Cultivate Self-Compassion

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Brian Johnson

Kristin Neff’s life-changing strategies can help you be kinder to yourself.

About Optimal Living 101: This series, curated by Brian Johnson, founder of PhilosophersNotes, features big ideas from leading thinkers on a wide range of personal-development topics. Find his free video, Self-Compassion, below.

Self-compassion not only helps you be kinder to yourself, but it also gives you the power to be kinder to the world around you.

These benefits have been empirically validated by Kristin Neff, PhD, one of the world’s foremost researchers on self-compassion. She established it as a field of study almost a decade ago, during her postdoctoral work at the University of Denver. In her book, Self-Compassion, Neff walks us through the scientific research underpinning the whys and hows of cultivating self-compassion. The volume is packed with both theoretical and practical goodness.

Neff’s basic argument is that self-compassion is made up of three components:

  • Self-kindness. We need to be kind to ourselves. Beating ourselves up is not helpful.
  • Common humanity. We’re not alone. It’s important to see that our suffering is part of a shared human experience.
  • Mindfulness. We want to observe our experience. We can learn to hold it in “balanced” awareness without trying to push our pain away or make it a bigger deal than it is.

Now let’s take a look at each of these elements in more detail.

Be Kind to Yourself

“Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war,” Neff writes.

“But self-kindness involves more than merely stopping self-judgment,” she adds. “It involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need. It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, ‘This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?’ With self-kindness, we soothe and calm our troubled minds. We make a peace offering of warmth, gentleness, and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur.”

I love the image of treating ourselves the same way we would treat a dear friend or family member. By slowing down and allowing ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, we actively comfort ourselves.

The first step is to stop the internal heckling. Quit beating yourself up with thoughts like Why am I such an idiot? or, I can’t believe I did or said that. Instead, replace that heckling with phrases like I feel my pain right now. This is tough. How can I best take care of myself right now?

In short, be nice to yourself. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but learning to do it can lead to huge breakthroughs in your life.

(You can test your current level of self-compassion by taking a quiz at www.self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are.)

Acknowledge That We’re in This Together

Once we’re in the practice of being kind to ourselves, we can work on the second fundamental element of self-compassion: recognizing the common human experience.

Neff argues that seeing our common humanity “helps to distinguish self-compassion from mere self-acceptance or self-love.

“Although self-acceptance and self-love are important, they are incomplete by themselves. They leave out an essential factor — other people. Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with,’ which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering.

“The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect. Why else would we say ‘It’s only human’ to comfort someone who has made a mistake? Self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong choices and feelings of regret are inevitable, no matter how high and mighty one is.”

In our hyper-individualistic, hyper-comparative society, it’s easy to always try to outdo everyone and feel disconnected — either better or worse than those around us. But what if, instead, we slowed down and appreciated our sameness? Doing so gives us the ability to see the threads of our common humanity. It leads us to recognize that we all struggle and can connect to one another through our shared triumphs and failures.

Face Up to Reality With Mindfulness

One way to stay connected to our own experience and to cultivate our connection to the experiences of others is by practicing mindfulness.

For Neff, “mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s occurring in the present moment. Facing up to reality, in other words. The idea is that we need to see things as they are, no more, no less, in order to respond to our current situation in the most compassionate — and therefore effective — manner.”

Like many wise teachers, Neff reminds us that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. How we respond to pain determines our level of suffering. Resisting pain by trying to wish away whatever is happening — whether it’s something mundane, like traffic on the way to work, or something more significant, like a serious illness or death of a loved one — only causes our suffering to grow.

“Our emotional suffering is caused by our desire for things to be other than they are,” Neff explains. “Once something has occurred in reality, there is nothing you can do to change that reality in the present moment. This is how things are. You can choose to accept this fact or not, but reality will remain the same either way.”

Mindfulness is one tool we can develop to appropriately relate to reality.

Take Note

Neff’s “noting practice” is one of my all-time favorite tips for building mindfulness. She writes that “the idea is to make a soft mental note whenever a particular thought, emotion, or sensation arises. This helps us to become more consciously aware of what we’re experiencing.”

Noting is a simple way to create awareness, and I love to use it during my own meditation sessions. For example, when I observe my mind wandering off into strategizing or planning, I softly say the word “strategy” to myself  and then bring my attention back to my breath.

Give it a try and see if noting helps you become more conscious of your life experience.

Using the three components of self-compassion improves our chances of reaching our goals and living the profoundly beautiful and fulfilling life we all deserve.

Ready to start being kinder to yourself today?

About Kristin Neff: An associate professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas in Austin, Kristin Neff, PhD, is a pioneer in researching the psychological health benefits of self-compassion.

Brian Johnson loves helping people optimize their lives as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of optimal living — integrating ancient wisdom, modern science, common sense, virtue, mastery, and fun. Learn more and optimize your life at brianjohnson.me.

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