Compassion is like a healing balm, soothing your hurts, comforting your pain. When someone shows compassion toward you they are essentially offering you a tonic, a healing elixir or dose of medicine to neutralize the poison of shame. An all-knowing look, a sigh, or a comforting touch can communicate to you that the other person hears your pain and that he or she is with you in your pain. In fact, the word compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), or to “suffer with.” When a person offers genuine compassion, they join us in our suffering.
When someone joins us in our suffering they provide us with not just one but five healing gifts:
- They let us know that they see us and that they recognize our suffering. One of the most powerful needs for us humans is to be seen. This is especially true for victims of childhood neglect and abuse who often felt invisible in their families and whose needs were often ignored. When someone offers us compassion they begin by seeing us and recognizing our pain.
- They let us know that they hear us. The need to be heard is another primal need for us humans. And again, it is a need that often went unmet for victims of childhood neglect and abuse, who often felt that their needs and their feelings went unheard.
- They confirm to us that we are suffering and that we have a right to express our pain, sadness, fear, anger or any other emotion due to our suffering. In other words, they validate or confirm our experience of suffering.
- They let us know that they care. They care about us as human beings, they care about the fact that we are suffering.
- They offer us comfort in some way—a healing glance, a loving touch, a supportive hug.
While compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering.
If we are to be self-compassionate we need to give to ourselves the same five gifts we offer someone to whom we are feeling compassionate toward. In other words, we need to offer ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one or a dear friend who is suffering.
Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, Self-Compassion (2011) she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”
Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you.
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