An informal definition of self-compassion is: Treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding as we would treat a dear friend in the midst of suffering.
Q: I am very happy and delighted to have you with us Chris, to speak about Mindful Self-Compassion.
CG: Thank you. It’s an honor to be speaking right now with everyone.
Q: You’re a psychotherapist. You teach and lecture at Harvard University, and you are the co-developer of Mindful Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff. I hear that you and Kristin have also released a new workbook on self-compassion.
I have been reading your book on self-compassion and it gives me the feeling of how important it is in our lives. Somehow personally, when I’m reading your book, I feel that mindfulness that is not softened by self-compassion is dry and clinical without heart. So to me this is such an important topic to cover, and I’m happy you’re here to talk to us about it.
CG: Thank you, Amir. Well, I appreciate Saki Santorelli’s expression that love, kindness and compassion should be echoing through our awareness, through mindfulness. And as you were talking about this, it was clear to me that it is echoing through your awareness. I appreciate your sensibility about this.
What I have found in my own personal life is that sometimes when we’re confronted with really difficult situations, really difficult emotions, we need to actively practice compassion and self-compassion, or else we cannot be mindful. As a clinical psychologist, all the time we’re dealing with really difficult emotions – with shame, despair, dread, fear – intense emotions. And when they come up, in order to be able to live within our own bodies and selves, and with others, we need a lot of compassion.
Rumi once said: Close your eyes. Fall in love. Stay there.
It’s such a beautiful thing to say! Sometimes when we close our eyes and we see something good, we fall in love; in other words we have appreciation for the miracle of life. But when difficult emotions come, like when we feel shame or despair or fear, then we actually cannot stay in love, because we feel disgust. We want to get away. In other words, we can’t fall in love and stay there. So what does it take to actually stay there in our own experience? That’s self-compassion practice.
It’s a great struggle sometimes to remain compassionate toward oneself and toward others at such times, because we do feel intense emotions, but I do think that selfcompassion can help. In order to grow in compassion for others we actually first need to grow in compassion for ourselves. That means:
We first need to know what we’re experiencing in a spacious way. That’s mindfulness.
We also need to be able to see that we’re not alone. That’s what we call common humanity: a sense of ‘we’re together’ and ‘just like me’.
And then the third part is self-kindness. In other words, we actually need to learn to be as kind to ourselves as we are to others.
So these are the three components of self-compassion that have been identified by Kristin Neff who began the scientific study of self-compassion in 2003.
Self-compassion is not new; it’s been with us as long as humanity has been here. But it is now more clearly understood as an inner resource, like mindfulness, that allows us to be healthy mentally and physically and to thrive. And the three components of self-compassion that Kristin identified are: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
In this series you’ve been learning a lot about mindfulness, which is generous, spacious, moment-to-moment awareness; to be with things as they are, in a steady way. That’s the first part of self-compassion – knowing when we’re struggling. What’s really important, though, is the element of self-kindness when it’s hard to be mindful. So an informal definition of self-compassion is: Treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding as we would treat a dear friend in the midst of suffering.
I would like you to think for a moment, as a mental reflection, about those times when something goes wrong in the life of a dear friend or someone you love. They suffer, or they fail, or they feel inadequate, and you have just a few moments with this person. What do you feel inside when you discover they are struggling? What is your attitude? And what kinds of words are you likely to say to your friend at that time? Take a moment to think about it. I think you can get a feeling for that.
The next question is: Think of a situation when you are failing, when you suffer, when you feel inadequate, or when something really doesn’t go right. How do you treat yourself? What kinds of feelings emerge towards yourself? What kinds of words do you say to yourself? What is your posture? How do you sit when you have failed or you’re suffering? Take a moment to think about it.
You probably notice a difference. The vast majority of people are so much kinder to other people when they’re suffering than to themselves. Usually we beat up on ourselves, we feel alone, we feel ashamed and we distract ourselves. We can’t take it when it’s us.
So self-compassion simply means being able to have that same attitude toward ourselves as we do toward others when they’re struggling. Now, this is not so easy to do. And the reason why it’s not so easy to do is because we are so closed to ourselves. In other words, we don’t have space. When we’re with a friend, we have a little space, but when we’re with ourselves there is no space, so we just react in a fearful way.
Self-compassion really is a very humble undertaking. All we’re doing is including ourselves in our circle of compassion. In the same way we treat a family member or a friend or a pet – any living creature that we’re kind to – we treat ourselves the same way. This is all we’re doing.
Still, we will always be more compassionate toward others. There are obstacles to self-compassion: some people think that it will make them selfish, that it will make them lose motivation, become absorbed in self-pity, or make them weak or self-indulgent. These are common myths about self-compassion, because the research shows that it’s actually the opposite.
