Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin has researched self -compassion extensively and her work is more than interesting to me. As somewhat of an “expert” myself on self-deprecation and self-criticism, I found what I learned to be eye opening and more than helpful in my journey toward self-acceptance, self-love, and self-compassion.
According to Neff there are 3 components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. I’d like to explore each of these components and add the element of self-care and self-nurturance.
Self-compassion is the intention and capacity to be compassionate and understanding towards ourselves. It’s always amazing to me how we can be so incredibly kind and caring towards our friends and family who come to us with stories of failure, disappointment, and struggle. And yet, when we encounter our own failure, disappointment, and struggle, we can rip ourselves apart so easily and so quickly. Inner dialogue such as: “I knew you couldn’t do it!” and “Of course, you screwed it up!” are in abundance. To be self-compassionate means we practice being as caring and kind to ourselves as we are to others. With tenderness and gentleness towards ourselves, we can learn to nurture and support ourselves on our journeys: we can forgive our mistakes, we can embrace our challenges, and we can work through our struggles, knowing that: facing these darker moments is incredibly brave and is only going to help us to know ourselves on a deeper level and become more authentic in who we are!
The second aspect of self-compassion is called common humanity. I talk to young girls a lot about discovering their own uniqueness. I do this because I want to encourage them to embrace what makes them different and to help find their niche in this world – a world that pushes us to conform and to all be the same. We are bombarded with images of “perfection” and we are pushed to look the same, talk the same, and be the same. So, I like to really highlight that we are not the same and nor should we be! I try to value the differences in people and I want young, impressionable girls to take the time to discover their unique strengths, talents, and interests and then embrace them! However, having said that, I also always mention the value in finding ways that we are all alike as well: we all have the need for love, belonging, and acceptance. We all want to feel seen, heard, and valued. And I think we can have both: uniqueness, and knowledge of who we are as individuals, and the common human experience of wanting to be loved and accepted by others and the chance to share our pain and struggles with each other so we feel connected and normal! Knowing that we can share our experiences with others – the common human experience – and that things that happen to us are not “just me” is a big part of self-compassion.
Finally, Neff suggests that to cultivate self-compassion, we need to practice mindfulness and take a balanced approach to negative emotions – neither suppressing nor exaggerating. Mindfulness would include paying attention to the present and what is happening to us and for us, as it happens. To be in the moment – to be grateful and thankful – is to be aware of the beauty of life all around us. Mindfulness takes practice – we have to slow down our minds and we also have to focus on the positive thoughts that can so easily be dominated by the negative ones. Mindfulness is awareness of ourselves – all of ourselves – body, mind, and spirit – and the decision to be in our lives, not an outsider, merely observing. I believe mindfulness is part of self-compassion because we need to be mindful of ourselves first before we can show ourselves compassion. And we need to be mindful of our negative emotions – and work through them with self-compassion – and not avoid them or deny them.
I believe self-compassion can also include learning how to nurture ourselves and take care of ourselves. As babies, girls are cared for: moms and dads or guardians nurture girls, soothe them, and take care of their needs for food, sleep, touch, and love. However, as young girls grow, it is important for them to learn how to nurture themselves, with self-compassion, and take care of themselves. Learning what you need, as you need it, can be a very powerful and empowering process. It requires time – to check in and reflect and be curious about yourself. And it also requires attention – you need to pay attention to yourself and what is happening for you to know what you need. Needs change, as we grow and, simply, as our day unfolds. We may need more or less food, water, or sleep. We may also need more attention, encouragement, validation, and love. What we need depends on who we are and what is happening in our lives in a given moment. And we can learn to take care of these needs. By practicing self-compassion, we can learn to give ourselves what we need and to take care of ourselves.