Making Sense Of The Mess

Changing Messy Thinking

How to Apply Self-Compassion

The room is carefully staged. Participants arrive and select their seats. The host checks her watch and begins. Focused eyes and ears remain as she demonstrates her craft and gives instructions. It’s time to begin.

The confident eagerly jump in while the timid hold back. Convinced they can do it, they finally join in. A familiar tug of war arises as competing thoughts switch between enthusiasm and fear. The battle escalates when they compare their work with others.

Finally, the project is completed. They breathe a sigh of relief: “At least it is finished!”  

But, is it really finished?

Unfinished Business

I played out this scenario last week. My daughter and I attended a pottery class where we each made own small clay planter.

I went excited, but soon got rattled. Caught in a crossfire of criticizing triggers, I doubted my ability. I decided to confront the attacks so I wouldn’t miss out on some fun.

I applied self-compassion to counter the attacks, a practice I learned in counseling. When I took a step back, I discovered the trigger: I doubted my creativity.  This made me vulnerable. I told myself it was okay. Sufficiently calmed, I finished my planter and proudly placed it on the table alongside the others. 

Yet, my sense of pride melted as I played the comparison game. My inner critic invaded my thoughts with accusatory questions: Why does my planter look misshapen? What did I do wrong? Why can’t I be as creative as the others? What do they think of mine?  

Soon the class ended. There was no time for last minute changes.  I knew my part was over. The instructor would finish it off in the oven. In a week I would pick it up. I secretly hoped its time in the oven would fix any flaws and somehow fix me.

As this thought raced through my mind, I knew my work wasn’t over after all. It was time to take another step back and deal again with my thoughts. I needed to re-apply self-compassion.

Let’s take a look at self-compassion before I finish my story.

Understanding Self-Compassion 

Compassion occurs as we seek to understand and ease the pain or suffering of others or ourselves. Most of us witness, give or receive compassion every day. Here are some examples I observed the past few days: 

  • Two Facebook posts shared separate Holocaust accounts of people who risked their lives to smuggle imprisoned children to safety.
  • I watched my older grandson quickly run to his brother and help him get up after he fell down.
  • When a distraught friend called, I listened carefully and acknowledged her pain, without advice until asked.
  • My daughter-in-law offered a hug and words of encouragemen when I expressed feelings of failure.

Acts of compassion such as these remind us how much we need compassion to face life’s challenges. Yet, it doesn’t always motivate us to give ourselves a dose when we most need it. For some reason, we find it easier to extend compassion to others, and withhold it from ourselves. What keeps us from self-compassion? Why don’t we apply it when needed?

Recognizing a Need for Self-Compassion

I learned a lot about self-compassion from Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion – The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. I recognized my tendency towards self-criticism. I discovered its domino effect as I formed self-judgments, most I of which I buried. When triggered, these judgments resurfaced and fueled the cycle of self-criticism. I knew I needed a way to break  and change this cycle.

I also recognized my tendency towards isolation. This magnified what I experienced. Caught up in my own pain, I failed to see a common thread: all people suffer at some points of their lives. As a common human experience, my pain was not abnormal. I realized I needed to acknowledge that fact to feel less isolated and more open to compassion.

These are just a few of the insights I gleamed from her book. It’s filled with descriptions and exercises to help you become more self-compassionate. I encourage you to read it to learn more. But for now, here are the three core tools I took away, points I’ve already alluded to.

Applying Self-Compassion

 Kristin Neff’s 3 Components of Self-Compassion   offer the best guidance to apply self-compassion:

1. Self-Kindness

When our self-critic arises and judgments take over, it’s time for some kindness.

Ask yourself: How would I treat others in pain? Would I be gentle and try to understand? What words would I use? Would  they put them down or comfort and encourage? Would I give them a hug?

Check yourself the next time your self-critic erupts. Questions like these remind us to be as kind to ourselves as we would be with others.

2. Common Humanity

Compassion literally means “to suffer with.”  As human beings, we all suffer. Life goes wrong. We experience inadequacies and disappointments. We realize none of us are perfect – we are all flawed.

Remind yourselves that pain is a common human experience. This helps us feel less isolated and more connected with others. It opens the door to receive compassion from others and extend it to ourselves.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness, like any other skill, needs to be developed. As we train ourselves to be aware of our physical, emotional and mental states, we acknowledge our pain and take action.  As we objectively observe the time and space we are in, we ask ourselves: Where did that thought come from? Do I really believe it? What caused me to feel that way? Do I really want to continue in this thought pattern? How can I change it and move forward?

When we question ourselves in the present moment, it gives us the power to soften our emotional reactions. It stops our over-reactions and exaggerations in our current situation. It provides the opportunity to administer self-compassion when we need it most.

Closing Thoughts

Next week I pick up my planter. It won’t matter if it’s still misshapen. Why? Because I took the time to hug my self-critic and ease her pain. I shifted her thoughts. How? I found a creative way to use my planter. I decided to make it my visual reminder to apply self-compassion. I’ll write these directions on the bottom:

 “Lifetime supply of Self-Compassion. Apply generously as needed.”

How’s that for applying self-compassion!

Can you think of a time you had compassion for someone? What did you do or say? Are you able to extend that same compassion to yourself.  I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a comment.

Next week we will look at self-care. Hope you’ll tune in!

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As always, thanks for reading!

About Pamela Parker

I am a writer. I love spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren. My passion for learning shows up in reading and taking courses on topics that help bring positive change in my life and hopefully those around me.


4 Replies

  1. Carrie

    Love that!❤️ I can so relate to the self-criticism and isolation tendencies. I’m going to look up that book. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Carrie.
      When my counselor recommended this book, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on my life. I use her 3 components of self-compassion all the time. The link I shared in my blog is just a short video describing them. She also has a longer TED talk on self-compassion that is really helpful. Here’s the link:

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts and encouragement!

  2. Great post Pam! Your reflections about your pottery experience reminded me of something one of my favorite authors wrote – “We have this treasure in jars of clay…” The Apostle Paul

    1. Thanks Don…. You’ve inspired me to use Paul’s quote in a follow-up writing. Someone asked me to share a picture of the pot after I pick it up so my creative juices are flowing! His quote will fit in nicely.

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