Everyone makes mistakes from time to time; it’s a fact of life. We cannot avoid making mistakes no matter how hard we work at being perfect. I know because I’m a perfectionist myself. I’m also a psychotherapist who works with adults who bring into the counseling relationship feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt because they made past mistakes. If the client is also a caregiver, I will ask how compassionate are they towards others. Their answer is almost always, “I’m a very compassionate person!” And if you, dear reader, are a caregiver, I will trust that you too are a very compassionate person.
As humans, we have an innate capacity for compassion towards another’s suffering. Else why would we become caregivers? Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, studies self-compassion. She has found that compassion whether towards others or towards one’s self, has three qualities: (1) a mindful awareness of another’s pain, turning towards that pain rather than away from it, (2) a desire and action to soothe or soften pain through kindness, and (3) an acknowledgement that we have a shared humanity. We all struggle in life. Rather than isolating ourselves from the person who is hurting, we approach and join with them in alleviating their suffering.
Neff’s definition of compassion can be visualized in the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable was about a man who was beaten and robbed, left on the road to die. Two people saw the man lying with his wounds, but each passed on without offering help. A third man, a Samaritan, saw the wounded man, attended to his wounds and took him to a place where he could safely heal. We can recognize this story as an example of compassion because the Samaritan saw the man’s pain, approached him rather than pass on by, and was moved by kindness to bind the man’s wounds. The Samaritan could identify with the other’s humanity: doing for another what he might want if the injury had been his to suffer.
So what does this narrative of compassion for another teach us about self-compassion? Neff tells us that the same qualities of compassion are also found in self-compassion. As human beings, we may do/say something that wounds others. We will feel compassion towards the person who was injured, but we ignore the wound we gave ourselves. Sometimes, the person we most deeply wound is ourselves. What does happen if we fail to show compassion to ourselves? Let’s explore each of the qualities.
Self-kindness vs. Self-Judgment
Self-kindness is actively treating yourself with care and understanding. Often our tendency is to harshly judge ourselves. Our culture teaches us that to fail is bad. Sometimes we get the message that if we make mistakes, not only was the behavior bad, but the person is bad—flawed and condemned. Self-kindness does not deny the wrongness of our thoughts or behavior. Instead, it acknowledges the wound that resulted from it and actively seeks to start the inner healing. Research on self-compassion informs us that care and understanding opens up the heart and mind to think more clearly and to act more wisely in the future. That does not happen with self-criticism. Self-criticism, self-judgment persuade us to hide our flaws and fear being authentic with others. Self-criticism may motivate us to do better, but research says it is only a moderate motivation for improvement. Self-kindness is also a motivator towards improvement that is actually stronger than self-criticism.
Sense of humanity vs. Isolation
Seeing one’s experience as part of a larger human experience helps create and strengthen emotional connections. The “not my job” approach isolates us. It becomes disconnection. Guilt and shame are two emotions that tend to isolate us from others. Research informs us that isolation is bad both physiologically as well as psychologically. We are “hard-wired” for social connection. People who isolate are at greater risk of clinical depression and anxiety. So is it possible to isolate yourself from yourself? Oh, yes. There many forms of self-isolation: low self-esteem, self-hatred, alcohol, drugs, even suicide. Rather than pursue isolation, the person with self-compassion can recognized that we live in an imperfect world and that we are all imperfect. Research also says that the sense of common humanity can increase our compassion for others.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
To be compassionate towards ourselves, we must recognize our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Sometimes the fact that we’re in pain is blindingly obvious, but more often, we don’t recognize when we are suffering. We are taught that we cover our shame and hope no one notices. If we’re in a difficult or stressful situation, we rarely take the time to step back and recognize how hard it is for us in the moment. And when our pain comes from self-judgment— if you’re angry at yourself for mistreating someone or for making some stupid remark — it’s even harder to see these as moments of suffering.
Health Benefits of Self-Compassion
Neff is one of many scientists who are trying to understand what self-compassion is: can it be taught; and what value does it have for our physical and psychological well-being. She found that people who rate high on self-compassion, also rate high on compassion towards others. They have also found that people high on self-compassion have fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, and physical pain. However, people who rate high on compassion towards others, may not rate high on self-compassion. As a counselor for caregivers, I can attest to this finding. Caregiver clients come to me because they are depressed, anxious, or experiencing increasing physical problems. Often they acknowledge caregiver burnout (or compassion fatigue), unaware that they have low self-compassion. They are angry at themselves and others for their situation, their neglect of other responsibilities, and their relationship with their care-receiver. They may have said or done something for which they feel guilt or shame.
Want to learn how self-compassionate you are? Kristin Neff developed a survey to help you assess your tendency towards self-compassion. Go to her website: http://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/.