Starla Dean MA, LMFT
What is Mindful Self-Compassion?
What is self-compassion? Self-compassion comes from the understanding, gleaned through moments of mindfulness, that every human being suffers, that we all want to be happy, but often don’t know how to find happiness, and that this commonality connects us with everyone else. Understanding these truths, recognizing our own vulnerabilities, and practicing more kindness toward ourselves, is at the heart of self-compassion.
Cultivating mindful self-compassion is intimately tied to the practice of mindfulness - a special way of paying attention to the present moment, with complete acceptance of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Becoming self-compassionate is to learn a new set of inner skills, to help you respond to yourself with greater kindness when you are suffering or in distress. To learn to respond to yourself with caring and understanding, instead of being critical and judgmental.
In your sessions with me, I would help you imprint more deeply, the truth that we are all, always, doing the best we can, given our wounds from the past, our conditioned egoic patterns, and negative core beliefs about ourselves, and our circumstances.
I would help you to realize and remember, that all human beings are flawed, and imperfect, and we all struggle with our suffering and difficult feelings. For most of us, making an embarrassing mistake is an occasion for shaming ourselves, feeling guilty or self-blaming. Self-compassion gives you the safety to see yourself clearly without shame, self-blame and self-loathing, while you learn to hold yourself in compassion and kindness, while still taking responsibility for your actions.
The mindful part of mindful self-compassion, will help you learn to be more deeply present with yourself, and experience the moment with more clarity, kindness, openness and balance, instead of being swept away by feelings or ignoring or denying the feelings.
Extensive research has been done on the benefits of self-compassion training, by Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and master self-compassion teacher. She and her colleagues, Christopher Germer, Martin Seligman and Anne Cushman, have compiled the following list of qualities that their research has proven:
Self-compassionate people engage in less rumination, have greater feelings of social connectedness and higher levels of life satisfaction. They have greater happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity, exploration and personal initiative.
They are less likely to get angry at others for perceived offenses, and less likely to compare themselves to others. They also display less need for cognitive disclosure, have a heightened ability to self-soothe through compassion, and experience less depression, anxiety, self-criticism, shame, inferiority and submissive behavior!
My Self-Compassion Journey:
Professionally and Personally
Self-Compassion in Therapy Sessions
Many years ago, I was on a long retreat with Jack Kornfield and Stephen Levine, at a “Conscious Living and Dying” meditation retreat, in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz. I was sitting on a boulder in the forest with one of the senior teachers, and I asked her for advice about how to focus my meditation practice while I was there.
She said, “Whenever any kind of suffering arises, even if it’s minor or subtle, recognize that it is there and send it compassion.” Ever since that day, I’ve been discovering how powerful this simple practice could be. Whenever I feel anxious or insecure or lonely, just a few minutes of self-compassion produces a real change: It almost always helps me to be able to feel a deep caring, sweetness of acceptance and empathy for my own suffering, and I’m then able to let go of whatever was bothering me, and live more fully in the present moment.
In many ways, that conversation has shaped the course of my personal life, as well as my work as a psychotherapist. Learning to recognize suffering and send it compassion, is at the core of my therapeutic and personal spiritual practice. I’ve found that this simple and direct method, can be enormously effective in helping clients who experience everyday suffering, as well as severe depression, anxiety, and trauma. It can also generate happiness, and help them focus more on the positive elements of life.
FIVE WAYS I USE SELF-COMPASSION IN THERAPY
Applying this to you, my client in psychotherapy, can be enormously healing. When people develop more compassion for themselves, they can more easily move through difficult emotional material, forgive themselves and others, and become more productive and happy human beings.
Here are the five main ways we will use mindful self-compassion in your therapy session:
We will unlock your natural compassion.
There is a deep well of compassion inside every person. Once we know how to get in touch with it, we can use that energy for transformation and healing. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, has discovered that one of the primary emotional circuits in the brain, is about creating the experience of warmth, caring, and compassion. He calls it the Care Circuit, and it is essential for bonding and caretaking in all mammals, including humans.
We will begin by using specific techniques to activate your Care Circuits and generate compassion within yourself. Later you will direct that compassion toward your own suffering to create healing. One such practice asks you to focus on some object of your affection. Start with an uncomplicated relationship—maybe a child, a pet, a religious figure, even a fictional character - and I will have you imagine sending love and compassion toward this person or animal. I will help you to focus on the feelings of warmth and openness that this engenders.
This practice activates the Care Circuit in your brain, which researchers have demonstrated can both be strengthened through practice, and has a powerful impact on regulating emotional distress.
We will use compassion to transform suffering in the present moment.
Compassion has the power to heal and transform our suffering. Whether it comes from oneself or from another person, what matters is that one’s suffering is embraced with open acceptance and love. How do we direct compassion at the source of our suffering in each moment?
The first step is relating to ourselves with acceptance. If I’m struggling in a particular moment, such as feeling anxious or frustrated - the first step is simply noticing that suffering is present in me, and then giving myself permission to feel exactly what I’m feeling. That doesn’t mean I want to continue reacting the same way, but just that I’m not fighting myself.
