Building our self-compassion

What is self-compassion?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word compassion is rooted in the understanding that we ‘suffer with’ someone. Compassion implies that our suffering is a shared experience. So when we show compassion towards another person, we open our hearts to them in their suffering. Our emotions either mirror or absorb theirs helping us to connect meaningfully.

When we are self-compassionate, we act in the same way we do when compassionate towards other people, only this time, we apply our skills to ourselves. But this is no easy option and does not come naturally to most of us. Many of us find it easier to support someone else rather than ourselves. Caring for ourselves is never easy and can’t be taken for granted. Somehow we find it difficult to care for ourselves, and we end up being hard on ourselves over a failure or embarrassment.

Before we can apply compassion to ourselves, we must first understand what occurs in our minds when we criticise ourselves. Our thinking follows set patterns. To improve our mental well-being, we must understand the structure of self-criticism. We must develop the ability to stand apart from our thoughts so that we can observe them. Dispassionately observing our thoughts is the first vital step on the road to improve our mental health. Once we see how our thoughts lead to negative thoughts or emotions, we can become skilled at seeing our inner health. When our thought-life is defective, then negative emotions follow; if our thought-life is robust, healthier emotions follow. Self-compassion aims to stand back from our thought processes and find strategies to manage our mental health.

The need to be understood

Suppose someone’s careless words have hurt my friend. When I sit and listen to his story and offer non-judgemental support, I show compassion to him. Compassion places me in their shoes, and as they tell their story, I actively listen so that they feel supported. My listening becomes an act of love, and I hope they begin to feel better about their situation.

Photo by an unknown author. Licensed under CC BY-SA-CC.

I can offer love that eases their pain because I am sufficiently uncoupled from the heat of their situation. I exercise care towards my friend, yet I remain sufficiently distanced enough to be free from their distress. It is a basic human need to be heard and understood, and our main defence against painful experiences dominating our lives. As with my friend, so it is with ourselves.

Compassion does not change the circumstances, but it does change the way I see the situation. Our perceptions drive our emotions. We are more emotionally orientated than we may think, and it is generally acknowledged that men are more reluctant to talk about their mental health than women.

Mind the gap

Lying between our knee-jerk reactions and our thoughtful responses is a void waiting for us to fill. If we do not choose to invest in it with considered thoughts and actions, our emotions will jump in and fill it for us. If we fill it with considered choices, we have chosen to build a healthier outlook and improve our mental health. The stimulus-response space lies largely dormant and untrained until we choose to invest in it. The more we remain untrained, the more we will react to situations, often regretting our ill-considered actions.

Photo by an unknown author. Licensed under CC BY-SA-CC.

Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl riveted a generation of readers with his descriptions of concentration camp life and its lessons for spiritual survival. Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning through it, and then move forward. His book Man’s Search for Meaning [1] remains one of the most influential books today and was first published in English in 1959.

Later, Stephen Covey developed the concept further, adding a series of searching questions we can ask ourselves to build our resilience. In First Things First, [2] Covey identifies that we each have four foundations to build stronger and healthier inner structures to support our mental health and well-being.

Covey’s focus is on four inner regions of our being called ‘endowments’ on which our inner strength can be built.

Self-awareness is the capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, motives, history, scripts, and habits. It enables us to take off our filters to look at ourselves objectively.

Conscience connects us with the inherited wisdom of our values and to direct our heart. Our internal guidance system signals within us to direct us when we contemplate acting in a way that’s contrary to principle.

Independent will is our capacity to act and give us the power to rise above our circumstances. It enables us to overcome our set outlook on life, rewrites our scripts and establishes healthier behaviour patterns.

Creative imagination is the power to envision our lives beyond the present. It’s the endowment that enables us to see ourselves and others differently and better than we are now.

After describing the four foundations and how they interact with one another, he suggests a series of searching statements that help us think deeply about our temperament, giving suggestions about how we can invest in them.

I find the idea endlessly fascinating, providing us with some powerful tools for improving our mental health. When we practice mindfulness, we allow our thoughts to de-couple from the pressures of life, and we can begin to think or behave positively.

When we use mindfulness in this way, we usually find that a wise response comes to mind, and from there, we can make better choices that lead to making sense of our troubles and herald a better tomorrow.

Instead of judging and criticising myself for my shortcomings, I can use these same principles for my well-being. It’s a skill that takes some practice, but by offering myself self-compassion, I can ease my mental anguish and improve my mental well-being, but as the old proverb says, ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ It takes time and practice.

The nature of thoughts

There is a world of difference between a reaction and a response. When self-critical thoughts emerge in our minds, we will either react or respond. The fact that they happen to us is taken as a given – it’s part of our humanity. And because we are human and these things happen to us, we need self-compassion. It is a foundational human need.

In his book, The Chimp Paradox[3], Steve Peters uses a chimp metaphor to describe how our impulses behave like chimps that jump into our minds without warning. Whenever we have been assaulted by feelings, thoughts or behaviours that are unwelcome, the chimp has jumped into our minds. The central idea is that you cannot control your inner chimp; it jumps in unannounced. It’s a compelling metaphor.

In her book The Battlefield of the Mind, Joyce Meyer[4], writing from a Christian perspective, sees the battle for our mind as a spiritual struggle. Meyer’s is an intensely practical approach that has attracted a huge international following. Her insights appeal to our unwanted feelings and thoughts, providing useful strategies to overcome them.

The key point here is that Frankl, Covey, Peters, and Meyer identify the nature of our dilemmas. In whatever way you see things, each author suggests methods to develop the skills necessary to overcome or lessen the impact of unwanted thoughts on our lives and provide a way to develop our human potential.

Taken together, they provide us with a starting point for further study since each author speaks from a distinct and separate field of study. Their approach is broadly the same: to develop a healthy space for us to choose. Only through choice can we refute harmful thoughts and find a way towards a kinder future.

[1] Frankl, V, E., Man’s Search For Meaning, (Rider Publications, London, 1992) 2nd edition

[2] Covey, S., First Things First, (London, Simon & Schuster, 1994) pp.59-63

[3] Peters, S., The Chimp Paradox, (London, Random House Books, 2012) p.44

[4] Meyer, J., The Battlefield of the Mind, (Missouri, Time Warner Books, 1995)

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