First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Compassion Series: Self-Compassion

March 18, 2012
Rev. Sandra Fees

Scanning the shelves at the local bookstore or doing an online book search reveals vast numbers of self-help books devoted to building up self-esteem. Building up our self-esteem would appear to be the remedy for anxiety, depression, and the overall sense of deficiency and imperfection so many of us experience on a regular basis. In truth, the over-emphasis on self-esteem may be feeding the problem it sets out to address. It has led to a culture of affirmation and narcissism. We praise children for their accomplishments in order to build up their self-esteem. But the research is now showing that praise can do more harm than good – at least the wrong kind of praise. Encouraging young people to make their best effort and rewarding them for it turns out to create a stronger sense of self and confidence than praise does.

Why? Because praise can discourage risk-taking and striving. It can make the person doling out the praise feel good. But children who are praised for being smart rather than for their effort may become reluctant to try things. Constant praise leaves them feeling they have an image to maintain, an image they fear they will fail to live up to. Fearing they will be “found out,” they remain on their guard for what may threaten their status and image.

In their book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, describe this new understanding as “the inverse power of praise” and point to studies that illustrate the results. Studies of praise among fifth graders in New York schools found that “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” (Dr. Carol Dweck qted in NurtureShock) It’s important to know that not all praise is bad. For praise to be effective, however, it has to be specific and genuine as opposed to generalized and vacuous. The point is to say: “you worked hard,” or “you did well on that test” rather than “you’re so smart.”

More and more, psychologists, educators, parents and others are turning to mindfulness and compassion rather than self-esteem to help us ride the currents of our lives. Self-compassion, more so than self-esteem, can bring healing to our self-criticism and worry. Kristin Neff, associate professor at University of Texas and author of Self-Compassion, wrote a Huffington Post blog entitled, “Why We Should Stop Chasing Self-Esteem and Start Developing Self-Compassion.” The reason is that the continued race to evaluate ourselves positively to maintain high self-esteem takes a toll. As Neff explains,

One of the most insidious consequences of the self-esteem movement over the last couple of decades is the narcissism epidemic. … At the same time that we try to see ourselves as better than others, we also tend to eviscerate ourselves with self-criticism when we don't meet our high standards. As soon as our feelings of superiority slip – as they inevitably will – our sense of worthiness takes a nose dive. We swing wildly between overly inflated and overly deflated self-esteem, an emotional roller coaster ride whose end result is often insecurity, anxiety and depression.

Unlike building self-esteem, developing self-compassion allows us to be gentle with ourselves when things go well and when they don’t go so well, rather than being overly positive or overly self-critical. Neff says,

the positive emotions of self-compassion kick in exactly when self-esteem falls down; when we don't meet our expectations or fail in some way. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. It is constantly available to provide us with care and support in times of need. (April 2011, www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-neff/self-compassion_b_843721.html)

Self-compassion allows us to embrace ourselves with kindness when things are going well and when they aren’t going so well. It provides us with a balance, with a stability in our emotional life. We can begin to see our own inherent worth and dignity and honor it. It’s interesting because the inherent worth and dignity of every person is one of our Unitarian Universalist principles and the philosophy to love our neighbor as ourselves is one of our sources. Yet we tend to talk about these in terms of what they mean to how we treat others. We sometimes forget to think about treating ourselves with the same respect for our inherent worth and dignity and with loving ourselves as we love our neighbor. Self-compassion reveals to us that we deserve the same respect for our inherent worth and the same love as others deserve – not more or less.

Self-compassion can help us see we have failures and successes just like everyone else. It can help us recognize that we deserve joy, friendship, and compassion just as everyone else does. We can begin to think about treating ourselves the way we would treat a dear friend who is suffering. This is the concept of befriending oneself.Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal author of Yoga for Pain Relief writes that, “To reconnect to common humanity and re-engage with life, we may not need anything more than wise instruction on how to be good friends to ourselves.”

For many of us it can feel quite awkward and alien to hold ourselves in love, to practice the loving embrace of self, to be good friends to ourselves. When a friend is in pain we reach out with this kind of compassion. Why not also do it for ourselves? Maybe you have trouble believing it’s possible to befriend yourself in this way. As hard as it can be to be compassionate to others, it can be even harder to be compassionate toward ourselves.

