Self-Compassion: Mastering the Practice of Inner Kindness

by Jean Marie Johnson

"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."
—Henry James

In the words of Communico Senior Vice President, Diane Berenbaum: "Pure kindness pays off … being kind is a way to make our own lives, and the lives of others, more meaningful." 

Indeed. As Diane so aptly suggests, kindness expressed or extended makes an impact on the giver and the receiver, reinforcing a quality that is its own reward. You may say "It's just what I do, and how I am. I'm there for people if they need me." Fair enough. You lend a hand to your next door neighbor, cheer up a co-worker when she is down, and listen with an open heart to a family member when he's struggling. It's your pure kindness that makes all the difference. And it is what most of us think of when we think of kindness.

Call me a contrarian, because I invite you to think again.

Self-Compassion: Kindness Turned Inward

There is another side to kindness, one that researchers say may hold an important key to making us more resilient and more happy. It's called "self-compassion," the practice of turning kindness inward by being comforting and supportive of yourself.

The practice of self-compassion allows you to hold yourself accountable in positive and productive ways, instead of beating yourself up mercilessly, and getting stuck. Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, explains: "With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what's healthy for you rather than what's harmful to you."

You might look askance at self-compassion and raise a skeptical eyebrow at what may appear to be yet another quick-fix self-help panacea. I did, at first that is. But here's what opened my eyes and satisfied my reason.

Self-compassion isn't self-indulgence, and it isn't an escape route for letting yourself off the hook. If it were, you wouldn't be reading this. Dr. Neff, emphasizes this point:

"I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they'll become self-indulgent … they believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be."

Harmful Habits of Mind

Most of us are quite familiar with what "harmful" sounds like in our own heads. Your significant other says that she needs a time out and you think "I'm a loser." You lock yourself out of your car and you say to yourself "you idiot!" You make a tragic statement and you chastise yourself because you should "know better." There is no end to the negative reinforcement we are capable of on the inside.

Something goes wrong in my day and … go ahead, fill in the blank. No, really. What do you say to yourself about you? Negative internal feedback tends to be habitual, and it does nothing to enhance your coping abilities or your happiness. It doesn't contribute anything.

But turning kindness inward, does.

Some researchers consider self-compassion a form of self-coaching. Research conducted by Dr. Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, even found that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem in dealing with negative events. "It's far more important to be kind to yourself than it is to have high self-esteem," Dr. Leary concludes.

Develop Your Capacity for Self-Compassion

And there is more. Dr. Neff's research indicated that "people who are low in self-compassion are really compassionate to others and hard on themselves." Sound familiar? Even if you are a person who tends to focus on the clouds passing by instead of the sun peeking through, you can develop your capacity for self-compassion. There are things that you can't change, such as a genetic predisposition to gloominess, or the difficult experiences that may have contributed to your outlook. But you and I both know that you can always change your interpretation and the perspective that you carry forward.

If all of this sounds a little too "squishy," or makes you uncomfortable, you might consider Dr. Leary's take on self-compassion as he reminds us that: "When bad things happen to a friend, you wouldn't yell at him."

Hmm…that made me pause, and so I put myself to the test and asked: "If I consistently treated myself as my own best friend, particularly when I stumble, make a mistake, or completely and utterly miss the mark, how would I demonstrate self-compassion?" Here's what I came up with. I would:

  • Respect who I am: strengths, weaknesses, blind spots and
    idiosyncrasies alike.

  • Encourage myself by focusing on my accomplishments, talents and gifts.

  • Resolve to learn from my mistakes and continue to grow.

  • Forgive myself and move on with more joy and less worry.

That's what self-compassion looks and sounds like for me. Not exactly "light-weight." If self-compassion were just about being nice to myself, I'd glom on to the nearest available excuse and then hot foot it out to buy some bon-bons … or the equivalent thereof. It's hardly that. In fact, developing the habit of self-compassion feels like a wake-up call, an exciting opportunity with a significant, positive payoff.

Ten Tips for Nurturing Self-Compassion

Learning to turn kindness inward may take some time and practice. Take a few moments to consider how these ten tips can help you to pivot inward with self-compassion:   

  1. Get serious about your own well-being.

  2. Hold yourself to a high standard of self-respect.

  3. Help yourself or get help when you need it; you matter.

  4. Recognize when you are feeling sad, angry or upset.

  5. Listen to yourself with compassion; don't be so quick to pass a negative judgment.

  6. Monitor what you say to yourself; check that tendency to beat yourself up.

  7. Be patient with yourself when you make a mistake … so that you can get over it and move on.

  8. Give yourself time to be with your thoughts and feelings, even if it is
    just five minutes.

  9. Forgive yourself, period.

  10. Give yourself a hug, rock or stretch.  Crazy, I know, but physical movement helps to alleviate stress and calm emotion.

Self-compassion brings kindness full-circle. It is a remarkable tour de force that builds resilience, happiness and a more positive life experience. As for me? I'm on my way. I hope that you are, too.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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