Self-compassion sounds like an easy enough concept to grasp. Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher, describes it like comparing apples to apples: “having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others,” but perhaps most days we find it easier to give compassion to others than to ourselves. Oscar Wilde calls it a lifelong romance, but perhaps most days it is a little less poetic than that.
Research has it that the tradeoffs are big. Self-compassion is linked to a decrease in perceived stress, which secondarily can cause an increase in health-promoting behaviors. A study in 2012 also observed self-compassion (along with mindfulness) as an important predictor of psychological well-being.
So how do we get from Point A to Point B? The effort made towards self-compassion is not a one-off event, it’s a lifelong initiative. We’re not going to lie – it’s not easy. There are plenty of factors that can make the commitment to self-compassion a challenging one: upbringing, lifestyle choices, schedules, experiences that shape you as a person. But it’s not impossible.
There are three elements of self-compassion, as Neff identifies, and we found this useful in understanding the ways we can help ourselves and others get into the practice.
One of them is choosing kindness over judgement. This means that one can remain caring towards the self in times of pain or failure. It involves giving the self affirmations instead of becoming highly critical or negative; it encourages seeing blunders in a new light. In Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff describes a mistake as ‘a message that calls for attention’:
The anger aroused by mistakes can also shape new creations. There have been many times when I felt so fed up with what I was trying to do that I let loose with a new burst of creative energy. Frustration might also lead to the destruction of unproductive ways of expression. Often we need to break down tired patterns before we can create anew. Mistakes encourage me to act more boldly the next time around. The nagging symptoms in an artwork demand a new response. Tight and stiff compositions call out for more spontaneity. Anger is often the agent of change and liberation.
Sound familiar? Sometimes our frustration isn’t really about our situation, the people around us, or the place that we’re in… What it boils down to is a frustration with ourselves. We can easily become harsh and self-critical when dealing with our own slip-ups.
Layer your experiences & start small
McNiff offers a simple task to help with processing mistakes: paint in layers. The first is most likely to be something you really don’t like – and hopefully, it comes close to the frustration you feel.
Then paint over it. Keep painting over it until you start to see differently. Until the self-judgment becomes a sense of curiosity, until the curiosity becomes a sense of wonder. Then you’ll be somewhere new. Somewhere you can learn.
The journey from self-judgment to learning can be arduous and far from smooth sailing. For those days, Neff reminds us about our “common humanity”:
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion 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.
However your pursuit of self-compassion looks right now, the activities you carry out to do so will grow as you grow, change as you change. By gathering a short list of suggestions and resources below, we hope there is something that can meet you where you’re at. In any of these activities, we hope it creates the space for you to find safety and peace to acknowledge yourself, what you feel, what you’re thinking… so you can begin to grant yourself the self-compassion you need.
- Start something by starting where you are. Grand gestures optional. Small, almost inconsequential, but consistent, tasks encouraged.
- Find clarity by setting monthly intentions, or doing a visioning exercise.
- Expand your awareness by thinking with your senses through the arts.
- Deepen connections with social support.
- Create good days with the help of a good night’s sleep.
- Reset your nervous system through breathing exercises.
For more information on expressive arts therapy, or to express interest in our programs about wellbeing and expressive arts, email us. We’d love to hear from you.