4 Strategies to Foster Self-Compassion

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“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~ Quote often attributed to Buddha

Nurturing self-compassion is by far the most difficult part of my recovery from depression because the self-hater is loudest when my mood dips, charging me to try harder, be tougher, and comparing my raw insides with other people’s smooth outsides.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion expert and associate professor of human development at the University of Texas in Austin found in her research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they will become self-indulgent. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line,” she writes in her book Self-Compassion. “Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

In the last six months I have realized how far I have to go in this area of self-acceptance and self-compassion and have been trying new strategies to begin loving myself. Here are some steps that have helped me start the journey.

See Your Own Goodness

For those of us who carry heavy baggage from our childhood, a massive impediment to self-compassion is the belief that we are innately bad. In her book Radical Acceptance, clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, PhD, writes:

Especially when things seem to be falling apart—we lose a job, suffer a serious injury, become estranged from a loved one—our lives can become painfully bound by the experience that something is wrong with us. We buy into the belief that we are fundamentally flawed, bad and undeserving of love…. The Buddha taught, however, that no matter how lost in delusion we might be, our essence, our Buddha nature, is pure and undefiled. Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa writes, “… every human being has a basic nature of goodness.” Basic goodness is the radiance of our Buddha nature—it is our intrinsic wakefulness and love.

I convert Brach’s insight to the Christian tradition and tell myself that I am a child of God and that is enough. I am a human BEING, not a human DOING, and therefore just existing on this planet is enough. God created me, therefore I am innately good and don’t have to prove myself to anyone.

Let Others Be Your Peacemaker

In those moments that you are unable to believe in your innate goodness, you need to simply believe others when they tell you that you are good. You have to trust their assessment of your character and let their judgments become your own. I have had to do that during my worst depressive episodes. I remember one time, especially, when a friend loved me unconditionally during a downward spiral, reminding me almost daily that I was a beautiful child of God and that was enough. He essentially served as my “Peacemaker,” as in the beautiful Iroquois Indian tale.

The Peacemaker came to a village where a chief known as “The Man-Who-Kills-and-Eats-People” had just slaughtered his enemies, cut them into pieces, and was cooking them in a massive pot. The Peacemaker climbed to the top of the wigwam and looked down through the smokehole, his face reflected in the grease on the pot. The chief saw the reflection and thought it was his own. Moved by his peaceful demeanor, he said to his tribe, “I shall never again destroy or consume an enemy, for I have discovered my true face. I have found out who I am.” The Peacemaker then embraced the chief and called him “Hiawatha” (the name of one of the greatest Iroquois leaders).

We all need friends and family members who can serve as our Peacemaker, who can convince us of our goodness until we can believe it for ourselves. Physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen said it best: “One moment of unconditional love may call into question a lifetime of feeling unworthy and invalidate it.”

Embrace Your Imperfections

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing,” says Anna Quindlen, “is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

For perfectionists, self-compassion is tough because there is always something we aren’t doing quite right. Brene Brown, PhD, writes in The Gifts of Imperfection that perfectionism is “often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.”

The antidote, then, is learning healthy vulnerability—acknowledging that shame, judgment, blame, fear are universal experiences and trying to become more loving and compassionate with ourselves as we wade through those experiences. “Shame resilience,” she explains, “is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience.”

Lean Into the Sharp Points

We embrace our imperfections by first identifying our familiar patterns of thought and behavior that drive us toward panic, depression, self-loathing—by becoming aware in all moments of the narratives we weave about ourselves and others—and by making friends with our demons. In her book When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes the path toward maitri (loving-kindness toward oneself) as one in which we develop a fearless compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others and inviting in what we want to avoid. Her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, called it “leaning into the sharp points.” It’s a process of learning how to catch ourselves, compassionately, in those shaky moments of uncertainty. Chodron writes:

To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.

I agree with Chodron that the most substantial obstacle to self-compassion is fear. Therefore, the path to loving ourselves more completely involves learning how to process fear in a way that doesn’t destroy, but gently instructs. By doing the counterintuitive thing of leaning into the sharp points, we ironically free ourselves from the chains of self-hatred and can be who we were created to be.