So far in this self-compassion series I have briefly introduced what self-compassion is, with some personal reflections and exercises for readers to complete, hopefully starting the process of helping people think about how much self-compassion they truly offer themselves.

Click on the link below to read part one and two of this ongoing series on such an important topic for each and every one of us:

Self-compassion series: Part one. Learning to Love the Reflection in the Mirror

Self-compassion series: Part two. Learning to Love the Reflection in the Mirror: Exercise One

I want to take some time to really think more with you about what self-compassion really is, and why it is so incredibly difficult . People are often resistant to self-compassion within themselves, or even within others, due to an initial lack of understanding regarding what it actually means, frequently getting it confused with other psychological concepts.

I have found when working with clients that one of the easiest ways to help someone become open to the idea of being kind and loving towards themselves, is to consider how they might talk to somebody else, particularly a loved one, if they were going through a similar experience.

Let us use chronic illness as an example. Having a chronic illness tends to come with a great deal of shame, blaming yourself for your illness, constantly feeling that you should be coping better than you are, and feeling a burden on others. As you can imagine this comes with a great deal of self-judgement, a feeling of isolation, and tendency for one’s mind to run away with itself, over-identifying with so many difficult thoughts. However, if a loved one was going through something similar, particularly given the fact that you understand what it truly feels like to experience chronic illness, you may be much kinder to them. You understand it is a perfectly normal human reaction to struggle with such an experience, whilst also perhaps being somewhat more objective and mindful about the situation.

Apply these three elements towards yourself, as identified by Dr Kristin Neff:

1. Self-kindness vs Self-judgement;
2. Common humanity vs Isolation;
3. Mindfulness vs Over-identification,

and abracadabra, you have SELF-COMPASSION.

the three elements of self-compassion (1)

If only it was that easy!

Even those with the biggest and most compassionate hearts often find it difficult to apply these elements inwards. Observing this in my clients, friends and family and of course myself, has so frequently led me to wonder why it is so incredibly difficult for us to treat ourselves with patience, love and respect.

The main things that keep coming up for me are the fact that with others we are not the ones behind the steering wheel, we are not the ones in control. Also, although we may accompany them on their journey, we do not have to directly experience the depth of their personal pain and despair. When it comes to ourselves however, we are the only ones behind the wheel, we perceive we are in control, and often feel alone in our suffering.

I know personally when I have made mistakes, particularly with regards to the management of my chronic illness, it seems that being hard on myself is a way of trying to gain some sense of control, with the magical idea that this will somehow be the key to my recovery, happiness and the happiness of those around me. Sound familiar? The irony being that even though I know logically, academically, and through repeated experience, that this is in no way the case, that self-judgement is actually making it more difficult for me to be mindful, objective and clear, like many I am often stuck in this repeated cycle of self-deprecation.

Being harder on ourselves is ingrained in us by the society we live in, alongside the belief that this will actually make us more successful in our careers, better parents, stronger, more likable…well the list goes on!.

Then there is the suffering part. Fact of the matter is none of us like to suffer, why would we? It sucks! But it is impossible to avoid, it is simply part of life. The word compassion comes from the Latin word compati, meaning ‘to suffer with’. So, in order to be self-compassionate we need to be able to suffer with ourselves.

Sounds fun, eh? Don’t worry though, this does not mean wallowing or ruminating in your pain. As I will write in my next blog, there are a lot of concepts self-compassion gets mixed up with, two of them being self-pity and self-indulgence. Rather, self-compassion is about allowing yourself to be with your suffering from time to time, allowing yourself to look inward, trying to be okay with what is really there.

As humans we have evolved to become so apt at trying to avoid and distance ourselves from our pain, whether psychological or physical, acute or chronic. There are so many opportunities for distraction: television, the internet, streaming sites, social media, food, work. Believe me, all of these have their place, and I for one am an expert of this type of distraction, with it getting me through many a difficult day, helping me just disconnect from the world for a while and take care of myself.I reckon that’s why I am such a sci-fi geek.

TV series, movies and food are my happy place.

I suppose it is all about moderation.

Then of course we have other types of distraction: alcohol, drugs, gambling and a range of other addictive behaviours. We often lose ourselves in others, project what we feel onto them, and utilise many different psychological coping mechanisms. This muddiness, lack of awareness and clarity can actually create more suffering for ourselves and others. Being with our own suffering through the process of mindfulness allows us to actually see things more clearly, distancing ourselves from our own unique defense mechanisms.It may not always feel great in the short term, but it does tend to help in the long-term.

Far from self-compassion resulting in selfishness, as often people worry, it has actually been found to increase our ability to have compassion for others. We are able to really see our common humanity, the fact that we may be alone in our own particular suffering in that moment, but we are in no way alone in suffering.

I imagine like myself, most of you reading this are thinking, okay that may be well and good, but I could do with a little bit less. I completely understand! But please know this you are human, you are not meant to be perfect, and I know you are doing your best.

Stephen Hawking in his infinite wisdom, put it best when he said:

“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist”

How beautiful would it be if when we experience any type of pain, instead of trying to solve our problems by berating ourselves, we were able to see with more clarity the reality of life; that self-compassion and the compassion for others that would follow, can only serve to make the world a more peaceful place.

On that note, I would like to leave you all with some take-home messages, which hopefully we can all including myself try to remind ourselves off. Please do share this blog series, or any parts that you think may be helpful to someone you care about. There are too many of us out here kicking ourselves when we are down!

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Tune in next week for some more practical exercises, including testing your own level of self compassion. I will also over the next couple of weeks be going into more depth about what self compassion is not.

As usual, lots of peace and love to you all.

The Wounded Healer

(Dr. Kristine Abercrombie, Clinical psychologist)




One thought on “Self-compassion series: Part three. What exactly is it, and why is it so incredibly difficult?

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