Practices for Cultivating Love

Does Self-Compassion Actually Help Us?

I have been thinking about self-compassion lately and how it can help us tremendously.

To illustrate this, let me tell you a brief story about myself. When I was in elementary school, I really had problems organizing myself for some reason.

It was probably because I had a lot of big ideas and got stuck in my imagination and creativity.

I’m really grateful for my imagination, but sometimes it makes big projects with multiple steps really hard for me.

Photo by Eli Francis, courtesy of Unsplash.

To make matters worse, sometimes my teachers (who were otherwise kind people) seemed to think I should have everything figured out already.

As such, I often felt like they criticized me for not being organized.

That wasn’t very helpful because I really wanted to be organized. I just didn’t understand how to help myself accomplish this goal.

One year, this situation changed dramatically for the better.

When I was in seventh grade, I went to a new school. That change was difficult for a lot of reasons, one of which was that I got pink eye on the first day of school.

And so I couldn’t attend the first day. And when my eye was no longer contagious, I went to school, but my eye was still puffy and weird-looking.

I felt like I stuck out like sore thumb.

And that’s how I felt in general.

I felt weird and out-of-place. I was in a new school with a new routine, which I didn’t completely understand. I was suffering.

Because of all this change, I, once, again, had problems focusing and organizing myself.

My teacher, Mrs. M, seemed to understand this.

One day, she pulled me aside and helped me organize. She taught me how to take organized notes and gave me tips for studying for a test.

I felt like she believed in me.

Her message seemed to be, “Change is hard, and sometimes it’s hard to organize yourself. But I know you can do this. I’ll walk along with you and help you.”

That year changed my life.

From that point on, I believed in myself because Mrs. M believed in me even though I was going through a hard time.

I went on to become a middle and high school teacher for over a decade.

And if you have been following my blog for a while, you know that I eventually went to graduate school and and earned my PhD in philosophy.

At different times through the years, I have still struggled with academics occasionally. But I always believed in myself, and it was largely because Mrs. M. believed in me and helped me when I was struggling.

This story from my life can help us understand a lot about compassion.

At one point or another, everyone struggles seriously with something in their lives. It might be school, relationships, physical or mental health, body image, finances, or tragedy.

And in fact, most of us experience suffering, or painful feelings, on a smaller or larger scale regularly in our life.

Photo by Aziz Acharki, courtesy of Unsplash

Buddhist philosophers remind us that life has great suffering. This is one of the four noble truths of Buddhism, which you can read more about here: The Ethics of Compassion

Unfortunately, frequently when we suffer, people often behave as though we should have everything figured out and that suffering is a sign of personal moral failing.

This is not true.

All of us are born into a bewildering world in which we regularly experience weird and painful situations, for which we have little to no training.

We feel weird, confused, and out-of-place. And we suffer.

If we are lucky, we have someone like Mrs. M to walk us through those difficult times.

But sometimes or even often we don’t.

And we must learn to walk ourselves through those difficult times. Practicing self-compassion is how we learn to do this.

Recognizing that life has great suffering does not mean that we ignore all the beautiful things in the world, of which there are many.

And it also doesn’t mean that we get stuck in our sadness.

Rather, when we practice self-compassion, we stay present with ourselves in our suffering, and we show gentleness and kindness to ourselves in our pain.

In this book, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

When we are suffering, we have a strong need for the presence of the person we love. If we are suffering and the man or woman we love ignores us, then we suffer more.

So what we can do—right away—is to manifest our true presence to the  beloved person and say the mantra with all our mindfulness:

‘Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you’.

When we practice self-compassion, we are the loving person who says to ourselves “Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you.”[1]

I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s book True Love: A Practice for Awkening the Heart . It is a beautiful book that teaches us how to show compassion to ourselves and others.

Now, if you are like a lot of people (including me sometimes) practicing self-compassion in this way feels very strange.

That’s because frequently we learn to respond to our pain by ignoring it, numbing it, or being hard on ourselves and telling ourselves that we just need to get over it.

But when we respond to pain in this way, we just make it worse. It’s similar to ignoring an open wound or a health problem. By ignoring it, we let the problem fester or grow worse.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the gentle medicine we need to soothe our heart and heal our pain.

And believe it or not, if we want to move through our suffering or change unhelpful behavior, self-compassion is a much better route than self-criticism.

Various self-compassion studies suggest that self-compassion can help people with things like body image, with academic and moral improvement, with building positive relationships, and with increasing people’s overall motivation to change.

This makes complete sense to me. I recall how Mrs. M’s compassion for me during my hard time gave me a sense of safety and stability and the belief that I could become more organized and focused.

It also makes sense if you consider that showing ourselves compassion is one authentic way we increase our positive feelings.

And research suggests that increasing positive feelings helps us succeed in various areas of our lives. You can read more about this here: Can Cultivating Positive Emotions Help You Succeed?

When we show compassion to ourselves, we calm ourselves down and create a sense of stability and safety.

And we also helps ourselves relax. This creates the perfect conditions for positive change.

Friends, if you are suffering today, I wish you peace and freedom from suffering. Life is really confusing and difficult sometimes. And frequently it is hard to know how to handle things.

Please spend some time today extending compassion to yourself. You can do this simply by sitting quietly and saying to yourself, “I am sorry, Friend. I know this is hard. We’re going to make it.”

If you would like to read more about self-compassion, you might like these posts:

An Intention or Prayer for When You Feel Afraid

An Intention or Prayer for Those with Painful Emotions

Do We Have a True and False Self?

Our Wise and Wounded Self

Compassion: A Way Forward through Suffering

The Importance of Compassion

You  might also like this Ted Talk by professor Kristin Neff on self-compassion. It’s awesome:

The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion


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[1] Hanh, Thich Nhat. True Love. A Practice for Awakening the Heart. pg. 17

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