Why learning to love ourselves and others can change everything
Compassion is being sensitive to the suffering of yourself and others and committing to prevent and relieve the suffering.
But does having compassion just mean being kind, loving, and caring?
Compassion requires action and courage. It’s not always the easy and soft option.
It might mean being non-judgmental and showing empathy towards an individual, but it might also have the face of a firefighter running towards a burning building to save someone’s life.
It also doesn’t require liking something, or even liking ourselves. We can learn how to be compassionate towards all sorts of people and our own self, even on the days that we feel most ashamed or disappointed by our performance.
Why is self-compassion so hard?
We all want to be compassionate. But it’s one thing to say it and another to actually do it.
To understand why it is so difficult to practice self-compassion, we need to understand how our minds work. Our brain was designed through millions of years of evolution to help us survive from threats, as well as reproduce and protect our species from extinction.
Being an evolved human being means that we have brilliant capacities: we have managed to travel to the moon and cure diseases and viruses. But whilst our brain is amazing, it is also fundamentally tricky. Truth be told, understanding how our brain works is one of our biggest challenges.
What is an advantage in one situation, can be a disadvantage in another. For example, the same gene that protects us from malaria is the gene that causes sickle cell anemia, an inherited condition that affects red blood cells (1). Another example is our stress system: its activation can be extremely helpful when dealing with short-term stressors. But long-term activation of the stress-system is severely damaging to our brain and body (2).
Our brain has an embedded threat and self-protection system, which urges us to take action when we face a potential threat. It is not surprising that the brain prioritises dealing with threats than pleasurable emotions. Imagine for example if you are having a walk in the park on a lovely Sunday afternoon and suddenly a lion appears in front of you. Would you want your threat system to motivate you to run away? Or would you prefer to keep feeling calm and at peace?
Well, you might, but I don’t think you would have a lot of chances of survival then.
Our brains were not designed for happiness, but to serve our survival and reproduction. So, we need to learn how to accept, tolerate and deal with negative emotions, because they are ultimately our brain's way of helping us stay safe.
Do I deserve self-compassion?
Now, you might be thinking: That all sounds good, but am I worthy of compassion? What if I have done something that I think is horrible or unforgivable?
Truth is, we all deserve compassion. Here is why:
The person we are, our personality, beliefs and preferences are actually a construct of the society around us. We are socially-shaped human beings. And we often have little or no control over the circumstances that we experience when we are born into this world.
Imagine, for example, what would happen if you were kidnapped at the age of one by violent criminals. What kind of person would you be now? Would you be the same as you are today? Would you have followed the same career path, would you have the same hobbies, personality, social skills or religion?
But would it be your fault?
«It seems that we are far more created than we are creators of our own identities and senses of self. We did not choose to be born, nor the kinds of brains that we have; we did not choose the kind of emotions that we have to deal with. We did not choose our education and values we end up adopting, or to be born in this century rather than another. We just found ourselves in here, trying to make sense of it all as best as we can.» (1)
If we realise this, we can gradually start forgiving ourselves for our mistakes, as well as for the painful feelings or unwanted thoughts we might be experiencing. We will also soon realise that in fact we are always doing our best given the circumstances, the context and the society we live in. And this is true not only for us, but for all human beings. As Dalai Lama said “We all seek happiness. None seeks suffering.”
So the next time you criticise yourself for a mistake you made, just pause for a moment and think: What I am experiencing right now is the result of brain patterns and genes evolved through millions of years, in order to help me survive on this planet. This is not my fault.
As millions of other life forms on this planet, I am only struggling towards survival.
This article was inspired by Dr. Paul Gilbert’s book “The Compassionate Mind” and the Compassionate Mind Foundation’s Workshop “Introduction to Compassionate-Focused Therapy”, taught by Dr. Chris Irons and Dr. Shelley Kerr.
Luzzato, L. (2012). Sickle cell anemia and malaria. Mediterr J Hematol Infect Dis, 4(1). doi: 10.4084/MJHID.2012.065
Dhabhar, F. S. (2018). The Short-Term Stress Response – Mother Nature’s Mechanism for Enhancing Protection and Performance Under Conditions of Threat, Challenge, and Opportunity. Front Neuroendocrinol, 49, pp. 175–192. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.03.00
Gilbert, P. (2013). The Compassionate Mind. Robinson: Revised Edition, p. 21.
Mariza is a Trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at West London NHS Trust and a graduate of UCL MSc Clinical Mental Health Sciences. She is passionate about de-stigmatising mental health problems and increasing access to psychological therapies for all people. She loves dancing, spending time with friends and slowing down and enjoying the present moment.