If I notice that I’m feeling nervous, I can say to myself, “You are feeling nervous right now, and that’s OK. You are allowed to feel nervous and you don’t have to make that feeling go away.” Just this recognition and acceptance can often lead to real relief. But compassion doesn’t end there. It is not merely the recognition and acceptance of suffering. It also means responding to suffering with care and kindness.
So after noticing the suffering in me, and giving myself permission to feel exactly as I do, the next step is to relate to the part of me that feels nervous with tenderness and love. I might say to myself, “I know you feel nervous right now, and that’s OK. Is there anything I could do to help you feel a little safer or more comfortable?”
Then I listen to myself. I might need to take some action, like leaving a dangerous situation, or I might just need some words of reassurance, like “No matter what happens, you are still worthy of love.” Bringing kindness and compassion to moments of suffering can make us more resilient to the inevitable challenges we face in life.
We will use compassion to transform suffering in the past.
When the primary cause of one’s suffering is in the past, this requires practicing a little differently. If I’m feeling lonely, I might begin by accepting my emotion and relating to myself with kindness and care. Yet, after some reflection, I realize that my loneliness in this moment is deeply connected to my childhood. I know that I was very lonely as a child, and that has created a tendency in me to feel lonely, even if I’m surrounded with friends.
In this type of situation, I can picture myself as a child. I see this lonely little girl and direct compassion to her. I might say to her, “I am here with you. You are never alone.” Or I might pick her up, hold her, and imagine sending her love, like I’m shining a light on her. What’s most important in this practice is getting in touch with my source of suffering, and generating compassion in the same moment.
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that this kind of practice can actually change a distressing memory, through a process called memory reconsolidation. If I activate a distressing memory, and activate the Care Circuit at the same time, a new association is built in my brain so that the memory itself becomes less distressing. This can be understood as emotional healing on a molecular level.
Understanding why you engage in self-criticism so that you can overcome it.
One of the most transformative applications of self-compassion is what I call “turning an enemy into a friend.” True self-compassion means having compassion for every part of oneself, including the parts that we might label as dysfunctional or pathological.
Rather than hating my depression, inner critic, or anxiety, I can learn how to care for them, like a parent caring for a child. This process can be tricky, so I’ll just give a simple example here:
If I were to drop a glass of water on the floor and reflexively call myself an idiot, what does it mean to practice self-compassion in that moment?
Imagine that I try to say some kind words to myself like, “No. You’re not an idiot. Everyone spills things sometimes. It’s OK.” But my inner critic immediately responds, “Yes, you ARE an idiot. That was careless and now people are going to think you’re clumsy.” How can I restore a sense of peace in me?
In my years as a therapist, I’ve learned that the inner critic responds much better to compassion than hatred or avoidance. If I start yelling at myself, “No! Don’t say that. I’m NOT an idiot!” I’m trying to overcome the inner critic with hatred. If I just try to distract myself with television, food, or something else to get away from those thoughts, I’m avoiding my inner critic.
On the other hand, I can also take a breath, slow down my reactivity, and bring loving presence to my inner critic by saying to her, “I hear that you really don’t want to look clumsy in front of other people. Are you trying to encourage me to be more careful?” I bring a real willingness to listen to this part of me that is afraid, that is suffering.
If I can bring compassionate presence to this part of me, then I can hear the helpful message (try to be more careful) without taking on the criticism (you’re an idiot). It requires a lot of practice to be able to do this on your own, but it can create a huge amount of change.
Practicing compassion for myself, so I can be a role model and inspiration to you!
Just as important as teaching self-compassion to you, is practicing compassion for myself. We all experience many painful feelings, including confusion, anger, disappointment, boredom, and helplessness. Learning to accept these feelings and finding compassion for my own suffering, helps me to be more present in therapy, and can indirectly help you.
Ways of practicing self-compassion might include nourishing my own happiness, giving myself permission to experiment as a therapist (rather than having all the answers), taking good care of my physical and emotional health, and setting aside some time each day to send myself love and compassion - even if it’s just 10 minutes.
What is Loving Kindness Practice?
As I’ve been sharing throughout this website, Buddhist meditation practice is often known as “mindfulness meditation”, and mindfulness-based therapy is gleaned from that type of meditation.
However, people exploring Buddhist practices, are often taught other meditation techniques which they can use as alternatives to mindfulness. One of the alternatives is “metta” or lovingkindness meditation. Indeed, sometimes people do Buddhist retreats in which they do nothing but lovingkindness meditation!
Lovingkindness meditation came about because of the Buddha's response to a group of monks who were scared. As the story goes, these monks had gone to a remote forest to engage in intensive mindfulness meditation. But when they got there, they started hearing strange noises, smelling terrible odors, and seeing scary spirits. They fled the forest and sought the Buddha's help.
The Buddha taught them lovingkindness meditation and told them to go back to the forest, and cultivate lovingkindness for these scary spirits. The monks returned to the forest and began to practice lovingkindness meditation. Soon the spirits became as benevolent and friendly to the monks, as the monks were being to the spirits. The monks stayed a long time in the forest, in harmony with the spirits.
