Monday, April 16, 2012

Self-Compassion - A Step Toward Healing Compassion Fatigue ... ...

For 12 days last month, the city of Vancouver was abuzz with talk of compassion. Why? Because Karen Armstrong was in town.

Invited by Simon Fraser University's, Centre for Dialogue, Karen Armstrong,  2008 TED Prize winner and one of the most provocative current thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world, led 12 days of conversation on compassion and living a compassionate life throughout the city.

Karen's visit marked the launch of the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network, part of an international movement to build compassionate communities, inspired, in part, by her Charter for Compassion, a document supported and endorsed by both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama.

While not everyone will agree with her "freelance monotheistic" lens, I believe Karen has much to say to those of us who yearn to treat ourselves and others with greater compassion.

In her best selling book, 12 Steps To A Compassionate Life, Karen has written a full chapter on the importance of self-compassion, a quality that I see as an essential part of compassion fatigue healing and resilience. In her words, -

The Golden Rule requires self knowledge; it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behaviour with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people. So we need to acquire a healthier and more balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. ... (to) make a list of our good qualities, talents, and achievements. We recognize flaws in our closest friends, but this does not diminish our affection for them. Nor should it affect the way we value ourselves. Before we can make friends with others, we have to make a friend of our own self. Without denying your faults, remember all the people you have helped, the kind things you have done that nobody noticed, and your successes at home and at work. A sense of humour is also important: we should be able to smile wryly but gently at our failings, in the same way as we tease a friend.

Another self-compassion writer and researcher, Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas (Austin), defines self compassion as, "... acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don't like about yourself, as you would toward a friend". She describes this experience of self-compassion in a threefold manner -

  • first, you notice that you are suffering, 
  • second, you feel moved by that suffering in a way that leads to warmth, caring, and the desire to help yourself through understanding and kindness rather than judging yourself harshly, 
  • and, third, you recognize that your suffering, failure and imperfection is a part of the shared human experience.

She goes on to say:

Instead of just ignoring your pain with a "stiff upper lip" mentality, you stop to tell yourself, "This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?"
Instead of judging and criticizing yourself mercilessly for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings - after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. 
Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honour and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of fighting against it constantly, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.

On Kristin's website there is a Self-Compassion Inventory that you might like to try. Again, remember to be kind to yourself regardless your findings. Low self-compassion is not a personal flaw but the result of many factors including your genetic background, your parenting, your education, your religious teaching, your culture, and your multigenerational history of trauma and loss.

Once you recognize a low level of self-compassion, (and, thus, an increased risk for compassion fatigue), there is much you can do to increase your kindness toward yourself. Karen Armstrong puts it this way:

But before you are ready to "embrace the whole world", you must focus on yourself. Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship (maitri) that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship. Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion (karuna) for your conflicted, struggling self. Then bring your capacity for joy (midita) to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life's tiny pleasures. Finally, look at yourself with upeksha ("evenmindedness", nonattachment). You are not unique. You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents, and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.

The process Karen describes here could take some time and is probably best done slowly with the companioning of a trusted therapist, coach, spiritual director or clergyperson.  If you would like some exercises to guide your exploration, you will find some on Kristin's website.

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