Many people who take time out because of chronic illness judge themselves harshly. They judge themselves for not being productive. Or worry that others will think they are lazy. Too often, we default to the blame game in which we are all losers. We have talked about rest before and how that is productive. But what if I told you, you could do something as productive while you rest?
Self-compassion is a way of thinking about and looking after ourselves. It’s like self-esteem but more caring and less comparative. When we are compassionate to ourselves, we are not making evaluations. Rather, we support ourselves when we need it most.
Self -compassion is not self-indulgence or excuses. And it’s more than a nice idea. It’s a kind of self-care. And learning to be self-compassionate can be hugely beneficial to our mental health.
What is Self- Compassion
Imagine for a minute you have a friend who had a job interview today. After the interview, you meet for coffee, where she reveals that she froze up in her interview. She calls herself all sorts of names and says she feels like a failure. And she is not getting the job. What do you do?
You are not going to agree with her. You will tell her that interviews are nerve-wracking for everyone. Her reaction doesn’t make her a failure; instead, it proves she is normal. You would say to her to give herself a break. What’s done is done and try to put it out of her mind. This is called compassion.
You see, we often get stuck in a factory- line mindset. That is one where we must always be productive. We think of our bodies and minds as machines whose function is to work. Your friend in the scenario is disregarding the human parts of her experience and attributing it to a personal flaw. Often our ability to work through the pain is linked to identities like gender or group membership. That’s why falling short of our expectations is so important. But when it comes to friends and loved ones, we are a little more generous in understanding.
To have self-compassion is to treat yourself as you would a friend.
Three Components of Self-Compassion
According to Dr Kristin Neff, there is no difference between compassion and self-compassion. Dr Neff is an educational psychologist and self-compassion researcher. In the course of her research, she has determined that self-compassion has three core components—Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-Kindness, as opposed to self-judgement, is about treating yourself kindly. It means challenging negative self-talk. When you are kind to yourself, you want to ease your pain, not punish yourself. And above all, it’s about supporting you as you would another.
Common Humanity is the recognition that you are no different than anyone else. Nobodies life is perfect, and everyone fails sometimes. Our bodies get ill or injured, and we all must rest. We tend to compare our lives to others and in doing so, make assumptions. Recognising that your experience is common proves you are not alone.
The final component is mindfulness. When things go wrong, our instinct is to fix them straight away. When we can’t, we sometimes we repress or distract ourselves. Being self-compassionate is recognising that you are suffering. It is feeling it without pushing it away. Or going into fix-it mode. Otherwise, you will resort to self-judgement. Stepping out of yourself can help you figure out what you need and how you can help yourself.
Self-Compassion vs Self-esteem
In a previous article, we talked about self-esteem and the benefits of building it up. But like everything else, self-esteem has a dark side. In developing her theory of self-compassion, Dr Neff studied self-esteem. She says that while feeling self- esteem can obviously be a good thing, it is still a judgement.
Social comparison theory says we decide our own worth by comparing ourselves to others. And for us to have high self-esteem, we must see ourselves as above average. Of course, not everyone can be above average. Even if it weren’t an impossibility, you wouldn’t feel above average all the time.
Can you see how self-esteem might fit into that factory-line mindset? On those times when self-doubt sets in, self-esteem leaves us. But according to Dr Neff, self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem, but it is more stable and less fickle. Self-compassion, unlike self-esteem, is unconditional. But like self-esteem, it takes practice.
Practicing Self-Compassion & Chronic Illness
The internet is full of articles and videos about meditation and mindfulness. And its role in creating a self-compassion practice is significant. A 2018 study found that mindfulness reduced fatigue, stress and burnout in psychologists. The psychologists completed a 6-week web-based mindfulness programme. For 6 days each week, they practiced a 15-minute self-compassion-based meditation.
Self-compassion is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety. As well as lower rates of body dissatisfaction. As people who suffer from HS, we are susceptible to those conditions. As well as burnout. It is difficult having a life and managing a chronic health condition.
Self-compassion practice may hold the answer to some of our mental health challenges. At its core, it gives us permission to look after ourselves when we most need it. Give it a try.
About the Author
Shannon Sweeney is MA student in Community Research & Journalism from Ireland. She is also living with HS and has a keen interest in lifestyle, wellbeing and hidradenitis suppurativa.