Not all storms are a category five plus, but maybe this last one was. Maybe this has been the absolute worst storm year of your life and you’re still recovering, or maybe you’re about to endure your worst ever in the coming year and you can feel it coming like the heaviest of heavy rain clouds just waiting to release. You’ve seen them; they look so dense and dark and you just know there’s no way but to whether it. Are you allowing yourself space, time, and permission to breathe, to simply catch your breath before your next move? Have you ever heard of the term self-compassion backed up by the great work of Dr. Kristine Neff? I know I hadn’t until roughly six years ago. The concept was so incredibly foreign to me I just…. couldn’t even imagine it. In the west, we are taught and live by the antithesis of self-compassion, a problem of abysmal proportions that is begging to be solved.

Yes, it’s a strange concept if you’ve never heard of it before and yet you’re going to need a ton of it to get through this storm. Self-compassion is allowing yourself the same tender loving care you would give to a friend or family member if they were standing in your physical shoes. Many grievers feel they aren’t doing it “right” or engage in negative self-talk or may even become their own critical inner parent. This is obviously not helpful and just delays the actual healing and recovery. Why wouldn’t you deserve the same compassion you would give to a friend or family member in your shoes? You are worthy of that same love. You are worthy of cutting yourself some slack when you have made a mistake, when you got close to the target but hit the first or second ring outlier instead. Those points count, do they not? They absolutely do! You are human and you’re supposed to make mistakes, it’s how you know you’re learning, stretching, growing, and changing. Major losses really push your edges in ways you’ve never imagined, and that will mean you’re going to mis-step sometimes and that’s okay.

So, how do self-care and self-esteem differ from self-compassion, what sets them apart while being connected in the same breath? Self-care is what you do to help yourself out of a rough patch, it’s how you climb out of the hole. Taking care of your personal matters; physical, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual and otherwise. Self-esteem is what we receive after we’ve completed something difficult, gave something our all and chose to walk away anyway, or did something we felt was very difficult or that we thought we would never do. Self-esteem is the end “product” of hard work, or a hard won accomplishment, one might say.

Self-Compassion, however, is what we give to ourselves, is what we feel for ourselves when we’ve found ourselves beaten and tattered by life, when something extremely difficult has happened out of our control or when we’ve fallen flat on our face. Yes, you can actually give this to yourself, the core of you. It’s when you step outside of your personality, all that exterior stuff that doesn’t matter and speak to that person, the human that is your being. That person that needs to be held as gentle as a newborn after a raw life changing loss. That person inside needs all the love you’ve got right now, give it openly and freely. 

Self-compassion, as defined by Dr. Kristine Neff, is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, flaws and all, even in the eye of the storm, and it has three components:

  1. Mindfulness = acknowledging and accepting exactly where we are right NOW. We are often so self-critical that we aren’t aware we are suffering, lost, grieving. feeling broken, etc. Dr. Neff states, “this harsh self- criticism completely drains us of our motivation. When we attack the problem, we, in effect attack ourselves and this releases cortisol and causes fatigue/depression over the long term.” Being mindful of your self-talk and the stories you are creating about yourself during a crisis or big life change is the first step you’ll need to take towards self-compassion. 
  2. Treating ourselves with kindness, empathy, and gentleness. It seems obvious, doesn’t it, and yet it’s not what most people do. In my experience supporting the bereaved, many wonder if they’re “going crazy” or if they will “ever feel normal/happy again” rather than acknowledging their life has just been cracked in half by a bolt of lightning they couldn’t stop and that they deserve to fully feel the loss so they can release the pain. As Dr. Neff states, as mammals, we aren’t fully developed as we leave the birth canal and so need several months of “bodily warmth, physical closeness, and being spoken to in a soft, gentle voice”. After your loss, you’ll need the same, and you’ll need to give this to yourself possibly in the form of snuggling with someone you care for, or your pet, and speaking to yourself as a newborn. You are raw in these moments and should treat your inner being just as you would a newborn child.
  3. The third component of self-compassion, as defined by Dr. Kristine Neff, is our common shared humanity. One of the most positive benefits of participating in some sort of support group is our shared experiences. It reminds us that we are not alone in the human experiences of tragedies and triumphs, no matter how big or small. How are we all imperfect? How many ways have we all fallen flat on our faces in the same way? Countless!! Our common humanity is precisely what links us and is exactly what pulls us closer together as humans. Yet, in that era of a self-esteem driven culture, we were driven to not share our common pain, as it was perceived as “weak” and damaging to the “self” or ego. Over decades of treating our shared humanity as “shameful”, we became more isolated and more toxic as a culture because of it. Heartbreaking, and yet when we gather in circles to tell our stories, our questions of “is it just me?” are solidly answered with no, and we reintegrate our humanity through our heart strings again. 

