Self-Compassion is Just the Beginning

Every so often something I read goes right to the heart of what I need.

So it was when I discovered this post by author Katrina Kenison titled, Bucket List  (not a term I use or gravitate towards normally) that contained some wonderful gems and a very important question that resonated with me deeply,

“Have I loved my life enough?”

Suddenly it struck me that this might be the most central organizing question of my life now. Have I loved my life enough – have I loved myself enough?

This is the time to reflect on every precious moment of my life without evaluation, judgment and more demands.  This was the time to “greet myself arriving at my own door,” words beautifully crafted by the poet Derek Walcott in his great work, Love After Love. This is the time to hone my skills to be gentler on myself than ever before. This is the time to love myself completely.

In the Era of Selfies, some of you are wincing at the thought of promoting more narcissism in the culture. But loving one’s self – flaws, imperfections, failures, weaknesses, poor choices, mistakes and all – is I believe, indicative of deep personal growth. Self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff makes the distinction between self-compassion and self- esteem.  The pillars of Western culture: parenting, education and psychology have promoted ideas about self-esteem as elemental to healthy development.

Neff makes the case that high self-esteem is strongly correlated with narcissism, “Self-esteem is often associated with the better-than-average effect, the need to feel superior to others just to feel okay about oneself. To be average is unacceptable in Western society. This comparative dynamic, the tendency to puff ourselves up and put others down, creates interpersonal distance and separation that undermines connectedness.” Often the price to maintain our self-esteem in light of the fiercely competitive and harshly judgmental nature of the cultures we live is the loss of self-compassion. To some of us, the idea of self-compassion is remote, self-indulgent or even self-pitying.  In a pick-yourself-up by the bootstraps culture like America, wallowing in one’s pain seems weak and threatens vulnerability (read security).

After all, we’ve been taught that self-criticism is a powerful motivator – self-correct and keep moving forward, right? 
Developing the skills of self-compassion is fundamental to learning how to be gentler on yourself.   Practicing self-compassion represents a sea change in the cultural imperative to project a confident and tough persona in light of internal doubt, struggle and pain.  Becoming more adept at self-love, through self-compassionate regard, is the opposite of supposed motivational clichés like, “put on your game-face,” or the loathsome “man up.”

Neff captures the nature of self-love when she explains that “Self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical. It recognizes that the human condition is imperfect, so that we feel connected to others when we fail or suffer rather than feeling separate or isolated.” Neff believes that self-compassion has deeper roots than self-esteem. There’s an intrinsic self-worth that is “highly stable.”  It’s a reliable resource that continues to support us in times of need.

Releasing Self-Blame & Harsh Judgment
The Buddhist Discourses, Samyutta Nikaya (Kindred Sayings) discuss the “arrows” that strike us as human beings. The first is our human conditioning to cling to comfort and pleasure and react with anger or fear to unpleasant experiences. It’s humbling to discover that willpower is often no match for these primal energies. We believe we should be able to control our “negative” emotions. We believe that we should be able to stop our obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.

The discourses describe the second arrow as more painful than the first because we judge our shortcomings as failures. As psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach explains, “Sometimes our self-aversion is subtle; we’re not aware of how it undermines us. Yet often it is not – we hate ourselves for the way we get flustered and insecure, for being, fatigued and unproductive. Rather than attending to the difficult (and sometimes trauma-based) emotions underlying the first arrow, we shoot ourselves with the second arrow of self-blame.”

As all feelings can be a resource for our emotional growth, wise use of self-inquiry is vital to deepening self-awareness.   Guilt, regret and even shame can be useful teachers when we examine our behavior in relation to our values. Often we’ve denied, buried, suppressed and distracted ourselves from difficult, even painful feelings that remain unresolved.  It’s understandable that we can become harsh and unforgiving towards ourselves, as trapped feelings seek release and resolution. Too often we internalize and project these feelings on to others. We lack a spacious cognitive narrative to hold multiple, conflicted feelings at the same time. We can’t see that others suffer because we can’t open to our own suffering.  As the Samyutta Nikaya teaches “The moment you see how important it is to love yourself, you will stop making others suffer,” because when you do open to self-love – the entire world looks and feels different.

This does not mean that there won’t be times when our hearts will be closed down by anger or fear. The good news is that once we begin to build the capacity for greater self-compassion and love, we will recognize them as a source of clarity, peace and regeneration. We want to go there because there is as Tara Brach calls it “true refuge.”  When we begin to practice loving ourselves despite our disappointments and frustrations, the shields of self-protection we’ve built start to erode. We see the harshness and the kindness of the world more clearly and we respond from our heart rather than our judgment.

Change from Love
In many ways my life’s work has mostly been about advocating or supporting change. Actively pursuing change has transformed my life – and life has been richer because of my desire for it. But in a culture where personal development is so highly valued, we can confuse changing behavior with feeling the need to change who we are. Our authentic self may not seem like it is enough to get what we want, or what convention dictates we should want.  This begins in early childhood as the norms of the systems we live in (family, schools, peers) overwhelm us and we learn to compensate for our perceived shortcomings.  We learn to turn away from the exploration of our true self; patching together what’s needed to be successful – what’s needed to be loved.

Generally we aren’t taught to differentiate in our hearts and minds between what the world wants – and what we need.  Cultural shaming may have taken on new forms, but it’s brutally alive today.  Unless we learn to love ourselves without conditions, applying respectful not punitive self-judgment, we leave ourselves vulnerable to endless false comparisons with what society considers desirable and necessary.

When we change our thoughts, feelings and behaviors from our sense of self-love our efforts take on a very different quality. The support we seek comes first from our tender regard for our well-being. We give ourselves regular doses of encouragement and recognition. When we are fatigued, we respect our bodies and rest. When we are hurt, we soothe ourselves by placing our wound in a larger context. When we miss the mark of our own aspirations, we acknowledge that change is often hard but our spirits are mighty. We are here, in the world – and we are whole.
Love heals.

Love After Love

by ~ Derek Walcott

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

 Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants

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