Self-compassion for building resilience


flower_lilypadSelf-compassion is a very valuable, but often neglected ingredient in growing and maintaining high levels of personal resilience.

Compassion is an essential element of the teachings of all the main religious and philosophical movements, including, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (to name a few). Indeed, compassion is the most frequently used word in the Koran. Whilst I believe the majority of people are comfortable with the idea of compassion in this context, I also think that the concept of compassion, especially for ourselves in our everyday lives, is much more difficult. Whilst we generally find it easy to be compassionate with others at times, we tend not to show that same level of compassion to ourselves in our inevitable failings, shortfalls, set backs and disappointments that are all part of life’s rich tapestry.

A literal definition of compassion means “to suffer with”. To be compassionate with someone else means to be fully present with their suffering, to help alleviate the burden by sharing it. Human beings are wired to connect with other people, and when someone experiences deep compassion, it produces a positive chemical response in the brain, which comforts and soothes them.

Professor Paul Gilbert and Dr. Kirsten Neff are some of the leading authorities in this field and their work has culminated in the development of compassion focussed therapy as a way of supporting people suffering with a range of mental health issues. The key aim of this compassion focussed approach is to support people develop the ability to treat themselves with the same degree of care and kindness as they would show to a good friend or family member,  at a time of suffering or adversity.

According to Dr. Neff, self compassion is composed of three fundamental elements:-

  1. Self-kindness  – People who are kind to themselves recognise that being kind to yourself, when you experience upsetting or difficult events is a much better way to achieve emotional equanimity rather than criticise yourself for perceived weakness, and failings.
  2. Common Humanity – when people suffer, they often experience an irrational but all-consuming feeling of isolation, that they are the only people who suffer like this and no-one else can relate to it. This  misapprehension only increases the level of suffering. Being self-compassionate means realising that all human beings suffer, it is part of the human condition, in this sense we are all connected through our common humanity.
  3. Mindfulness  – the ability to observe our feelings and emotions, and recognise what they are telling us, without over-identifying with them is an essential aspect of having a “mindful awareness” of them. To become self-compassionate requires cultivating our ability to really pay attention, in as non-judgemental way as possible to the thoughts, feelings and emotions generated from our mind.

People experience difficulty with the concept of compassion for different reasons. Some  people perceive it as a sign of weakness, or vulnerability and draw away from it for that reason. Actually,  to be compassionate requires a lot of courage, the ability to conduct deep enquiry into the very nature of suffering and it’s impact and consequences on the human mind. According to Professor Paul Gilbert  “Compassion is not just about kindness or softness and it is  certainly  not a weakness – it is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to man.”

The ability to show compassion towards ourselves and others is central to our “Optimal” model of resilience. We believe (and research supports this) that developing the ability to be kind and caring to ourselves and others on a daily basis, increases our ability to respond more effectively to difficulties and set-backs thus increasing our resilience.  We define resilience as   “the ability of an individual to perform consistently at an optimal level, retaining flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses, irrespective of prevailing challenges and conditions”,  adapted from Neenan & Dryden 2002.

My experience and personal practice in self-compassion certainly helps me personally and those coaching clients who are consciously engaged with it in a committed manner experience noticeable benefits also. The main benefit, I believe,  is that you develop a much kinder and more caring relationship with yourself. Instead of using harsh internal criticism to berate ourselves and drive us to achieve more, it involves  accepting ourselves as we really are, with all our talents, skills, experiences, personality quirks and vulnerabilities.  Learning to be more compassionate with ourselves is a crucial step in true self-acceptance.

Easter time provides an excellent opportunity for each of us to reflect on ourselves and our relationships and also re-commit to developing more helpful and beneficial behavioural habits that enrich and support ourselves in our daily lives. I recommend you  explore it further, as a little self-compassion can go a long way.  In my next post,  I will be exploring how individuals can begin to develop self-compassion in practical and accessible ways.

A final thought on compassion from Rumi, the great Sufi writer, poet and philosopher

“Be kind to yourself, dear

to our innocent follies. Forget any sounds or touch you knew that did not help you dance

You will come to see that all evolves us.” 

Emintell Limited  and Natures Coaching Limited specialise in the development of sustainable resilience in individuals, and teams within organisational settings.   As part of our commitment to spread the message about the importance of paying attention to your resilience, we also host public workshops throughout the UK. For details of our latest open workshops visit  our events page.