Self-compassion as an alternative to self esteem
I first came across the term “self- compassion” over a decade ago, when it was starting to be proposed as an alternative to self-esteem as a marker for wellbeing. It was becoming apparent that the focus on self-esteem as the ultimate attainment for wellbeing was problematic, based on a requirement to be the best at something to feel good about ourselves. We can’t always be the best/ at our best and they were finding that the drive for good self-esteem was related to bullying and narcissism.
Enter self-compassion (or should I say “re-enter” as there is nothing new about being compassionate to ourselves being good for us…this is ancient wisdom and in fact part of our physiology). If self-esteem is about feeling good about ourselves when things are going well…..what about when they are not? When we mess up, when there are painful emotions and difficulties. Self-compassion is about how we treat ourselves when life is not going well, when it is painful….
“Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would a dear friend” K Neff
Self-compassion: not for me thanks
My first encounter with self-compassion did not go well……we just didn’t gel.
It just seemed too foreign to me, great for others yes but not for me! It seemed so self-indulgent and contrary to my upbringing. How was I going to be strong and motivated if I became all self-compassionate?
Take the self-compassion test
What the research says
Little did I know at the time that Dr. Kristin Neff’s and colleagues’ research on self-compassion was showing that in fact; our motivation to make and sustain changes is actually increased with self-compassion! When we are not bullying ourselves it is actually easier to change. The research also found that rather than being selfish or self-indulgent, self-compassion increased people’s ability to be with others pain and difficulties sustainably. Those with high self-compassion had more resilience, improved relationships and were less stressed. It was also being implicated as a way to reduce burnout in health professionals and carers.
The mindfulness doorway opens
Mindfulness practice however was a doorway I could go through back then, slowly at first, in and out. Over time becoming a mindfulness practitioner and eventually a teacher of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).
What I discovered through my mindfulness practice, like so many people in my classes, was that I needed self-compassion, not more striving to get it right and be more aware. Bob Sharples calls this the “subtle aggression of self-improvement” and goes on to say…..
“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself”
Being with the present moment isn’t always pleasant
As we practice mindfulness more and get past the idea that this is just a nice relaxation exercise and another way to try and feel good all the time……we discover that the present moment isn’t always pleasant. This is where the transformation starts to really deepen. How can I be with the inevitable unpleasant, difficult and painful, without resisting, avoiding or becoming overwhelmed by it?
Self-compassion can resource us ……..like going with a caring friend into a difficult situation it enables us to move towards the unpleasant. It makes me think of when a child has a grazed knee; we cannot stop the pain, but holding and soothing the child helps them to be with it and move through.
“We practice self-compassion not to get rid of anything but because it hurts” Kristin Neff
The attacked and the attacker
Mindfulness practice allows us to see the patterns and habits of the mind that cause us suffering and stress…we get “in-sight”. Something I saw clearly was how much stress and suffering was coming from “my own hand” (well actually more my own mind). My nervous system perceived that I was under attack continuously….from myself, causing a stress reaction (and likely a whole load of stress hormones too). I had tried many forms of stress reduction out there….what I hadn’t tried was learning how to stop attacking myself.
A pivotal moment for me was on working meditation retreat (where I was in silence and meditating a lot while also doing a job). I got to see for myself in crystal clarity how much I was always on my case and the harm this was causing. Sometimes overt self-criticism but also a kind of continuous, subtle low level judgment of not quite getting it right. Out of the accumulated mindfulness practice and teachings came the knowing that:
Self-compassion was the missing link in stress reduction. If I wanted to be less stressed, I needed to go there.
“What if I should discover that…..I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness-that I myself am the enemy who must be loved?” C.G. Jung
The Mindful self-compassion programme
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear” unknown
My teachers appeared in the forms of Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer who developed the Mindful self-compassion programme and Dr. Anna Friis and Kristy Arbon who guided me skilfully through it.
The Mindful self-compassion programme (MSC) is an evidence based 8 week course similar in structure to an MBSR and they go really well together.
Self-compassion like mindfulness is a practice; in other words it needs to be actually put into action to make a difference rather than just knowing the theory. By acting in a self-compassionate way through practices we change the brain to become more self-compassionate people. The fact that neuroplasticity exists and I knew that what I practiced would change me, greatly helped me keep motivated with the inevitable discomfort of doing something differently.
Mindfulness and self-compassion: same/ different?
Depending on who you talk to it seems that mindfulness and self-compassion are seen as the same or different but related.
For me I needed the mindfulness practice to be able to notice that I am suffering/ (dis)stressed in the first place. Although adept at picking up on others distress my ability to notice my own “moments of suffering” needed a lot of mindfulness practice. In some ways I think the two grew together, supporting each other.
As an MBSR teacher an important part of mindfulness practice is about the “how” we are mindful, the attitude we bring to our experience. The awareness is infused with the qualities of compassion and kindness, it is warm, friendly and kind, not mean, harsh and judgmental. So if compassion is intrinsic to mindfulness then is self-compassion too?
I do wonder if this depends somewhat on the person being mindful? Western culture in my experience generally doesn’t encourage self-compassionate behaviour. Do some of us therefore need self-compassion to be taught in a more explicit defined way? Such as in an MSC training?
Dr. Neff talks about the difference this way….
The kindness and compassion of mindfulness is aimed towards the experience.
The kindness and compassion in self-compassion is aimed towards the experiencer.
It seems there are many doorways to self-compassion I hope you find yours.
Kate Brandram-Adams is a Registered mental health nurse and Registered MBSR/ mindfulness teacher. She has been in clinical practice for over 25 years.
She teaches mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in Rangiora and all over North Canterbury as Mindfulness North Canterbury. She offers Mindfulness Based Stress reduction (MBSR) twice a year in Rangiora and is passionate about offering these evidence based mental health programmes to rural communities/ non city dwellers.
Kate also teaches Mindful self-compassion workshops in the Canterbury area to the community and also to workplaces. She specialises in teaching mindful self-compassion to health professionals, carers, counsellors and teachers. She is active in making health care compassionate for all and attended the NZ compassion in healthcare conference this year.
Kate also works in addictions and brings mindfulness and self-compassion to her many clients and group participants.
She has her home in rural North Canterbury with a Jersey steer, horse, chickens, 2 cats and a husband. Her loves are animals, permaculture, yoga, painting and dancing.