This is a moment of suffering / Suffering is part of life / May I be kind to myself in this moment / May I give myself the compassion I need.
This is a mantra that Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, shared on my radio show recently when I asked her how do you begin to be kind to yourself. Her book is an eloquent mix of strong social science research and her own personal stories of finding the power of self-kindness during the discovery and healing process of her son’s autism. She was drawn to the idea of compassion early in her career when she began a Buddhist meditation practice and she witnessed the powerful shifts that came through compassion. This experience lead her to create an empirical system to measure and research compassionate behavior.
Compassion is not a well understood emotional skill because we often wrongly compare it to pity, which is actually its antithesis. Pity separates us from other people’s suffering, where as compassion recognizes suffering as one of the fundamental unifying experiences of being human. Deep compassionate feelings are the source of our empathic experience, the moments in life where we open ourselves the pain and suffering of others and realize that it is no different than our own. Compassion teaches us to be mindful about our suffering and encourages us to replace resistance to suffering with the power of human kindness.
Compassion for ourselves may be the most challenging behavior of all to master. This occurred to Kristin when she was researching the negative emotional impact that came from the pursuit for self-esteem. In fact, there are many recent studies that support the negative impact of building our lives around “contingent self-worth” which is another way of saying that we are only as ok as others tell us. Having your sense of self hanging on the evaluations of other people and outside events is deeply emotionally destabilizing because it is so impermanent. High self-esteem moments are fleeting and attaching our self worth to the temporary successes and failures that make up life is unreliable at best, and crazy-making at worst.
Self-compassion on the other hand is a skill set worth developing because it kicks in just when our sense of self worth is bottoming out. Self-compassion helps you to heal the destructive self talk and damaging old emotional patterns that make happiness and health so elusive for so many people. Learning to be kind to ourselves when life is not conforming to our hopes is life changing. It is the doorway to learning to love ourselves and accept the ups and downs of life on earth with grace, patience and humor.
Honestly, too, if we would all learn to be a little kinder to ourselves, we would be amazed at how much easier it would be to be kinder to those we love.