Self-Compassion:
The Cultivation and Practice Of

BY KATE COMSTOCK

Internal struggles such as self-doubt and self-criticism are common to the human experience.  Although self-evaluation serves a function and can be beneficial to growth, harsh assessments, or the internalization of thoughts based in self-criticism, can lead to anxiety and depression.  The practice of self-compassion promotes positivity in how one interacts with oneself and the community.

Self-compassion, something that often comes naturally to infants, is oppressed at a rather early age. The first time embarrassment is felt and burning cheeks fill the face, or the first time a child realizes that they can fit in if they conform to certain standards, self-criticism takes over and a comfort zone manifests with the purpose of distinguishing safety from fear. This seemingly functional transition causes more harm than good in the long run and robs an individual from the benefits of self-compassion. Self-compassion is something that can be learned by an individual, but is appropriately recognized as a practice and not necessarily a linear one. In order to begin familiarizing oneself with self-compassion, it’s important to understand what it’s made of.

 

WHAT IS SELF-COMPASSION?

Self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness as opposed to self-judgment, recognition of common humanity instead of isolation, and mindfulness instead of over-identification.  This composition of self-compassion was researched and recognized by Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher, author, and associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

This understanding of self-compassion recognizes self-kindness as actively nurturing. The kindness here is not complacent but invested and integrated. It asks how it can help ease pain or celebrate well-being. Because of its vulnerable nature, pain is culturally unexposed. Although it is a natural part of the human experience, it often feels profound, abnormal even. Because of this, pain lends itself to feelings of isolation. Common humanity strives to recognize that although pain hurts, it’s part of life, everyone’s life. It’s not abnormal, and it doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong. Self-compassion also requires mindfulness. The goal is to comfort oneself in a state of suffering, but not to fight against oneself, or use short term forms of relief with otherwise negative implications. Often, our idea of the pain we experience is just that, an idea, or a storyline we have created for it. Mindfulness allows people to experience their emotions and the correlating physical sensations for what they are. This recognizes and validates the pain but then allows the experiencer to deal with it rationally.

WHAT ENCOURAGES SELF-COMPASSION?

• The recognition of oneself as a child

Because people often recognize children as innocent or “not knowing any better,” they are offered unconditional love without question. They have done nothing to deserve otherwise so love and patience are all they are worthy of. The more autonomous a person becomes or the more they do “know better,” the more easily self-judgment interferes with self-compassion. But everyone was a child once, and in so many ways, even adults still are. Growing up doesn’t rob a person of their worthiness of love and patience.

• Meditation

Meditation, particularly practices with a focus such as loving-kindness, have been shown in numerous studies to be associated with self-compassion such as a study that found “there is encouraging initial evidence that [loving kindness meditation] LKM, or courses including LKM and related practices, can have positive benefits, including increasing self-compassion.”

• Therapy

Various forms of therapy can help cultivate self-compassion. One study on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) found that “ACT intervention led to large increases in self-compassion.” In another study, attachment-based compassion therapy was also found to effectively increase self-compassion.

• Writing and other forms of expression

Writing is an incredible form of therapy that doesn’t cost money. Writing and other forms of expression such as performance and visual arts can aid in self-compassion, emotional composition, and cognitive behavior, by channeling it in a productive way.

• Nature

Exposure to nature is shown to have positive impacts on both physical and mental health. The pace, sounds, and scenery have nurturing impacts on the body and mind. Stanford found that exposure to nature correlates with “decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.”

• Sleep

Getting enough sleep is beneficial in so many ways, but one study, in particular, showed that getting enough sleep also correlates with self-compassion.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Self-compassion is a tool to create a better relationship with oneself. It is no different than compassion for others- understanding, and patient. Self-compassion is also conducive to motivation and correlates with mental and physical well-being. And that’s really what matters: well-being.