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Two weekends ago, I attended the first conference in New Zealand on "Compassion in Healthcare", writes life coach Jan Aitken.
From the outset, it was clear that the principals, techniques and the stories related to compassion in healthcare were applicable to everyday life, not just for those involved in care of others. Interestingly, a large part of the conference revolved around the importance of "self-compassion" and I came away feeling it was time to revisit this important value/concept that many of us may have forgotten about, feel uncomfortable with or just plain ignore.
Self-compassion is defined as being "kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings, struggles or tough times ..." (Kristin Neff, psychologist).
Being self-compassionate means when you are in the midst of struggles, you act towards yourself in the same way you would towards your best friend if they were going through a tough time. You notice the pain and/or hurt, empathise with yourself, and then offer yourself kindness and understanding as opposed to being self-critical and giving yourself a hard time.
Telling ourselves we are failures, stupid, worthless etc is a common response to a setback, but it's not a healthy response and can be destructive long term.
The beauty of self-compassion is that it's something you can give yourself. You don't have to rely on others to supply it (let's face it, we could be waiting a long time if we did!). Theoretically, it's there when we need it, if only we can allow ourselves to have it. The trouble is many feel it is being weak or indulgent.
Self-compassion is not about wallowing in self-pity while forgetting that others are also suffering. Nor is it about refusing to take responsibility for where we find ourselves and blaming others. Instead, it's about being kinder to ourselves in a non-judgemental way.
To understand how we can be more "self-compassionate" let's look at what Dr Neff says about it. She identifies three major parts to self-compassion.
This can be challenging as society teaches us that we should focus on being kind to others rather than ourselves. Focusing on ourselves is often viewed as being indulgent and selfish.
However, it's really about having a gentle understanding of ourselves and what's going on. This is where we would talk to ourselves as if we were talking to our best friend and we withhold criticism and judgement around what's happening.
This is when we realise and understand that we are not the only person in the world who will fall on hard times. Being human means we are all mortal, all vulnerable, all imperfect, all inadequate. We all make mistakes, get sick, fail at something, maybe more than once. It's helpful to understand we're not the only person "bad stuff" happens to. Suffering is a shared human experience.
Put simply, mindfulness is having a non-judgemental awareness and acceptance of what's happening for us in the here and now and we name what we are feeling.
We may not like it, but it's about knowing what is happening and noticing our thoughts and feelings about it. No more, no less.
I think there's a fourth part to self-compassion that makes it even stronger: purposeful practice.
It's all very well understanding what self-compassion is and we can talk about it until the cows come home, but unless we purposefully practise it then it's all a bit academic. Taking action is what makes the difference; just knowing what it is isn't much help!
There's a time and a place for stamping our feet, crying, being angry, upset or numb, but getting stuck in these is unhealthy and unhelpful. Taking self-compassionate action is the thing that will make the difference.
When something rotten happens or you mess up, stop and acknowledge what you're feeling. You don't have to be stoic and push through, it's OK to feel what you're feeling. Be gentle, kind and understanding with yourself.
Take time to acknowledge that the situation is awful, but understand that it's not just you it will have happened to - others in our lives/community/social group will also be having a hard time. You haven't been singled out and picked on.
Decide what action you want to take. Maybe you want to sit and write about what's going on, or go for a walk or talk to a friend and acknowledge exactly what you're thinking and feeling. Don't think of the thoughts and feelings as good or bad, don't deny them or blow them out of proportion - they are what they are and they're valid. Be aware of what's happening for you, but make no judgement. Remember, be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend if they were having a hard time.
Self-compassion is an important part of a healthy, happy, resilient life and worth building into your emotional first aid kit. Most importantly, remember to take action towards being kind to yourself. It will help you deal with and heal from the curve balls life throws at you.
Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.
For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.