Why Self-Compassion is the New Mindfulness

When we have trouble being vulnerable, "self-compassion" can seem like "self-indulgence." But fessing up to when we fall short can bring out our best, happiest, selves.

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Did you know self-compassion is the new black? Last year it was mindfulness but this year, attending without judgment is out and compassion for you as an antidote to your perceived low self-worth, failure, or any other form of suffering is definitely in. This is perfect for those of us living in the west where we are so often sick with, as meditation teacher David Loy would say, our “sense of lack.” That loathing one might argue could be a result of our tendency to privilege the individual and his or her autonomy and accomplishments over the community and our interdependence. The idea that we can do everything ourselves and should is absurd. I mean, look around you. Do you have shelter and food? Did you build the former and grow the latter? Likely not, and even if you did where did you get the building materials, the seed, and tools? Our interdependence is always staring us in the face but we so easily miss it, focused on our self-importance, negative (“I’m so horrible”) or positive (“I’m so great”).

I have a secret I’m going to share with you that I tell the people who come to the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy groups I lead. You are not so special or so bad. I’m sorry. You are ordinary. I find that such a relief. Trying to live up to some unrealistic standard of who I should be and what I should accomplish is ultimately exhausting and demoralizing. Whose standard is it anyway? It just becomes a metaphorical stick with which we can beat ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations. On top of that, it is so easy to think that being nice to ourselves is weakness or wimpy. Pulling up our bootstraps, and maintaining a stiff upper lip are ingrained in our culture. Staying with the tough familiar is often much easier than changing the way we respond.

Pulling up our bootstraps, and maintaining a stiff upper lip are ingrained in our culture. Staying with the tough familiar is often much easier than changing the way we respond.

I once attended a self-compassion workshop and found myself critical and rejecting of the exercises, thinking, “This is a bunch of crap.” The idea of hugging myself or stroking my face, saying words like, “Soften, Soothe and Allow,” softening around the tense areas of body, “like around the edges of a pancake,” and putting my hand on my heart while recalling a difficulty made me squirm with dis-ease. I didn’t want to be like a pancake. I didn’t want to practice loving-kindness to myself, the people I don’t like, or all beings. An acquaintance and I were talking about it and she said she often jokingly substitutes, “May all beings be peaceful” with the phrase, “May all beings have a jelly donut.”

It took a while to figure out that what was underneath all of this discomfort and cynicism was the thought, “self-compassion is self-indulgence.” This was an interesting recognition and invoking curiosity about this reaction led to the awareness: I don’t like to be vulnerable or weak. Okay, so who does? But the reality is that we are all vulnerable creatures. In the words of a psychiatrist colleague of mine, “We are just little mammals and there are some things we should stay away from.” This is good advice for many situations, one of which is our harsh stance toward self. Ask yourself, “What is the impact of all that loathing, sense of lack, and self-criticism?”

So, this is where self-compassion and ultimately compassion for others comes in, because believe me, those expectations we have for ourselves usually have their counterpart in our expectations of others. Researcher and author Kristin Neff expresses self-compassion as being composed of three parts: “self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” So mindfulness isn’t exactly out—it’s contained in the C word. Willem Kuyken et al (2010) found that MBCT treatment effects for depression are brought about by increased self-compassion and mindfulness as well as a separation of the link between reactive depressive thinking and bad outcomes for the illness. It then stands to reason that cultivating self-compassion may result in a happier, kinder you.

Recently, I was teaching a mindfulness and self-compassion workshop (we so often do what we need ourselves) and there is a values exercise derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in which you imagine you are at your own funeral and someone is giving your eulogy. You consider what you would want them to say, to help you consider how you are living or not, according to your values. We were about to do this exercise and I remembered a number of people in the group had just experienced the death of a child, partner, or parent. Amazingly, the thought came to me that given all their recent losses, it might be wise to change the exercise as follows to one taken from Solution Focused Therapy, a method of therapy that is goal oriented, focused on the future rather than the past. Many of us, when in distress, become problem-saturated. Solution Focused Therapy helps us to think about how our situations, relationships, lives, etc., could be better rather than delving into what makes them so bad.

Compassion Practice: Picture Your Best Self

Imagine your life five years from now when you are living, as you would like to be, according to your values. What will you be doing? Who will be in your life? Where will you be living? Write this letter from the future to someone important to you (living or dead, known or unknown) describing your life, as it is at that time, in exquisite detail. Take as long as you need to do this, making it as concrete as possible.

  • Read over the letter and extract three values that are important to you.
  • How close on a scale from 1 to 100 (with a 100 being completely) are you to this life you would like to be living?
  • What is a small, concrete thing you could do in the next 48 hours to bring you five points closer to that life? Make sure that the task is stated in positive and behavioural terms. Make sure it is achievable!

Exercises like this can bring awareness and intention to how we are living. They can help us focus on cultivating who we want to be from a place of kindness and self-care. Throw away the stick and pick up a jelly donut.