Bubble baths. Lit candles. Dark chocolate. Steaming cups of tea. These are the self-care recommendations we are regularly encouraged to add to our daily lives. I love these things as much as anybody else. But adding a list of temporarily enjoyable activities to your to-do list is ultimately only the frosting on the cake. It feels good, but it doesn’t substantially change anything. In fact, sometimes these activities can feel like extra obligations; something the average super-woman or man is expected to fold into their life, along with all the other demands on their attention.
Self-compassion means “cherishing yourself in the midst of emotional pain and distress” (Germer, 2009).[i] When you hear about a struggle that your best friend, child, partner or other loved one is facing, the feelings of support, good-will, and love that you feel for them together represent true compassion. Sadly, it’s much harder to feel those things for ourselves. Often we respond to challenging circumstances by criticizing ourselves for getting into the situation or pushing ourselves too hard to get out of it. This just piles on suffering on top of suffering.
In contrast, befriending yourself, and intentionally directing compassion towards yourself, changes your relationship to difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences. It sounds easy, but treating yourself with the same acceptance, kindness and understanding you extend towards your friends and family members is something very few people actually know how to do.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Researcher Kristin Neff has identified three elements of self-compassion– self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity.[ii] Each element of self-compassion corresponds to an opposite element of negative emotional reactivity that increases suffering; namely self-judgment (the opposite of self-kindness), self-preoccupation (the opposite of mindfulness) and isolation (the opposite of common humanity). Let’s delve further into what each of these terms mean.
- Self-kindness means to react with warmth and understanding to your own flaws and mistakes. By adopting this attitude, you treat yourself like a friend experiencing a setback rather than a critic evaluating a performance (self-judgement). Self-kindness means offering yourself the support and comfort that a close friend would. In a difficult moment, ask “what is the best thing I can do for myself right now?”
- Mindfulness in self-compassion involves acknowledging the temporary and changing nature of your own thoughts and feelings, seeing that they come and go like clouds in the sky. Instead of ruminating on or avoiding feelings grief or frustration about the losses and limitations that chronic illness imposes on our lives (self-preoccupation), we recognize them, feel them, and let them move through us. Tara Brach says that “compassion honours our experience; it allows us to be intimate with the life of this moment as it is.“[iii]
- Common humanity means saying to yourself “I’m only human, just like everyone else,” instead of feeling alone in the world with your difficulties (isolation). It involves taking a wide perspective, remembering all the people in the world who also live with chronic illness, and knowing that it’s more than likely that someone else has been in the same spot you’re in. After all, having an illness or disability is a common thread woven into the fabric of human experience.
Self-Compassion Meditation Practice
Self-compassion sounds good, but how do you actually put it into practice? How do you go about befriending yourself and changing your approach to coping with difficult circumstances? A type of meditation called loving-kindness meditation, which a secular practice based on traditional Buddhism, can point the way. Sharon Salzberg, a pioneering meditation instructor who brought loving-kindness meditation to the west, describes it as “a living tradition of meditation practices that cultivate love, compassion, [and] sympathetic joy.”[iv] Based on the common principles of kindness, mindfulness and connection to our common humanity, I use the terms loving-kindness and compassion interchangeably. It may sound a bit sappy, or feel awkward at first, but that shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing your best interest.
In loving-kindness meditation practice focused on direction compassion towards the self, the focus of awareness is the silent repetition of specific phrases in your mind. Your loving-kindness practice could use the following phrases:
May I be safe – we wish for safety in the first line because being free from danger is a prerequisite for well-being
May I be peaceful – a wish for equanimity in the midst of the unpredictability of chronic illness
May I live fully in the present – a wish to live whole-heartedly, to live a rich, fully experienced life
May I embody love and kindness – this is a wish to be compassionate to our bodies, even if they suffer
May I live with ease – a wish for daily grace in our lives, a lessening of our burdens and struggles
Try sitting with your breath for a minute, and then repeating these phrases several times. Or you can say them silently to yourself during a difficult moment.
When we say each phrase, we are setting an intention to be a good friend to ourselves, like planting a seed. We will reap the harvest – experience compassion for ourselves – in the future. As Christopher Germer (2009) explains, loving-kindness meditation is about learning to feel goodwill towards ourselves, not to generate good feelings in the moment. Each phrase is an expression of hope for the well-being of your future self. And just like you hope for nothing but the best for your loved ones and friends in the days and years to come, the phrases of loving-kindness help you to cultivate this “inclination of heart” toward yourself (Germer, 2009).
What Does the Science Say?
Loving-kindness meditation can reduce chronic low back pain, according to a pilot trial (Carson et al., 2005).[v] Compared to standard care, individuals who participated in the eight week compassion meditation program had lower levels of pain, distress, anger and tension. A second study looked at whether compassion meditation could reduce negative mental states, in addition to decreasing pain levels (Chapin et al., 2014).[vi] Participants in the nine week loving-kindness meditation course reported a moderate reduction in their pain severity. Importantly, participants and their significant others also reported a decrease in negative emotional states like anger by the end of the program.
After a seven week loving-kindness meditation course, one study found a cumulative increase in daily positive emotions, regardless of whether the participant meditated on that day or not. The overall increase in positive emotions was associated with a significant increase in positive personal resources, like self-acceptance, mindful attention, a sense of purpose, and developing supportive relationships (Fredrickson et al., 2008).[vii]
Whether you do a formal practice, or just consciously remind yourself in challenging circumstances of the principles of self-compassion – kindness, mindfulness and common humanity – ask yourself – if a close friend of yours was in the same situation, what would you say to them? Most likely you would encourage them to go easy on themselves. You would tell them that they don’t need to be perfect, and remind them it’s okay to have bad days. Practice saying these things to yourself. Then offer yourself comfort by saying “what is the best thing I can do for myself in this moment?” This is when the list of self-care activities take on a deeper meaning – a symbol of the self-kindness you are cultivating. I hope that taking this approach helps to reduce your suffering and increase your wellbeing in a more substantive way than discussions of self-care can typically promise to do.
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[i] Germer, Christopher. (2009). “Chapter 4: What’s Self Compassion?” in The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Guildford Publications: New York.
[ii] Neff, Kristin. (2012). “The Power of Self-Compassion.” Psychology Today. Retrieved September 1, 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201207/the-physiology-self-compassion
[iii] Brach, Tara. (2003). “Chapter Two: Awakening From the Trance” in Radical Acceptance. Random House: London.
[iv] Salzberg, Sharon. (2011). “Introduction.” Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambala Publications: Boston.
[v] Carson, JW et al. (2005). “Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain.” Journal of Holistic Nursing: 23(3): 287-304.
[vi] Chapin, Heather et al. (2014). “Pilot Study of a Compassion Meditation Intervention in Chronic Pain.” Journal of Compassionate Health Care 1(4).
[vii] Fredrickson, Barbara. (2008). “Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions Induced Through Lovingkindness Meditation Build Consequential Personal Resources.” Journal of Personal Social Psychology 95(5): 1045-1062.