Happy New Year! I just read an excellent article by Kristin Neff about self-compassion. I liked it so much that I am going to share my notes with you. I will also give my own commentary about self-compassion from a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner’s perspective and share a simple but powerful practice I have been using for a while that incorporates these principles.
Research into self-compassion over the last decade reveals a link to increased happiness, life satisfaction, better relationships and physical health, along with less anxiety and depression. Self-compassionate people also have greater resilience. So, what is it? Essentially self-compassion is treating yourself the way your best self would treat a friend facing a challenge or difficulty. The more complete definition includes three key elements: self-kindness, the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and feels pain, and mindfulness.
To illustrate how self-compassion differs from what many of us do, consider the following scenario: A friend calls seeking comfort after being dumped by her boyfriend. You tell her that it’s probably because she is old, ugly, boring, needy and at least 20 pounds overweight, and she should give up because there’s no hope and she doesn’t deserve it! While we can’t fathom speaking to a friend this way, this is precisely the self-talk going on in many of our minds. We would more likely tell our friend something like: “I’m so sorry, I am here with you to listen and support you in any way I can.” We can choose to speak to ourselves this way.
From a Somatic Experiencing standpoint, here is how our physiology is impacted by self-criticism, the opposite of self-compassion. When we feel stress or danger, the survival area of our brain activates the body’s threat-defense system in the brain stem. The body may then mobilize to attack, but, since there is nothing outside to attack, the attack turns inward in the form of self-criticism, and we become both the victim and perpetrator of an internal battle. Another possibility is the flight response may be initiated, resulting in us fleeing into isolation. Or, we may go into a freeze, in which we experience overwhelm and ruminate, but are unable to take any action. All of these responses result in the release of cortisol and adrenaline, exacting a heavy toll on our mental, physical and emotional well-being.
Conversely, when we practice self-compassion, we feel safe and care for, like a child receiving a warm hug. This activates the mid-brain, which is linked to the mammalian care system, down-regulating the stress response and promoting the release of endorphins and oxytocin. These neurochemicals enhance our sense of well-being, relaxation, trust, and psychological stability.
Now, I will share a practice I do every morning after meditating that helps me stay self-compassionate throughout the day. I imagine myself as a small child. After calling that image to mind, I invite my child to sit on my lap and I give him a big hug. Then, I ask how he feels and I listen. After his first response, I ask if there is anything more he wants to share. I keep asking until he has expressed everything. Sometimes emotions and tears arise, so I comfort the child, telling him that I love him and that I will always be there for him. Then, I let him know that at any time during the course of the day he might feel upset or need a hug, that he can let me know and I will listen to him and comfort him. If I start to feel stressed, off-balance or overwhelmed at any point in my day, I pause and check in with my little boy.
Since beginning this practice last year, not only have I experienced a marked improvement in my sense of safety, confidence and self-esteem on a day-to-day basis, but I have also found my capacity to be present to and comforting of others’ emotional pain to increase. Doing this has softened me in a way that decades of meditation had failed to do. In self-compassion, rather then simply feeling the experience, as is the case with mindfulness, I feel it and then ask what I need, and then offer that to myself with kindness.
I hope you give this practice a try and find it as beneficial as I have. I welcome the opportunity to explore more with you and help you connect with your self-compassion and sense of aliveness. I invite you to call or go to LAwellness to arrange a time for us to meet.