Cracking The Kindness Code: The Quest To Define Self-Compassion

In our exploration of emotional intelligence, the big questions lately have been, “How do we develop compassion?”, and more specifically, “What is the magical ‘fourth step’ that bridges us from empathy to the mutually beneficial state of compassion?”. In a past article I offered you some insight into the first three steps: Acknowledge another’s perspective as their truth, listen without judgment, and recognize and feel their emotion. Then we discovered the difference between empathy and compassion….that extra step where empathy converts to compassion. But then the question becomes how to authentically add that next step.

However controversial, it appears that the ability to develop true compassion for others is to begin with our own self-compassion. Only after you’ve become kind to yourself can you connect emotionally with others. The more we understand and accept this vital human potential, the more fully we can live our lives and the more compassion we can spread.

Unlike with “sympathy vs empathy”, there isn’t a neuroscientific differentiation between compassion and self-compassion. We can simply sense that it’s difficult to authentically offer others that expansive tenderness when we’re slathered in self-hatred or disapproval. Think of it this way: When we distill down what we truly need in life, the ability to breathe tops the list. [Tweet “When we distill down what we truly need in life, the ability to breathe tops the list.”]Without breath, we’re toast! Luckily, it’s involuntary….the default is to hold our breath. With a little effort, self-compassion can become involuntary as well. But first, we must volunteer to employ this type of tenderness towards the self, which has its obstacles. Let’s pick this concept apart with the goal of unlocking a few more of the mysteries of compassion.

Emotional Rx

As I’ve analogized about before, we are each the star of our own movie called life. The costars and extras are the folks all around us, including our spouse, family, friends and colleagues. For each daily act in our movie to have a happy ending, it’s necessary to have harmony in our work environment. But inevitably, our days don’t always unfold as planned, causing stress to creep in and cortisol to be released. The resulting fight-or-flight emotion fogs our rational thinking and could even spin us into a state of self-judgment, self-hatred, and shame. Guy Winch delivered one of my all-time favorite TED Talks, “The Case For Emotional First-Aid”, which covers this topic thoroughly, and demonstrates that we can be pretty hard on ourselves. Such a state can diminish the importance of the folks around us since we can’t tune into their needs if we’re not even compassionate to ourselves. I encourage you to listen to it today!

A Working Definition

We’ve identified the opposite of self-compassion as saying and thinking things about yourself that you would not even think about an enemy. But what precisely is self-compassion? Kristin Neff, psychologist and author of Self‐Compassion: The Proven Power Of Being Kind To Yourself, has cracked the code. She identifies the following components of self-compassion:

1. Kindness with Oneself: Self-compassion involves being kind to oneself with regard to one’s mind and body, whether supporting well-being or in response to suffering. Kindness to self is a key mindset for resilience. If we want to support our own well-being, we need to first grant ourselves permission to take care of ourselves.

2. Recognizing and Honoring One’s Humanity: Recognizing our humanity involves being aware that all of us suffer, have flaws and make mistakes. Additionally, recognizing our humanity further helps us to remember that we are not alone.

3. Mindfulness: Mindfulness helps us not to over-identify with our suffering. It also encompasses non-judgment. As described by Neff, over-identification occurs when our emotions overwhelm us and cloud our perception of what’s really occurring. ​

These three qualities compose Neff’s definition of self-compassion. In a follow-up DRIVEN article, we’ll double click on each of these components as an act of self-compassion. Then, we’ll take this self-discovery inquiry farther by exploring why self-compassion is so difficult to practice and how we can manage the roadblocks, giving ourselves what we want, need and deserve to personally thrive and carve out space to be compassionate to others.