Humanitarians are hard on themselves.
Humanitarians tend to be a pretty compassionate bunch - when it comes to other people. But self-compassion? That's almost taboo in the field.
We're not supposed to worry about ourselves, our needs, our stress, or our unhappiness when we're surrounded by so much suffering.
That's what we're told, implicitly and sometimes explicitly: Be selfless, don't take care of yourself, and stop complaining about being stressed.
That's bad advice.
Research on self-compassion shows just how important it is to take care of ourselves.
Self-compassion is the act of treating ourselves with the same kindness, understanding, and support that we usually reserve for other people. It means being moved by our own pain and suffering and responding to ourselves with warmth and caring in the same way we might respond to a loved one.
It's the opposite of self-criticism.
The kinder you are to yourself, the less stress you'll feel.
Self-criticism - harshly judging ourselves for our mistakes, discounting and minimizing our feelings, and expecting ourselves to "just get over it" - activates our stress response. When we respond to our feelings with self-judgment, we increase the amount of stress we feel.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, deactivates the stress response and activates a soothing, calming response controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Studies on self-compassion have shown that when we respond to ourselves with kindness, we see criticism and failure as less threatening and at a physiological level, we respond less to stressors*. We're able to recover faster from disappointments and to cope better with set-backs and disappointments**.
Self-compassion doesn't just help reduce stress. It's linked to lower levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout, and to higher levels of well-being, recovery from trauma, and coping***.
Compassion isn't pity.
If self-compassion is so important, why is it so hard to do?
Being kind to ourselves brings up a lot of fears - fear of being viewed (by ourselves and others) as self-indulgent, self-pitying, or weak. So let's set the record straight on that.
Self-compassion isn't pity. It doesn't mean wallowing in your emotions or ignoring other people's suffering. It isn't self-indulgent. It doesn't mean letting yourself off the hook or refusing to take responsibility for your actions.
When you treat yourself with compassion, it creates a space in which you feel safe enough to acknowledge your painful feelings, accept your flaw and mistakes, and give yourself support. Self-compassionate people recognize that their problems connect them to other people, that stress and sadness and pain are part of being human.
What do you need?
There's a ton more I could say about self-compassion (and do say in my mini-course in using self-compassion to cope with stress) but let's get practical now.
Researchers are exploring ways to help people show more compassion to themselves, from short exercises to in-depth programs. This quick exercise comes from the Mindful Self-Compassion program developed by Germer and Neff, two of the leading researchers on self-compassion****:
Think of a difficult situation you're facing right now, something that is causing you stress. Ask yourself "What do I need?" "What is the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?" Then - and this is the important part - do that thing right now!
For more tips on using self-compassion to cope with stress, check out Cope with Kindness, a free mini-course in self-compassion.
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* Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(2), 107–118. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00246.x
* Breines, J. G., Thoma, M. V., Gianferante, D., Hanlin, L., Chen, X., & Rohleder, N. (2013). Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2013.11.006
* Pace, T. W. W.., Negi, L. T., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., Issa, M. J., & Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87–98. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011
** Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 925, 887-904. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
*** Barnard, L. K. & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, and interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15, 289-303.
**** Germer, C., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 856-867.