Imagine for a second that you are a working professional who found herself experiencing a flare-up of chronic pain, illness, or even anxiety. Those flares come with fears and worries about an upcoming deadline, a big presentation, a family event or even your vacation plans. The result is pain or illness and deep suffering.
Kristen Neff writes that self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, failing, or noticing something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip’” self-compassion allows you to stop and tell yourself, “this is really difficult right now,” and then ask, “how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
For high-achieving professionals, parents, and caregivers, comforting oneself is rarely in our nature. When deadlines loom, and our dependents call upon us, it takes effort for us to deal with our pain, illness, or discomfort with patience or even neutrality.
Mindfulness practices are useful for cultivating patterns of thinking that promote compassion and empathy, but not all mindfulness practices help to generate feelings of compassion and kindness towards the self.
Self-compassion practices are different. These kinds of mindfulness practices not only help to increase focus and reduce distractibility over time, but they are also a desirable option for those who want to increase awareness of what is happening in the body so that they can make more skillful choices about their self-care and mental health. Thus, self-compassion practices are especially valuable when pain, illness, fatigue, and other distress become barriers to our overall mental and emotional well-being.
If you are looking to start or deepen your self-compassion practice, here are five things to keep in mind.
- Remember what compassion is about. As Kristin Neff points out, to have compassion is to notice suffering and to feel moved by a desire to help or offer understanding and kindness. Compassion is not offering pity, judgment, or explanation. To be compassionate is to understand that failure and suffering are part of the whole human experience. When we practice self-compassion, we are turning that understanding and kindness toward ourselves.
- Know who your practice is for. Self-compassion practices help us to actively engage the mind to generate feelings of empathy and kindness towards ourselves. The goal of the practice is to cultivate the response to offer compassion and understanding to ourselves so that we can better emulate that in our relationships and interactions with others. We do these practices to train ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent so that we can support ourselves and continue to sustain our relationships during times of crisis.
- Get your brain invested in your humanity. One of the most powerful benefits of doing compassion practices is affirming the common humanity we share. Each practice reminds us that all humans want happiness, health, safety, and peace and that we are not alone in our experiences. FMRI imaging has shown that compassion practices increase neuro-connections that help us to cultivate a more altruistic and positive mindset towards ourselves and the challenging situations we face. With these mindsets, we can increase our empathy towards others while decreasing biases and increasing attitudes of welcome and inclusivity.
- Practice compassion as a leadership quality. Employers, managers, supervisors, and heads of households all have a common need to make decisions that will impact the lives, comfort, and livelihoods of others. Self-compassion is a valuable leadership skill that brings awareness and interdependence into our role as decision-makers. When faced with difficult decisions, uncertainty, or disruption, we need self-compassion to help us overcome self-doubt. We also use that self-compassion as a guide for ordering the way we mindfully communicate with others.
- Take the practice with you wherever you go. Self-judgment, self-criticism, and shame are underneath much of the discomfort and anxiety we feel in our work and personal lives. Practicing self-compassion through acts of self-forgiveness helps us filter through unhelpful narratives about our ingrained shortcomings while also validating how widespread these narratives of ‘not good enough’ are. Instead of feeling angry, defensive, or disconnected when we encounter setbacks or are reminded of mistakes in our personal and professional lives, we could be triggered to adopt a growth mindset that helps us learn, forgive, and adapt.
The bottom line.
As with all other forms of mindfulness meditation, compassion practices are most useful when applied in our daily life experiences at home or work. It is by directing compassion toward ourselves when we make a mistake, miss a deadline at work, or find ourselves too fatigued to attend to the needs of a loved one that we build our capacity for directing compassion toward others. It pays to keep practicing, to be intentional about why you practice self-compassion, and how you will apply self-compassion in your daily life.