Self-Compassion: How Thinking About Bad Experiences Can Make You Happier and More Compassionate

Welcome to the March Mindful Mama Carnival: Mindful Mama Challenge

This post was written for inclusion in the Mindful Mama Carnival hosted by Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ. This month our participants have challenges they’ve set for themselves toward becoming more mindful. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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There was a show on NPR a few months ago about an anonymous person who left $100 at a coffee shop and said that it was to cover coffee and treats for anyone who came in after her for however long it lasted. The owner of the coffee shop talked about the positive effects of this generous act, including how it’s inspired other customers to do the same thing. The owner suggested that if we practice random acts of kindness, like paying for someone’s tank of gas as well as our own next time we’re at the pump, we can increase the overall level of compassion in the world.

My first thought: Wow. What a great idea!

My second thought: But wait…what if the person in the car you just filled with gas is a murderer and needed a full tank of gas to carry out his plans? Or what if he’s getting ready to kidnap his child? How do I know I’m helping the right person?

I often let this kind of fear prevent me from compassionate action. I have identified three categories of reaction that keep me from generosity:

1) Fear of helping the wrong person. This is the one I described above. Along with this is a fear of being taken advantage of. I don’t think this is an unrealistic fear. I mean, Elizabeth Smart’s parents tried to help out a fellow who was down on his luck, and look what happened to their family.

2) Fear of negative judgment from the person I’m helping. Usually what I imagine they’d say is, “What a weirdo!” or “How dare she presume to know what I need!” or, along similar lines, “This [whatever item I’ve given to them] isn’t useful to me at all. What a pain in the butt that I have to get rid of this thing I don’t want on top of everything else I’m dealing with!”

3) A sense of scarcity. “What if I give too much and don’t have enough left for my own needs?” This is the one that comes up most often when I’m trying to decide how much money to pledge to my church, but I also get it when I think about volunteering my time. What if I make a commitment and then find it’s too much to give?

And then when I let these fears keep me from compassionate action, I feel ashamed and guilty, which, I’ve found, doesn’t inspire greater compassion. Apparently this is consistent with what a number of scientists have found, too (not with me, but with other people, but I assume the results could be extrapolated to me).

When I did my yoga teacher training, one of my instructors was Kelly McGonigal. At the time, she was finishing up her Ph.D. Since then she’s been very busy. She’s been pretty hot lately on NPR and on the Today Show and various other places for her book about willpower (The Willpower Instinct) and for her book about yoga and chronic pain (Yoga for Pain Relief). At the time, she struck me as a very self-confident yet compassionate person. Her yoga practice was beautiful and seemingly effortless. And she cut her own hair, which is, to me, the pinnacle of self-assuredness and not being afraid of what others think. I found her fascinating, but I also felt intimidated by her confidence in herself. She’s one of those people who inspire a recording of Wayne and Garth saying, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” to start playing in my head. But then, I felt pretty much out of my league during the entirety of the teacher training.

At any rate, I’ve been checking out Kelly’s blog and her interviews off and on since she started appearing on the national stage, and I recently watched a video on her blog about the benefits of self-compassion. If you want to check it out, you can find it HERE. It’s thirteen minutes long, and the sound is a little echo-y, but it’s well worth the time.

One of the things that she said particularly struck me. She said that lack of self-compassion is associated with a fear of being compassionate to others. Specifically, people who were lacking in self-compassion were more likely to agree with the statement, “People will take advantage of me if I’m too compassionate.”

Hmm. Yes, that sounds somewhat familiar.

People lacking in self-compassion were also more likely to engage in negative self-criticism and unhealthy perfectionism, and to experience shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

Yes, [clears throat] also somewhat familiar.

McGonigal then briefly outlined a practice that was used in self-compassion studies and which appears to correlate with positive outcomes, including reduced procrastination, reduced anger, better resilience after a setback, and increased happiness compared to a daily practice of self-criticism and guilt.

I could really get into these kinds of positive outcomes.

I admit, self-compassion seems really, really corny to me. But I’m at an age where I’m starting to realize that if I don’t get moving on making changes and accomplishing great (-ish) things, I’m not going to have the chance to do that kind of thing, at least not in this lifetime. So, I’m going to give this self-compassion thing a try.

As part of the Mindful Mama Blog Carnival, I’m going to do the self-compassion daily journaling practice McGonigal describes in her presentation every day for one week. Basically, I’ll journal (not blog…journal. I’m not doing this self-compassion thing in public!) each evening about the most difficult event of my day with a focus towards writing down words of empathy and compassion for myself, rather than the usual “You dweeb. Why can’t you ever do [X] right?”

And I’ll let you all know how I do.

If you’d like to give it a try, too, please take a look at Kelly’s video (linked above a couple of times). I would love to know how it goes for you, so please leave your feedback in the comments section or blog about it and leave a comment with the link to your post.

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13 comments

  1. Pingback: The 2012 Challenge Wrap-Up « Imperfect Happiness
  2. Pingback: Struggles with Self-Compassion « Imperfect Happiness
  3. rani · April 3, 2012

    I love this! I kinda equate self compassion to self care. Without it how can you move forward? Thanks for this!

