Updated: Mar 19
“There is no limit to the amount of compassion that you can develop in your life if you are willing to practice”
The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook
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 use it, or we already have it incorporated into our way of being. And that may not be true. It’s more than just a term or concept, it is a mindfulness technique, and a skill that must first be understood to be practiced. For true compassion to be manifested, it must be practiced in the moment, in our daily activities.
But this is not always true. Sometimes people are unable to give themselves permission to feel things or even grieve.
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, towards 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 we are also learning is that the most important work going on is inside of ourselves. Concepts like self-compassion help us better understand ourselves, which allows us to relate compassionately to others.
One of the tasks in teaching empathy and self compassion is learning to temper the negative, harsh critical voice so many of us have. Parents and other adults in our lives naturally model for us; we absorb and incorporate behaviors and concepts we see and hear, and then practice them on others. As we learn this skill set, 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 intolerance or judgement. Or perhaps the family culture had an embedded 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 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 inhibiting or blocking our productivity and happiness. Or won’t allow a normal expression of feeling and emotion. Then when something major hits, like the loss of a significant person, anger erupts. Emotions flood in, with no way to process them in a healthy way.
Learning self-compassion can help with this. When you learn to love yourself, and all the ways you interact and respond to things, it can transformational.
The idea of what self-compassion is may be a little fuzzy. It’s 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 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)
Self-compassion allows for the process of grief, and the suffering or struggle that might follow. It allows for the true experience of loss. Compassion is designed to alleviate the suffering. If that’s true, then we could say that self-compassion is the feeling of deep sympathy for ourselves, with the desire to alleviate our own suffering. It also creates the ability for a person to receive empathy, sympathy and love from others.
How to develop self-compassion
Awareness. Begin thinking about self-compassion more. Think about times when you have expressed empathy and compassion towards yourself and others. What does it feel like?
Mindfulness. Develop a routine for listening to the voice in your head. Do you make time to sit quietly and reflect?
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.
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. Acknowledge that suffering exists, and your suffering may be very real. 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.