Updated: Jan 18
In this post I want to have a look at Self-Compassion and explore how it's currently used in therapy and coaching. In part 2, I'll be looking more specifically at how research suggests Self-Compassion can have a direct impact on mental health, including Eating Disorders.
When you find yourself responding to the pain of others without harsh judgement, and feel warmth, concern and a desire to ease or support them in their suffering, that's compassion.
So what is self-compassion?
Self-compassion has become increasingly popular in the past ten or so years. With well over 200 journal articles and dissertations examining the topic, it has become a favoured tool within many schools of coaching and therapy. I like to use use it with clients myself when appropriate.
Self-compassion does exactly what it says on the tin. It helps people learn how to extend the type of compassion to themselves in periods of inadequacy, failure or suffering, that they would to a good and loved friend.
It's different from self-pity, which tends to carry with it a 'victim' status, and an implied inability to cope or positively change our state; it's also different from self-esteem, the pursuit of which is considered to sometimes have negative effects on psychological health
And what are the benefits?
Research is increasingly suggesting that that self-compassion is closely associated with emotional resilience, recognise our mistakes, learn from them, and motivate ourselves to succeed. Self-compassion is also correlated with a wide range of measures of emotional well-being, such as optimism, life satisfaction, autonomy, and wisdom, as well as with reduced levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and shame.(Christopher Germer,2009)
A little background
The contemporary focus of self-compassion stems largely from the work of practitioners such as Dr Kristin Neff, but actually originates from 2500 years ago in the teachings of Buddhism.
Central to Buddha’s teachings are the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, (which is that we cling), 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state. Fundamental to this Buddhist perspective is the exercise of compassion and, importantly, compassion is given to our own as well as to others’ suffering. We include ourselves in the circle of compassion because to do otherwise would construct a false sense of separate self (Salzberg, 1997).
Drawing from these fundamentals, Neff and others (Brach (2003), Kornfield (1993) and Salzberg(1997) ) have helped devise a single 'system' of self compassion that involves three vital inter-related areas.
The inter-related areas are self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
self-kindness involves being actively understanding, warm and considerate to ourselves when faced with pain, difficulties, and, importantly, personal shortcomings.
common humanity this aspect involves awareness that suffering, struggle and fallibility is common to all of us, and not a unique weakness of yours
mindfulness within the process of self-compassion, the negative thoughts and emotions that come up when we struggle or 'fail' are observed with openness and without judgement.
This creates a receptive frame of mind where we can observe these thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them (K.W Brown, 2003) . The openness and non-judgement also helps us not become 'stuck' in these thoughts because we aren't accepting the feelings that they create as fact.
How can we learn self-compassion?
Neff has created a number of exercises and techniques that can help us to develop self-compassion.
How would you treat a friend?
In this simple exercise we start by imagining we are comforting a close friend who is dealing with a difficult situation. We then compare and contrast how we react internally to our own struggles, and, indeed,treat ourselves in the same situation, and work on applying the same loving kindness to ourselves that we would apply to a friend.
This exercise can be used during times of acute distress. We focus on the stressful event or situation. Then, the we repeat several prompts to ourselves, each of which emphasises one of the three main tenets: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
Exploring through writing
In this exercise, we focus on an aspect of ourselves, or a perceived imperfection that we feel inadequate, or badly about, such as our relationships, our appearance or our work; we write down how we feel about this, as honestly as we can, including the feelings that arise in us when we think about it.
Once we have brought this issue to mind, we are asked to write a letter to ourselves from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. This friend knows everything about us, and about every single moment of our lives that has made us who we are.We later return to this letter and focus on the soothing and comforting feelings of compassion we have generated for ourselves.
Explore more at Self-Compassion.org
Christopher Germer (2009) The mindful path to self-compassion
Neff, K(2013) The proven power of being kind to yourself
Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala
Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance. Bantam Books.
Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart. New York: Bantam Books
Salzberg, S. (1997) op. cit.,
Brown, K. W.; Ryan, R. M. (2003). "The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.