Self-compassion teaches us how to strengthen and harness a circuit in all human brains known as the care circuit. The care circuit is activated every time we bond with others and feel warmth, connection, love and compassion — our brains are literally wired to experience these feelings. This circuit is required for bonding and caretaking and is partly what separates mammals from other animals (such as reptiles) who do not put in the same effort into caring for and nurturing their young. Many evolutionary biologists now agree that the pro-social tendencies it inspires — our capacity for caring for one another and cooperating — is part of what makes humans so successful as a species.
Be Kind to Yourself
It involves responding to our failures, stresses and disappointments with self-kindness rather than harsh self-judgment. So often when we make mistakes, have a hard time, or find ourselves disappointed or frustrated we tend to judge ourselves harshly, beat ourselves up, and sometimes feel as if this shouldn’t even be happening. We might even feel that there is something wrong with us for having this disappointment or making this mistake.
Put Your Experience Into Perspective
In self-compassion training, we refer to this sense of enlarged perspective as common humanity. So often when things in life don’t go how we want them too, we can get frustrated and can even start to feel isolated or alone in that frustration. It’s as if we look at everyone else in our lives and imagine that their lives are going perfectly and that there is something wrong with US or our life that makes things go differently for us. We can feel disconnected from others and maybe even want to withdraw because of how poorly or disappointed or dejected or frustrated we feel. Common humanity reminds us that EVERYBODY, every single person on this planet, also suffers disappointments and failures. Not only are we no longer isolated by our suffering and disappointment but we can actually find ourselves in greater connection with others because of it. Common humanity allows us to put our difficulties into perspective so that we realize that it’s both normal and human to go through whatever we are going through. All people feel frustrated, wretched, afraid, lonely, sad, disappointed, overwhelmed and stressed sometimes. Maybe even all these things at once!
Mindfulness Rather Than Over-Identification
In order to respond to our difficulties with self-compassion we first need to notice that we are even having a difficult experience in the first place. Mindfulness allows us to recognize that we are having a difficult experience and to turn towards our difficulty without getting carried away by it. Without being mindful, we may never realize what we are thinking and the grip that our thinking has on us. Mindfulness allows us to see our internal experience but not get carried away by the “woe is me” story.
Overall, the research paints a compelling picture of the mechanisms through which self-compassion exerts such a powerful impact on our wellbeing. In helping us emotionally regulate and soothe ourselves, self-compassion allows us to better handle the challenges we face in our lives. And then, equipped with the knowledge that we have the capacity to tolerate difficulty, we have greater confidence in our ability to engage with life and put ourselves out there. And when we do put ourselves out there and fail, self-compassion also allows us to forgive ourselves, allowing us to take a more constructive look at what went wrong, and to take more responsibility for our role in the situation.
Both the research and my own experience with self-compassion leave me with a strong conviction in the benefits of this practice. So much so that I’ve made it a cornerstone of my work. The applications of this practice are nearly endless, and it’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of the movement to bring this to different contexts.
Naomi Arbit, PhD, MAPP is a behavioral scientist, positive change strategist and coach who works with groups, individuals and organizations on enhancing wellbeing and supporting effective behavioral change.