I am in an auditorium with 200 other people, staring into a stranger’s eyes, and I am crying.
As part of our Science of Mindfulness and Self-Compassion workshop, clinical psychologist Shauna Shapiro had asked participants to turn to the person next to them and imagine all her pain—her struggles and losses, her sorrows and setbacks.
I’d done mindfulness and compassion practices before, of course, but this was different. This was visceral.
And that’s exactly the point, explained Shapiro and her co-presenter, psychologist Kristin Neff. Self-compassion isn’t an intellectual exercise, where we fight the self-critical thoughts in our heads with logical arguments for self-acceptance. Rather, it’s a warm, loving, connected attitude and feeling—one that exists in our bodies as well as our minds.
In imagining my partner’s pain, I was practicing compassion, and Neff doesn’t see much difference between compassion and self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as treating ourselves the way we would treat a friend who is suffering. In her framework, this involves three steps:
- Mindfulness: Being aware of our suffering, without becoming overwhelmed by it.
- Common humanity: Recognizing that our suffering is part of the human experience, connecting us to others.
- Self-kindness: Caring for ourselves when we suffer, by soothing our pain and offering ourselves understanding.
“Ultimately, what we’re practicing with self-compassion is what do I need in this moment, and can we give ourselves what we need?” said Neff.
We can pause and take a self-compassion break whenever we encounter difficulty. But we can’t do so mechanically. As Neff explained, we have to search for the words that elicit a softening in our bodies—the ones that feel right. Those can be different for different people:
- Mindfulness: You might say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering” or “This is hard.”
- Common humanity: You might say to yourself, “Suffering is part of life” or “I’m not alone” or “Everyone has their own struggles.”
- Self-kindness: You might say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself” or even “I’m sorry, darling.”
In those moments of self-pity or self-judgment, Neff also recommends using a loving gesture toward yourself, like putting both hands on your heart, holding your stomach, or giving yourself a hug. Again, the feeling is more important than any specific step—to you, some of these gestures may feel awkward or downright uncomfortable, others just right. The key is to experiment and figure out which one brings you a sense of comfort and warmth.
Although more research has been done on the effects of compassion on the body and brain, some studies are beginning to show the impact of self-compassion. For example, a brand-new study found that practicing self-compassion dampens our stress response in the face of an overwhelming task, as measured by higher heart rate variability (the variation in time between heartbeats, with higher levels associated with better health and emotional regulation).
So, what does self-compassion actually feel like?
Neff recalled giving in to self-pity one day as she watched her autistic son on the playground, banging repeatedly on a slide rather than playing nicely like the other (seemingly perfect) kids. When she remembered to treat herself with compassion, she felt this warm wave of connection and community—the realization that all parents struggle in different ways with their children. This helped her to feel closer to them, rather than separated.
By calming our bodies, Neff believes, self-compassion can serve the people around us. Because we’re social creatures, we pick up on the emotions of others—the subtle body language and facial cues that slip through even when we’re trying to hide them. Someone who exudes calm and warmth rather than harshness and distress can spread that calm to others.
Not all self-compassion feels warm and fuzzy, though. Neff believes that self-compassion has a yin and a yang. The yin is its comforting, soothing form, where we validate our pain and acknowledge our difficulties. The yang is the more motivating form of self-compassion, where we protect ourselves or provide for others—generating feelings of fierceness and strength.
At the conference, I began to feel a little silly crying in public—at a work event, no less. But my partner had started crying, too. And based on the sniffles I heard around me, we weren’t alone.