Mindfulness. Compassion. Self-Compassion. Yeah nice stuff! I was at at the Department of Motor Vehicles acting a bit spacey and muddled by the time I got to the counter. The nice lady with the camera smiled at me and said, “Take your time. Be mindful.” I laughed and thanked her. She was compassionate enough to relate to me, and that helped me to be compassionate with myself and relax. Compassion is everywhere! Or is it?
Well yes and no.
I’m beginning this blog in late October 2018, during a dramatic rise in hate crimes, diminishing political dialogue, and devastating wildfires in the United States. There are people I deeply care for who are dealing with health and financial challenges and I have my own challenges as well. Challenges can easily be felt as threatening. When that sense of threat, whether real or imagined, immediate or not, triggers our stress circuitry, our HPA Axis (Hypothamalic-pituitary- adrenal axis) goes into play and we get hormonally flooded with cortisol, preparing us for fight, flight, and freeze. Basically we’re jacked up with our threat response chemistry, which is good and necessary depending on the situation, but can also mess us up when prolonged and unaddressed. Correct regulation of cortisol levels is necessary for survival, and too little or too much cortisol exposure can result in serious harm.
Sooo… what does this talk of stress chemistry have to do with self-compassion? Well in my view, a great deal. Where in the depths of our psyche we attack ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, can become self-predators that trigger and re-trigger the threat response, compromising our resilience, our steadiness of mind and heart, our memory, intelligence, health, and ability to respond to life’s challenges. Research on self-compassion strongly show increased emotional resilience; less anxiety and less depression.
Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, makes a distinction between the inner critic and the inner predator. An effective inner critic operates from a base of self-compassion.This compassionate critic loves us the same whether we succeed or fail, and is there to help us help ourselves in ways that are authentic to our individual makeup. Because there is love and kindness rather than threat and rejection, we’re more able to pick ourselves up after a fall, to be more clear, honest, and realistic about our behaviors that hurt ourselves and others, and we’re more able to discern what may help us to do better.
Self-compassion offers a base of love and caring for ourselves and for others. From that base, our intentions for improvement become more steady and less conflicted. Self-compassion opens ourselves to our perfectly imperfect humanity in ways that help us to engage life with more motivation, more self-care, more resilience, more endurance and perseverance. Our intelligence and our instincts on every level are more accessible. Mentally, intuitively, physically, spiritually, we’re more available to ourselves.
For many of us, we’re better at being compassionate with others than with ourselves. There are a lot of reasons. We might feel that if we are too kind and compassionate towards ourselves we’ll lose our drive and motivation. We’ll get soft. We won’t have what it takes to stay on track and succeed. We might be giving in to our excuses. We might get weak. We might get hurt where we’re most vulnerable.
Or we might mistake self-compassion as another plan to “fix” ourselves where we feel the most inadequate, but if the approach of the”fix” just compounds the weight of self-criticism and self-judgment, than we get discouraged, disconnected from our hopes and dreams.
A study done at the University of California, Berkeley that intrigued me is one where two groups of students were given a guaranteed to fail vocabulary test. After everyone failed the test, Group One was given self-esteem statements to boost themselves, “Hey so what. I’m smart enough to be in college.” Group 2 was led to be mindful and compassionate with themselves; they talked about how they felt when they failed; they were encouraged to be kind to themselves. “Hey it’s OK. Failure is just part of life. Give yourself a break.” In the followup test Group Two studied harder and longer, and performed better than Group one. Group One essentially just gave up. In this case, mindful, compassionate self-honesty was motivating, whereas the compensatory self-esteem approach was defeating.
Now pep talks can make a positive difference. I certainly need a good boost here and there. But the distinction here is that self-esteem and self-compassion are different. Self-esteem definitely has it’s value but the value is based on some measure of performance. Self-compassion values ourselves just as we are, flawed and messed up. We take on the role of the radically wise loving mother and father for ourselves, who knows to love, care and respect us whether we’re fixed or not. It still amazes me how when I give myself a break from my sometimes paralyzing demand to get it right-right now, I have the presence, patience, and endurance to handle what I need to handle and to do a few things well.
Self-compassion expresses mostly in small kind ways: a moment of mindfulness in the midst of the shouting of our reactions; a gaze of sweetness to what hurts in our body, mind and emotions; a remembrance of common humanity, that all of humanity navigates through joy and sorrow, and we are not alone.
We need self-compassion. The world needs self-compassion. Just do it. Unless, says the smiling, knowing voice of self-compassion, you don’t feel like going there today, and that’s utterly just fine 😎.