what is self-compassion?

I was recently having a discussion with a small group of friends and the term ‘self-compassion’ came up.  One member of the group was unfamiliar with this word which made me wonder how many others are in the same situation?  It’s a fairly self-explanatory concept, and one that’s very common in my field of work, but perhaps it’s incorrect for me to assume that it’s part of everyone’s vocabulary.  And if you haven’t come across it in any specific sense, is it something that you would consciously apply in your life?  I therefore thought that I would post something to make self-compassion more explicit and also maybe to say what my thoughts are on what it is, and what it is not.

To start with, I thought I’d look at some definitions.  Compassion itself can be defined as:

“a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them”

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/compassion

Synonyms: pity, sympathy, feeling, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, concern, solicitude, sensitivity, warmth, gentleness, tenderness, consideration, kindness

According to vocabulary.com Compassion “is a word for a very positive emotion that has to do with being thoughtful and decent… When you feel compassion for someone, you really want to help out.” https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/compassion

The literal meaning of compassion is “to suffer together”. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition  Its qualities are “patience and wisdom; kindness and perseverance; warmth and resolve.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

Self-compassion then, is when we show these feelings towards ourselves.  If we’re experiencing feelings of inadequacy, failure or suffering of any kind, instead of being critical of ourselves – a very common response – we can choose to be warm, understanding, sensitive, gentle, considerate and kind.

So why, you might ask, would we want to do this, and isn’t it a form of selfishness and self-indulgence?  If I’ve done something wrong / foolish, don’t I deserve to feel guilty / stupid?

Well, firstly I would say that if any – even small – part of you resonated with that last sentence, I would like to gently invite you to notice your self-talk.  Using labels like ‘wrong’, ‘foolish’ and ‘stupid’, I believe, is unhelpful.  They put us into a state of shame which is deeply uncomfortable and only adds to our emotional suffering at a time when we’re already feeling pretty lousy.

I also think that there is very little to be gained from feeling guilty, other than to notice the emotion and to learn from it, by which I mean to observe the discomfort and to explore what triggered it and what wisdom that holds for you about who you really are and the choices that you make, so that you can make choices that are more authentic for you in the future.  Beyond that, I feel that guilt serves only to make us feel bad, and how can we be our best selves from that place?

Image from Jennifer Petty Psychotherapist

I would also like to reassure you that self-compassion is not selfish, or self-indulgent.  It’s an important part of self-care.  I’ve written about this before https://equenergy.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/positive-thinking-is-it-always-a-good-thing-part-24/ so suffice it to say that I believe it’s necessary to take care of ourselves, and to practice self-compassion first, before we can truly offer this to others.

In fact, if we don’t do this, we can end up experiencing burnout and ‘compassion fatigue’.  This is basically when we’ve exhausted our inner resources, leaving ourselves ‘running on empty’.  This is not sustainable and can result in becoming ill and unable to function fully for a time, until we can rest and recharge.  If we’ve allowed ourselves to reach a very low point, this recovery could even take years…  so much better to learn how to look after ourselves now. 

Also, a phrase that really hit me a few years ago when I was pushing myself too hard and not taking time to replenish my resources, was:

How then do you recognise if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue?  According to goodtherapy.org the main symptoms include:

  • Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of self-contempt
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Poor job satisfaction

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/compassion-fatigue

You can help to avoid this by:

  • Developing greater self-awareness, eg through journaling, mindfulness or meditation
  • Practising self-care and self-compassion
  • Setting – and holding – good emotional boundaries
  • Spending time outdoors, in nature with fresh air and natural light
  • Cultivating healthy relationships with people who boost your mood

If you would like to explore self-compassion further, please get in touch.  I offer bespoke wellbeing packages which address this, and I also run workshops helping you to develop self-awareness and learn strategies for self-support. 

(My website is currently ‘under construction’ but hopefully will be back up and running by next week)

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