of Therapy.
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