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The Radically Generous Act of Self Compassion

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

Image by Sawitree Pamee 

Whenever we have discussions about Radical Generosity with SheEO Activators or staff, people always raise the issue of how easy it is to be kind and generous to others and hard it is to extend that same caring to one self. Instead of just shrugging at that reality or brushing it off, Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to figure out why that’s true for most folks.

Her research shows that when we don’t meet our own expectations, the threat system of our reptilian brain, the amygdala, gets activated to eliminate the threat, so we attack ourselves. It turns out, however, that being harsh with ourselves doesn’t create change, only shame. So what should we do instead? wondered Neff. She found the answer in the attach system of the primate brain—think of a baby monkey clinging on chest to chest to its mother. That releases oxytocin, the love hormone, that makes us feel good and more in touch with all our inner and outer resources. It turns out that the attach system can’t tell the difference between getting a hug and loving, encouraging words from another person and doing it for yourself.

And so the field of self compassion was born. Born in the West, I hasten to clarify. Buddhist practices of loving kindness have always offered such compassion to oneself first, as the supposedly easiest form to generate. Teachers soon found out that Westerns typically found it most difficult. So many of us believe high achievement is created by treating ourselves harshly. But the research on self compassion is hopefully helping change that mindset.

Self compassion is the practice of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. It’s been shown through research to generate resilience, courage, energy and creativity.  It’s comprised, according to Neff, of three aspects:

  • Willingness to open to and hold our suffering in mindful awareness.
  • Being kind to ourselves in response to our suffering
  • Recognize that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience, and we are not alone in it.

In a recent Psychology Today blog, Tim Desmond beautifully describes the three aspects: “If you want to learn how to develop self-compassion, the first step is to give yourself permission to feel exactly the way you feel. This doesn’t mean allowing your fears and self-criticisms to control your life. Instead, you pay attention to all of the sensations in your body, no matter how unpleasant they might be. By focusing on the reality of your body, you let go of the stories you’re telling yourself and come home to what is real. If you can give yourself permission to feel exactly how you feel in the present moment, you’ll find your distress has already begun to soften a little.

“Next, listen to your pain. Every experience of fear is also a wish for safety. Every experience of loneliness is a wish for connection. Find the life-affirming wish at the core of your pain. Is it longing for freedom, respect, love, or understanding?”

I love the idea of finding what our wish is underneath the pain. He goes on to write, “The existential reality of human life is that no one gets all of the love, appreciation, or safety that they want. Everyone who’s been born knows the pain of unmet needs, and we are no different….

“All of our emotions, the pleasant and unpleasant ones, are the energy of life seeking beauty and love. As we develop the ability to say ‘yes’ to the life that’s within us, we can find more healing, joy, and freedom.”  

To learn more about self compassion, check out self-compassion.org for a wealth of resources, tools, and practices. It’s the most generous thing many of can do for ourselves right now.

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