Fill Your Cup with COMPASSION in 2023!

In 2023, I hope each of you is able to set goals/intentions/resolutions/etc. and fill your own cup while doing so. We all know you can’t pour from an empty cup! 

Here are the links to the rest of the series!

Reflection – 1/3/23

Rest – 1/6/23

Movement – 1/9

Rituals – 1/12

Connection – 1/16

Today’s post will be about “compassion”

I have written about compassion before, and here is the Compassion 101 post from 2022. Much like mindfulness, it is a big part of both my personal and professional lives. 

When the world stood still in March 2020, we all thought it would be a few weeks. No one (at least no one I know) was expecting the monumental, historic changes that would take place in the world and in our daily lives. All that has happened since – the social and political upheaval, the ‘great resignation,’ unprecedented rates of burnout and mental health crises, inflation/recession, war and unrest around the globe – was actually overdue (in hindsight). The world changes, whether we want it to or not, and change is usually painful even when it is overall for the good in the long run. What I think is good and what you think is good…that is a different discussion. 

What I have noticed recently is that people are talking a lot more about compassion, altruism, ending mental health stigma, and other similar topics. Did we have to go through all of that, as a society, to get there? Will anything actually change?  I hope we have learned that we need more compassion, kindness, and altruism in the world. 

Compassion Focused Therapy

There is a type of therapy called Mindful Self-Compassion Therapy, developed by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer. Dr. Neff’s first book was published in 2011 and her website, self-compassion.org probably started around the same time, though she started publishing her research in 2003. I did not become aware of it until the Mindful Self-Compassion Therapy Workbook came out in 2018 and it was brought to my attention by another therapist in the practice, who started a group for our IOP program based on the workbook. Her TEDx talk, the books, and the website, along with her work with The Center for Mindful Self Compassion, have been spreading the word for a while. 

Even so, there are not that many therapists that have embraced Compassion Focused Therapy as their primary modality, or gotten much training in it. Why? I think it is because SELF-compassion requires us to apply it not only to our clients, but also to ourselves. 

There are three core principles: treating ourselves with kindness (not harsh judgment), common humanity (we are all human and imperfect), and mindfulness (being aware in the present moment without judgment and with acceptance of our suffering). 

Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery & Treatment

For obvious reasons, this has been a component of eating disorder treatment for as long as there have been eating disorder treatments. I have been talking about treating yourself as a friend, without double standards for decades. Dr. Neff’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, our self criticism is not motivating. For some reason, we think that we need to be harsh critics of ourselves to be successful. For women, the main measure of self esteem is body image – the research indicates that this starts to happen between 3rd & 5th grade. 

Turns out, though, that compassion, like positive reinforcement (when applied appropriately), is a much more successful motivator. 

Compassion is a resource – the more we have for ourselves, the more we have for others.  It is important to remember that compassion is active (empathy and sympathy tend to be more passive and emotional) and is therefore a skill we can develop. We can, even, work on compassion for others (like in the Dalai Lama’s Guide to Happiness through 10% Happier that I mentioned in Connection or this 20 minute Loving-Kindness Meditation) to increase self-compassion – either way, the other will be positively affected. Even if all you do is acknowledge your situation as difficult or painful, it can make a difference in how you manage the situation and how stressed you feel. It will also, almost automatically, improve self-esteem and body image.

Compassion in Real Life

This is not just a therapy thing (though it can be) but a daily life thing. How many of you think you are a ‘bad person.’ How many of you think you have low self-esteem? High self-esteem? Did you know that there is a dark side to self esteem? If we only measure self-esteem by if we feel superior to others, that can lead to bullying, narcissism and perfectionism. Self esteem fails when we do not succeed at something the way we think we should. The key to stabilizing self-esteem is compassion. 

Good news – so far, there is no dark side to compassion. Various spiritual practices have been espousing compassion for thousands of years with little ill effect. When you are struggling, the simplest thing to do is to treat yourself like a friend – with mindfulness, humanity, and kindness. 

Another way to put this is that we apply the golden rule a little differently – treat others, and yourself, as you want to be treated (not as you usually treat yourself). Remember that everyone makes mistakes, has struggles and is imperfect – including you. You are never alone in that. 

We are all somewhere on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – compassion is not mentioned on it explicitly, but if we were to apply compassion throughout these levels, especially in the top two. If one of your goals is self-fulfillment or self-actualization, you will need to develop the skill of compassion. When we are in a state of self compassion, we are in a loving and connected state. That state, despite the pain and imperfection of life, lends us strength and resilience. We need resilience to make it through life. 

Myths of Compassion

There are three main reasons people avoid compassion:

  • They see it as weak
  • They think it will lead to self-indulgence
  • They think it is selfish 

There is no research to indicate that any of these is true. How compassionate you are towards yourself  is actually a powerful predictor of resilience – if you are able to be compassionate towards yourself, you are less likely to develop PTSD no matter how much trauma you are exposed to. One study was conducted on combat veterans with differing levels of trauma exposure, and no matter how much suffering they had been exposed to, their ability to be compassionate towards themselves was the most significant protective factor that predicted if they would develop PTSD.  

Self-compassionate people are more likely to take care of themselves and their health than to be indulgent. Just like a caring parent’s job is to set limits with their kids, self compassion and caring allow us to do the same thing. Fear of failure is much more likely to get in our way than self compassion. Fear of failure often leads to avoidance, negativity, poor self esteem, and judgment. People who are self-compassionate are more likely to pick themselves up and try again, without judging their mistakes in an overly harsh or shameful way. They will keep working on it, not abandon something that they think is worthwhile. To me, that sounds the opposite of indulgent. 

As for selfishness – it seems counterintuitive to imagine that a compassionate person would be selfish. There is no difference, skill wise, between compassion and self-compassion. If you can do one, you are more likely to be able to do the other. Women tend to have a greater fear of being seen as selfish – we are taught that our identity is wrapped up more in others and what we do for them then it is in a healthy sense of self. I will maintain that in this, also, it is our duty to show compassion to ourselves and to others, not only for our benefit but for the benefit of our children as well. After all, what behavior is modeled to you when you are a child is the most significant predictor of adult behavior. And who would want their child to grow up without compassion? 

Compassion Exercises:

  • Here is a self-compassion quiz you can use to measure your own compassion levels. No matter what the score, you can always remember compassion is more powerful than fear. 
  • There are several practices to choose from here.
  • The simplest way to practice compassion is to imagine how you would treat a good friend in the same situation – and do that!
  • Loving Kindness Script

Have a great weekend! See you next week for more ways to Fill Your Cup with mindfulness and nature!