Revisit the Art of Self-Compassion in 2021

Self-compassion is a lovely concept, but for many of us, it's just that — a concept. An idea. Self-compassion is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, especially during times of stress. But unless we've been doing intentional work towards inner growth, it can be hard to truly feel this sense of tenderness and grace with ourselves. Some people still carry the burdens of old relationships or the traumas of childhood experiences — perhaps our parents were kind and loving to us, but hard on themselves, and we did not see self-compassion modeled. Or, maybe we have loved people who did not love us back, and our hearts and minds have accepted the story that we don't unconditionally deserve compassion.

Whether we see it as self-compassion, loving-kindness, or self-friendship, the art of this practice means that we acknowledge ourselves fully — shortcomings and all — and are kind to ourselves in the face of perceived inadequacies. Self-compassion means understanding and caring for the whole self, with all the human frailties and unique imperfections that make us who we are.

What is self-compassion?

When we feel empathetic towards others, we see their pain in a way that does not separate "us" and "them" — we see them with love, understanding, and the knowledge that there is no distinction between our situation and theirs besides luck. Self-compassion is the practice of being empathetic toward our own pain and suffering. Having compassion for oneself is much like having compassion for others — we notice our own suffering as if we were seeing it in a dear friend, and our heart responds to the pain. The word "compassion" literally means "to suffer with." Whether we are suffering from feelings of pain, failure, or acknowledgment of our imperfections, self-compassion is an offering of kindness and understanding, rather than judgment. Can we be empathetic to our own pain? Can we comfort and care for ourselves in this moment of suffering, just as we might comfort and care for someone we loved?

Opening the heart through Maitri

Maitri (pronounced my-tree) is a Buddhist concept of loving-kindness, and the heart of self-compassion. Understanding Maitri supports our resilience and wellbeing in the face of pain and difficulty. As Pema Chodron describes it, we all look to the outside to make ourselves feel better, but Maitri is about beginning the process of making friends with the whole of who we are. She says of self-compassion that it is the practice of feeling, "loving-kindness — maitri — toward ourselves. Maitri doesn't mean getting rid of anything… we can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves… it isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are." 

Whether we see it as self-compassion, loving-kindness, or self-friendship, the art of this practice means that we acknowledge ourselves fully — shortcomings and all — and are kind to ourselves in the face of perceived inadequacies. Self-compassion means understanding and caring for the whole self, with all the human frailties and unique imperfections that make us who we are.

It's normal to be hard on ourselves sometimes, such as when we feel overwhelmed (like missing a deadline at work), when we feel regret (saying the wrong thing at the wrong time), or in anticipation of the unknown future. Especially in these moments, showing ourselves kindness can feel like a radical change. 

Misconceptions about self-compassion

To truly understand self-compassion, it can help to define what it is not. Self-compassion is not self-pity. That path involves obsessing on our own problems while ignoring the world around us. If we stay curious and intentional, we can avoid the ego-driven pursuit of self-pity.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. We might be afraid that giving ourselves a measure of grace is a weakness, and self-centered in nature. We might worry that giving ourselves an inch of self-compassion might allow us to take a mile, to "get away with anything." Instead, we can see healthy self-compassion as a motivator, not an excuse. Our culture often fixates on the concept of self-care, but we frequently miss its more profound meaning. For example, if we feel sad or stressed, tuning out our feelings and deeper needs might lead us to indulgent behaviors that don't actually make us feel better — they simply fill a temporary craving and distract us from our pain. Yet true self-compassion helps us work through our suffering in a deep and lasting way, because it encourages us to really listen to our hearts, minds, and bodies, and respond with love. It is intentional, and relational rather than disconnected.

How to practice self-compassion

It's normal to be hard on ourselves sometimes, such as when we feel overwhelmed (like missing a deadline at work), when we feel regret (saying the wrong thing at the wrong time), or in anticipation of the unknown future. Especially in these moments, showing ourselves kindness can feel like a radical change. Here are a few ways we can learn to practice self-compassion.

Treat yourself as you would a friend. If a friend made a mistake or was suffering in some way, how would you respond? You wouldn't approach the situation with judgment and negativity — you would uplift them with positive words, or give them a hug. Give yourself this same love and care in acute high-stress moments, by thinking and speaking kindly about yourself. Our words are powerful, and the words we say to ourselves may be the most powerful of all.

It may take work, but loving and accepting ourselves for who we are — flaws included — can give us incredible freedom. Our differences make us who we are. Learning to see and embrace our pain alongside our beauty helps us find our greatest resilience in our hours of need.

Explore self-compassion with a letter to yourself. Journaling for self-compassion may be beneficial when we are feeling anxiety about the future. To help crawl out from under those feelings of inadequacy — "I'll never get that new job" or "my life will never change for the better" — write a love letter to yourself. Construct a letter to remind you of all the wonderful aspects that make up who you are, and all you are capable of. Plant those ideas like seeds and let them blossom within you.

It may take work, but loving and accepting ourselves for who we are — flaws included — can give us incredible freedom. Our differences make us who we are. Learning to see and embrace our pain alongside our beauty helps us find our greatest resilience in our hours of need.

"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Love yourself to love others

If you were recently hard on yourself, don't fret — you'll get another chance to practice. The human condition offers endless opportunities for us to practice self-compassion. We all encounter frustration, mistakes, and loss. We all fall short of our ideals and our goals. We all have heartbreak and regret, fear and anxiety. Yet this inner turmoil is not all bad. As they say — no mud, no lotus. Struggle and change shake things up. Discomfort dislodges our old beliefs and makes room for growth, and practicing self-compassion throughout allows us to become the beautiful souls we are meant to be. It allows us to see all humans — ourselves and others — with ever-deepening gratitude and love.

Calm Your Mind How To

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