Kindling kindness

Self-compassion. It is a phrase often used, but what does it mean and, most importantly, how do we do it?

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Self-compassion may best be understood as: relating to ourselves with empathy, understanding, kindness and acceptance. The process of self-compassion begins early: we are born with a biological, innate ability to give and receive care, and our capacity for self-compassion in adulthood is related to our early attachment experiences. From these significant relationships, we develop and internalise an ability to empathise, to be kind and caring, to express our emotions and to self-soothe. This is important – our capacity to be self-compassionate leads to improved creativity, learning and thinking, and a greater connection with others.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion involves three important aspects:

1. Being actively kind to yourself: It is often easy to hear our inner critic, that nasty parrot that squawks away inside our minds telling us: “You’re a failure” and “You’re hopeless, ugly, stupid…” and so on. Yet, showing self-compassion means being gentler and more caring towards ourselves. It means treating ourselves with understanding not criticism, with kindness not abuse.

2. Common humanity: We are each part of a larger human experience. We live, thrive and survive interdependently. This means that some of the problems we face in life can be best understood in relation to external factors: our history, our culture, our socio-economic situation, our relationships with others, and so on. Recognizing this may help us to invite empathy into our lives, rather than criticism.

3. Being mindful: Being self-compassionate means that at our most difficult times, we experience our feelings – however painful or difficult they may be – without trying to suppress them, or engage with them, or even interpret them. Adopting the mindfulness process of “noticing and accepting” means that we permit ourselves – as we would our friends – to feel what we feel.

Self-compassion is not always easy. We may be reluctant to be kind to ourselves if we equate self-compassion with self-pity or self-indulgence. Perhaps the inner critic has so powerfully embedded itself within us that being kind to ourselves feels an impossible task. We may be held back by powerful cultural ideas that refrain us from accepting your feelings. Ideas, for example, relating to the “the stiff upper lip” or to gender expectations that claim “men must be strong”. Above all, nurturing our self-compassion requires us to feel safe and secure – both in the real and the metaphorical senses.

Self-compassion is not always easy. It is a skill that, with practice, can be honed and mastered. Here are some suggestions:

Be your own best friend. Brené Brown said: “Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love”. Try this out for a few days. If you are feeling sad or disappointed or angry, be there for yourself as you would a close friend. Notice what you say to yourself, what tone you use, what impact it has on you.

Connect with your Ally. Your Ally (your ‘positive self-talk’) is your internal source of wisdom: it reminds you of what makes you special, guides you at difficult times, offers you kind and gentle words. It can be difficult to hear, especially if your inner critic is so loud, so spend some time each day consciously turning up your Ally’s volume.

Practice mindfulness. There are some wonderful exercises, books, CDs, and courses that can help you to develop a more mindful approach. Perhaps you may like to start with a daily check-in: just noticing each morning how you are feeling, without judgment and without suppression.

Reach out to others. Self-compassion need not be a solitary task. Remember, our capacity to be compassionate towards ourselves is linked to our relationships with others. So, take some time to consider: how can others support you to nurture yourself? Perhaps you will ask friends and family members to gently remind you to be kinder to yourself. Perhaps you will identify that you could benefit from some kind of therapy. Perhaps you would like to spend more time with people you love.

Most of all, remember: the wonderful thing about self-compassion is that it is always there – whenever you need it.