In her book, Radical Acceptance, Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, “the wise compassion at the heart of Radical Acceptance begins with regarding our own being with unconditional care.” No matter how old we are, when we are scared, feeling alone, experiencing suffering, we long to be held in an embrace of love. Ranier Maria Rilke described this desire, writing:

I yearn to be held

In the great hands of your heart –

Oh let them take me now.

Into them I place these fragments, my life….

It’s possible for us to feel held by a caring presence, by a compassion greater than our own selves. Many of us relate the idea that we are held in an embrace to our understanding of God. This can be a conception of God as a compassionate presence or understanding that the universe bends toward justice, or to a sense that all life, including our own, is connected in a great web of interdependence of which we are a part. For some of you, this talk of a caring presence and of being held may evoke traditional Christian ideas. But this idea is not unique to Christianity. As Tara Brach says,

Although not always highlighted in the West, prayer and devotion are a living stream in Buddhism. The earnest wishes expressed in the practices of lovingkindness and compassion – may I be happy, may I be free from pain and suffering – are forms of prayer. Our prayers of aspiration and our longing for relief from suffering may not necessarily be directed to anyone or anything. But we might also address them to the Buddha or one of the other great teachers or bodhisattvas we regard as embodiments of the awakened heart and mind. When done with mindfulness and sincerity, this kind of devotional prayer becomes a way to awaken our own heart and mind.

Self-compassion means being able to evoke that compassionate presence for ourselves, to be that presence, as well as to seek it outside ourselves. It means being able to learn to hold our own life with gentle care. This isn’t about letting ourselves off the hook or in any way shirking responsibility. It’s about recognizing when we are hurting and allowing ourselves to care about the pain. Thich Nhat Hanh says that when someone says to us “Darling, I care about your suffering,” a deep healing begins. And we know what it’s like to offer that to another person and to have it offered to us. But do we know how to offer it to ourselves? Do we know how to comfort ourselves with the same kind words and understanding that we would offer to comfort another person? “Darling, I care about your suffering.”

Karen Armstrong identifies having compassion for oneself as step three of 12 steps in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Her twelve steps are intended to be the sequential steps necessary for us to break our individual and societal addiction to violence, warfare, hatred, anxiety, and so on. Armstrong says, “Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.” She told a story about a woman who had cancer. The woman said that when she had cancer her friends were relentless in insisting that she have a positive attitude. They were so relentless that they wouldn’t even let her talk about her fears. Maybe they were scared by her illness and didn’t want to be reminded of their own vulnerability.

What if instead of insisting to ourselves that we have a stiff upper lip or that we suck it up or that we adopt a positive outlook, we simply acknowledge our pain? When we go through a grieving process, for a loved one who has died, a relationship, an illness, or a career that’s ended, a home that’s been left, the suffering may continue long after those near us have turned their attention to other matters. People around us often expect us to get on with things and to move past our pain more quickly than we may be able to. They may be relentless in wanting us to exhibit a positive attitude. We often impose those expectations on ourselves and experience even more pain and loneliness as a result. We may have a preconceived idea of how long it will take us to process a loss, and our culture encourages us to get over it.

My own practice for these losses is to assure myself that my feelings are valid, that it’s okay to be sad and to be vulnerable. I also remind myself that I’m not alone. The suffering I’m experiencing is part of the human experience. It is shared by others who are dealing with their own losses.

This isn’t narcissistic. It isn’t self-absorbed or self-indulgent. And while it may seem that by opening to our own suffering we will descend further into unhappiness, ironically enough it can bring us into greater balance. It can open us more fully into a connection with others. Simply having our own suffering be acknowledged can be enough to begin a transformation and process of healing. It can also help us more fully honor the pain that others experience in their lives and deepen our connection to and rootedness in the world in which we live. Our suffering can open us more fully to compassion. We can learn to hold our own sorrows, and to allow ourselves to be freed from being the judge or victim. We can learn instead to practice a kinder, gentler regard for ourselves and others.  (Tara Brach)

Compassion is a human need. We each need to be loved and to love. It’s also a difficult path. As with compassion toward others, compassion toward self takes commitment and it takes practice. May our efforts to be compassionate include practicing lovingkindness toward ourselves. May we learn to be a good friends to ourselves.

Amen. Blessed be.