Self-Compassion: The Superhighway to Long-Term Health

The complexity and stress of our everyday lives seems to be soaring at a rapid pace. Of course our stress levels go up and down depending on the circumstances of our lives, but life seems to serve up difficult moments on an almost daily basis!  I don’t think I’m alone when I think to myself: “How do people do it…How do they keep all of those balls up in the air and still maintain some quality of life?”  How often do we slow down and take good care of ourselves when our stress levels are rising through the roof? For some strange reason these are the exact times that we tend to care for ourselves the least.  We default to ruminating, tuning out, numbing out, working harder, withdrawing, isolating, judging ourselves for not keeping up and criticizing ourselves so harshly in those exact moments that we’re struggling, especially those “dark night of the soul” moments. 

Last weekend, I attended a three-day core skills training for the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program with Dr. Christopher Germer, co-taught by Dr. Lynette Monteiro from the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. This retreat-style training was primarily experiential in nature and it was the perfect next step in my mindfulness practice.  The training and experience was simply invaluable as I now have a whole set of new skills to help me maintain my health over the long run through the practice of self-compassion. Throughout the years of my personal mindfulness practice, I have been informally practicing self-compassion and lovingkindness, but this program catapulted that practice to a whole new level. 

Chris Germer started the retreat by sharing a story about Jack Kornfield.  Jack said that while reflecting upon how his mindfulness practice and teaching has evolved over the years, he realized that he used to think that to become free, he had to practice like a samurai warrior.  But then, over time, he came to realize that the skillful way to practice was like a devoted mother of a newborn child.  It takes the same energy but has a completely different quality.  Jack describes it best in his blog from November 2012: “It’s unwavering compassion and presence that liberates rather than having to defeat the enemy in battle”.  What an amazing story, I thought, as it highlights the intention of tenderness and care that we can choose to bring to our practice - bringing a specific “tone” into our self-talk and experience, as well as a quality of attention that is affectionate, curious, supportive, nurturing and kind to ourselves.  Doing so can transform how we relate to challenging inner experiences.

Chris Germer also explained that this practice is like taking the light of wisdom to the “dark corners” in our minds/psyches. He explained that in a few religions, Ganesha the elephant represents wisdom and light and at times is pictured riding atop a rat.  Chris explained that as we know, rats like to seek out dark corners and they naturally scurry into those corners quickly and habitually. Self-compassion is a tool, or way of being with or relating to our experience, that allows us to take the wisdom, light and love to those ‘dark corners’, thereby fostering growth and healing.

Self-compassion appears to be the one of the best ways that we can take care of ourselves on a long-term basis. As neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author Rick Hanson explains the “negativity bias” of our brains, humans have evolved to be fearful, vigilant, wary and so easily hijacked by alarms/stressors.  In his blog from October 2010, he highlights that the first step toward gaining more control over the ancient circuitry our of brain is to learn how to bring mindful awareness to the negativity bias and learn to cultivate calm, wisdom and a sense of inner strength. 

Chris Germer and his colleague Dr. Kristin Neff explain that self-compassion contains three components:
  1. Mindfulness (allows us to “be” with painful feelings as they are);
  2. Self-Kindness (treating ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh judgment and actively soothing and comforting oneself); and,
  3. Common Humanity (seeing our own struggles as part of a larger human experience, not abnormal). 
Kristen Neff has been studying the physiology of self-compassion for the last 12 years and she has discovered that people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient and optimistic about their future. In other words they have overall better mental health.  To read more about her scientific publications, feel free to check out her website.

It was fascinating to learn that Kristin Neff’s research shows that when we are in self-critical mode and/or beating ourselves up for a perceived mistake or wrongdoing, our bodies react with a fight-flight-freeze (stress) response. This means that our bodies become bathed in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, as the self-critical thoughts are actually a threat to our sense of self/identity.  Our brains don't know the difference between a real external threat and an internal threat. Self-compassion, on the other hand, actually manifests in our bodies too. When we can soothe our own pain and difficulty we tap into the mammalian caregiving system which triggers the release of oxytocin. Kristen Neff explains that oxytocin strongly increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity and connectedness.  It also facilitates the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.

So for example, if you catch yourself caught in a string of negative and self-critical thoughts, the first step is self-awareness.  Mindfully label “Ah there’s self-judgment”, being aware that these thoughts increase our stress levels (both short- and long-term).  The self-compassionate response could be to place your hand on your heart (a gesture of self-compassion), breathe, name the most predominant emotion, ex. “worry”, “sadness”, “loneliness” (in a kind gentle voice) and see if you can find where the emotion is located in your body (ex. tension in chest, heaviness around your heart, a ‘pit’ in your stomach), and breathe into/out from those physical sensations in your body.  After you give the emotion some kind attention, it might be helpful to ask yourself “what do I need to be kind to myself in this stressful situation”.  Stay tuned for my next blog which will describe this in more detail.

By practicing self-compassion in our moments of stress and overwhelm, we can enhance our health exponentially prompting us to want to take especially good care of ourselves and doing so skillfully.  Practicing self-compassion can seem counter-intuitive at first, but it is a worthwhile skill and state to cultivate.  I, myself, am so glad that I was able to be a part of this Mindful Self-Compassion skills training.  These skills will not only enable me to sustain my own health on a long-term basis, but I have been able to be more present and attuned with my clients who are recovering from mental health and physical challenges.  The bonus is that self-compassion is also allowing me to ‘show up’ in a new way for my family and friends (hard to articulate but it’s something I feel) as we travel together on this adventure called life.   When I walked away from the retreat last Sunday afternoon, I had a deep knowing that I really needed this, and that we all, as human beings, need this precious quality of self-compassion in our lives.  Our society also needs this – in a big way.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ~ Dalai Lama