Earlier this year, I spent two days with Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, US academics/researchers/practitioners who have devised an 8 day ‘Mindful Self-Compassion’ course (in trial stage – see below for recent peer review), along the lines of Mindfulness courses springing up over here, with NHS backing. Neff is an academic who has been steeped in the field of self-compassion for well over a decade – both research, writing and practice. Her website is an amazing resource of information: articles, videos, teaching materials, exercises and an ever growing collation of research going in internationally. Chris Germer’s website too is pretty comprehensive, and his books are brilliantly conveyed – tricky concepts made elegant. Nothing I write here can compete, but I’ll try and convey what convinces me why self-compassion promotes health, and is so important for each and every one of us.
One fundamental idea in their work is that compassion-type behaviours (care, kindness, the stuff a parent naturally oozes toward their newborn) can, if done skilfully, kick-start a soothing system that us mammals are wired to have (with allied hormones and neurotransmitters…oxytocin and opiates). This, on activation, serves to ‘soothe’ our inherent fight/flight or ‘threat’ system that is online for a lot of us feeling stressed – but especially those with a vicious inner critic or who suffer shame. Our minds don’t know if a threat is internal or external (just as my tummy will rumble if I think of a gooey chocolate cake) – so if I’m calling myself ‘a stupid cow’, my mind/body doesn’t know whether it’s me or someone nasty out there in the world. For more on all of this, you’d need to read the psychologist Paul Gilbert.
If our ‘threat systems’ are online all the time, this is an unpleasant and unhealthy way to be – for some it’s deeply unpleasant and can involve living with depression or anxiety. Giving ourselves a dose of self-compassion can, if done skilfully, be an effective antidote. Exactly how we do this takes intentional, and probably daily practice – via meditations and conscious mental approaches. Contriving this loving kindness for oneself won’t work very well, but connecting with an authentic compassionate inner state will. Many of us struggle to do this and may have to get there via connecting with compassion for others as this often comes more readily. Thinking about a newborn or a pet sparks up positive inner warmth more readily than when you look in the mirror. Furthermore, many of us feel it’s self-indulgent to be kind to yourself, least of all loving and kind, for fear of promoting selfishness or narcissism.
Self-compassion however is not self-pity. It still allows for self-correction and, Neff argues, beats building one’s self-esteem as a motivator (if we fail if we think we’re the best, the hit is harder than if we fail knowing we all make mistakes). Self-compassion doesn’t exonerate faults – any fault we find in ourselves, we’ll also find in others. If we can love ourselves, faults included – love for others may come easier. It’s also a force of good will, that can move us away from negative and sticky states such as anger or fear (that keeps us inactive). Opening up to pain or distress compassionately doesn’t mean we are wallowing or complaining, it allows us to disengage from a narrative we may have created about a hurt (again, that keeps us stuck). The aim is to connect up with common humanity – our suffering is a small part of the larger human experience: we all suffer.
The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi have known about all of this of course – as does Buddhism. Carl Rogers too when he said When I accept myself, then I can change.
Attached here is the latest pilot study results: Neff & Germer MSC RCT 2012 copy