Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Many would say that until you can respect yourself, you cannot truly respect others, that until you value yourself, you cannot truly value others and until you can practice self- compassion, you can never really be compassionate towards others.
However, we frequently find that there are those who are easily able to attune to and feel an empathic connection to the suffering and misfortune of others but have no tolerance for their own difficulties.
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of every religious, ethical and spiritual tradition. It implies something about how we treat others, about avoiding inflicting suffering on others and respecting their fragility and fallibility as human beings.
Words that are used to describe the concept of compassion include understanding, care, concern, sensitivity, tender-heartedness, mercy, leniency, kindness and humaneness.
Self- compassion then involves extending the same understanding and respect to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure and general suffering. It is often more difficult to accept ourselves as fallible human beings and grant the same degree of tolerance.
Tara Bruch writes that feeling compassion for oneself in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather it releases us from the self- hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance. It is then about holding ourselves accountable but not inflicting toxic emotions.
Some of the traditional ways of child rearing involve instilling a sense of badness in children for doing the wrong thing. While it is important to raise children with the knowledge of right and wrong, shame -based methods of discipline are not really the best or only ways of instilling a healthy conscience.
The recent focus on shame in psychological research highlights the destructive effects of chronic shame on the development and maintenance of the personality. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is about feeling bad about something one has done to transgress others’ rights or feelings and may be
Appropriate i.e. that you have really done something that is not ok; or
Inappropriate i.e. you tend to feel bad about anything that is not fully pleasing to others or where you judge yourself to have fallen short.
Shame is about who you are; about a core feeling of badness, of not deserving to exist. It is probably one of the most uncomfortable feelings that we experience. In fact, when we are asked the question of what was your most embarrassing moment, it is often moments of shame that come up, of feeling completely mortified by being seen in a particular way in the eyes of another. Shame therefore, always takes place in relation to another or others, whether in real life or in your thoughts.
We can tend to unconsciously repeat the critical patterns of our early lives, just inflicting them on ourselves in the absence or early caretakers or authority figures. It is at these moments that self -compassion is vital to re-establishing your emotional equilibrium.
Evolutionary science postulates that compassion and empathy are qualities that evolved to enable our species to work together to survive and thrive. Similarly, recent research on trauma and healing, indicates that one of the major factors in recovery from physical and emotional difficulties is the presence of supportive others in one’s life. Cohesion, co-operation and teamwork are vital to survival and happiness.
These social behaviours are seen to have a biological underpinning and in fact neuropsychological research indicates that there are areas of the brain involved in the development of the capacity for empathy which will only develop under certain early life conditions.
Just as certain hormones are released when we are in the flight or fight position, so different brain hormones are released when we are feeling loving and kindly.
We can assume that there is the same value in creating a supportive relationship with oneself that allows for acceptance and tolerance between those aspects of ourselves that are successful and confident and those which sometimes feel inadequate and stupid. Nathaniel Brand writes that “self- acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself”.
To end, a quote from Jack Kornfield –
“if your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete”.