    Like

  4. Lori · April 1, 2012

    I find this concept very interesting, that lack of self-compassion makes one unable to show compassion to others. I can see that in myself also. Although I would add that it might make you unable to act on you compassion, but not unable to empathize and desire to help, right? OK, I am unable to finish any thought this morning because my child needs a lot of help with some drawings she is doing. But I need to think about this more. There is certainly an interesting connection there.

    Like

  5. Cathy Trahan · March 30, 2012

    Loved this post. My husband took a self compassion course last year and my teens are enrolled in one that will start next week (in Worcester MA at FlowForms Yoga). Maybe I am next🙂. Self compassion is so important and so overlooked. Good luck in your journey.
    Cathy

    Like

  6. Zoie @ TouchstoneZ · March 29, 2012

    It’s funny that I had the same impressions of Kelly in TT and have watched her well-deserved success with admiration.

    I took some extra time to read and reread your post to really digest the different parts. There’s a lot here to tease apart for me. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures called, “The Buddha Mind” that talk about the different levels of giving with compassion and your post dovetails nicely with many of the topics (except your writing is more accessible than the esoteric language in the lectures)

    Self-compassion is the most easily overlooked and, arguably, the most important step in living a life with freedom. When I look to people that I admire or wish to see as an example, I think they the people who have worked hard at this lesson. I think a big part of it is also radical acceptance, as we’ve exchanged words about before. You can’t have one without the other, in my opinion. Yet, they butt heads often and are easy distractions individually away from total self-compassion.

    I even look at the disconnect in society around social issues that have become political. I see echoes of the fears you’ve listed above in the many arguments against many “liberal” policies. The arguments on both sides deteriorate when the individuals haven’t done this self-work first. The idea that we create the world we live in feels more true to me on both the personal and the societal level.

    I’m not saying that the work has to be done in a Buddhist framework. Every theology and philosophy with staying power has the matrix for this type of introspection. But, again, it’s the most easily overlooked.

    It’s not fun to look at everything inside at times. I’d be happier if I could function without constant examination, but I know I would miss something important. My ability to connect with myself gives me the ability to connect with other people. And that connection is the only thing I’ve found to displace this empty void of reality. And that’s huge and joyful.

    So, thank you for writing this piece for the Mindful Mama Carnival. I’ll continue to think about the way you’ve expressed these ideas for quite awhile.

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  7. Shana · March 28, 2012

    Yes, it sounds like I could use an increased dose of self compassion too, and I could also really get in to the positive outcomes you’ve described. I will definitely need to check out that video. Thank you for posting!

    Like

  8. loveparenting · March 28, 2012

    Wonderful challenge! If we can be compassionate to ourselves, we will have so much more to offer others. I look forward to reading about your progress!

    Like

  9. Amy @ Daily Muttering · March 28, 2012

    Good luck. I agree with you (and Teresa above) that I wouldn’t pay for anyone’s petrol/diesel/gas… I don’t have enough money to do random acts of fiscal kindness, but I try to do as much as I can to help people on a day to day basis. I come into contact with a lot of new mums through a local childbirth trust I volunteer with, so I make sure everyone is invited to coffee mornings etc. I offer to mind & do school pick ups of friend’s kids and give away everything we no longer need. It makes me feel I’m doing my bit. I think you can do so much without having any money involved – even swaps: a friend took lovely professional photos of our 3 kids and my hubby put up blinds in his house. It’s the little things that cost nothing that count I think xx

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  10. I have had many of these thoughts and just not known how to articulate them…and am fascinated by the idea of compassion/self compassion being so connected (it seems obvious once you think of it!). You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you for sharing this wonderful challenge!

    Like

  11. Too creative for this life · March 27, 2012

    I love so much of this post. Will definitely check out that video and kelly.

    Like

  12. teresa · March 27, 2012

    Wow, that’s so interesting. I never thought about that connection between self compassion and compassion toward others. I’m excited to hear what shifts for you after a month of this.
    I feel I am pretty self-compassionate and i still have certain fears about “the wrong person”. I could relate to your examples being so scary.
    I wouldn’t pay for someone’s gas… too many unknowns… or even someone’s groceries in line. And I’d be really confused if someone tried to pay for mine in all honesty.
    I believe that simple things go a very long way. Have you ever spent a day just smiling at everyone you see? Sometimes even that will get you a bit of rejection, but it’s so much easier to handle. And I just love it when I can see a person in a grumpy mood shift. Sometimes a sincere smile can absolutely change their whole face and maybe their day.
    I have to be honest and admit that I also like the power of that. It’s like I’m magic!
    You made me think with this one!!

    Like

  13. Patti @ Canadian Unschooler · March 27, 2012

    Yes, yes, yes to this. The ability to love ourselves, to trust ourselves, to show compassion to ourselves is really at the root of confidence and happiness. I wish you every success in this amazing challenge.

    Like

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