Gaetano Donizetti wrote an opera called L'Elisir d'Amore - the elixir of love. I think of lovingkindness meditation as an elixir for my heart. It's a medicine that heals any irritation, anger, or negative judgments I may be feeling for myself or others. It's a medicine that softens my heart so that I'm not afraid to enfold myself and others in the warmth of benevolence, kindness, friendliness, and even love.
Here are the basic instructions for lovingkindness meditation, and one of the ways I might use loving kindness in your sessions. Traditionally, you would settle on a set of phrases and then recite them silently, over and over. I recite my phrases before I get out of bed in the morning. These are the phrases I settled on in the early 1990s:
May I be peaceful.
May I have ease of well-being.
May I feel deeply loved and know that the truth of my being is love itself
Man I open my heart fully to loving others
And be free of suffering.
There's no reason for you to pick these phrases. The cadence and meaning just work for me. "Ease of well-being" is a phrase I learned from "mettamaster" Sharon Salzberg. It has an old-fashioned feel to it that appeals to me. Pick phrases that have meaning for you. Ask, "What do I wish for myself and for others?"
Here are some possible phrases (I'll put them in the first person, even though you'll be directing them toward others too):
May I be free from danger. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. May my mind be healed. May I make friends with my body. May I dwell in peace. May I be at ease.
You may like this phrase that I heard while on a retreat early in my practices. It was used by one of the teachers, Kamala Masters. She closed one of her talks by directing this lovingkindness phrase to all of us: "Whether sick or well, may your body be a vehicle for liberation."
After trying out different phrases, settle on three or four that express most deeply your intention to cultivate kindness and well-wishes toward yourself and others (and, as you begin this practice, feel free to adjust any phrase that's not working for you). Repeat your phrases in whatever way is comfortable for you, keeping in mind the intention they express.
Some people coordinate the phases with their in-and-out-breaths - this doesn't feel natural to me, so I don't do it. Don't be concerned if the sentiments expressed in your phrases, don't feel genuine at first. Repeat your phrases anyway. They will do their work and, after a time, the sentiments they express will come to feel genuine.
Traditionally, lovingkindness phrases are directed at five different groups of people. At first, I don't recommend that you try to move through all five groups during one practice session. On a retreat, it's common to spend several days on a person from only one of the groups, before moving on to the next group.
Here is the first group, the most important one, YOURSELF🙏. The other groups are less important when using them in therapy, but I will mention them in the following section.
Lovingkindness Toward Yourself
First, repeat the phrases, directing them at yourself. Some people may feel that others are more worthy of their well-wishes. When asked about this, the Buddha said, "If you search the whole world over, you will find no one who is more worthy of metta (lovingkindness) than yourself."
Perhaps he said this partly because when we are loving and kind to ourselves, our hearts open, and we can more easily be loving and kind to others. Other people find it hard to be kind to themselves, because, from years of conditioning, they've become their own harshest critics - which only serves to increase their suffering and sadness.
If you're plagued by negative judgments about yourself, remember that the Buddha said the mind is soft and pliant. This means that you can transform it from critic to ally. Think of that cliché, "This is the first day of the rest of your life," and start with a blank slate in your mind. Begin to fill that slate with thoughts of kindness, benevolence, friendliness, and love for yourself. Repeat your phrases even if they don't feel genuine at first. They will work their magic anyway, transforming your heart and mind.
More Research on Loving Kindness and Compassion
The other four practices focus on lovingkindness toward a benefactor, a loving friend or family member, a neutral person and a difficult person. These practices toward others will also greatly benefit you, but expanding your capacity for loving kindness and compassion toward yourself, is some of the very greatest medicine in therapy, to heal a suffering heart. Research from Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, found eighteen science-based benefits to try lovingkindness practices:
Well-being improvements such as an increase in positive emotion, decrease in painful emotions, and increase in feelings of social connection.
Physical health benefits such as reduced pain from migraines, alleviation of emotional tension from migraines, physiological stress, and decreased chronic lower back pain.
Mental health benefits such as decreased anger, deorrssiin and PTSD, decreased negative symptoms of schizophrenia, more positive emotions and improved psychological recovery.
Physiological stress was reduced in heart-rate variability causing a relaxation response within ten minutes of the loving kindness meditation, and genetic evidence was found in to cause slower aging in women who practiced loving kindness over a 3-year period.
Emotional intelligence was increased in neuro-imaging studies associated with emosthy and the processing of emotions, along with grey matter growth being discovered in the regions of the brain associated with empathetic responses, and regulating anxiety and depression.
As you can see, lovingkindness meditation and lovingkindness practice in general, provides a cornucopia of benefits to us individually. However, those benefits extend far beyond ourselves, by virtue of our increased ability to be more present with others, in an increasingly empathic and loving way.
The more lovingkindness you have for yourself, the more it will overflow naturally and effortlessly, from your own heart and mind, blessing others everywhere you go🙏
“Loving kindness and compassion are necesssities, not luxuries,
without them, humanity cannot survive”
The Dalai Lama