The Key to Self Compassion

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines compassion this way:

sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

Sympathetic consciousness. In other words, awareness of someone else's feelings, and putting oneself into the place of also feeling those feelings. Humans are masters of this. Some humans are better at picking up on these feelings just by feeling alone, rather than needing someone to explain it to them, but regardless, our brains can go there.

Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, says "compassion literally means to suffer together." 

In the above video excerpt from a presentation by Dr. Dacher Keltner, he points out that Charles Darwin considered sympathy to be the strongest instinct that humans have, and is a driving component of survival of the species. In order for a human baby to be nursed to the point that it can take care of itself, which we all know takes several years, a mature human has to feel sympathy towards this tiny, helpless creature, feel it's suffering, and do something to change it.

I have a favorite quote from Pema Chodron:

photo sourced from

photo sourced from

You can not display compassion for something that you don't consider equal to yourself. Think about this in terms of baby. A normally functioning adult brain won't think about a small baby being more or less than itself. There is no competition. The ego doesn't try to create difference from the baby. The baby just is, and the baby needs help.

The key to compassion is channeling a feeling like this towards, well, anything you want to have compassion towards. You can channel it towards another human being. You can channel it towards an animal. Towards the earth. Towards a cause. But most importantly, you can channel it towards yourself.

Compassion for oneself is probably one of the hardest places to channel compassion, but one of the most effective ways to truly grasp what the power of what compassion feels like. We are masters of beating ourselves up, driving ourselves to compete, obsessing over non-issues, creating dooms-day stories in our heads. And guess what? Negative thought does have value, because it can keep us safe.

But unchecked, it can run amok. One of my coaches, Brooke Castillo, compares a mismanaged brain to a toddler with a knife. A cranky toddler at that.

So how do we manage an unchecked brain? The first step is awareness. You have to recognize that your mind is running wild. But the second step is compassion. You must recognize that all those thoughts that feel like chaos in your monkey mind were actually created as tools to at one point keep you safe in your environment. Often times though, those thoughts run their course and no longer serve us well, but they keep firing off, because just like a toddler will do when they find a cartoon they love, they want to watch it over, and over, and over again.

To apply compassion to your own thoughts, you must be able to observe them, and then, consider them equal. They are no better than you, they are no less than you. They just are. They just exist. AND, they can change. But you can't change something if you don't pay attention to it, don't put the work into figuring out how to change it,  and don't have the self compassion to want to change it.

So the next time you're feeling down on yourself, think about the thoughts running through your head. Write them down. Recognize them for what they are, just neurons firing off, creating "thoughts." Then cultivate some compassion for your brain, since it's just doing the job it was designed to do. Thank it for trying to do you a solid, but let it know that it's time to move on. And reassure yourself that the change will be good, and will only serve to create compassion for others going through the same thing.


If you need help recognizing thoughts that no longer serve you, and developing a sense of self compassion, I can help you with that! Just fill in the form below to start a conversation over email. I look forward to connecting with you!

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