Self-Compassion, what is it not? In Dr. Neff’s work on self-compassion she states that we must first describe what self-compassion is not, and she states “……self-compassion is not weak, selfish, or self-indulgent self-pity.” In fact, it is anything but. It takes an awareness and true courage to acknowledge that you are in a rough patch, that you are suffering or struggling emotionally due to your current life events or circumstances. It takes courage to admit that to yourself, rather than run away, cover it up, fight against it, or freeze and do nothing to address it. Likewise, self-compassion is not selfish because we must first address our own needs so that we may give to others from a space of overflow. Think oxygen mask. You can’t be there for others if you can’t breathe yourself.
As well, self-compassion is not self-indulgent because we are all human and all deserve to recognize how/when/where we can do a little better without beating ourselves up for the mis-take. When we “attack” ourselves in the form of negative self-judgements and self-talk, it drains our energy, is de-motivating and blocks us from seeing what we did that was positive/productive/helpful/closer to the target.

Additionally, self-compassion is not self-esteem! In her research, Dr. Neff found that “…Self-esteem is predicated on a logical impossibility. In our society, to have high self-esteem is to believe that you are special and well above average.” High self-esteem, in effect, literally requires all others to be “less-than” and simply average. If then, one *only* gets their self-esteem from being special and above average, does this mean that those that are average or below average aren’t deserving of, able to cultivate and retain their self-esteem? No, that’s absurd, and yet that’s how we’ve been operating in a self-esteem driven society for decades.

As Dr. Neff states, “…the near enemy of self-compassion is self-pity. This is what we feel when we say to ourselves ‘this shouldn’t be happening’. Or ‘why me?’”. Well, why not you? Are you special? Are you not human? When we get stuck in the “why me place”, we become victims of our own circumstances, becoming further entrenched in self-pity and blind to the light shining in, desperately trying to show us a way out. When we choose to stay stuck in self-pity, we victimize ourselves over and over again, adding further insult to injury. 

Now that we know very specifically what self-compassion is not, what is it then? In her work, Dr. Neff describes that self-compassion has yin and yang, the yin being kind and supportive to yourself with your self-talk and which thoughts you allow to exist in your mind, and the yang plays a more active role; protective, providing, and motivating ourselves to make the necessary changes. In this regard, self-compassion can be fierce as in standing up for yourself, protecting yourself, drawing boundaries and holding them tight when necessary. “Self-Compassion, unlike self-esteem, isn’t contingent, does not require that we are ‘better’ than others and doesn’t require us to be perfectionistic. It only requires us to be empathetic with our self, as we show up as our messy, imperfect selves, just like every other human being on the planet.”- Dr. Neff.  As Dr. Neff says, “…when we are struggling, we have normal feelings like disappointment, fear, and maybe irrational shame/blame that we falsely believe we aren’t supposed to have. This is where self-compassion comes in, it fills in when self-esteem fails us.”⠀⠀⠀

Why cultivate self-compassion? According to the research brought forward through Dr. Neff, people who cultivate self-compassion have greater well-being. They have less negative mind states, less depression, less anxiety and less negative self-image/body image. Recent research also indicates they have higher immune function as well, likely because these self-compassionate people, instead of tearing themselves down with negative self-talk, use their energy more wisely to practice self-care and gratitude, thereby pulling themselves closer to what they long for rather than a hard shove away. Through her research, Dr. Neff found that self-compassion makes you less afraid of failure, and actually increases motivation. As we recognize our shared humanity, we open our eyes to the truth that many have traversed the very terrain we are on, have fallen again, and again, and successfully completed their journey after the lessons were learned. Removing the illogical expectations of perfectionism gives us permission to make mistakes, learn, and keep adapting until we find a fit for that situation, scenario, etc. Dr. Neff also found that those who score high on self-compassion have a balanced health practice: they go to the doctor more often, practice safe sex, eat their vegetables, exercise, and get more rest. Again, I believe this points to our shared humanity; you are an imperfect human with a body to take care of, part of that requires you to care enough about your self to take care of you.

As Dr. Neff states, “The research shows that people who score high in self-compassion are described by their partners as being more caring, more loving, more intimate, are less controlling, and tend to compromise more often. This means that when we cultivate self-compassion, we actually have more to give to others.” Additionally, because we have “mirror-neurons” in our brains, when we cultivate self-compassion, energetically, we allow and invite those loved ones around us to also have self-compassion. Dr. Neff states, “”The human brain is largely designed to empathetically resonate with the emotions of others. We have specialized mirror neurons that literally allow us to feel what other people are feeling. This means that the mental state we cultivate is picked up by others. So, when we walk around in a state of loving, connected presence, other people can feel that as well.”

Much like the horse stance in martial arts, Dr. Neff reports that self-compassion gives us a center of gravity without being knocked off balance. This center of gravity, allowed through self-compassion, gives you a solid foundation, a solid knowing of who you are and who you are not so when you do misstep or make a mistake, it is much easier to recognize, and course correct. You deserve to live in peace, love, and joy no matter what you’ve been through, it is your divine right. You deserve to interrupt the negative self- judgments and self-talk so you can learn to self-adjust and move forward rather than throwing yourself into a pit of despair. It is one of the deepest acts of self-love you will ever give yourself.

For more information about how to cultivate a self-compassion practice, email us at [email protected]