We throw the word “compassion” around so much that it can seem like a trite cliché. Yet, the more I listen to my therapy clients, the more I realize that compassion — particularly self-compassion – is the key to healing ourselves and our relationships.
Compassion means “to suffer with.” The word is generally used to describe empathy toward another. However, I am clear that one cannot really have true compassion toward another without experiencing his or her own suffering and having kindness and empathy toward him or herself first.
The Sanskrit word maitri has been defined by Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa as unconditional friendliness, particularly toward oneself. Pema Chodron, a student of Trungpa’s and a master in her own right, observes: ” I teach about maitri a lot. In fact, sometimes I think it’s the only thing I teach. I also teach about compassion a lot, but actually compassion is a form of maitri so this unconditional friendliness to oneself, it seems to be what most of us do not have” (www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema).
I have made this same observation in my work as a psychotherapist. Most of my clients come in complaining of depression and low self-esteem. They think that something “out there”–even something as beneficial as caring for others — is going to make them “better.” When I tell them that what will heal their depression is kindness toward themselves, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language – the idea of self-compassion is that alien to them!
For many, the messages they received in their families of origin have contributed to their low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Western culture’s emphasis on perfection doesn’t help. Because of these familial and cultural messages, many believe that’s just the way it is, and their beliefs about themselves can’t be changed.
For example, a client I’ll call “John” recounted in his first session with me his regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and concluded “I’m a failure.” In my work using the modality of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, I challenged John’s belief, asking how doing something that he now regrets means he’s a failure. I told him that he did the best he could at that time, and encouraged him that the key to his healing will be having compassion for himself and his human imperfections and neuroses. My homework for John was to simply notice when he calls himself a failure, what triggers it, and to start to challenge that long-fixed belief. Changing these thoughts takes time, practice and discipline because they are so habitual and deep-seated, but it certainly can be done
I can challenge and have compassion for John, because I had to do the same work myself. As I have recounted in other articles, after a period of regular mindfulness meditation practice, I was able to not only notice my negative self-talk, but realize that was just another thought, and that I could relegate those thoughts to my mental trash heap. In fact, I told myself that if someone could have magically heard the way I talked to myself, they would have to turn me in to the police for abuse!
The Buddhist teachings on buddhanature or basic goodness are very helpful in developing self-compassion. Those teachings tell us that we all have buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, it is obscured and we have difficulty experiencing it. An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky. The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we can’t see it. Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising to an altitude above the clouds. Indeed, the sun was there the whole time.
The next time you make a mistake or do something you consider less than “perfect”, take a breath, and try not to go on automatic pilot and start beating yourself up. Instead, have compassion for yourself and all others who suffer in that way and remember the image of the sun in a cloudy sky. Yes, you made a mistake and you can feel regret about it, and resolve not to do it again. Remember that your thoughts about your mistakes and imperfections are just fleeting clouds, and the sun of your self-worth is there the whole time.