Article on Self-compassion (part 1)


Over the past two weeks we have explored how mindfulness practices can help us relate to painful sensations in a more spacious way. In particular we have seen that it is important to start with bringing kindness and compassion to ourselves when we are in pain, that recognition that we are suffering and that it is hard for us.

But often this does not come naturally to us. If you remember the equation suffering = pain x resistance, we create a lot of suffering for ourselves by resisting what is, the reality of this moment. Our habitual reaction to pain, be it physical or emotional, is to contract, push away, resist. We don’t like it and we don’t want it. And this resistance adds to our suffering. It’s the second arrow that has been described in Buddhist psychology: it is as if we are hit by a first arrow that creates pain (disease, accident, break-up, job loss etc…) and then we hurt ourselves with a second arrow due to our reaction to the first arrow: resisting, avoiding, blaming, obsessing etc… It is very common to do that, we all do it to some extent.

 So today I would like to explore in more detail the concept of self-compassion. The ideas I will present to you are based essentially on the work and research of Kristin Neff, who has done extensive research in the field of self-compassion with her colleague Chris Germer, at Harvard University.

We will explore the three components of self-compassion, why self-compassion is challenging in our Western culture, the differences in the physiology of self-compassion and self-criticism, and the importance to watch out for backdraft when we start practicing self-compassion.

The three components of self-compassion

Self-compassion is a central tenet of Buddhist psychology, and is at the core of all mindfulness practices. When we practice mindfulness, a key supportive attitude is to be kind and patient towards oneself, and to remain mindful of not judging or criticizing oneself for our short-comings during practice.

Self-compassion teaches us to recognise and accept that the moment is painful (the two wings of mindfulness: recognise and allow), remember that imperfection is part of the shared human experience, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain, while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation.

There are three foundational elements to compassion :

  1. Mindfulness comes first: we become aware that we are suffering, we are able to recognise our feelings and to admit we are in pain instead of pushing it away, pretending it’s not there, or lashing out in anger. To illustrate this, Tara Brach gives the example of a woman who was held in a maximum security prison, and known as a bully. She took part in a mindfulness course, and at the end, she reflected : “All my life I believed that I was the bad one, the problem one, and now I know that I am suffering too.” And that recognition changed her. As we become mindful of our suffering, we don’t get lost in the storyline, we are not overidentified with it. And this is not only about big suffering, but any time we experience difficult emotions.
  2. The second component is our sense of our common humanity: it provides the distinction between self-compassion and self-pity. It’s the idea that all human life is imperfect, that all people make mistakes, and are flawed in some way. That’s what it means to be human. We know it rationally, but when we fail or make a mistake, our immediate assumption is that something has gone wrong. And it makes us feel very isolated from others. Research shows that one of the most damaging aspects of not having self-compassion is that feeling of isolation and separation. Whereas, when we connect to the fact that suffering is shared and that we are not alone in this, it is part of our human experience, we feel connected.
  3. The third part is to respond with kindness towards ourselves: when we notice we are suffering, and especially if it comes from failing in some way or feeling inadequate, we have an understanding response towards ourselves, treating ourselves the same way we would treat a good friend. We feel motivated to help ourselves: we offer a soothing and comforting response, and we take right action to support and protect oneself from harm

The challenge of self-compassion

Most of us have some undercurrent of feeling bad about ourselves, undeserving or deficient in some way, it’s very pervasive especially in our Western culture. Jack Kornfield talks of being at war with ourselves. As I speak, you might investigate for yourself : “do I judge myself a lot?” “how do you speak to yourself when you make a mistake or do something wrong?”.

This message of basic badness or sin originates in our culture and gets exacerbated by our family of origin, especially if we grow up in a family where there is a lot of judgment or criticism, or if some of our needs are not met. When their needs are not met, children tend to think that it’s their fault and that something is wrong with them. So that deepens this core of shame and insecurity.

And then to try and meet our needs and protect ourselves, we behave in ways that can cause harm to ourselves and others, we adopt strategies or false refuges, as Tara Brach calls them, to try and avoid our difficult emotions.

We try to control how we appear to others and we cover over our vulnerability, our realness. We have a notion of our good self, how we want to be, and it stops us from being real. As I speak you might sense for yourself, what is it I really want people to see about me? What is it you don’t want them to see about you? What do you do to present the good self and cover the bad self? Notice how you might be cut off from your realness, your vulnerability…

Sometimes, we don’t even realise how much we do it, or how many moments of feeling unworthy we have. It impacts everything. When we believe that something is wrong with oneself, it is very difficult to trust a connection with other people, because we fear to be found out. It’s hard to take risks, to be creative, to relax and enjoy our moments.

To awaken self-compassion, the beginning is to be able to see that place of vulnerability and pain, as the woman in the high-security prison. The real challenge is getting that it hurts. We make it our intention to be in touch with our realness, beyond any idea of good self and bad self, to explore our realness and the realness of others.

The realisation of our own suffering is the beginning of a very profound healing. We often block that realisation by saying that others have it worse, but when we realise our suffering, we discover a tenderness inside us, and we become able to show kindness and compassion towards ourselves.

