Discovering the practice of self-compassion has been a journey that started with a whole lot of east-coast skepticism and west-coach apprehension for me. Growing up in a culture that often equates self-compassion with weakness or indulgence, I struggled to reconcile this concept with the principles I had learned, particularly in the context of recovery from addiction. In programs like 12-step, the emphasis is often on rigorous self-examination and accountability--which is absolutely necessary--and which can sometimes translate into harsh self-criticism.
I vividly recall moments when my inner dialogue mirrored this harshness, berating myself for perceived shortcomings or mistakes. It was as if I had internalized a relentless critic, one that held me to impossibly high standards and offered little room for kindness or understanding.
However, as I embarked on a journey of personal growth and self-discovery, I began to recognize the toll that this self-criticism was taking on my well-being. It wasn't until I started practicing mindfulness and meditation that I truly became aware of the damaging effects of my inner dialogue.
One particular moment stands out in my memory—the day I experienced a profound shift in perspective while standing in line at the grocery store. Lost in thought about the future and oblivious to my surroundings, I nearly missed witnessing a simple act of kindness unfold before my eyes. The man in front of me noticed that the woman ahead of him didn't have enough money to pay for her groceries. Without hesitation, he stepped forward and offered to cover the remaining balance. It was a small gesture, but it left a lasting impression on me.
In that moment, I realized how my preoccupation with self-criticism and worry had prevented me from fully engaging with the world around me. I had been so focused on my own struggles and insecurities that I had failed to recognize the beauty and connection that exists in everyday moments of kindness and compassion.
It was through this experience that I began to understand the true meaning of self-compassion—not as an indulgence or a sign of weakness, but as a fundamental aspect of emotional resilience and well-being. Inspired by this newfound insight, I delved deeper into the science behind self-compassion, exploring the work of researchers like Kristen Neff and Chris Germer.
There is a wealth of empirical evidence supporting the benefits of self-compassion across various domains of life. From improved emotional well-being to enhanced motivation and interpersonal relationships, the practice of self-compassion has been shown to have profound effects on our lives. For more on the science, check out Kristen Neff's site, especially the recommended reading and resources section.
One of the key tools I learned from Neff and Germer's work is the "self-compassion break." Initially, I was skeptical of this practice, fearing it would feel too indulgent or uncomfortable. However, as I began to incorporate it into my daily routine, I experienced a profound shift in my relationship with myself.
The Self-Compassion Break
The self-compassion break involves a series of simple steps designed to cultivate kindness and understanding towards oneself in moments of difficulty or suffering. By acknowledging our own pain with mindfulness, recognizing our shared humanity, and offering ourselves words of kindness and support, we can begin to break free from the cycle of self-criticism and judgment.
Here's a guide from Kristen Neff and Chris Germer about how to do the self-compassion break:
Think of a situation in your life that is causing you stress, such as a health problem, relationship problem, work problem, or some other struggle.
Choose a problem in the mild to moderate range, not a big problem, as we want to build the resource of self-compassion gradually.
Visualize the situation clearly in your mind’s eye. What is the setting? Who is saying what to whom? What is happening? What might happen?
Can you feel discomfort in your body as you bring this difficulty to mind? If not, choose a slightly more difficult problem.
Now, try saying to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.” That’s mindfulness. Perhaps other wording speaks to you better. Some options are: This hurts. Ouch. This is stressful.
Now, try saying to yourself: “Suffering is a part of life.” That’s common humanity. Other options include: I’m not alone. Everyone experiences this, just like me. This is how it feels when people struggle in this way.
Now, offer yourself the gesture of soothing touch that you discovered in the previous exercise. And try saying to yourself: “May I be kind to myself” or “May I give myself what I need.”
Perhaps there are particular words of kindness and support that you need to hear right now in this difficult situation. Some options may be: May I accept myself as I am. May I begin to accept myself as I am. May I forgive myself. May I be strong. May I be patient.
If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you. What would you say to this person? What simple message would you like to deliver to your friend, heart to heart?
Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself.
In my own experience, the self-compassion break has become a valuable tool for navigating life's challenges with greater ease and resilience. It has allowed me to cultivate a deeper sense of self-acceptance and compassion, enabling me to approach both myself and others with greater empathy and understanding.
Recognizing, Acknowledging, and Embracing our Humanity
In the end, self-compassion is not about avoiding responsibility or seeking pity—it's about recognizing our own humanity and treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer to a friend in need. As we continue on our journey of self-discovery and growth, let's remember to extend ourselves the same compassion and understanding that we so readily offer to others.