There are now 1,600 articles in the scientific literature on self-compassion. Over and over, it has been demonstrated to be a very powerful factor for mental health, for physical health, for reduced anxiety, for reduced depression, for healthier habits, better relationships and even wisdom. People who are high in self-compassion are also high in wisdom.
More specifically, people who are high in self-compassion have emotional resilience. When things go wrong they bounce back more easily. When they make mistakes, they’re also more likely to admit their mistakes and work hard to fix them. In their relationships, they are actually more compassionate to others. They are not more selfish; instead they’re more compassionate to others.
Most interestingly, people who are high in self-compassion are more motivated to achieve their goals. In other words, their standards are as high as people who are low in selfcompassion, but they have more motivation to reach their goals because they’re motivating themselves with kindness. They’re not beating themselves up with a stick. So selfcompassion is a very, very good thing even though we often worry that it isn’t. And if you practice selfcompassion, you’ll actually see how it will improve your life.
So then the question is: How do I practice self-compassion? Many people think, “Oh, I need to meditate,” and actually meditation helps. Meditation is one method – like when you want to strengthen your body, you go to the gym and lift heavy weights. You focus on developing the skill, like the skill of Mindfulness or the skill of self-compassion.
You can also practice self-compassion in daily life. The way to do it is to ask yourself a question that you’re likely to ask somebody whom you truly love. That question is: What do you need? When somebody else is suffering, the words will come: “What do you really need?” When we’re suffering we usually don’t ask ourselves that question, but if we do, and answer it from the heart, we will be practicing self-compassion.
But people usually think, “I don’t know what I need!” Then we can break it down a little. For example:
If you’re feeling afraid, ask yourself, “What do I need to feel safe?”
If you’re physically under stress, you can ask, “What do I need to soothe myself?” Maybe I need to take a warm bath, or maybe I need to exercise.
If you’re emotionally stressed, you can ask, “What do I need to comfort myself emotionally?” Maybe you need to walk in nature. Practice kindful resting. Being in nature.
Or maybe you need to listen to music to comfort yourself emotionally or to soothe yourself physically.
Another way to ask the question, “What do I need?” is to ask, “What do I need to do to validate myself?” In other words, maybe you need to acknowledge that “This is really hard.” Maybe nobody has ever said that to you. Maybe you’ve never said that to yourself. So, what do I need to comfort myself, soothe myself, validate myself?
But that’s only half the picture! That is the area of nurturing and nourishing. Sometimes you will need to support yourself to move into the world. Here you can ask, “What do I need to protect myself?” Maybe you need to say, “No!” That’s often a very compassionate thing to do.
Or to provide for yourself, maybe you need to eat well or care for your body or sleep more. You can ask, “What do I need to provide for myself?”
And sometimes we need to ask, “What do I need to motivate myself?” Sometimes the best thing we need to do is to get out and do something that we’ve avoided. How do we do that? With self-compassion we do that with encouragement. With self-compassion we invite, we talk to ourselves in a way like, “You can do this. You definitely can do this. You’ve done things like this before. This is not easy, but you can do it.”
So, what do I need?
Behavioral self-compassion is the foundation of selfcompassion. Actually, how are you accompanying yourself in your daily life? As a friend or an enemy? We want to be a friend – that is self-compassion.
Now those of you who have a contemplative attitude and would like to meditate, there are many different meditations you can try for free, that you can download from my website, www.chrisgermer.com, and this new workbook also has a lot of things. But what I would like to do is introduce you to a brief practice called the Self-compassion Break. It takes five minutes. It is an exercise that you can do any time of the day or night. It consists of the three components of self-compassion: Mindfulness, common humanity and self kindness.
In daily life you can also do just one of these components: the mindful part, the common humanity part, or the selfkindness part. What I will do now is give you an experience of using language to activate self-compassion within yourself.
When you notice that you’re feeling stress or emotional discomfort, see
if you can find the discomfort in your body. Where do you feel it the
most? Make contact with the sensations as they arise in your body.
Now, say to yourself, slowly:
“This is a moment of suffering.” That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
• This hurts.
• This is stressful.
“Suffering is a part of life.” That’s common humanity. Other options include:
• I’m not alone. Others are just like me.
• We all struggle in our lives.
• This is how it feels when a person struggles in this way.
Now, put your hands over your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch of your hands.
Say to yourself: “May I be kind to myself.” Another way of saying this is, “May I give myself what I need.” See if you can find words for what you need in times like this. That’s selfkindness. Options may include:
• May I accept myself as I am
• May I learn to accept myself as I am
• May I forgive myself
• May I be strong
• May I be patient
• May I live in love
If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear
friend or loved one is having the same problem. What would you say to
this person? If your friend would have just a few words in mind, what
would you like those words to be? What message would you like to
deliver, heart to heart?
Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself.
To be continued
Edited for publication. Listen to the full interview at https://m.facebook.com/pg/cfmin/videos/