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Why self-compassion is so important

05 Sep 2016 | Karen Liebenguth

Do you sometimes struggle to say "no", worried what others may think of you? Do you often take someone's disappointment so personally that it feels like they're rejecting you, that they no longer like you? Do you then beat yourself up about the situation?

Consider this for a moment. You're explaining to a good friend that you've been asked to do something by someone but you have too much on and you need to say no. No doubt your friend would tell you not to worry and would support and understand your decision. They'd show you kindness and understanding.

Why is it that so many of us struggle to offer the same empathy and understanding to ourselves?

Neff Image 1  Neff Image 2

For a number of years I've followed the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering self-compassion researcher, author, and teacher, so I was delighted to get the chance to hear her talk about her work at an Action for Happiness event in London.

What I found most interesting was how she explained the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem, as over the years I've worked with many clients who come saying: "I have low-self-esteem and I want to feel more confident about myself, about work, about life in general"

What is self-compassion?

Firstly, compassion literally means 'to suffer with'. It's our ability to recognise when someone is in emotional pain or having a tough time - and to then offer them warmth, kindness, a listening ear or a helping hand. Self-compassion simply involves offering that same friendly, warm and understanding attitude to ourselves rather than judging or criticising ourselves harshly.

Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth - our perceived value, or how much we like or don't like ourselves - and is contingent on our current circumstances, our latest successes and failures.

Self-compassion, by contrast, is not dependent on external circumstances, it's always available, especially when we find ourselves in a difficult or painful situation. What's more, we don't have to feel as good as or better than others to feel good about ourselves. Self-compassion allows for personal failings to be acknowledged with kindness and understanding.

Self-compassion is not dependent on self-evaluation, comparing ourselves to others (which can lead to self-absorption, a lack of motivation and even depression) but instead comes from an understanding that each person is a human being deserving compassion and understanding, not because they are pretty, clever, multi-talented, intelligent etc.

Neff Cartoon 1  Neff Cartoon 2 

Treat yourself as you would a good friend

By practising self-compassion we can turn the enemies in our head into friends.

"People who are compassionate to themselves are much more likely to be happy, resilient, optimistic and motivated to change themselves and their lives for the better. When our inner voice plays the role of a supportive friend (not a continual critic), then when we notice some personal failing, we feel safe and accepted enough to see ourselves clearly and make the changes needed to be healthier and happier" ~ Dr. Kristin Neff 

I've been working with a client whose emotional wellbeing depends on others' responses. I've been helping her to be more self-compassionate, particularly in those moments when she wants to say 'no' to something.

Rather than always needing others' understanding, she is learning to understand herself and recognise that it is ok to say 'no' at times - and although people may be disappointed with her saying 'no', this disappointed is theirs, and that it doesn't mean that they don't like her anymore.

The wonderful thing is that she has become more able to bear the discomfort of being honest with others, because she's been learning to understand and to reassure herself.

A path to greater emotional resilience?

Research indicates that, in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, better self-awareness and more caring relationships, as well as less narcissism and anger.

What is also interesting is that research shows there is only a very weak link between being compassionate to others and self-compassion, i.e. we can be compassionate towards others without necessarily being self-compassionate.

But importantly, the more we are able to be kind to ourselves, the longer we can sustain compassion for others. By practising self-compassion, we "fill up our own tank" with goodness - with warmth, understanding, friendliness and support. And the fuller our own tank is, the happier we are and the more we are able to offer compassion to others over a sustained period of time.

I'll sign off with a link to one of my favourite self-compassion exercises, the self-compassionate break from Kristin Neff. And if you're curious to see self-compassionate you are, take the self-compassion questionnaire. I score 3.8 out of 5, which means I'm moderately self-compassionate. So I have more work to do.

I could beat myself up for not being self-compassionate enough, but these days I am able to catch myself and not go down that downward spiral. Instead, I can see my progress because only a few years ago I would probably have scored much lower!


Green Space Coaching Wide

Karen Liebenguth is a qualified coach and an accredited mindfulness teacher. She works with individuals and organisations to foster personal development. Karen specialises in working with clients outdoors in London's parks and green space because she believes that's where insight, change and creativity can happen most naturally.

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For more information visit: www.greenspacecoaching.com or drop Karen a line: karen@greenspacecoaching.com



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