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Contented: Why It’s Hard to Feel for Yourself, Why You Must and How To Do It.

 

Self-Compassion
Noah Silliman on Unsplash

You heard it wrong. Mom did not say,” Don’t feel for  yourself so much.” She probably said “Don’t feel yourself so much.” Feel…for…yourself. Self-compassion. Feel…for…yourself. Something else.

One word difference. The result can be life-changing.

Feel for yourself on Zoom, you’ll get fired up with energy, helping you slip out of your predicament. Compassionate vibe draws the cheerleader out of your tribe.

Feel yourself on Zoom and you get fired. Happened to a scholarly looking political pundit. I have forgotten his name.

Feel yourself in a room with a young girl, the video gets viralized, you get fried. By every talk show host alive. Happened to rowdy goofy lawyer.

We know compassion. We are human. We are filled with feelings. There are even melancholic songs crying out loud about our feeling for feelings. Having feelings is a distinctive nature that sets us apart from a table.

We share compassion for the front liners, our health heroes who are risking their lives to save lives. We feel for Jane who has been laid off. We feel for the employees of the neighborhood bar which has closed for good. We feel for the neighbors of the tone deaf when the karaoke joint shuttered. We are natural when showing compassion for others.

Metaphorically, practicing self-compassion especially, when confined by the pandemic, could determine whether you walk out from the isolation straight or in a straight- jacket. How do you prevent mental scarring, a potential fallout from the stay-in?

Self-compassion? Is that self-pity? Is that another label for self-esteem? Isn’t compassion other initiated? How do we deserve any compassion when we are the screw ups who screwed up? Can compassion be an inside job?

Studying psychology is like learning Mandarin. Sometimes, the differences are subtle. In Mandarin, a small change in the pitch and tone will render the word spoken, a totally different in meaning. In psychology, especially with the emotions, the differences in the affect defines the branch.

There are numerous researchers in the study of self-compassion. One name stands out like the Oxford English Dictionary. Revered. Comprehensive. Preferred choice of reference. The Oxford is the Word for words, Kristin Neff is the compass for self-compassion.

Kristin Neff is an associate professor for educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the creator of the Self-compassion Scales.

Just type “Self-compassion” or “selfcompassion” if you are a bit careless or “selgcompasion” if you are really careless and with fat fingers, and her org.site beckons you in the instant. The top of the page. Embedded within her website is her TedX Talk which has been viewed 1.7 million times.

Why is self-compassion such a hit with people? The practice helps you cope better with difficult life conditions. It helps you survive as you are being steamrolled by the bane of life. Anything that saves people from such a hit must surely be a hit with people. But is it the chicken or the egg?

Or is it the egg of the chicken? I view self-compassion as an active coping strategy whereas formal text on the subject seems to also indicate having self-compassion as a precursor to adopting a positive coping strategy. Personally, it’s a right and a right, if which right matters.

Self-Compassion
Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash
Certainly, it is not a cop-out. It takes courage to face the issue squarely. It takes commitment and determination to overcome the challenges as we work things out. So, if it is not a cop-out, how is it a coping strategy?

When changes happen in your life, and they include those that are enabling, you react or respond to them through certain emotions, thoughts and behavior. Your emotions, thoughts and behavior reflect your coping style. The adaptive coping style involves active response, identifying the problems and working to resolve them, thus, minimizing negative outcomes.

Maladaptive coping style is less effective and is, over time, detrimental to your wellbeing. A pervasive strategy is denial. Pretending that a problem is not bothering you, avoiding facing it and ignoring the call to address it. Common approaches to avoiding the issue include resorting to getting drunk, sleeping excessively and isolating oneself.

Between the positive and negative styles eight coping strategies are listed on the UCLA Dual Diagnosis Program. Besides denial, the strategies people use include humor, seeking support, problem solving, relaxation, physical recreation, adjusting expectations, venting and self-blame.

Self-compassion is the antithesis to self-blame. This is how Dr Neff defines self-compassion (copied from her website):” Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

       Dr. Neff credits the Buddhist tradition for the origination of this positive attitude construct. This warm nurturing coping strategy is best articulated through its three key psychological nutrients; kindness to self, embracing common humanity and mindful awareness of your feelings.

Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
    Again, I am going to lean in on Dr. Neff’s narrative of the three key elements [to me, the psychological nutrients] of self-compassion. She is the Authority on self-compassion:

1.  Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

2.  Common humanity vs. Isolation.

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

Love Yourself
Content Credit: Patrick Goodness


3.  Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.

Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Now that you are grounded on the concept and elements of self-compassion, let’s get two common questions answered before we move to the practice. Is self-compassion the same as self-pity?

With self-pity, you claim the victim role. The focus is on the suffering. The injustice, “why has it got to be me?”  You tend to view matters worse and the impact larger than it is, “I am going to be ruined by this, there is no way out.” Catastrophizing things. The relationship between you and yourself is one that is patronizing.

When you wear the self-compassion hat, you take the role of a friend, “I feel for you. I understand what you have been going through.” You look at the suffering through the common humanity lens, “We are imperfect because we are human. As humans, we make mistakes. This is a common mistake that can be addressed.” You are mindful of your suffering and you are kind to yourself.

With self-esteem, you tend to overestimate your power and underestimate the impact of an issue, until the important becomes urgent. You can do it alone until you fail to do it.

Someone has to be accountable, not you. You are infallible. You must always be the main man. You must take it out on someone. There is a constant sense of tension. It’s boom- boom- boom, until you are busted, when you fail to achieve an expected outcome. Then, you might grovel in acute self-pity. It’s not an ideal persona toward boosting your psychological well-being.

Self -Compassion
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The brain itch question. Why is it hard to have compassion for self? We are all warm jelly and chicken soup when feeling for others’ misfortune. When it comes to feeling for our self, we wear the hard hat and carry a hammer. Why so?

We hold ourselves to high standards, it’s always higher than we expect from the other person. We don’t want to be on par. We want to be better. And so we self-shame, self-slam.
We learned it from the adults when we were young. Sledge hammer shame treatment. And now, the “mental me” resurrect the abuse. Pseudo-wisdom.
Automatically inferring to the tough stuff to move us on to better places. It’s backfire motivation.

According to Dr Neff, self-compassion has an almost immediate positive impact. It is more scalable than it’s sombre sibling, meditation. With the meditation practice, you need a setting, even if you do the standing or walking meditation. You can summon self-compassion anywhere.

Just put your hand over where your heart is and empathise. Switch on the good friend persona to get started. Be mindful of the situation. Don’t make the issue or setback bigger than it is. Use kind words like a good friend would and relate to setbacks as impetus for growth.

To sample the soothing embrace of self-compassion, turn on the TedX video on Dr Kristin Neff’s site. Her tone and pace project the calmness and comfort you would expect from a person of compassion. She is an excellent showcase of her practice. Thanks to her, the world can be better off when we fail,  turning setbacks into prompters, reminders of our connection to humanity. Like the roar at Anfield, the home ground of Liverpool Football Club, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Self-compassion is a choice. As humans, we are endowed with a range of coping strategies to carry us out of troubled waters. You can choose to enable or disable yourself. I know the choice you should make. Don’t you?

My friends, I am sure you will benefit from this article. Practice compassion now. Pass this article along to at least 10 of your friends. You’ll feel better. Your friends will be better at living a contented life. I will be moved to work harder and write better. Thank you.

Photo by the author

 

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