Compassion, whether for others or for oneself, means responding with loving kindness to the pain that is as much a part of life as joy. Yet, while compassion for others comes naturally to most of us most of the time, somehow, we often find self-compassion hard. Why is this?
The first way this can get tricky is when the suffering is related to human limitations. Our need to have people not make mistakes or be limited can make it difficult to find compassion. And when the mistakes or limitations are our own, this can get even harder.
We carry various beliefs about what it means to be a good person that get in the way of self-compassion. Some of these are:
- That we should not make mistakes,
- That the way to improve ourselves is by being hard on ourselves,
- That caring for ourselves is somehow at the expense of loving others.
Thus self-compassion can be confused with both weakness and selfishness.
Learning self-compassion starts with challenging these beliefs. We must entertain the possibility that in fact the best way to be both loving and strong is through self-compassion. I’m often reminded of the instructions on airplanes to “secure your mask before helping others.” When it comes to doing good in the world, taking care of ourselves is the starting place.
Our strength lies not in expecting ourselves to be perfect, but in understanding that our greatest strength is our ability to learn. Self-compassion means loving acceptance of current limitations in a way that supports our marvelous ability to grow.
The starting place for learning self-compassion is a decision to experiment with the possibility that self-compassion is a good choice. For embarking on this new experiment we need three elements:
Attention means paying attention to what happens at a moment when you are in difficulty. What are you feeling? And what are you telling yourself about this difficulty? Are you moving toward self-blame and criticism or are you inclining toward self-compassion?
Suspension means that even though self-blame and criticism feel natural and right, you decide to experiment with not doing that. You suspend, or inhibit, your old habits.
Intention means that, though you may feel awkward and frankly, bad at it, you intend to experiment with self-compassion. You then simply observe, accept and value your tentative moves in this new direction. You practice loving acceptance of your current limitations and celebrate your exciting ability to grow.
Loving others begins with loving yourself. Now is a good time to start.