Take a moment to notice your current experience. How do you feel? What thoughts are running through your mind? What sensations does your body report?
Many of us jump directly to evaluation and problem-solving in response to our current experience. We may not be aware of other options, or we may believe constant self-improvement is necessary to measure up. In her book “Self-Compassion“, Kristin Neff proposes kinder responses to both positive and negative experiences.
Do you notice delight and comfort? Celebrate and savor your enjoyment. Do you notice pain or discomfort? Kristin Neff suggests a mantra for painful moments when something goes wrong or you notice something about yourself you don’t like.
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
The phrases cover three doorways to self-compassion:
- Mindful awareness. Awareness helps you take a step back and say, “I am suffering.”
- Shared human experience. We often feel isolated as part of suffering and imagine that no one else could understand or sympathize with our pain. In truth, everyone suffers in similar ways.
- Caring concern. Consider treating yourself the way you would treat a beloved friend. Your Inner Nurturer can help.
The fourth phrase affirms that we are all human beings worthy of compassion in each moment.
You can express the three doorways and the affirmation in your own words. For example, “This is hard. Everyone has hard times. What would a kind friend say right now? Everyone deserves kindness, including me.“
No time for that
Your Inner Critic may believe that self-compassion is a luxury or a distraction. Time enough for that after the emergency is over, but the emergency never seems to end. If nothing is going wrong in the present, there is something in the past we should have done better, or something in the future we should figure out how to prevent.
Need to figure it out
Figuring things out is a key survival skill in abusive situations. The ability to recognize patterns and adapt to them is crucial when punishments are arbitrary and cruel. Even in non-abusive situations, figuring things out and fitting in can make life easier. Puzzling social interactions provide endless fodder for self-recrimination and self-improvement.
The problem is that we forget to stop. We continually evaluate our behavior, thoughts, and emotions and usually find ourselves lacking, with brief interludes to celebrate achievements. In an attempt to take responsibility for our lives, we ask ourselves, “What did I do to cause this? What lesson am I supposed to learn? How do I deserve this?” We may not recognize that this constant self-analysis and self-judgment is beating ourselves up.
Past selves on trial
We put our past selves on trial for causing present mishaps, but cause and effect are not so clear. Our actions are woven from genetics, past influences, present environment, physical condition, triggers, desires, risks, guesses, and hopes. We take events personally that have little to do with us.
It can look like a big risk to stop raking ourselves over the coals. What if we really are not good enough? What if we suddenly lose all ambition to get things done? We fear that figuring out what is wrong with us is the only way to keep ourselves in line.
Perhaps you can give yourself permission to try kindness once and see what happens. You can always go back to the old way if the Inner Critic’s predictions of disaster come true.
What is self-compassion?
Even with permission to try self-compassion, it may not be obvious how to proceed. Perhaps giving yourself a hug or a pat on the arm feels good. Perhaps calling yourself “darling” or “dear” fills you with warmth. Or perhaps those actions feel fake, dangerous, painful.
Self-compassion can trigger emotional flashbacks in people who have been exposed to cyclical abuse where compassion was part of the setup for the next attack. It can also be difficult for those who grew up in emotionally neglectful homes and rarely received compassion.
Space for discovery
Take your time. Create space to discover true kindness, rather than pretending or assuming you know how kindness feels for you. Ask yourself what would feel good in this moment. What would you say to someone you love in similar circumstances? What would allow you to receive the same kindness? What have friends said or done in the past that eased your heart?
Compassion for not knowing
You could start by acknowledging that it is hard not to know what kindness feels like. Breathe in with all the others in the world who do not know. Stand with yourself quietly in not knowing.
Compassion for self-judgment
When you hear judgmental, angry, or scornful words inside your head, you could acknowledge that it is hard to hear those words. Breathe in with all the others in the world judging ourselves right now. Hold both the accuser and the accused in your awareness, and notice that your containing awareness is larger than both of them.
Compassion for confusion
In painful situations where despite our best efforts we cannot figure out how we got there or how to get out, we can give ourselves compassion for confusion. “It’s hard to be confused and not to know how to improve a situation. People get confused and stuck all the time. I want to stand with myself in this hard place.“
Compassion for shame
Next time you feel cringing shame about something you did, notice your suffering. Gently, remind yourself that cringing shame and doing things wrong are part of being human, and that it is a hard place to be. Give yourself sympathy for the pain you experience. “Shame hurts. It’s okay to make a mistake. Everyone does. You don’t have to be perfect.“
People often need a helping hand to make the leap from, “I can’t possibly be good enough,” to “I have always been good enough.” Here is your Official Permission to believe you are good enough right now, yes, even you, with all your mistakes and successes and confusions and clarities. We have all always been good enough.
Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. contains many great ideas about self-compassion from her perspective as a professor of psychology.