Self-Compassion: What is that??



Dr. Kristen Neff, a compassion researcher, explains compassion as opening our hearts to our own pain and suffering, offering understanding and kindness upon failure or mistakes, and recognizing the shared human experience.

As a person who trusted and counted on her inner critic to tell her what was real, what was true, and as a voice of reason, compassion was a very difficult concept for me to understand. Closer to the beginning of my inner work, I tried taking an online course with Brene Brown and Kristin Neff around compassion, but I just didn’t quite get it. There were no “aha moments” that came from watching it the first time around. It’s like my brain totally rejected the idea of compassion and couldn’t even process the information.

Lack of Clarity, Shared Language, and Cultural Norms

Recently as I was doing a Google search on the definition of compassion, I can see how I might have been confused about what compassion is. The language used around compassion isn’t consistent and is often convoluted and hard to comprehend. One definition even contained the word ‘pity’ in it, and for me pity is never part of the compassion equation.

Wikipedia states: Qualities of compassion are patience and wisdom; kindness and perseverance; warmth and resolve, which I think are much more accurate qualities of compassion. Without shared language and understanding of what compassion is, it can be very confusing to integrate into your life and practices.

What I’ve experienced compassion to be is: When I’m in the midst of pain and suffering, and my thoughts are circling and stuck in a seemingly infinite loop, I ask the part of myself that is suffering, with kindness,

“What do I need to know about this right now?”

And then compassionately and curiously being open to the response. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t that just talking to yourself?” Yes, it is ultimately talking to ourselves, but using new language and new feelings behind the language used to communicate with ourselves. We want to talk to ourselves like we would talk to a child or a good friend who is hurting. We don’t want our inner critic to be the one driving the conversation, and we don’t want to get stuck in the self-loathing circle of “Why me…this always happens to me…”. It’s really being kind and loving with and to yourself, which doesn’t seem to come to us naturally.

Building Practices and Skills

Don’t get me wrong, practicing self-compassion was hard to begin incorporating in my thoughts, but it’s good news that it is a skill and can be practiced and improved. It takes intentional practice to remember and implement. It takes new perspectives, curiosity, and new leanings to implement.

About a year and a half after I originally tried the Brene Brown and Kristin Neff course, I revisited it, and with new language, learnings, and skills, the information made a lot more sense and I did walk away with a lot of “ahas” and clarity around compassion. I am still working on making it a consistent practice, I have an awfully stubborn inner critic, but my self-compassion is vastly improved.

“Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.”
—Pema Chodron

It takes courage to open our hearts to our pain and suffering, especially when we spend so much time trying to will and force it away. It takes courage to embrace that part of ourselves and treat it lovingly, and it takes courage to tell our inner critic that they are no longer in charge and that you can be trusted to be the voice of reason in your life. It takes courage to walk out of our darkness and seek the light, all the while embracing our darkness in the love it is longing for, but practice it enough and things will begin to transform and seek the light to make you thrive.