Years ago a meditation instructor shared a comment that caused me to stop and think. I was struggling to come to terms with the loss of the boy we had taken in and raised for many years. He had decided to join the Army and during a tour of duty he was killed not by our nation’s alleged enemies but rather from “friendly fire”. There was nothing friendly about it. I was in pain and I was suffering. On some days I felt anger and despair and other days I felt nothing at all – numb with shock and grief. The teacher’s words to me on that particular day challenged my perspective and effectively woke me up.
Pain is what the world does to us, suffering is what we do to ourselves.
Nearly eight years later, I continue to think of those words every day as it was probably the beginning of my ability to fully understand and practice self-compassion.
Many of us are used to beating ourselves up or being hard on ourselves. In our society, it is commonplace. We are often taught that being hard on ourselves is the way to achieve, to win, to succeed. It is common to have feelings of guilt and shame reinforced by parents, teachers and coaches.
Being self-critical tends to be an accepted path to success in our culture and an acceptable way to treat ourselves. It can be hard to show ourselves kindness for concern that it would appear to be selfish, lazy or arrogant. However, research has found that self-criticism actually does more harm than good and it results in a variety of negative consequences. For example, research that Kristin Neff, Ph.D., at the University of Texas has conducted, demonstrates that self-criticism can lead to lowered self-esteem (self-doubt), anxiety and depression. Dr. Neff also reports that when self-compassion is practiced, individuals have increased well-being, diminished anxiety and depression, along with better emotional coping skills and compassion for others. In my case, understanding the difference between pain and suffering helped me to cope with a devastating loss.
Self-compassion can be confusing. We all understand what is meant by being judgmental, and it is important to remember that being self-critical is the same thing. Below are 3 Myths debunked by Dr. Neff’s research:
Myth # 1: Self-compassion is the same thing as self-pity, it is weak.
Fact: Self-pity is being immersed in your problems and forgetting that others also struggle. Being able to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you have struggles just like everyone else helps you put your problems into perspective.
Myth # 2: Self-compassion is self-indulgent.
Fact: Being self-compassionate is not the same as seeking pleasure. It is not shirking responsibilities or running away in avoidance. Rather, self-compassion requires you to focus on your thoughts and actions and how those thoughts and actions manifest.
Myth # 3: Self-criticism is an effective motivator.
Fact: There is nothing motivational about criticizing yourself and it makes you fear failure and question yourself. Self-compassion is the opposite of complacency and it allows us to understand that it is perfectly ok to not be perfect.
Being self-compassionate might seem unnatural at first, these suggestions can help. When you learn to be compassionate with yourself, it will be easier to have compassion for others which makes the world a better place for all of us.