The Fundamentals of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion isn’t rocket science. It’s not some rarefied state of mind that takes years of meditation practice to achieve. At the most basic level, self-compassion simply requires being a good friend to ourselves. This is heartening news, because most of us already know how to be a good friend, at least to others.
But, sadly, we don’t treat ourselves with nearly the same degree of compassion when we struggle. Rather than pausing to ask what we need in the moment so we can comfort or support ourselves, we’re more likely to pass judgment, get absorbed in problem-solving, or simply freak out. Let’s say you get in a car accident on the way to work because you spilled coffee and were distracted. A typical inner conversation might be: “You’re such a stupid idiot. Now look what you’ve done. You better call the insurance company right away and tell the boss you’ll miss the meeting. I bet you’ll get fired.” Would you ever talk this way to someone you cared about? Probably not. But we often treat ourselves this way and think it’s a good thing. We can be downright mean to ourselves, even harsher than we are to those we dislike.
The golden rule says: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. An addendum should be: Do NOT do unto others as you do unto yourself, or you’ll have no friends.
Holding Ourselves Tenderly
Tender self-compassion is the capacity that allows us to be with ourselves just as we are—comforting and reassuring ourselves that we aren’t alone, as well as validating our pain. It has the gentle, nurturing quality of a mother toward a newborn child. It doesn’t matter if the infant is crying uncontrollably and just threw up on your new blouse. You love that child unconditionally.
Tender self-compassion allows us to take this same attitude toward ourselves. Just as it’s possible to hold the screaming baby, we can hold our intense and disturbing emotions with love so that we aren’t overwhelmed. This nurturing quality allows us to be less concerned with what is happening in our experience—whether it’s painful, difficult, challenging, or disappointing—and to be more focused on how we’re relating to it. We learn to be with ourselves in a new way. Rather than being lost in and engulfed by our pain, we’re compassionate to ourselves because we’re in pain. The care and concern that we extend to ourselves allows us to feel safe and accepted. When we open our hearts to what is, it generates a level of warmth that helps heal our wounds.
When we’re compassionate to ourselves when we struggle, our awareness is no longer completely consumed by suffering; it’s also full of concern for that suffering. We are bigger than our pain; we are also the love holding the pain. This lifeline can be a source of great meaning and fulfillment, regardless of how hard things are in the moment.
Some people worry that self-compassion will make them soft, but it actually gives us incredible power. The belief that self-compassion is weak is a one-dimensional view. If we think only of the tender, nurturing side of things, it suggests a gentle, yielding stance toward life. And since nurturing is part of communal female gender roles, and women are accorded less power than men, self-compassion is sometimes associated with a lack of power. This is why it’s so important for women to champion and model fierce self-compassion, so we can free ourselves from this misconception and embody the strong warrior within.
It can take incredible courage to alleviate suffering; think of first responders rushing in to help those in disasters like fires or floods. They don’t just sit there “being with” the suffering of victims—they take swift and effective action to rescue people stranded on rooftops. And let’s face it, in many ways each of our lives is a disaster, maybe not on the same scale as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11, although some days it can feel that way. Our suffering may be created by nature, by other people, or by ourselves—sometimes all three! We need to do whatever is necessary to stand strong in these crises in order to be fully self-compassionate. This power is already within us as women, but it’s cloaked by stereotypes that say it’s not part of our true nature.
Meeting Our Needs
We don’t have to rank our needs below those of others, the way women have been socialized to do. If women only feel valued and worthy when we’re helping children, partners, friends, family, coworkers—basically anyone other than ourselves—then we’re supporting a system that’s rigged against us. Sure, it’s good to be kind and giving to others, but kindness must also be balanced so that it includes ourselves. If it doesn’t, this generosity only serves a patriarchal system where women aren’t considered valuable in their own right, as full and equal participants. It reduces women to the role of helpmate and prevents us from being authentically fulfilled.
The dictate that women should give rather than receive is a source of significant hardship. Women do the majority of household work, childcare, and eldercare even in marriages where both partners work full-time. This extra burden leads to stress and tension. Research shows that women are more likely than men to be strained by continually sacrificing our own needs to the demands of family, friends, and partners. One consequence of this pattern is that women wind up with less free time.
When we include ourselves in the circle of compassion, our priorities start to change. We don’t put our own needs first or last, but instead take a balanced approach. We say yes to others when we have the energy, but we’re not afraid to say no. We judge our own needs to have equal weight in decisions about how to spend our time, money, and focus, giving ourselves full permission to care for ourselves. We decide what we value in life, then align our activities with these priorities.
Becoming Our Best Selves
If we care about ourselves and don’t want to suffer, we’ll naturally be motivated to achieve our dreams and let go of behaviors that don’t serve us anymore. A major impediment to practicing self-compassion is the fear that we’ll be lazy and unmotivated if we’re not incredibly hard on ourselves. This fear stems from misunderstanding the yin and yang of self-compassion. It’s true that the tender side of self-compassion helps us accept ourselves in all our glorious imperfection. It reminds us that we don’t need to be flawless to be lovable. We don’t need to fix ourselves. We’re good enough just as we are now to be worthy of care and kindness.
But does this mean that we don’t try to change unhealthy habits, to reach our goals, or fulfill our destiny? Absolutely not. The desire to alleviate our suffering drives us forward to attain what we want in life not out of a sense of insufficiency or inadequacy, but out of love. Instead of harshly criticizing ourselves every time we make a mistake or fail at something important to us, we focus on what we can learn from the situation. When we use fierce self-compassion to motivate ourselves, we experience it as encouraging, wise vision.
What We Do for Love
One area where the gendering of yin and yang hits hardest is in our romantic relationships. Too often we sell our souls to be with a partner because we’ve been indoctrinated from birth to believe we’re incomplete without one. We start believing that we need to be in a relationship to be happy. Other women often collude in this belief. When you’re unmarried and an old friend calls you up to ask how you’re doing, often her first question is, a) Are you in a relationship? or b) How’s the relationship going? As if this were the most important aspect of our lives.
Common phrases such as “my other half” reinforce the notion that wholeness requires two people in a partnership. Part of what’s occurring here is that yin and yang have been split by gender (at least in heterosexual relationships), so that a woman socialized to be yin feels she needs to be with a man socialized to be yang in order for these energies to balance out.
When the integration of yin and yang occurs in couples but not individuals, it can be unhealthy. Instead of being fulfilled independently, a woman may become codependent, needy, or clingy, forever chasing after a man’s attention to feel valuable. She may also become passive, submissive, or uncomfortable with being alone, unable to access power within herself.
Fortunately, self-compassion provides a way out of this illusion, allowing us to meet our needs directly. It helps us find balance between yin and yang internally rather than externally. Self-compassion also enhances our love life—with or without a relationship. When we truly value ourselves, we’re less dependent on someone else to make us feel loved, happy, worthy, or safe. This gives us incredible freedom to enjoy life, be authentic in how we express ourselves, and find meaning and fulfillment whether we’re alone, dating, or with a committed partner.