“There is no limit to the amount of compassion that you can develop in your life if you are willing to practice”
Tim Desmond, The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook
This month I am highlighting one of the few workbooks I’ve ever used. Usually I read a book, cover to cover and then share what I’ve learned in a blog. But with this workbook, I had to complete exercises in each chapter over a 14-day period (hence the name workbook!) It was challenging and quite rewarding. The author of this workbook and I are reaching for the same goal, to offer something useful for you as a reader you can use in everyday life.
So what is this thing called compassion? Compassion is one of those concepts that can be easily misunderstood; it’s very similar to empathy and it sounds like one of those “coined” terms we already know about. The assumption from there is that if we know it, we already know how to and use it, or we already have it incorporated into our way of being. And that may not be true. It’s actually more than just a term or concept, it is a mindfulness technique, and a skill that must first be understood and then practiced. For true compassion to be manifested, it must be practiced in the moment, in our daily activities.
And why do we need to practice this?
Abraham Maslow eloquently pointed out that we have a complex motivational system at work in us, a hierarchy of needs of sorts: we seek food, clothing and shelter, then safety, and then relationship, where we seek acceptance, validation and love. Ultimately we seek to self-actualize and then self-transcendence. We naturally seek relationship, with our self and with others. We know from studies in psychology that many things happen outside and around us that we interact and respond to but what now we are also learning is that the most important work going on is inside of ourselves. So concepts like self-compassion become really important because they help us learn more and also get along better with ourselves.
One of the tasks in teaching empathy and self compassion is learning to temper the negative, harsh critical voice so many of us have inside our head. Through the modeling of parents and other adults in our lives many receive this training as children. We naturally incorporate behaviors and concepts we see and hear, and then practice them on others. As we learn this skill set, it grows with us as our brain develops cognitively and we develop complex thoughts and feelings along with a healthy form of self-talk. We develop that soft spoken voice that is encouraging, we learn what patience feels like, we learn when to be silent, and we see when to show forgiveness, empathy, warmth or an expression of love.
But not all training is good. Maybe an adult modeled an unforgiving way of handling things in life, so tolerance was never modeled. Or perhaps the family culture had an implicit message embedded in it by modeling a lack of discussion around feelings. As a result emotions were pushed away. Perhaps feelings were seen as a weakness and as a result, they were forbidden and a feeling of guilt around expressing them developed. Maybe conformity was valued or authenticity. And silence praised instead of expression. Or, maybe there was simply an absence of all of this kind of thing, so the scripts in our heads developed on their own. Sometimes the dialogue or voice inside our head isn’t so great. As a result, it’s actually inhibiting or blocking our productivity and happiness. It can almost become a way of being for. We can get used to the limits, and predict the outcomes, which are unsatisfying. Perhaps it impacts sleep or performance at work. Or it’s a subtle saboteur in relationship, always keeping us from what we really want and deserve. It can be negative, judgmental, and unrelenting. Maybe it comes out in an expression of explosive anger at inappropriate times.
When a negative inner voice develops and goes “unchecked” so to speak, it can almost take on a life of it’s own. Although it serves a purpose, sometimes it ends up impeding the work that is trying to be achieved. This voice can actually become painful to listen to. Even if it’s based in fact, the way it’s being expressed and received is unproductive. This form of negative self-talk tends to lead people down a road that actually decreases self-esteem and undermines self-confidence. It can undo trust, damage relationships and effect productivity and performance. An unexpected side effect can be in increase in anxiety; it can actually create an uneasy perspective about the world around us.
The good news is that these scripts and the perspective can be changed. That’s all they are, scripts. Scripts tied to beliefs that are not really true. They are scripts and dialogues that you wrote that you have the power to change. One way to develop healthy scripts and self-talk, is through learning to practice self-compassion.
The idea of what self-compassion is may be a little fuzzy by definition for those of us that don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it. It’s those moments when you feel impatient or critical of yourself and that soothing voice kicks in to calm the siege inside. It’s that part of yourself that questions something and gently suggests why that really might not be a good idea even though you really want to do it. It’s that nurturing voice that acknowledges when you are sad or suffering and allows the feelings to be experienced and the emotions to flow freely. And it’s that voice inside that forgives you when you’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s part of that inner wisdom people refer to. It’s the cheerleader that always rallies in your corner.
What is the difference between self-compassion, empathy and sympathy? Sympathy is defined as: harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another. Empathy is defined as: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. And Compassion is defined as: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. (Dictionary.com)
The distinguishing feature of compassion is: “to alleviate the suffering”. If that’s true then we could easily say that self-compassion is the feeling of deep sympathy for ourselves along with the desire to alleviate our own suffering. That means we don’t have a harsh critical voice, but rather a gentle voice with a softer attitude. Not based in fear or anger but rather self love In this we then practice Maitri, loving kindness towards others and oneself
So how do we practice this? Here are 6 tools to help you develop Self-Compassion:
“The root word “buddh” means to wake up, to know, to understand; and he or she who wakes up and understand is called a Buddha. It is as simple as that. The capacity to wake up, to understand, and to love is called Buddha nature. When Buddhists say, “I take refuge in the Buddha”, they are expressing trust in their own capacity of understanding, of becoming awake”.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
Awareness – Begin thinking about self-compassion more. Think about times when you have expressed empathy and compassion towards yourself and others. What have you learned about yourself recently?
Mindfulness –Develop a routine for listening to the voice in your head. Do you have time in your day to sit quietly and reflect? What can you do to improve your inner dialogue?
Breathing – I read a book recently that recommended starting each day with 40 deep breaths. Have you ever tried breathing exercises, meditation or yoga? Attention to breathing will not only decrease the experience of stress but also allow the space for reflection and awareness to develop.
Practice self-acceptance – Try a new script when something doesn’t go right. Find the positive and replace the negative. How skilled are you at forgiving yourself?
Embrace suffering – Not like your looking for things to suffer about but rather just to acknowledge the truth that suffering exists and your suffering may be very real right now. And it will pass. What can you do to nurture yourself during this time?
Cultivate Joy – We must find meaning in our world. Part of this is by embracing the positive and joyful things inside of us, as well as around us. Find joy. For example for me, when I need something uplifting, I hug my children more, or watch funny pet videos on You Tube. Sometimes I look at motivational quotes or go for a walk. Find something that warms your heart and helps make you feel grounded again.
*In his workbook, Desmond offers 8 exercises to help cultivate self-compassion. He reminds readers that embracing suffering and cultivating joy are two points that need to be balanced and offers suggestions how to do this.
In closing, I offer you this on your journey towards happiness:
“May you be happy. May you have ease. May you be free. May you be loved”.
Buddhist Meditation, Cited from the Self-Compassion Skills Workbook
The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook, Tim Desmond, 2017
Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from Wikipedia.
The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook on Tim Desmond’s website.
Empathy and compassion on Scoop.it.
Developing self-compassion and learning to be nicer to ourselves on Tiny Buddha website.