In today’s post I thought I would introduce the idea of self-compassion. The Pali term for compassion in Buddhism is karuna and is considered one of four highly desirable qualities to be cultivated by Buddhist practitioners along with loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These qualities are so esteemed they take on elevated Brahma-vihara or God-like status in Buddhism.
As a quick aside, it is unclear to me if there was a term for “self-compassion” in the day of the Buddha. As is now somewhat famously described, the Dalai Lama was deeply puzzled when he was at a conference with Westerners and asked a question about how to deal with self-hatred. As an American, I can see how living in a fiercely competitive society where we quickly define winners and losers could eventually lead a person to internalizing the idea that one is a “loser”. Apparently, such a state of affairs didn’t exist in Tibet so his translators needed a long time to explain the idea to him when he came to the West. The Dalai Lama just couldn’t fully comprehend how someone could hate themselves.
But coming back to the idea of self-compassion, I first came across this idea after hearing a talk by Kristin Neff, PhD at a scientific conference a number of years ago when I was still in graduate school and later read her book of the same name. As a psychologist and a therapist I now strongly recommend her book Self-Compassion to other therapists and I frequently give out loaner copies of the book to clients (and frequently have had to replace them when they go missing because of their popularity!) Clients who I have introduced this idea to have always taken to it right away – that harsh internal self-critic unfortunately being immediately and intimately familiar to them.
So what exactly is self-compassion? As Dr. Neff describes in her book, it is a way of talking to yourself as if you were a compassionate and supportive friend. That’s worth emphasizing – as if your inner voice was a compassionate and supportive friend. It’s a way of softening your own internal language in a way that is forgiving and supports and encourages you rather than tears you down. Research conducted by Dr. Neff among college students has demonstrated that self-compassion was strongly correlated with several beneficial outcomes like greater happiness, optimism, general sense of well-being, curiosity, and lower levels of neuroticism. Additional results of her research appear to further support the idea that we don’t need to be hard on ourselves to be successful in life.
To quote Dr. Neff, “Rather than continually judging and evaluating ourselves, self-compassion involves generating kindness toward ourselves as imperfect humans, and learning to be present with the inevitable struggles of life with greater ease. It motivates us to make needed changes in our lives not because we’re worthless or inadequate, but because we care about ourselves and want to lessen our suffering.”
Being a compassionate friend to yourself can be a great source of strength when life brings its inevitable challenges.
W.C. Ark, PsyD
As always, if you’ve been having difficulty struggling with negative internal self-criticism or other psychological issues, seek out the help of a professional. Blog posts not intended to replace professional therapeutic advice.