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Self-Compassion is Medicine

oxygen-maskHave you ever travelled with children or those needing assistance? Then you are quite familiar with the instructions flight attendants give to passengers:

“put the mask on yourself first before helping others”

Makes sense right? Perhaps Lama Yeshe said it best:

Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.”

After all, how can you help others if you aren’t in the best shape to fully do so? That’s why the mask has to go on you first—the airlines aren’t pushing self-compassion, they are insuring safety for all involved, including yourself. That’s self-compassion.

Kristin Neff, author of the 2011, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”, noted:

“Compassion involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help—to ameliorate suffering—emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”

She defines self-compassion as having three components:

  1. Self-kindness: In short, we need to be nice to ourselves! Beating ourselves up = not helpful. 

  2. Common humanity; We’re not alone. It’s important to see that our suffering is a part of the shared human experience. 

  3. Observing our experience: We want to hold our experience in “balanced” awareness without trying to push our pain away or make it a bigger deal than it is. 


But what if you think being helpful to yourself, acting kindly and with self-compassion, is self-indulgent and selfish? What if, “Put on your big girl panties and stop whining!” rings between your ears and behind your eyes?

I’d advise you to take Kristin Neff’s well-known test to determine your level of self-compassion. She is the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. You can find her test, for free, here: http://www.self-compassion.org/test-your-self-compassion-level.html.

Here are a few questions from the test:

  1. When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong.
  2. When things are going badly for me, I see the difficulties as part of life that everyone goes through.
  3. When times are really difficult, I tend to be tough on myself.

When you act kindly towards yourself, towards others and are free of judgment towards the world, you are anchored in self-compassion. On the other hand, when you demand that you be perfect, that others treat you exactly the way you want to be treated (and not the way you don’t want to be treated), and when you insist that the world and your life be exactly as you expect it to be, you are drifting far from self-compassion.

It’s clear to me that emotional suffering is caused by the desire we maintain for things to be other than they are. Perfectionism means failure – and imperfect is as close to perfect as we’ll ever get. So why demand, insist and expect (D.I.E.) anything else? That’s not being very kind to yourself, is it? Setbacks are setups for later success. But if your frame around failure is that it’s permanent, you are being quite unkind to yourself.

To promote your self-compassion, reframe “failure” as “experience”. That’s what most successful serial entrepreneurs I coach do. It’s an opportunity to grow your knowledge foundation. It’s a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. Instead of hiding your failures, people filled with self-compassion are proud that they were brave enough to take a risk in the first place.

Who isn’t inadequate in some way? Who hasn’t failed, erred or slipped up? It’s easier for many to be gentle and supportive of others facing life’s inevitable bumps, hurdles and challenges than to bring that understanding towards oneself. We often believe, erroneously, that we “should” rush to put the mask on others first, only to find we are gasping for air and ultimately as a result are unable to be fully helpful.

What can you do?

Try these four steps:

  1. Spend time each day simply observing how you treat a friend in need. That’s your game plan for how to treat yourself. To do so, however, you will need to overcome self-talk that prevents you from doing so. Catch those “ANTs” (automatic negative thoughts) and stomp them out. “She’s different than I am and really needs the help” can be replaced with, “We are all just human and I deserve kindness and understanding as well.”
  2. Catch yourself hiding from the human race. Lacking in self-compassion often leads to social isolation. With a self-critical inner voice, you are doomed to staring at your four walls, comparing and despairing, putting yourself down, exaggerating the good of others while criticizing yourself. Ask yourself how a good friend would talk with you about your doing this? That’s your game plan for self-talk.
  3. Use the STOPP technique to increase your awareness of yourself, to name, accept and investigate how you are thinking and perhaps how unkind you are being to yourself.
    1. Stop and step back.
    2. Take a breath
    3. Observe your thoughts and actions
    4. Pull back with perspective
    5. Practice what’s working right
  4. Practice mindfulness as a key way to advance your self-kindness. See things without judgment, clearly, with acceptance, in the present. It’ll take practice so begin with your breathing—count your breaths, feel them and don’t judge them. That’s your life you are experiencing—self-compassionately.

Buddha reminds us of the value of self-compassion:

You can search throughout the universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Now, be sure to remember to put the mask on yourself first.

About Dr. Michael R. Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. is a behavior transformation and leadership coach, speaker, author and an accomplishment mentor inspiring personal and professional development. He motivates people from all walks of life to achieve sustainable, high-energy, extraordinary outcomes and travels the world to train fitness and health professionals on the most current tools for optimal success. He is a best-selling author. His books include the 1988 original “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff," the 25th Anniversary edition of that book, and “Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace”.

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