Why Do We Continue to Think Self-Compassion is Self-Indulgent?

Writing in The New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope wrote in (Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Suggests) “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 integrate 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 self-oppressor.  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. Even though 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.” What really 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:

  •  “I’ll 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.”
  • “If 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.”
  • “Self 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.”
  • “Many of those posting negative comments on the subject seem to be confusing self-compassion with self-indulgence. The two are not similar at all.”

Gladly, 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.

Sometimes 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 to Dr. Neff, compassion has three major components:

  1. That you notice the suffering in yourself and be mindful that you need compassion during that difficult time
  2. That you are as kind and caring to yourself, as you would to a child, partner or friend.
  3. Remind 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.

Seems that 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.”

Psychologist 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

The 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?
  • And most important – what beliefs do I hold that fuel these thoughts and feelings?  Beliefs are the cement that holds it all together.
  •  Finally, 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.

Thanks for reading!

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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