Mar-15-2011

Self-Compassion: More Than You Might Imagine

I recently said some things to people in a meeting that I wanted to take back as soon as I heard the words leave my lips. In the days following that meeting, I felt guilty about it. Over and over, I imagined choosing a different path and having a different outcome.

Of course, I couldn’t go back and choose a different path. It was done. So, what was I to do about that guilt?

I reminded myself that mistakes happen. I am not the first person to hurt another’s feelings, and as long as I live, I will be prone to doing it again. We make mistakes.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, such self-talk would be considered a type of “reframe” or an “alternative thought.” A recent article in the New York Times Health section gave me a more specific and apt name for such personal reminders: self-compassion.

Self-compassion should not be thought of only as a “reframe.” According to the research by its pioneer, Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion is made up of three important components:

  • Responding to yourself with understanding in the face of failure or pain
  • Recognizing your own experience as part of the larger human experience (i.e., we all make mistakes and feel pain)
  • Remaining aware of painful emotion while neither denying it nor being consumed by it.

As I read about this concept, I felt a need to be cautious. I wanted to resist the temptation to turn self-compassion into what I wanted it to be—in the way that the concept of self-esteem has resulted in confused parents, teachers, and coaches wondering what to say and not to say to children about their efforts and their errors. We miss out on the opportunity for genuine self-esteem when we dilute it to meaning simply good feelings about the self.

Similarly, if I see self-compassion simply as consolation in the face of all my failings, I am sure something will be missing. Dr. Neff explains as much on her website: Self-compassion is not self-indulgence; it doesn’t mean there is no sacrifice to be made; it does not ignore others.

Developing worthwhile traits like self-compassion takes more than the effort to read this blog post. If you want to explore self-compassion, a good resource is Dr. Neff’s website, where you can consider ways to apply it to your own life.

And that brings me back to my “foot in the mouth” experience a short time ago. In reminding myself that others sometimes make similar mistakes, it occurred to me that the people I offended might also have been in my place before. This reminder of the human experience allowed me to apologize and ask for understanding.

Self-compassion reminded me to express compassion to those I hurt by apologizing. In turn, they accepted that apology and expressed understanding back to me in return. If that’s what self-compassion leads to, then that’s a concept I want to read more about.

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