Jack Cornfield, who is a well-known author and motivational coach, once wrote: “If compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentence. It is only in recent times that I have started to fully understand the meaning of compassion and to implement it more authentically towards myself and, in turn, towards others. For years, I would listen to my inner critic and believe that it was telling me the truth, when in fact the truth was the opposite of what this internal critical dialogue was trying to convince me of. Whenever I made a mistake, I would hear this internal voice suddenly criticising and judging me. It would happen automatically and in an instant. This self-judgement led to much internal and unconscious suffering that made me deeply insecure and afraid of life, especially as I was getting older. As my emotional pain increased, I knew that it was time to make a change.
Most of us are hard on ourselves, particularly if we get even the slightest hint that we don’t ‘match up’ in some way in our achievements, career or study, social standing, relationships, appearance, body image, financial status, etc. Compassion is an attitude that includes a certain set of feelings, thoughts, motives and behaviour. In order to become more compassionate towards yourself and in turn towards others, we will need to practice the following four steps;
Become aware of your judgemental thoughts. Awareness is the first step towards change. One good way to do this is to spend few minutes at the end of each day reflecting on the following questions, “In what ways did I judge myself (and others) today?”. What kind of thoughts, words and actions did you use that were unkind towards yourself (and others)?
Your pain is universal. It’s important to know that you are not alone in feeling the way you do. The truth is that the majority of human beings are not practiced in self-compassion, nor do they know much about it. Most people haven’t been taught how to be kind to themselves by their parents or at school. If anything, we have been given a hard time for never being good enough or smart enough. The very definition of being human means that we are all imperfect, vulnerable and mortal. Self-compassion is about knowing that pain and sorrow are part of being a perfectly, imperfect being and a big part of our shared human experience.
Meet your pain with kindness. Instead of beating yourself up for feeling the way you are feeling, practice meeting your pain with kindness. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a child or a friend who is feeling upset and in need of tender, love and care. It’s not about avoiding the pain, but rather showing it warmth, kindness and care. Start with placing one hand over your heart, closing your eyes and telling yourself, “It’s okay for me to feel upset. I love (or want to love) myself for feeling my emotions. I am proud of myself for feeling pain and embracing my pain in this moment.”
Choose a helpful perspective. Life is a mirror and there is an opportunity for us to learn something from every painful situation and event. It doesn’t matter what the situation is about, we can always choose to look for the silver lining in our experiences. Perhaps the pain that we are going through is teaching us how to recognise our internal strength and resilience. Perhaps we are learning how to practice feeling less fearful and embracive of our vulnerabilities. Or it might be an opportunity to take necessary action to address the problem being faced.
Self-compassion is about doing all of these four things for ourselves when we are struggling. That is, becoming aware of our pain by recognizing how often we judge ourselves. Understanding that although feeling pain is hard, it is a normal human experience, not a failing on our part and we are not alone. It then involves meeting our pain with kindness, just as we might to someone else we care about who is struggling. Finally, focusing our attention and energy on how we might be growing and what we might be gaining from our pain and move through the struggle we are facing.
Sarah is a Psychotherapist, Mental Health Social Worker, Art Therapist, Artist and Writer. She is also the Practice Manager at Mental Awakening.