“The Navajo people, it is said, intentionally wove obvious flaws into their sacred quilts.  Why?  It is there, they say, in the “mistake”, in the imperfection, through which the Great Spirit moves.”  This relates to shifting that negative relationship we might normally have with our perceived flaws and applying a wider lens view and kindness to it.

Last week-end, I attended a half-day workshop with other women, and at some point we were sharing something that we liked about another woman in the group and vice-versa, and everyone was saying these beautiful things and it was very touching and moving. And then it was my turn to talk, and I found it really difficult to express myself the way I wanted to, the words were not flawing, I was pausing a lot and struggling to find the right words to express what I was feeling. So after the workshop of course I noticed that I was down on myself, comparing my contribution to the others and feeling disappointed with myself, negative and separate, isolated from the other women in the group.

And then I remembered: I need to practice self-compassion.

First I recognised that it as hard for me in that moment, that I was feeling sad, ashamed and negative, I became aware of the contraction in my chest and the constriction in my throat. I realised that it had been a long and busy week and that I was very tired. Then I brought in the common humanity, other people feel like this too sometimes, it’s okay, we are not perfect, we all have moments when we are not performing as well as we would like. And finally I offered myself some kindness instead of criticising myself,” I need to rest, I’m here for you, it happens, no big deal, forgiven”. I had an afternoon nap and when I woke up I noticed a shift in my mood, I felt lighter and more connected. For the rest of the day, I continued to bring self-compassion to myself every time I was thinking of that episode and started to criticize myself or compare myself to the others.

The most moving part of this story is that in the evening I received a phone call from the woman who I was paired with for the exercise. She wanted to apologize to me because she felt that she had not been able to express herself the way she wanted and to say what she thought about me. She had been feeling bad the whole day about it, just like I had. So that’s for our common humanity, we all do it. I shared the self-compassion with her, and we had a beautiful conversation.

The physiology of self-compassion

Self-compassion and self-criticism have a very different physiology.

When we criticize ourselves, we are tapping into the body’s self-defence system, our reptilian brain or limbic system, the flight fright freeze reaction to threat.  So when we fail, or make a mistake or we get rejected, or something difficult happens in our life, we react as if our lives were threatened, and we start criticizing ourselves, attacking ourselves in reaction to the threat. Self-criticism is associated with high adrenaline and cortisol release, a sign of stress, that’s the fight response. We also tend to feel isolated and separated from anyone else, turning the flight response inward. We try and isolate ourselves because we feel unsafe, and we ruminate the same thoughts of failure a lot, which is the freeze response.

Self-compassion taps into our caregiving system, that developed later on throughout evolution, and resides in our prefrontal cortex. When we feel self-compassion we release the hormone oxytocin and opiates that make us feel good and safe. This compassion system is triggered primarily by gentle touch and gentle vocalisation. This is why we always include some form of soothing touch or physical gesture of care and compassion, and some comforting words in a gentle, kind tone of voice during a self-compassion practice.  

James Baraz in Awakening Joy “A wise parent understands the confusion of an angry child. She knows that whether the behaviour is due to frustration, fatigue, or hunger for attention, what the child really needs is to be held in love and for the pain to be understood with compassion. The child can begin to calm down. In the same way, by tenderly holding with kind awareness the pain and confusion that gave rise to our own hurtful behaviour, we can begin to transform our suffering into compassion.”

The risk for backdraft

When people start to practice self-compassion they can actually have a negative reaction to it at first, some form of resistance to it. Chris Germer calls it the backdraft effect. It’s a firefighting term that describes what can happen in a burning house if you open the doors too fast, letting the air in too quickly, and creating an explosion. So instead firefighters poke little holes around the house to let the air in slowly to avoid the explosion.

If you take that image of the burning house and apply it to people who have experienced difficulties and lots of suffering, especially trauma, it is as though they had to close the door of their hearts to survive. So all the pain and suffering is locked inside their hearts (like the flames in the burning house), and when they start bringing self-compassion towards themselves, the fresh air of compassion rushes in and the flames of the old pain rush out: when we give ourselves unconditional love, all the memories of the ways that we have been unloved come up and come out, all the wounds and pain start releasing. It is a sign that the healing process has begun.

Therefore, we need to do it slowly so that we don’t get overwhelmed. It’  helpful to name it if it happens: that’s backdraft. It is also useful to go straight to mindfulness when backdraft is occurring without the added components of kindness and love as they can be activating for some people and create more backdraft. So we stick to basic mindfulness practices such as feeling the breath or feeling bodily sensations. Or we can stop the practice and go for a walk, have a cuppa, pet our cat. In itself it’s an act of compassion to pull back so we don’t get overwhelmed, and we can take care of ourselves. By doing so we reinforce the habit of self-compassion – giving ourselves what we need in the moment – planting seeds that will eventually blossom and grow.


Kristin Neff:

Tara Brach: True Refuge, Radical Acceptance

James Baraz: Awakening Joy

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