Updated: Jul 19, 2022
“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 a 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 have it defined, 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 daily activities.
It’s important because sometimes people are unable to give themselves permission to feel things such as grief. 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 relationship. This is where we seek acceptance, validation, and love. We also (ultimately) 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. Such as grief, mourning and finding meaning again. Concepts like self-compassion help us better understand ourselves, which allows us take better care of ourselves and 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. For example, the common thoughts we have been conditioned to imbue when a loss hits: Don’t cry in public, don’t grieve for too long, don’t be a burden to others.
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. Humans use mimicry just like other species do. 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 helpful, especially when it’s comes to grieving. Our bodies have been naturally designed to feel experiences, including shedding tears when we are sad. Feeling the immensity of loss when someone we love dies. We know who we are attached to, we feel the outcome of them not being their anymore. And it hurts. To not express that goes against the natural order of the way our mind and body are designed to work, in order to release that energy.
Maybe the family enforced the buck it up and get over it model for dealing with things. Which, by the way, isn’t really dealing with it. Perhaps an adult modeled intolerance or judgement. Or perhaps the family culture had in it, an embedded lack of discussion around feelings. As a result, emotions were pushed away. Feelings were seen as a weakness and as a result, they were forbidden and a feeling of guilt around expressing them developed. Or the scripts in your head developed on its own. Sometimes the dialogue or voice inside isn’t so great. As a result, it’s inhibiting or blocking productivity and happiness. Instead of healthy expression there is a conflict; a desire to express it but conditioning that prevents that. IThen when something major hits, like the loss of a significant person and emotions flood in, with no way to process them in a healthy way. Often this is when anger erupts. Or someone turns to isolation or drinking to alleviate the inner tension.
Learning self-compassion can help reshape mindset and patterns of behavior that no longer serve you. When you learn to love yourself and learn to appreciate all of the ways you interact and respond to things, it can be transformational. That includes giving yourself permission to grieve. That’s actually one of the kindest things you can do for yourself.
Self-compassion is that soothing voice that kicks in to calm the siege inside. It’s that part of yourself that questions something and gently suggests why that idea 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. Grieving allows for that painful energy to be released. 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, which is the true path to healing. Grief is a normal human condition and not meant to be experienced alone.
Tips to develop self-compassion:
Practice awareness – Begin thinking about self-compassion more. Think about times when you have expressed empathy and compassion towards yourself and others. What did it feel like?
Focus on mindfulness –Develop a routine for listening to the voice in your head. Do you make time to sit quietly and reflect?
Pay attention to your 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.
Find 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?
Learn to accept and embrace suffering –acknowledge that suffering exists, and your suffering may be very real. Remember that it will pass. What can you do to nurture yourself during those moments?
Cultivate Joy – We seek to find meaning. This is partially done 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, or watch funny pet videos on YouTube.com. Sometimes I look at motivational quotes or go for a walk. Find something that warms your heart and helps make you feel grounded again. And take those moments to grieve. Because joy is waiting on the other side.
“May you be happy. May you have ease. May you be free. May you be loved”.