Think of the time when you have had a best friend who was suffering in some way –had a misfortune, failed or felt inadequate. How would you typically respond in such a situation? What might you say? What tone of voice would you use? How is your posture? Your nonverbal gestures? Did you notice suffering, respond with kindness and feel connected? Now think about various times you were suffering in a similar way.
Was there is a difference in how you responded to yourself? At times we may “stress out” with ourselves and turn reactions inward with self-criticism, isolation or ruminations.
When we criticize ourselves we tap into the body’s threat defense system. We perceive a threat, release cortisol and adrenaline and prepare to get ready for fight flight or freeze. While this system works great for protection against bodily harms, in today’s world most of the threats are to our self-concept. We attack the problem-ourselves!
Fortunately another evolutionary system evolved –the mammalian, care-giving system. This system is trigged by three factors- warmth, soothing touch, and gentle vocalizations that release oxytocin and natural opiates creating a sense of being secure and safe. When we practice self-compassion, we generate a sense of safety that counteracts the stress of the threat-defense system.
Self-compassion is an act of extending kindness and understanding as opposed to judgement to ourselves. The three components of self-compassion according to Kristen Neff are: self-kindness, vs. self-judgement; common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. isolation. Kindness opens our hearts to suffering, so we can give ourselves what we need. Common humanity opens us to our essential interrelatedness, so that we know we aren’t alone. Mindfulness opens us to the present moment, so we can accept our experience with greater ease. Together they comprise a state of warm-hearted, connected presence.
Self-compassion is a trainable skill for everyone. Yes that means therapists as well! We practice self-compassion because we experience suffering in our lives. Cultivating a sincere, self-compassionate relationship with ourselves is critical. It determines our decisions. It determines whether and how we pursue our dreams and tend to our needs. It determines the quality of our other relationships. We have to live with ourselves every day; why wouldn’t we want to have this connection with ourselves be one of acceptance and compassion as we would treat a best friend?
Neff, K.D. (2011) Self-Compassion. New York: William Morrow.