FIND YOUR SELF-COMPASSIONATE VOICE
Two significant, and seemingly opposite, American experiences occur this week: Lent and Valentine’s Day. Today starts the Lenten period of the year, which for many of us is a time to prepare our hearts through reflection and repentance. On Sunday, Lent intersects with another “heart-centered” holiday, as we celebrate Valentine’s Day and all the love and indulgence that it offers. With so much passion going on in one week, it’s fitting to take a moment to reflect on another passion, self-compassion.
What is self-compassion and why is it important? In clinical terms, self-compassion is defined as having three primary aspects: (1) self-kindness vs. self-judgement, (2) humanity vs. isolation, and (3) mindfulness vs. over-identification (1). In much simpler terms, a self-compassionate person is one who is kind, gentle, and comforting to him/herself (instead of harshly judging themselves). This person also views imperfections and negative life events as part of a normal human experience (as opposed to an intrinsic personal flaw) and is willing to experience the unpleasant moment without ignoring it or dwelling on it.
You might be thinking: easier said than done! The reality is that we already have a compassionate voice and nature. The compassionate voice is the one usually reserved for loved ones in our lives, the voice that instinctively tells them, “It’s okay honey, it was a mistake, you’re all right,” or “I know this is terrible, but I love you, and we will get through it.” We naturally extend this compassionate voice when there is a negative event (e.g the child who makes a mistake) and when the suffering is a result of external circumstances (e.g. the spouse who gets laid off). Regardless of the source of stress or discomfort, it turns out that using this “voice of compassion” with ourselves and others, is not only comforting, but also healthy — very healthy.
Researchers at the University of Texas have found that “higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination, and fear of failure” (2). Did you catch all of that? Happiness. Optimism. Curiosity. Connectedness. Less anxiety. Less depression. Less rumination. Less fear of failure. These benefits aren’t derived by some gargantuan, time-consuming task, but by simply adopting the orientation of being kind and gentle with yourself. I like to call this a huge return on investment.
In another study, researchers at Brandeis University have found a correlation between self-compassion and reduced inflammation (a critical find since inflammation contributes to virtually all disease). An additional study has demonstrated that those who practice self-compassion also practice other “health-promoting behaviors” such as healthy eating habits, exercise, regular sleep, and stress management. Having a self-compassionate attitude doesn’t just ease psychological stress, it can provide immense overall health benefits.
So how do we develop this inner, compassionate voice?
1. Be mindful of how you are talking to yourself. In order to beat the beast, you have to know where it is lurking. Often, negative self-talk is so ingrained in our life experience that we don’t even realize when we are being unkind to ourselves. A good rule of thumb is, if you are feeling stress and it’s related to something that you did or something that has happened to you, pause and reflect. Listen to what you are saying to yourself. Write it down if it helps. Often, simply being mindful reduces our stress. But if it doesn’t…
2. Challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself if a loved one was going through the same thing, would you speak to them in the same way, with the same words and tone? If you can extend love and compassion to others, why can’t you extend it to yourself in a gentle, comforting way? Will berating yourself produce anything positive or inspire you to overcome life’s challenges? Short answer: no, it won’t.
3. Reframe your experience. Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. People fail. The beauty of life is that it happens, for better or worse (and it sure beats the alternative!). Negative experience + negative self-talk = two bad things when there should only be one, and that’s unnecessary. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. Be gentle and forgiving of yourself and your life, cut yourself some slack, and move forward.
4. Practice, practice, and more practice. Remember, the odds are that you ahave a compassionate voice when dealing with others. Harness that voice, and practice turning it inwards, towards your own actions, behaviors, and life circumstances. While it may be easy to use self-compassion in one realm (for instance, forgiving myself when I can’t figure out how to build my son’s toy), in other areas, that inner critic may be relentless and downright mean (swimsuit season, anyone?). As with most things that are truly worth it, putting self-compassion into practice is a lifelong journey.
So if this week brings too many chocolates on Valentine’s Day, or a slip during Lent, or if you prove to be human and find yourself stressing about something that you did or didn’t do, try to be gentle with yourself and cut yourself some slack. Your health depends on it.
– TANYA RUNCI, MA, ADE
 Neff, K.D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.
 Burrows, Leah. (2014). Don’t beat yourself up, you’ll live longer. http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2014/april/compassion.html.
 Sirios, F.M., Kitner, R., Hirsch, J.K. (2014). Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25243717
 Neff, K.D. (2009). The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Human Development, 52, 211-214.