Recently a blog post in the New York Times caught my eye.
Writing in her column in the health section (Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Suggests) author Tara Parker-Pope wrote, “Do
you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family? That
simple question is the basis for a burgeoning new area of psychological
research called self-compassion – how kindly people view themselves.
The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our
imperfections may be the first step towards better health. People who
score high on tests on self-compassion have less depression and anxiety,
and tend to be happier and more optimistic.”
Compassion, as a potent healing
emotion, has been on my “radar screen” since the mid 90’s. At that
time, I began to intergrate the concepts of emotional intelligence into
my work and study the effects of different emotions on well-being. My
earlier exposure to Buddhist concepts and practices led me to consider
the role of compassion. The more I learned about compassion – the more
I realized its beneficial impact on interpersonal relations.
In Buddhism, compassion’s companion
is wisdom – a kind of marriage between emotion and intellect. The key
here is that we act with “discernment,” which allows us to cultivate a
deeper understanding of the circumstances of others. In doing so, we
develop a larger view of reality than our own self-focus usually
produces. The key to this attainment, many Buddhists would say, is practice – learning to tune our self awareness to a greater awareness – a larger and more spacious field of being.
As I began to carefully introduce the
concepts of compassion and empathy into workplace discussions, I
learned two important things. First, the idea of feeling or expressing
compassion in business felt too risky, vulnerable and even
“unprofessional” to many people. Second, to those self-identified, perfectionists, workaholics and high achievers -
the idea of self-compassion was even more remote. These hard
self-drivers were often filled with inner judgment and criticism
and seemed to be falling short of their own aspirations.
The Connection Between Compassion for Self and Others
In my experience, harsh self-critics judge
others with equal severity. Of course, there are exceptions – people
who treat others with empathy and consideration, but cannot extend those
feelings to themselves. But more often, I think there is a higher
correlation between the harsh outer critic and the inner
What Drives a Lack of Self-Compassion?
If we’re hard-wired for empathy and altruism – what blocks our ability to care for ourselves with more respect?
One major force is beliefs.
our impulses towards compassion and empathy are innate, the forces of
our conditioned collective beliefs drive us to mistrust and even disdain
emotions like compassion, empathy and optimism.
Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in research on self-compassion, says,
“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.”
struck me about Tara Parker-Pope’s NYT post were the comments. Many of
those who were critical of self-compassion show how we allow beliefs,
often unexamined and inherited from past conditioning, to construct
barriers to new information and experience.
Here’s a sampling:
need to take some time to process this. NO ONE in the world hates me
more than I hate myself. It’s my life mantra, along with “I do not
deserve nice things.” This would be a 180 degree shift in thinking for
me. People often ask me why I am so kind to others and so hard on
myself. My answer always has been that someone has to ride herd on me or
I’ll completely fall apart.”
we don’t hold ourselves to high performance standards, how can we,
ethically and morally, expect others to meet those standards?”
- “Oh good grief! Americans think so highly of themselves as it is. Really there shouldn’t be more encouragement.”
compassion when it’s appropriate is wonderful and healing. But some of
the nastiest and most destructive people I’ve ever known have
self-compassion in spades.”
of those posting negative comments on the subject seem to be confusing
self-compassion with self-indulgence. The two are not similar at all.”
the majority of comments to the article were positive and reinforcing.
But it’s easy to see from these examples above, the harshness and wrath
of the inner critic. Some of these comments also reflect the tyranny of
either/or, black/white thinking patterns. This form of “oppositional”
reasoning leads people to think that if someone is compassionate, they
must be lazy or lack rigor in their standards of self and other. This
kind of thinking also leads some people to question whether their pain
or suffering is “worthy” of compassion given the magnitude of suffering
in the world.
the echo of critical external voices can seem as demanding as our own
inner cacophony. To those demands, nothing we do is ever enough. We
must compete, excel, win and succeed in every endeavor. To the mind
that believes that failure is not option – there is little room for the
comfort of self-compassion. In writing about barriers to self-compassion, author Elisha Goldstein points out, “In our American culture, we’re taught we need to be exceptional to be worthwhile.”
As the last
comment in the New York Times article shows, there is a great deal of
confusion about what compassion actually is. According the Dr.
Neff, has three major components:
- That you notice the suffering in yourself and be mindful that you need compassion during that difficult time
- That you are as kind and caring to yourself, as you would to a child, partner or friend.
yourself that difficulties and challenges are part of the human
experience – and that EVERYONE experiences them, regardless of whether
they show it or not.
Simply stated, compassion is an
understanding of the emotional state of another coupled with a desire to
improve their condition. It’s different from empathy because it compels
action. The feeling of compassion leads to acts of kindness – whether
it is towards others – or to ourselves.
The Healing Power of Self-Compassion
While research on feeling compassion towards others or self is in its early stages, the initial findings are compelling. Feeling – dare, we say, self-love, is good for you. Studies show that people who practice compassion
produce 100% more DHEA, the hormone that counteracts the aging process
and 23% less cortisol, the so-called” stress hormone. Recent studies have found that feeling compassion controls
inflammatory responses in the body, thought by most scientists to be
implicated in many serious diseases, especially cardiovascular.
the “vagus nerve” acts like the brakes of a car in slowing
inflammation in the body. This nerve extends from deep within the brain
stem to the heart and helps regulate emotions and body systems. The
latest studies show that compassion improves the “tone” of the vagus
nerve and in doing so, “mops up inflammation within the body.” Dr. Stephen Porges, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, refers to the vagus nerve as the “nerve of compassion.”
Barbara Frederickson from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
who has studied the effects of loving-kindness meditation on the vagus
nerve states, “With just six weeks of LKM (Loving Kindness
Meditation) training in novices, we see improvements in resting vagal
tone. Just like physical exercise improves muscle tone, emotional
training improves vagal tone. High vagal tone is related to both a
person’s physical health and their ability to feel loving connections
with others. In a way, our bodies are designed for love, because the more we love, the more healthy we become.”
Growing the Muscle of Self-Compassion
road to self-compassion can be simple. Mindfulness is the key. Your
ability to be mindful (without assigning judgment) of your thinking and
emotions is the most powerful skill you can develop to increase your
self-compassion (and awareness).
One way you can begin is to take a few minutes before you go to sleep and review your day. Ask yourself:
- Where was I hard on myself?
- What events (internal or external) triggered that harshness within me?
- What feelings did I experience – anger, fear, disgust, shame, frustration, guilt?
- What were the thoughts that triggered these emotions?
most important – what beliefs do I hold that fuel these thoughts and
feelings? Beliefs are the cement that holds it all together.
stop and imagine what it would feel like to be kinder and easier on
yourself in those moments when you believe you “fall short.” What
happens to your energy level when you release your judgment?
Let this type of reflection become a
ritual for you. You can practice this mindful review anytime,
anywhere. The more that you do, the more you will create the habit of
self-compassion – creating a new level of energy and an entirely
different kind of motivation.
always, I love to hear your comments and questions. What do you
believe about compassion? Are you compassionate with yourself? If not,
what stops you?
Your readership, subscriptions, tweets and shares are much appreciated.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners
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