Self-compassion is the ability to empathise with our own suffering, and therefore to avoid being unnecessarily anxious or angry about our own difficulties.
Examples of self-compassion might include:
Jane had a facial disfigurement, and had lived for years trying not to feel sorry for herself. However, the tension of her situation often came out in anger against others for apparently unrelated reasons. Eventually she learned to accept her own sadness at being different. She cried a lot, and somehow accepted what was missing in her life. Her anger subsided.
Ngozi self-harmed. She would get pressurised by her inability to keep up with a busy life, and, to regain control, would cut herself. Eventually, she learned to accept her own failures to perform. She became more self-compassionate. This reduced the tension of perceived failure, and she began to be able to laugh about her own slowness and chaotic ways. Ironically, when she put herself under less pressure, she became more competent in a busy environment, and her depression lifted.
Charles felt dead in adulthood, devoid of caring about his achievements. In childhood, he couldn’t do anything right by his parents, who were preoccupied with themselves. His father was depressive, and blamed Charles for being ‘difficult’. Charles grew up with the perception ‘I am difficult, and so am not worthy of love’. He therefore couldn’t encourage or nurture himself. Finding one or two compassionate relationships in adulthood, he began to exercise compassion towards himself, and slowly started finding satisfaction in his own character and activities.
THE STAGES OF SELF-COMPASSION
In each of these (fictional, composite) cases, the sufferer experienced a kind of release, a sort of self-forgiveness which expanded life, and gave more flow and freedom of movement.
Self-compassion perhaps has three stages:
- We become aware of an inner tension related to our self-perception. This is hard to notice, because we are so used to ‘projecting’ outwards. If we are blaming others, we will never see how we might be feeling about ourselves.
- We spend some time with that tension, bringing it out, and understanding it. We learn to see what, in us, is being starved of attention and freedom. I often call it ‘little voice’ – a part of us that feels pain, but doesn’t feel it has a right to speak.
- We find ways of accepting that ‘little voice’, of accepting our own suffering. In the light of that acceptance, we begin to live more authentically, bringing ‘little voice’ back to the world, letting it speak up for itself and smile.
While we are working on our self-compassion, we will have unhelpful friends getting in the way. Some unsympathetic people will still shout at us, telling us what to feel and what to do. They will be angry and pushy because of their own problems.
Our job, when we are doing the work of self-compassion, is to act as our own kind and loving parent, to protect ‘little voice’ from all the criticism and anger while it develops and finds its freedom. We may need to ask others to back away a little and be more respectful. We may need to take time away from our more invasive friends.
SELF-COMPASSION HELPS US GROW
We are gardens. We are born with such potential, with a huge number of different species latent in seeds. Our parents and others accept some seeds and reject others. We grow into adulthood with a pathetically small repertoire, compared with our original potential.
Self-compassion is finding little seeds in ourselves that have been neglected, and which have never been given the chance to grow. If we don’t exercise self-compassion, we can end up very unhappy. We can end up repressing our curiosity, our spirituality, our sexuality, our playfulness, our love of particular people or activities. Through self-compassion, we can re-grow the little voices that want to grow into something special to us.
BECOME A GOOD GARDENER
A good gardener learns about different plants, and finds a balance in the garden, so that there is variety and interest.
In the same way, imagining ourselves as the gardeners of our own gardens, we need to spend time with ourselves, truly feeling which bits of our potential need bringing out. Where are we frustrated, annoyed, made to feel small, unhappy? Can we notice? Can we learn what space, nutrition and conditions we need to grow our ‘little voices’ into free and wonderful new aspects of being?