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Where Does Self-Compassion Grow?

These thoughts were inspired by a walk on the Culham Trail in Mississauga. This fabulous 13km path almost entirely follows the Credit River and is perfect for upcoming winter hikes with its smooth flat walking surfaces.

"I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light." Helen Keller

Along with the change in season these past couple of weeks, I’ve felt a distinct shift in my emotional landscape. New challenges are cropping up all over the place and right alongside them are old thought patterns that I haven’t wrestled with in a while. In the face of having to prove myself in new ways, my self-deprecating thoughts are predictably fighting just as dirty as ever, but I had hoped my defences would be tougher this time around. Instead, I find myself wishing I had done more meditation or therapy when I was in a calm place so that I could easily access self-compassion during this anxiety-ridden time. On a walk with a pal this week as I was rattling off all of my worries, it occurred to me that I’ve been assuming that the cultivation of emotional resiliency is best done in isolation, through meditation or journalling, or in formalized settings like therapy and retreats. However, upon airing out my mind with a dear one in the forest, I realized that the unique space of friendship is the most natural place in the world to develop the anxiety-assuaging and resiliency-building habit of self-compassion.

The idea of self-compassion as a practice with specific steps was introduced to me through the work of Dr. Kristin Neff. She was the first to empirically examine self-compassion and she used her research to create a Mindful Self-Compassion Course and a book on the topic (apparently she has a new book coming soon, Fierce Self-Compassion). According to Neff, part of the definition of self-compassion is treating yourself the way that you would treat a good friend. Neff offers many guided meditation practices on her website, but in everyday life one can easily take an informal Self-Compassion Break by following these three steps when stress arises:

  1. Check in with your body and observe any discomfort arising from the stress. Acknowledge that you are suffering with a phrase that feels comfortable for you like, “This is stress” or “This hurts”. This is not to a form of self-pity; you are making a mindful observation.

  2. Acknowledge that suffering is a part of life and a part of our shared human experience. You could use phrases like, “Other people feel this way,” or “We all struggle in our lives,” to help you remember that you are not alone.

  3. Put your hand over your heart or offer yourself some kind of soothing physical touch and ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” It could be a phrase like, “May I learn to accept myself as I am,” or “May I be strong.”

In the past I have always found a place on my own to do this exercise, but it occurred to me on my recent buddy walk that some version of each of these steps was naturally occurring in the course of our conversation.

Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’, and in the presence of another lovable and flawed person, I noticed how natural it is to empathize, not in spite of, but because of that vulnerability. It was much easier to make the leap of offering myself the same care when I could see that compassion was not something that my friend needed to earn, but rather a very accessible remedy to the very human predicament of navigating change and the unknown. Self-compassion leads to resiliency because it gives people the emotional safety they need to face their failings and try new approaches. Perhaps we can cultivate some portion of these qualities on our own, but I’m starting to feel like my self-compassion and resiliency can only run as deep as my connection to others.

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