Self-Less Series Part 4: Building Self-Compassion


How does one practice self-compassion? There are many ways and a search on the internet will yield a growing wealth of resources and methods.  In this talk I’ll focus on the basics and suggest ways that anyone can start straight away.  An excellent place to start is with Kristin Neff’s formulation of self-compassion practice.  She defines it as involving three elements—

Mindfulness or present-focused, non-judgemental awareness; Common Humanity – the understanding that one’s experience is similar to others, that we are not alone; and Self-Kindness (using kind gestures, phrases or actions toward oneself

Mindfulness: The key task of mindfulness is noticing one’s own negative emotions and thoughts in the present moment. The distinction here is that we proactively draw attention to our negative feelings rather than simply being the negative feelings or being unaware of them and reacting from them.  

Rather than ‘I am angry’ it could be a mindful observation that ‘Chris is experiencing anger’, a small but crucial distinction that we’ll come back to later when we talk aAbout Illeism.  We notice our negative feelings like we might notice other objects of experience with an attitude of curiosity. The general idea is to get some perspective on them, to not identify with them but to accept them – but now with some distance. 

Imagine you’ve had a sleepless night worrying about some errors you made at work the day before.  Mindfulness in this context would be to slow down and become aware of your agitation or your irritability, rather than acting out of those emotions. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental attitude, one of pure objectivity.

Common Humanity: The second move in self-compassion is to see how typically human one’s self-criticisms and negativity is.  Unsatisfactoriness is an inevitable part of being human. I sometimes call this an ‘anthropological view’ as we de-personalise our experience somewhat and see it as typical of our species.  Everyone suffers and just as we wish for those close to us to be happy, to live at ease, etcetera, we can logically wish that for ourselves.

So, we might normalise the fact of errors: all human beings make mistakes.  And all people can lose sleep worrying about errors. This comes and goes as a feature of life for everyone. We realise we are not different: this is a design feature of us all.

Self-Kindness: And finally, we show kindness to self, as we would typically respond to a friend or loved one in our exact situation.  This kindness can be psychological, physical or social:  Psychologically we can edit our exaggerated or overly punitive thoughts.  For example, we can consider how a neutral observer would view the situation that we are beating ourselves up over.  Or we can address ourselves with warmth and kindness as we would a loved one or friend.

Physically we can do something that eases our distress such as having a bath, exercising, having a massage, or doing a meditation.  And socially we can confide in a trusted mentor or friend to talk it through. We can seek out social support or just give ourselves down-time with a friend.

Of course, we can also practice Loving Kindness Meditation, perhaps starting where it is easiest – with someone you have uncomplicated, affectionate feelings towards – someone you really want to be happy and free of suffering, someone you really desire to be successful.   And then you might do the same for acquaintances, and then perhaps for self.  Why this order? People often find it harder to direct loving-kindness to self, so we can generate the feelings for others first, then apply them to ourselves.

In the same vein, another good method is to first remember oneself as a child, maybe 5 or 6 years old -perhaps as an actual memory, perhaps from a photograph of yourself at that age – and direct loving-kindness to that young child that was you… gradually transferring those warm feelings to the present-moment you.

And as important thing about self-compassion: it’s not always gentle self-caring. Sometimes it is assertive, even fierce. For example, compassionate self-care means stepping up and protecting oneself, standing with others who have experienced similar affronts, or clearly seeing and speaking from the truth.  

So, we may find, for example, that the errors you made were not actually your fault and you need to speak up to ensure they do not happen again. Sometimes it means figuring out what we need and making sure we meet those needs. Other times it means we need to make a change.

Finally, another angle on self-compassion is how we talk to ourselves.  It turns out that speaking to yourself in the third person is a very compassionate thing to do. This is known as Illeism from the Latin ille meaning ‘he, or that’.

For example, in a psychological experiment, participants were asked to describe a challenging social situation, while two independent psychologists scored them on the different aspects of wise reasoning (intellectual humility, perspective-taking and the capacity to find a compromise). They then had to keep a diary for four weeks.

Those using illeism (as against a control group with no specific instruction) improved in wise reasoning and that this translated into greater emotional regulation and stability. Specifically, those who’d kept a third-person diary were also more accurate in predicting future emotional outcomes. Their negative feelings reduced more, and they found better ways to cope.

So, remember emotional intelligence starts with you, literally. The kinder you are to self, the kinder you can be to others.  You can live less in reaction and more in action.  It is not indulgence but a wisdom based in mindfulness and acceptance. It means we can more enjoy our life and share that enjoyment in our relations with others.