Self-compassion requires that we stop to recognize our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Of course, sometimes the fact that we’re in pain is blindingly obvious and we can think of nothing else. More often than you might think, however, we don’t recognize when we are suffering. Much of Western culture has a strong ‘stiff-upper-lip’ tradition. We are taught that we shouldn’t complain, that we should just carry on (to be read in a clipped British accent while giving a smart salute). If we’re in a difficult or stressful situation, we rarely take the time to step back and recognize how hard it is for us in the moment.
And when our pain comes from self-judgment – if you’re angry at yourself for mistreating someone, or for making some stupid remark at a party – it’s even harder to see these as moments of suffering. Like the time I asked a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, eyeing the bump of her belly, ‘Are we expecting?’ ‘Er, no,’ she answered, ‘I’ve just put on some weight lately.’ ‘Oh…’ I said as my face turned beet red. We typically don’t recognize such moments as a type of pain that is worthy of a compassionate response. After all, I messed up, doesn’t that mean I should be punished? Well, do you punish your friends or your family when they mess up? Okay, maybe sometimes a little, but do you feel good about it?
Everyone is worthy of compassion
Everybody makes mistakes at one time or another, it’s a fact of life. And if you think about it, why should you expect anything different? Where is that written contract you signed before birth promising that you’d be perfect, that you’d never fail, and that your life would go absolutely the way you want it to? Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the ‘everything will go swimmingly until the day I die’ plan. Can I speak to the management, please? It’s absurd, and yet most of us act as if something has gone terribly awry when we fall down or life takes an unwanted or unexpected turn.
One of the downsides of living in a culture that stresses the ethic of independence and individual achievement is that if we don’t continually reach our ideal goals, we feel that we only have ourselves to blame. And if we’re at fault, that means we don’t deserve compassion, right? The truth is, everyone is worthy of compassion. The very fact that we are conscious human beings experiencing life on the planet means that we are intrinsically valuable and deserving of care. According to the Dalai Lama, ‘Human beings by nature want happiness and do not want suffering. With that feeling everyone tries to achieve happiness and tries to get rid of suffering, and everyone has the basic right to do this…. Basically, from the viewpoint of real human value we are all the same.’
This is the same sentiment, of course, that inspired the US Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ We don’t have to earn the right to compassion; it is our birthright. We are human, and our ability to think and feel, combined with our desire to be happy rather than to suffer, warrants compassion for its own sake.
Softening your heart
Rather than condemning yourself for your mistakes and failures, therefore, you can use the experience of suffering to soften your heart. You can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction. All by giving yourself the compassion you need in the moment.
The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. At the same time, self-compassion fosters positive mind-states such as happiness and optimism. The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.
Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’ Right here at our fingertips we have the means to provide ourselves with the warm, supportive care we deeply yearn for. By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.
In many ways self-compassion is like magic, because it has the power to transform suffering into joy. Tara Bennett-Goleman uses the metaphor of alchemy to symbolize the spiritual and emotional transformation that’s possible when we embrace our pain with caring concern. When we give ourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgment starts to dissolve, replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance – a sparkling diamond that emerges from the coal.