Self-Compassion: The Reluctant Disciple
I came to ‘self-compassion’ kicking and screaming! I was puzzled when a good friend sent me an email about a ‘Self-compassion Intensive’ early in 2017. “Self-compassion? That’s just letting myself off the hook isn’t it?”
The email sat nudging at me in my inbox for several months, whilst I wrestled with thoughts of why I couldn’t possibly go away abroad, on my own, without my children, for five days, just to spend time being compassionate to myself!
Puzzled by my reluctance to delete the email, I started to read “Self-Compassion” by Kristen Neff – the recommended course reading. It seemed pretty sensible and straightforward, although some of the scientific research made interesting reading. But then something strange started to happen: as I started to process what I was reading, it was like a door opened, and there was no going back. I found myself thinking “goddamn it, why did I read that stupid book!” as I started to perceive how much of my time I spent ‘beating myself up’. I was working hard, in the NHS which is on the verge of collapse, and feeling constantly tired and over-stretched. I had always considered myself to be a compassionate person, and my patients told me that I was, but compassion was rarely addressed towards myself and I had achieved a lot by pushing myself hard. I noticed that my tiredness was rooted much deeper, in my beliefs about myself and my interactions with the world.
I did go on the training, and I have not looked back since! Self-compassion is not (as I thought) “letting ourselves off the hook”, nor is it being weak, or unmotivated. It is actually a learned practice of acknowledging struggle (both in yourself and others) and having the tools to remain in touch with our feelings whilst also managing them. This is in contrast to ignoring our feelings, being at the mercy of our feelings, or switching them off completely. What self-compassion allows is greater insight into our own reactions and greater acceptance of our inadequacies (whilst being able to address them honestly). This can lead to greater empathy towards others as fellow struggling human beings. Because let’s face it, we all struggle, in our own way.
The three components of self-compassion are:
1 Self-kindness (as opposed to self-judgement). This part I like to call “being your own best friend”. This takes some practice – learning to alter your inner voice away from harsh criticism, and towards caring and constructive self-talk. There is also good evidence that we can alter our brain chemistry with soothing touch and comforting, to reduce stress hormones, and boost the hormones of caring and love. So literally this means “giving yourself a hug” in times of stress or strife!
2 Common-humanity (as opposed to self-isolation). Readers of Brene Brown’s work will recognise that when we feel shame, it is common to isolate ourselves, and tell ourselves we are the only one who makes a mess of things. Self-compassion training encourages us to see that suffering is part of being human! It is unrealistic to expect things to be perfect! So reminding ourselves in times of struggle that this is part of being human, that life is imperfect, that everyone struggles, is such a useful tool.
3 Mindfulness (as opposed to being consumed by emotions or situations). Part of Self-compassion is practising mindfulness, which allows us to “be” with painful feelings, rather than trying to suppress, or run away, or blame others. Mindfulness practice can be brief 5-10 minutes guided meditation, or practising mindful awareness in every-day life, or practising meditation. It is less about “quantity” but more about regular practice, and keeping the intention.
What I also learned on the training is that my initial experience of regretting reading the book is extremely common. Kristen calls to this concept “Backdraft” – referring to the phenomenon that can occur if a fire-fighter opens a door, causing oxygen to fuel a fire. My own experience was a kind of grief. I had spent 45 years of my life being so hard on myself, and I felt terribly sad about that. Kristen’s remedy for Backdraft? Self-compassion! Just acknowledge the painful feelings, give yourself soothing self-talk, accept that this is a normal human response, and give yourself time for the regret to settle. It didn’t take long to pass.
As a doctor I am fascinated by the emerging research regarding self-compassion and by its wide potential applications. It is amazing to me that following self-compassion training diabetics can achieve better control of their blood sugars, and that soldiers returning from combat have reported lower levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Instead of being about “letting ourselves off the hook”, self-compassion training seems to reduce negative mind-states, increase self-confidence and resilience, and it is linked to higher motivation and personal accountability. This is something that can be easily taught, and my own experience has been that I am less afraid, I am more focused, more motivated, more in-tune with myself, and certainly less likely to get burned out! I am now trained as a coach, and I teach simple techniques to build self-compassion, so that I can support others to be “their own best friend”. I would certainly recommend Kristen Neff’s book as a good starting point.