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When as an infant you experienced distress, how did your caregiver try to comfort you? By showing care and concern: spending time with you, caressing you, cuddling you, singing to you, rocking you…
What your caregiver might have been feeling during such times (or what you may now experience when tending to your own child) is compassion. Compassion is what we experience when we notice suffering in another and feel motivated to provide help.
The concept of self-compassion may be less familiar to you. However, self-compassion refers to directing that same compassion you feel for another, toward your own ‘perceived failure, inadequacy or personal suffering.’
What prevents us from practising self-compassion? For those of us who feel very little self-compassion, there is the option of practising self-compassion; just as one may intentionally practice, such as mindfulness.
Fear of the unknown
Sometimes one’s fear of self-compassion reflects the same fear we experience before embarking on a new journey or when we try a novel activity. Fear of the unknown. The practise of self-compassion may appear strange at first. You might have experience with compassion but not with directing compassion toward yourself, just as you may know what it is like to give someone else a massage but not yourself.
Compassion as a weakness
Some people assume that the need for self-compassion indicates weakness. Life may be tough, they say, but there is no point ‘crying about it’ and seeking comfort – whether from others or from oneself. Such views may depend on one’s personality or upbringing, or cultures that devalue compassion. For instance, we see such views in certain ideologies of masculinity in young adults, three ideologies that associate manliness with ‘frequent sex with multiple partners, with minimal regard for intimacy, tenderness, or compassion‘.
Fear of opening the floodgates
Recently, someone told me: ‘I’m a bullet-riddled soldier and my comrades are dead. If I stop to look at my pain and misery, I will fall apart. So I keep going, not because I want to but because I must.’ One assumption behind this view is that compassion will open the floodgates to boundless pain and misery, and overwhelm us.
Ironically, the more we try not to face our pain, the more likely that self-compassion will feel threatening to us. But, when we practice self-compassion, we need not comfort all our pains at once. We can move slowly, and focus on one issue at a time.
Not knowing how to practise self-compassion
Some people imagine that practising self-compassion requires special or extensive training. No, to practise self-compassion one does not need to become a monk or even go on retreats.
The kind of self-compassion I am talking about is simpler: First, to get in touch with your feelings of compassion, think about an animal or a child who is suffering. Then, when you experience sympathy and desire to help, direct them toward yourself.
Alternatively, visualise yourself describing your suffering to a compassionate friend. How would your friend respond to your pain? Do the same.
Feeling undeserving of compassion
Some, especially those with low self-esteem, feel they do not deserve self-compassion. That they are not worthy. A few weeks ago I read a long post by a depressed young woman who wrote that practising self-compassion, which her therapist had suggested, made her feel better, which then made her feel guilty. So she stopped practising.
Why should she receive compassion, she wrote, when many others do not? But we can include others in our compassion practice too. We just need to remember to include ourselves. Think of it this way: If we practice having compassion for ourselves, that is one less person in the world in need of, but not receiving, compassion.
Previous trauma and abuse can influence people’s willingness to receive compassion. Showing care and concern toward oneself might activate the attachment system and memories of times when the person felt unloved; as a result, the practice can bring up feelings of deep sadness.
Also, self-compassion can be associated with fear. For instance, one study linked fear of self-compassion to childhood sexual abuse. The inconsistency of being exposed to both a caregiver’s warmth and abusive behavior resulted in distrust of compassion, and associating compassion with ‘vulnerability and danger‘.
Overcoming obstacles to self-compassion is difficult, but may be worth your time and effort. To practise self-compassion is to call on your compassionate observer, the part of you that has seen you suffer but is not diminished or hardened by it, and approach your suffering with care and concern, no matter how the world has treated you since your infancy.
But enough theorising on my part. Give self-compassion a try and decide for yourself. Don’t worry about not doing it right. Don’t force it either. Compassion is in you. Just allow it to flow.
Arash Emamzadeh is an independent researcher. Arash attended the University of British Columbia where he studied genetics and psychology.