Self Compassion: “kindness directed toward the self”
Trauma at its core affects a person’s capacity to be self compassionate and trauma recovery is about nurturing and growing that ability. Our ability to be compassionate depends on our ability to be self compassionate.
As mentioned elsewhere on this site safe, trustworthy and authentic relationships are the heart of recovery. The relationship we have with ourselves is just as crucial to healing as our ties to the people around us.
However, treating ourselves kindly can be quite a foreign concept. Giving ourselves some slack can be viewed as making excuses for ourselves, or encouraging self pity (Neff, 2011). Our critical thoughts judge our weaknesses and struggles in ways that we would never express toward a friend. We say things to ourselves that are quite shocking. Self hostility, just like abuse from others, impacts our ability to manage stress and is associated with a host of mental health problems (Gilbert, 2008).
Rather, self compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression (Neff, 2011). Some people are naturally kinder to themselves and can step outside our society’s endless quest for perfection. For those people who struggle with being kind to themselves, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer, two key researchers and therapists working on understanding self compassion, have noted that self compassion can be taught (Germer 2009, Neff, 2011).
Neff has developed an eight week group intervention that helps people engage in self compassion practices that incorporate aspects of mindful meditation and builds on the age old Buddhist practices of “Loving Kindness”.
In these practices, through the development of mindful awareness, the practitioners learn to notice when their thoughts drift into self blame or hostility, recognize that this is a moment of suffering and everyone’s life contains difficulties, and gently turn hostile thoughts towards a more compassionate view of our actions and circumstances (Neff, 2011).
In the Buddhist tradition, loving kindness practice is one of the foundations of mindfulness and an essential component of spiritual progress. In psychotherapy it has been known for a long time that people who ruminate on their failings and circumstances are more prone to depression (Williams, 2007). Also strong negative emotions associated with self loathing, like shame, contribute to social isolation and feelings of helplessness (Gilbert, 2009).
A person capable of self compassion knows that they have not been singled out for periods of struggle and unhappiness. We are creatures who experience difficulties by the fact that we have been born. By allowing ourselves to experience loving kindness, not as an idea but as a felt sense, we are able to address difficulties directly, learn from them and, if possible, take some wise action to change them.
Harsh self criticism, like bullying by others, undermines our ability to learn. Most victims of bullying want to hide. Self compassion allows us to soften our hearts and minds in the midst of trouble and to see what can be done to change things, or to find the wisdom to accept what cannot be changed (Germer, 2009). It is the beginning of experiencing ourselves as worthy of kindness.
Perhaps the most important outcome of self compassion is the increased capacity to care for others. If we are more aware that everyone is in the same boat, the same reality of human struggle, we can feel for the plight of others. We know, in our bones, that “there, but for the grace of God go I”. The great wisdom traditions of the world understood that the beginning of loving others is to love ourselves.
Compassion is different than pity. Its old Latin root means that to have compassion is to “suffer with” others not simply observe their pain. True compassion goes further than an emotional connection; it ignites the desire to relieve the suffering, to do something about it (Neff, 2011).
Here are Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer’s links for more information on the development of self compassion with some downloadable guided practice meditations.