This week’s lesson focuses on Self-Compassion. The idea of self-compassion can be difficult for those of us raised in the Puritan society that dominates Western, especially U.S. culture. It conjures images of self-indulgence and weakness. For a multitude of reasons, our culture either consciously or unconsciously looks down on simply being kind to yourself.
Cultural Barriers to Compassion
- The idea that sacrifice and self-flagellation are the routes to happiness
- The elevation of Martyrdom
- Narrow view of natural selection.
- Humans need to rein in their selfish, destructive impulses
- Behaviorism endorsed punishing undesirable behaviors, without relation to their causes
- The Gospel of Self-Esteem, or We Must All Be Better than Average
- The belief that fierce competition is the best or only route to success and survival.
The Study of Self-Compassion
Research Kristin Neff of the University of Texas Austin started developing her research into self-compassion in the early 2000s. She defines self-compassion as “the practice of quieting the inner critic, replacing it with a voice of support, understanding, and care for oneself.” Her research find that when we address the mistakes of others, we are kinder, gentler, and more understanding. When we address our own mistakes, we are harsher, more critical, and critical in a way that can paralyze us against taking future risks.
Three Components of Self-Compassion
- Self-Kindness (vs. Self-Judgment)
- Treating self with care and understanding rather than harsh judgment
- Desire to alleviate ones own suffering
- Actively soothing and comforting oneself
- Common Humanity (vs. Isolation)
- Seeing our own experience as part of a larger human experience rather than something isolated or abnormal
- Recognizing that life is imperfect (including us)
- Mindfulness (vs. Over-Identification)
- Avoiding extremes of suppressing or running away with (wallowing in) painful feelings
- Allows us to “be” with painful feelings as they are happening
Overcoming Objections to Self-Compassion
The idea of self-compassion can be difficult for those of us raised in the Puritan society that dominates Western, especially U.S. culture. It conjures images of self-indulgence and weakness. Dr. Neff offers the following strategies for overcoming our objections to self-compassion.
- Self-compassion confused with self-pity: Self-pity is perceived as self-indulgent, dramatic, and selfish. But self-compassion is different because it incorporates the human experience—it’s not just hard for me, it’s hard for all of us. Also, mindfulness helps us not to exaggerate the suffering we experience.
- Harsh judgement confused with constructive healthy criticism: There is a difference between healthy self-discernment and harsh self-judgment. Self-compassion allows for healthy, constructive, kind supportive criticism while still discouraging those thought that belittle, like “you’re worthless, you’re a failure. Self-compassion doesn’t evaluate and judge your worth as a person, it discriminates and focuses on the situation without personal judgement.
- Self-compassion confused with self-indulgence: Compassion doesn’t want us to suffer, and in the long run, unchecked self-indulgence harms you. True self-compassion sets healthy boundaries on behavior.
- Self-compassion confused with making excuses: Self-compassion allows you to see yourself more clearly and accept responsibility because we all make mistakes, Since mistakes are expected and understood as part of the human condition, self-compassion actually decreases the need for excuses and blame.
- Belief that motivation requires self-criticism: Our culture supports the idea that the only way to be motivated and focused is through self-criticism. We need to crack the whip, listen to the inner drill sergeant, or we’ll be lazy and unmotivated. Research shows that this approach does not well, and that we get better results
Happiness Practice #6: Self-Compassionate Letter
This week’s assignment is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.
Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up in Week Eight: Forgiveness and its connection to happiness.
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.