Kindness to Self Is Radical!
Most of us remember that kindness and compassion has been part of our familial, cultural and spiritual conversations on how to be and treat one another. Recall Robert Fulcrum’s poem “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. We learned in religion classes or vacation bible schools that it’s one of the seven virtues (It’s opposite is Envy!).
However, the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and peers instinctively realize that the most crucial area left out has been being kind to one’s self; or self-compassion.
I certainly don’t recall experiences or conversations during my formative years that held me to consider self-compassion. It wasn’t until I began to read poetry that I was brought into this whole notion of self-compassion through one of the most poignant and truth-be-told poetic voices, that of Mary Oliver and her poem Wild Geese. Talk about radical forms of self-compassion! Her poem gave me pause…. here was a voice saying don’t judge yourself too harshly! Don’t move away – but instead – move in.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
I can only imagine what many of the parent-inside-us voices are saying now… what???? What do you mean you don’t have to be good? How do you think you got here in the first place? All this stuff about being kind to yourself just keeps you lazy!
Whew!! Let’s close the door and silence these words for a while as we dig deeper into this radicalness called self-compassion. Is self-compassion just a poetic sensibility to have us move into the world a certain way? Or might there be some “science” that our overly-judging voice just might listen to?
Enter Dr. Kristen Neff, an associate professor of human development and culture at University of Texas, Austin. During her graduate work, Kristen’s involvement in Buddhist meditation and mindfulness led her to seek empirical evidence for this spiritual understanding of self-compassion. Her research led to a clearer understanding of self-compassion, and most importantly, what it is not!!
Dr. Neff has identified three major components of self-compassion. They are Kindness, Common Humanity and Mindfulness.
Kindness towards ourselves or self-kindness entails being warm and understanding when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. It’s when we recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, therefore we are gentler with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. Kindness is not self-indulgence in being blind to our imperfections nor wallowing in them because we cannot see our way to improve.
Common Humanity – involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. It opens the possibility that we place our suffering into a larger context that connects relates our suffering to others. It is “not” self-pity where we get so caught up in our personal inadequacies that we forget that others have difficulties and problems as well. This level of self-indulgence can lead to a deep sense of isolation as if “we” were the only ones suffering or making mistakes or having regrets.
Mindfulness requires us to take a more balanced approach towards our negative voices that triggers painful emotions. Through mindful practices, we can be in a more receptive state that places our situation into a much larger perspective. It allows us to have a more evenly-toned stance from our willingness to observe our negative thoughts with more openness and clarity. Dr. Neff says we cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness does require that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by our too-easily triggered negativity.
Here is a link to a YouTube of Kristen describing the three areas of self-compassion and her research that led to her findings.
If I would consider where on the continuum I might place myself in each of these three areas, I am not happy that I’d say my “X’s” would be closer to what self-compassion would NOT be than what it is.
The areas to work on most would be to reduce self-judgements I have about my “performance”. I realize I expect so much more out of me that what might be reasonable or even justifiable in certain circumstances. At times I also realize I’m sabotaging time for what really matters to me. I see I need help in being more self-compassionate!
And I know I tend to over-identify with negative vs positive emotions, or even just to be able to notice the emotions without identifying with any of them. I have much work to do!
How about you? How do you relate to Mary Oliver’s invitation that the world offers itself to your imagination? Where us your place in the family of things? I’d love to hear how you might place yourself in these three areas and ideas on how you might improve in being kind to yourself! Let’s ELM Self-Kindness!
I invite you to share a story or episode that helped you be kind towards others and/or yourself.
What do you think about this poem, what does it say to you? What surprised you? How has kindness shaped your life? Do you have ideas for how our society can increase kindness in ourselves and others? Have you been involved in programs that teach kindness?
Help SHE’s IT Kindness ELM grow with your engagement, learning and motivation.
VP Life Transformation Partners