Self-compassion is one of the most important modules in The Daring Way intensives that I run, and also a theme that comes up time and time again in my coaching with female leaders. Why is it that we sometimes speak to ourselves in a way that we wouldn't dream of speaking to our friends, (let alone our enemies)?
At its simplest, self-compassion is about treating yourself in a way that you would treat a close friend. What do you do when a close friend is struggling? You give them a hug maybe, let them know that you're there for them, you might buy them a gift or show them some empathy.
Too often, with ourselves, we interrogate our thoughts looking for fault and blame. We beat ourselves up for our failures and the "should" voices have a field day; 'You should have tried harder'. 'You shouldn't have believed in that'. 'You shouldn't have trusted that person'. I also have a tendency to isolate myself and shut myself off from the rest of the world.
Kirsten Neff is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who has made self-compassion her career's work. I recently had the good fortune of attending an advanced workshop in Texas which she led. I have to say, the work we did together blew my mind.
Often in my courses we discuss Kristen Neff and her work. Up until now the response has been fairly ambiguous. Yes, everyone agrees that we beat ourselves up and speak to ourselves in terrible, terrible ways. Yet everyone feels a little bit resigned to it, that it's an impossible habit to break. There is a limiting belief that to embrace self-compassion is to be a bit fluffy and 'woo woo'. To be frank, it feels a little flakey to be consciously saying 'Oh you poor thing that must be really tough' to ourselves, rather than 'come on Rox snap the fuck out of it!'. The other push back is that our own internal critic has been the driving force behind the success in our lives.
Kristen blew all of this out of the water.
Firstly, she came along with the science. The physiological underpinnings of self-criticism is your body feeling threatened - which will produce cortisol and adrenalin. You don't need me to tell you quite how damaging these are in large quantities for our bodies. The physiological response is trying to attack the problem but in actual fact these stress hormones are attacking ourselves because we make ourselves the problem.
In contrast, the physiological underpinnings of self-compassion are in the mammalian care giving system. Physical warmth (giving a hug), gentle touch and soothing vocalisations all produce oxytocin and opiates in our system. Also when you are compassionate the reward centres of the brain light up. Self-compassion literally gives our body the resources to be able to hold our own pain.
When we think about our success being driven by our own self-criticism and harshness, you cannot help but wonder at the cost of what. Sure, we may be driving our external success via promotions, pay increases and getting that mortgage. But what is the cost of that on our physical and mental health? And is it truly sustainable? We know that women seem to be more sensitive to the stress hormone cortisol than men (as detailed in Arianna Huffington's Thrive). Surely it's time for us all to start taking this a bit more seriously.
Take a self-compassion break (courtesy of Kristen Neff).
Every bone in my body resists putting this simple breathing exercise in the newsletter and also resists doing the breathing exercise. Breathing and mindfulness are a continual struggle for me - and yet the science is showing me it isn't fluffy, new age shit at all. This is what we need to start to heal.
Close your eyes and breathe slowly in and out. On the out breath, breathe out compassion for other people. On the in breath, breathe in compassion for yourself. Keep doing this for two minutes thinking about different and specific people to breathe out compassion to, and then extend the same loving kindness to yourself.
Kirsten's website http://www.self-compassion.org is also a wonderful resource for learning more about self-compassion.
Image Beata Ratuszniak. www.unsplash.com