Self Compassion or self indulgence?

We are all familiar with the advice that, “you can’t look after others unless you first take care of yourself”. I have communicated this idea many times, in various forms, to others genuinely and helpfully, in the role of friend, sister, mother, stranger on a train and therapist. When it comes to applying it to myself, however, I’ve never really believed it. Yes, I know that having one rule for others and a different rule for yourself, is a classic thinking trap. I have also cognitively challenged this disordered thinking and come up with many reasons why it’s not valid or helpful. Emotionally, I still don’t buy it, I feel it’s better to be hard on yourself. What’s more, I believe many people who work in helping professions are also like this and whole departments in a variety of supposedly “caring” environments have an undertone that caring  for yourself doesn’t really apply to carers, it’s just self indulgent.

What is Self Compassion then?

My views finally shifted when I recently undertook a personal project on self compassion.  Neff (2011) describes compassion as the awareness of suffering in others and the desire to alleviate it. Self compassion is simply compassion directed towards yourself. It involves the 3 interrelated components of self kindness (rather than self judgement), connecting with common humanity (rather than isolation) and mindfulness (rather than over identification when looking at thoughts and feelings about yourself). This is relevant to all aspects of personal suffering. Neff indeed suggests that believing self compassion will lead to self indulgence or self pity is a common myth not supported by evidence. In fact studies of Mindful Self Compassion programmes, although in their infancy, are showing that this approach leads to a variety of improvements in well-being. I’m good at compassion towards others, I’m not good at self compassion.

What did I do?

Using exercises from Neff’s website  I carried out 20 minutes of guided meditation a day. I alternated a traditional loving kindness meditation (LKM) with the self compassion variant (SCM). Both types of meditation promote feelings of non judgemental loving acceptance towards self and all sentient beings. SCM additionally aims to change the way we relate to our own distress and promote feelings of self compassion and connection whilst reducing self criticism.  I did this for 8 weeks.

At the same time during my daily life, I used a simple 5 minute exercise known as the Self Compassion Break (SCB) when faced with challenging circumstances. Having two teenage children, I have plenty of these!  The SCB acknowledges the suffering you are experiencing (“This is really hard”), recognises that suffering is part of life, (“It’s OK, everyone struggles sometimes”) and invokes self kindness, (“May I be kind to myself in this moment, what do I need?). Self soothing is promoted by the touch of the hand on the heart which stimulates the body’s biological caregiving system. Sounds simple? Sounds a bit silly? I thought so too, but in time it actually made a difference to me.

So what changed me?

Through the meditations, I began to be able to direct positive, caring feelings towards myself using the technique of springboarding these from feelings about other people with whom I have warm, uncomplicated relationships. I increased my feelings of connectedness with others, calmness, balance and acceptance. None of this was easy. Compassion is an emotion at the heart of Second Wave Positive Psychology in that it is dialectical in nature. As such my experiences were not all “positive”, and indeed were challenging at times. I learnt to acknowledge painful emotions and to recognise them in my body.

This acted as a cue to use the SCB. This exercise helped me to recognise my critical self talk, normalise my emotions and move on from them by thinking about what I needed rather than ruminating on my situation. I began to be able to use this technique in real time and felt a genuine shift in my ability to embrace forgiveness for my inadequacies and accept myself as I am. Fundamentally, I believe, adding in self compassion at an emotional, experiential level rather than trying to challenge my thinking about negative stressors, for me, worked to increase my emotional flexibility and allowed me to change. I still have to work at this and I continue to use these techniques but I now genuinely believe that being kind to myself is a good thing and self compassion should be cultivated especially in those who spend a lot of time helping others. This experience has helped confirm to me that, in the words of the wonderful Piers Worth, “Positive Psychology is not a spectator sport”. We can only change the world from the inside out.

Neff, K. (2011). Self Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. London: Hodder & Stroughton Ltd.

Neff, K.

About the author: Sarah Monk is a student on the MAPP course at Buckinghamshire New University. She has a degree in psychology from Southampton University and an MSc in Clinical Psychology from the University of Surrey. She has voluntary roles with a number of charities and lives well with C.F.S.


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