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Lions Roar : November 2015
Defining Self-Compassion After I got a faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I wanted to conduct research on self-compassion. To be honest, I didn’t have the most objective of scientific motives. I wanted to prove what I already knew—that self-compassion is a powerful source of emotional well-being. I knew I needed to start by carefully defining what self- compassion was so I could create a scale to measure it. This would enable me to compare the mental health of people who reported high levels of self-compassion with those reporting low self-compassion. I read every Buddhist book on the topic I could get my hands on, as well as writings by Western psycholo- gists such as Carl Rogers. Compassion is commonly defined as sensitivity to the experi- ence of others’ suffering, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering. There is also a wisdom element to compassion. This involves recognizing the interconnected causes and condi- tions that make up the human experience of suffering. Based on this understanding, I defined self-compassion as con- sisting of three basic elements—self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. I proposed that these components mutually interact to create a self-compassionate frame of mind. From this point of view, self-compassion is relevant to all experiences of suffering, whether caused by personal inadequacies and failures or by life situations outside of our control. Step 1: Self-Kindness Western culture places great emphasis on being kind to our friends, family, and neighbors who are struggling, but not to ourselves. When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we are more likely to beat ourselves up than put a supportive arm around our own shoulder. The golden rule tells us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s all well and good, but hopefully we won’t treat others even half as badly as we treat ourselves. “You’re such an idiot!” “You’re a bad person!” Would you talk this way to a friend? Yet these are things many of us say to ourselves. It’s natural for us to try to be kind to the people in our lives whom we care about. We let them know it’s okay to fail. We reassure them of our respect and support when they’re feeling bad about themselves. We comfort them when they’re going through hard times. In other words, most of us are very good at being compassionate to others—but not to ourselves. Think of all the generous, caring people you know who constantly tear themselves down (this may even be you). Self-kindness counters this tendency so that we are as caring toward ourselves as we are toward others. Rather than being harshly critical when noticing personal shortcomings, we are supportive and encouraging. Instead of attacking and berating ourselves for being inadequate, we offer ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance. Similarly, when external life circum- stances are challenging and difficult to bear, we actively soothe and comfort ourselves. Step 2: Recognizing Our Common Humanity A sense of interconnectedness is central to self-compassion. Self-compassion honors the Buddha’s first noble truth: that life entails suffering, for everyone, without exception. All humans are flawed works in progress. Everyone fails, makes mistakes, and experiences hardship in life. While this may seem obvious, it’s so easy to forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well, and that something has gone wrong when they don’t. The truth is that it’s highly likely—in fact, inevitable—that we’ll make mistakes and experience hardships on a regular basis. It is com- pletely normal and natural, but we don’t tend to be rational about these matters. So not only do we suffer, but we also feel all alone in our suffering. When we remember that pain is part of the shared human experience, every moment of suffering is transformed into a moment of connection with others. This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. While self-pity says “poor me,” PHOTOBYANDREASGRADIN/STOCKSYUNITED SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2015 60