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Lions Roar : November 2015
protective factor in posttraumatic stress. The level of self-com- passion displayed by combat veterans returning from tours in Iraq or Afghanistan is a better predictor of whether or not they will develop PTSD nine months later than the intensity of com- bat experienced in the first place. In other words, it’s not just what you face in life that matters. It’s how you treat yourself when life gets tough that determines your ability to get through. Self-compassion is self-indulgent. Being kind to yourself just means giving yourself whatever you want, doesn’t it? Actually, it doesn’t. Self-indulgence involves giving oneself short-term pleasure at the cost of long-term harm. Self-compassion, on the other hand, aims to alleviate harm. A compassionate mother wouldn’t let her daughter eat endless bowls of ice-cream, stay up late, and skip school whenever she wanted, would she? That would be indulgent and ultimately harmful. Instead, a compassionate mother would tell her daughter to eat her vegetables, go to bed on time, and do her homework. Accordingly, research suggests that self-compassion pro- motes beneficial health-related behaviors. Self-compassionate people are more likely to seek medical treatment when they need it, practice safe sex, engage in healthier eating patterns, and exercise regularly. They do this not because they have to, but because they want to. Self-compassion is selfish. Even my Buddhist friends get stuck on this one. Because it’s called “self ” compassion, doesn’t it encourage being self-cen- tered and self-focused? Isn’t the idea to free our selves from the illusion of a separate self, not reinforce it? Self-compassion is really just compassion directed inward (you can call it “inner-compassion” if that feels more comfort- able). It actually helps to dismantle the sense of separate self. When lost in the throes of self-criticism, our awareness is intensely self-focused. We feel isolated from our fellow humans and become overidentified with feelings of inadequacy. When we treat ourselves with kindness, however, remembering that imperfection is part of the interconnected human experience, we gain perspective and begin to free ourselves from the grip of “self.” We start to inhabit a state of loving, connected presence (another way of referring to the three elements of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness). This means we have more emotional resources to give to others. Again, research supports this idea. In a study of romantic couples, for instance, individuals described partners who were self-compassionate as being more emotionally connected, accepting, and autonomy supporting than those who were self-critical. They were also less detached, controlling, and ver- bally or physically aggressive. Not surprisingly, the degree to which people were happy and satisfied in their relationship was directly tied to how self-compassionate their partners were. Self-compassionate individuals are also more likely to com- promise in interpersonal conflict situations with friends, family, or romantic partners, neither prioritizing nor subordinating their own needs to those of others. Compassion values the needs of everyone equally, the self included. Self-compassion undermines performance. Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine our motivation. We think we need our harsh self-criticism to help us reach our goals. But is it true? A good analogy can be found in how good parents moti- vate their children. Would a compassionate father ruthlessly criticize his son when he messes up, telling him he’s a hopeless failure? Of course not. Instead, he reassures his child that it’s only human to make mistakes, and offers whatever support is needed to help him do his best next time. The child will be much more motivated to try to attain his goals in life if he can count on his father’s encouragement and acceptance when he fails, rather than being belittled and labeled as unworthy. It’s easy to see this when thinking about healthy parenting, but it’s not so easy to apply this logic to ourselves. We’re deeply attached to our inner criticism, and at some level believe it is help- ful. To the extent that self-criticism does work as a motivator, it’s because we’re driven by the desire to avoid self-judgment when we fail. But if we know that failure will be met with a barrage of self- criticism, sometimes it can be too frightening to even try. With self-compassion, we also try to achieve our goals, but for a very different reason—because we care. You might say that the motivation of self-compassion arises from love, while the motivation of self-criticism arises from fear. If we truly care about ourselves, we’ll want to do things that help us thrive, such as taking on challenging new projects, learning new skills, or PHOTOBYHELENYIN/STOCKSYUNITED SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2015 62