We’re pleased to present the latest installment of Dr. Rick Hanson’s Greater Good blog, featuring posts from his Just One Thing (JOT) newsletter, which offers simple practices designed to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.
My new book is out: Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. It’s got 52 practices like the ones I write about here; today I’m excerpting a big one: Have compassion for yourself.
Life is full of wonderful experiences. But it has its hard parts as well, such as physical and mental discomfort, ranging from subtle to agonizing. This is the realm of suffering, broadly defined.
When someone you care about suffers, you naturally have compassion—the wish that a being not suffer, usually with a feeling of sympathetic concern. For example, if your child falls and hurts himself, you want him to be out of pain; if you hear that a friend is in the hospital, or out of work, or going through a divorce, you feel for her and hope that everything will be all right. Compassion is in your nature—it’s an important part of the neural and psychological systems we evolved to nurture children, bond with mates, and hold together the village it takes to raise a child.
You can also have compassion for yourself. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity. You’re simply recognizing that “this is tough, this hurts,” and bringing the same warm-hearted response that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenge as you.
Studies have shown that self-compassion has many benefits, including:
- Reducing self-criticism;
- Lowering stress hormones like cortisol;
- Increasing self-soothing, self-encouragement, and other aspects of resilience;
- Helping to heal any shortages of caring you may (not) have received from others during your childhood.
That’s a pretty good list!
Self-compassion usually takes only a handful of seconds. And then—more centered and heartened—you can get on with doing what you can to make your life better.
Maybe your back hurts, or you’ve had a miserable day at work, or someone has barked at you unfairly. Or, honestly, maybe you just feel bad, even depressed. Whatever it is, some self-compassion could help. Now what?
Self-compassion comes naturally for some people (particularly those with a well-nurtured childhood). But it’s not that easy for a lot of us, especially those who are self-critical, driven, stoic, or think it’s self-indulgent to be caring toward themselves.
So here are some steps for calling up self-compassion, which you could blend together as self-compassion becomes easier for you.
First, take a moment to acknowledge your difficulties—your challenges and suffering.
Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you. Perhaps a dear friend, a family member, a spirit, God—even a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life.
Bring to mind your difficulties, and imagine that this person or being who cares about you is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Imagine his or her facial expression, gestures, stance, and attitude toward you. Let yourself receive this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled. The experience of receiving care primes circuits in your brain to give it.
Imagine someone for whom you naturally feel compassion—perhaps a child or a family member. Imagine how you would feel toward that person if he or she were dealing with whatever is hard for you. Let feelings of compassion fill your mind and body. Extend them toward that person, perhaps visualized as a kind of light radiating from you (maybe from your heart). Notice what it’s like to be compassionate.
Now, extend the same sense of compassion toward yourself. Perhaps accompany it with words like these, heard softly in the back of your mind: “May this pain pass… may things improve for me… may I feel less upset over time.” Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties and pain, some wish for things to get better. Feel that this compassion is sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you.