Self-Less Series Part 3: Why Self-Compassion?

In a podcast series and blog called Unimproving we examined a universal problem in living well: the problem of self-esteem and the feeling we are not good enough.  In other words that we need improving.  This is arguably our biggest barrier to a meaningful happiness.  We saw that focusing too much on self actually makes us unhappier.  So now I want to suggest what may seem to contradict that advice: that we ought to focus on self: specifically on self-compassion. 

In fact, many people resist this idea of self-compassion, thinking it implies self-pity, indulgence, self-centeredness, or even selfishness. For people with a harsh inner critic this kindly self-awareness feels wrong, even threatening.  For some it even evokes shame due to past traumas. Such people may feel undeserving of self-compassion, and it may compete with the view that self-compassion is weak or can lead to a slippery slope of being “too” forgiving of ourselves. In fact, the contrary argument runs, we ought to engage in toughening ourselves, or as we say in Australia, we should harden up and take a teaspoon of cement!

In the context of counselling this resistance to self-compassion is a common occurrence.  Take the person who is depressed.  Typically, they engage in very harsh self-criticism.  I’ve had more than one person tell me ‘I hate myself’ or words to that effect.  I’ve watched them physically wince when I’ve made an honest, positive observation about them.  They clearly think I’m either being nice (i.e., I’m lying) or I lack insight into their real nature – especially if they’ve acted in ways they’re ashamed of, or if they feel they’ve failed in important domains of their life. They experience the idea of self-compassion, therefore, as wrong for them and utterly foreign as they don’t believe they deserve it.

So how should we understand the practice and effect of self-compassion in such a way that it does not make us feel self-pitying or selfish?  Firstly, a primary function of self-compassion is to reduce the worst of destructive self-criticism and self-concern. It begins by understanding that we are flawed like everyone else.  We share a common humanity, and this includes a mistaken tendency to think we are somehow ‘different’ to others. And we then ruminate on those alleged differences, cutting ourselves off from others, sinking deeper and deeper into self-criticism.

Accordingly, a central dimension of self-compassion is understanding we deserve compassion just like everyone else. One important consequence of reducing self-criticism and self-worry using the balm of self-compassion is that we then tend to ‘forget self’ and become more open and outward focussed. This can also lead to an important insight: that our preoccupation with the shortcomings of our self is, to a large extent, the problem.

Does this mean we jettison self-accountability and responsibility entirely?  Clearly not.  But it means reconceptualising what we mean by ‘self’. Perhaps some Buddhist psychology can help here: Anatta, in Buddhist thought, is a teaching about ‘not-self’.  It is not about there not being a self in the common-sense view.  It’s a strategy for not getting caught up in a sense of self as separate, different and fixed. 

It’s also not an argument for ‘no-self’ as it is frequently misunderstood, but for a radically different notion of ‘self’ as a thoroughly interconnected being, embodied and engaged in the world.  This is highly concordant with contemporary neuroscience which consistently fails to find such a modular, separate seat of self but rather speaks of highly interconnected brain and body processes. 

I think it safe to say there is no neural basis for a ‘self’ which runs the show, so to speak.  In fact, the Buddha typically refused to answer the philosophical question of whether we have a self; he thought it not a question that helps toward liberation from suffering.  He was nothing if not a practical man!

Obviously, people exist as living beings and their suffering exists. But a big part of their suffering is that they believe that their ‘self’, their core, is not worthy or needs significant improvement to warrant love and esteem from others – and by implication love from oneself. So self-compassion helps reduce this obsession with self, this pervasive self-concern that can torment us for the entirety of our lives. 

Fortunately, the evidence for the benefits of self-compassion is very strong. Self-compassion improves personal initiative, coping skills and goal achievement.  It lifts life satisfaction, emotional intelligence and social connection.  It promotes curiosity, happiness, optimism, and generally positive emotions. Research into self-compassion has shown that reducing negative self-judgment does not create egoism, but rather creates increased compassion for others.

It appears that self-compassionate people tend to recognize that imperfection and failure are often unavoidable, and so are more likely to be kind to themselves and others when confronted with negative experiences. In terms of effectiveness this absence of self-consciousness also enables them to enter into the state of flow more often, their mind being undistracted and undivided.

So somewhat counter-intuitively, practising self-compassion can really help us to stop obsessing about ourselves! In the next part of this series, we’ll look at how we might go about that in practice!