In the summer of 2013, I had developed a mindfulness practice and was thrilled with my more relaxed and less reactive approach to living. At the same time, something was not quite right. Through the practice of compassion, I had begun to treat others with more dignity and love, especially in difficult, confrontational circumstances.
But I had a bypass. I would spend my day in kindness and curiosity and then return home to deliver a toxic dose of judgment and criticism to myself. I would unleash the build-up of frustration, anger and sadness through a typical day on myself. My specialty was shame messages. I heard the voice in my head declare “Who do you think you are? You are a failure. Just give up, your time to shine is over.”
Its been said, “we are very attached to our suffering.” The work of self-compassion reminds us that much of our suffering comes from our own self-criticism. Granted, these can be internalized messages from our past, our childhood, and even our current experience, but as with the practice of mindfulness, we may not have control of our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them.
The poet John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara:
“When this spiritual path opens, you can bring an incredible generosity to the world and to the lives of others. Sometimes, it is easy to be generous outward, to give and give and give and yet remain ungenerous to yourself. You lose the balance of your soul if you do not learn to take care of yourself.”
As I wrote last month, you must “Secure Your Own Mask First.”
I began to study Mindful Self-Compassion, the work of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer and it resonated immediately. So I took the 26-question “Self-Compassion Scale”. This evaluation is broken into three dimensions that Neff and Germer consider the foundations of mindful self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness – Providing yourself with the compassion and self-soothing you deserve
- Common Humanity – The understanding that you are not alone in your suffering, that it is part of the human experience
- Mindfulness – An awareness of what is actually happening in your lived experience.
To hear Kristin describe self-compassion, was to connect to my everyday experience in a language that made sense. Kristin describes self-compassion as a substitute for self-esteem. The problem with self-esteem is that it abandons you when you need it most. I was used to achievement, but losing a father, experiencing family illness and school difficulties as well as the closing of my business had pretty much burst my self-esteem balloon. The habit of dusting myself off from disappointment and getting what I sought through force of will simply stopped working.
I thought I scored pretty well on Kristin’s Self-Compassion Scale but the numbers told a different story. On the scale evaluating one’s sense of Common Humanity, I scored 1.5 out of 5. This result indicated that I believed I was all alone in the world and none of the ridiculously poor decisions I had made in my life had ever been undertaken by another human. My self-compassion was pretty low.
So here’s what I did, all part of Neff & Germer’s prescription that can be practiced through their books and the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum:
- I made a list of 13 ways to soothe myself when the instinct to zone out with TV or the internet or cling to my wife.
- For three weeks, I did 15 minutes of compassionate writing each day. This practice encourages you to change your perspective as you write about difficult situations – “I screwed up another investment today” transforms into “I know you tried your best today even though you didn’t get much sleep” when I take the perspective a trusted friend.
- I created a database in which I rated myself on self-compassion, self-judgment, feelings of isolation or connection and mindfulness every hour for three weeks. I found that checking in with how I was treating myself more frequently led me to be less self-critical. The simple task of noticing how hard I was being on myself led me to ask myself, “Do I have to be this way? Can I approach myself with some gentleness?” I think it was a combination of realizing what I was doing to myself and just being plain tired and embarrassed that I was beating myself up that caused a shift.
I noted that a meaningful change in these hourly self-compassion ratings generally led to related action in the next hour or two. After noticing I was highly self critical, I later “lashed out at my wife.” After noticing some sense of common humanity, “I had a long, pleasant conversation with a friend.” This important realization allowed me to back off from challenging interactions if I was in the midst of a self-compassion drought that might lead to unwise action.
Over the course of three weeks, I found my self-compassion and sense of common humanity and connection rising. By Kristen’s scale, my self-compassion increased 24%. My family even noticed it in my words and actions. I felt my experience more lightly and happily.
There are plenty of barriers to self-compassion. When I shared self-compassion practice with my monthly men’s group, they were thrilled, “this would be something great for my daughter (or friend, or father, or neighbor) to do!” But when pressed, no one was able to recognize their own universal need for it. There are plenty of blocks to self-compassion. A sense that it might be weak or self-indulgent. Or a sense that in order to be motivated, one must be hard on themselves. The research doesn’t support this! Self-compassion isn’t about giving ourselves a free pass or being complacent. It is about treating ourselves with kindness whatever the outcome. As Neff says, “we give ourselves compassion not to feel better, but because we feel bad.” In this way, self-compassion becomes a missing ingredient to genuine resilience, both physical and emotional.
John O’Donohue continues,
“You need to be generous to yourself in order to receive the love that surrounds you. You can suffer from a desperate hunger to be loved. You can search long years in lonely places, far outside yourself. Yet the whole time, this love is but a few inches away from you. It is at the edge of your soul, but you have been blind to its presence.”