“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”
– Christopher Germer
Many along the path of personal and spiritual growth find themselves at a standstill without understanding why they can’t move forward and are feeling stuck. Some try going to another class or workshop; others increase their meditation time, transform their diet, or practice mindfulness, all under the umbrella of self-care. While all of these are useful tools and help in supporting our growth and self-awareness, one crucial element is often forgotten – that of self-compassion.
It is important to understand what self-compassion actually is, and not to confuse it with self-care. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion can be viewed as having three components:
1. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.
All of us have many parts, or subpersonalities, within us. Some we are consciously aware of, while others are hidden from our view. Often, other people can see them when we can’t. Many are developed very early in life, often unconsciously, as a result of trying to get our needs met. Some are very useful, while others can be destructive and dysfunctional. If a particular part isn’t first recognized and eventually integrated and allowed to grow along with the rest of us, it will continue to act out whenever it gets triggered. When this happens, we have a tendency to identify with it – “I’m not good enough, I won’t fit in.” When we employ mindfulness, we allow the “part” to feel a certain way with the knowledge that we are not that part, but the essence of what is witnessing the part. In that way, we can allow compassion for the “old” part of ourselves to be seen and heard, thus allowing for healing and integration of the whole self. Rather than thinking, “I’m not good enough,” you can instead think, “there is a part of me that believes I am not good enough for (fill in the blank.) However, my more mature part (or higher self) understands why I have felt this way at times because of an old belief system, but it is not true.”
2. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment.
All of us have an inner critic which can sometimes be very harsh. These are often internalized voices we have picked up from childhood from a critical parent or guardian, an older sister or brother, or anyone who had an impact on us in a negative way. Imagine that this inner critic is sitting next to us, constantly jabbering away about our shortcomings? How long would we tolerate this? We would probably get up and walk away. But yet we do it all the time in our heads, and give our inner critic our power, obeying it. When we begin to look at our inner critic with kindness and compassion, we begin to understand that it is just trying to protect us, although from a very dysfunctional place. If you can remember that this part is an old script that continues to play itself over and over, it is easier to step away from it and offer it compassion.
3. Common Humanity vs Isolation.
How often do we compare ourselves with others and come up short? It can be a very painful experience, most often for completely no reason whatsoever. We don’t know what anyone’s life experience is, or what some may be carrying around inside them. It is important to remember this: we all share a common humanity. What this means is that we are not perfect, not one of us (even the Dalai Lama!). We make mistakes, and hopefully we move on. What stops us is our judgement about these mistakes, particularly our own self-judgement, which often leads to shame and guilt, and eventually isolation. Allowing ourselves to be human, to forgive our transgressions, or even to judge them less harshly, permits self-compassion to enter the picture. It is important to see one’s own experience as part of the larger human experience. Life is imperfect – we need to embrace this!
Shame can be a debilitating emotion, and it is important to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy shame. Healthy shame is activated by our conscience, motivating us to make a positive change. When we feel shame which spurs us on to correct a situation, it can be considered healthy for us and our growth. Unhealthy shame is activated by our inner critic and creates guilt, and oftentimes, anger at others. Unhealthy shame masquerades as our conscience; the difference is that one empowers while the other disempowers. Self-forgiveness is key; don’t judge yourself as a person – judge the behavior and then allow it to guide you in a positive direction.
Take the time and begin to notice how you speak to yourself when your inner critic comes out. Would you speak that way to someone you love? Give yourself permission for self-compassion. You deserve to be comforted and soothed, even if it is you who is doing it. When you are feeling sad or angry, give yourself the time and space to listen carefully and accept what is. Emotions need to pass through us. When they are stifled or misdirected, they linger, oftentimes for months or years, until they can be expressed genuinely.
Grief is a very good example of this. We have occasion often in life to grieve, keeping in mind that it is not just our loved ones’ passing that brings this forth. Sometimes it’s the loss of a friend or relationship, a job, even something as mundane as giving up a bad habit like smoking or bad eating habits. Recognize and accept your grief cycle, no matter what it looks like. There is no right way to grieve except to allow it.
Finally, learn to accept the whole of who you are. Every “shadow” part of us that we would like to pretend is not there also hides something beautiful, though we can’t see it. If we do not accept our flaws as well as our strengths, we have crippled ourselves. We are all doing the best we can. The secret to healing and growth is not being perfect; it is completely accepting who you are, embracing it, and allowing others to see the authentic you, warts and all.
Audrey McMorrow is a licensed therapist (LPC) who is also a Board-Certified Life Coach with a Masters and CAGS in Holistic Counseling. In addition, she has been trained extensively in Psychosynthesis, a psychological approach that focuses
on achieving a synthesis of the various parts of an individual’s personality into a more cohesive self. Audrey has a range of experience in working with individuals and groups on the path of personal growth, meaning and purpose. For more information, visit: www.vasthorizons.com