The dictionary definition of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to relieve it”.
Compassionate people are usually recognised as calm, generous, caring and empathic. They offer understanding and kindness to others when they make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Compassionate people realise that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.
Self-compassion involves being kind and understanding towards yourself when confronted with personal failings. Similarly, you acknowledge it and allow yourself to feel good when you are achieving your goals.
Have you ever noticed how people tend to be nicer the further out they go from their inner circle? The nicest vet in the world may be brutal to his family, hideous to his wife and totally miserable to himself. We’re not as mean to a stranger as we are to a family member. But we’re ruthless towards ourselves! It is easier to feel natural compassion the further out we go from ourselves.
As a practice, if we want to increase our compassion for others, we should start with ourselves. If I am capable of deep compassion for myself, imagine that expanding, exponentially, as I go out from there.
If the oxygen masks are released on a plane, we know to put our own mask on first before we help others. If we are weak, how on earth can we help those around us? Compassion is not dissimilar.
How do I increase my self-compassion?
There are three key elements to self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness vs self-judgement
How often do you call yourself an idiot (or worse)? Self-flagellation is easy. It avoids us having to face reality. It shows onlookers that we are repentant for our wrongdoings. But what does it achieve as regards increasing inner strength in order to avoid mistakes being repeated? How does it help others? It doesn’t.
If my colleague had a catastrophic fracture failure, I should be the first on the scene to help them take stock, think clearly, plan the revision surgery, focus. And yet when my fracture fails, I berate myself, tell myself what an inadequate surgeon I am and allow nausea to envelop me. What if we were to treat ourselves with the gentleness and truly supportive kindness with which we treat our friends?
2. Common humanity vs isolation
People who lack empathy often feel that when they experience difficulty in life, they are alone in their suffering. Maybe they are truly unaware of others having similar difficulties, in which case maybe they should aim to be less introspective and more empathic.
Or maybe they feel that they react more extremely to a given cause of suffering compared to their peers. This can feel profoundly lonely which adds to the misery and pain. But suffering is universal. Nobody has an easy ride through life, whatever it may look like on the outside.
Accepting that you are not alone in your ordeals can be life changing, though you must care about others around you to see this and it can be hard to develop empathy when you are in distress. Knowing that the universal rate of major complication in, for example, TTA procedures in dogs over 50kg is about 20 percent means that when you have a complication, you have it in writing in a peer-reviewed journal that you are not alone.
3. Mindfulness vs suppressing emotions
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness.
Mindfulness is a non-judgemental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness also requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
In summary, self-compassion helps us to be better citizens of our workplace, better friends and more valuable members of our family. It’s not retail therapy or extra chocolate on your cappuccino (although, let’s face it, every little helps). It’s about allowing yourself the time to be content, even though it may seem inappropriate at the time, giving yourself credit for being a decent human being and making the time to be mindful simply because you deserve it.