Recently, my wife had me read a short article about self-compassion. Two things about this I found interesting: 1) the article, and 2) the fact of my wife’s recommending it. Obviously she feels I could be better at self-compassion, and I suppose I agree. So why shouldn’t I just have you read that article? One, I lost it. Two, it had the common flaw of trying to appeal to too broad an audience by being really brief—a series of five tiny nibbles that added up to an unsatisfying snack. In this post I’ll delve deeper, and ask a thorny question: why do I have so much trouble with this?
What’s wrong with self-compassion?
I guess to begin with I should define the term. Wikipedia’s description does a sufficient job: “Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” It’s basically cutting yourself some slack.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Self-compassion leads to all kinds of benefits; Wikipedia lists life satisfaction, happiness, and emotional resilience, and the article I read said something about reduced inflammation.
And yet, something about self-compassion makes me instinctively bristle. Delving into this reaction, I’ll confess that to some degree, it’s simply a habit. I grew up the youngest of four boys, and if there’s a polar opposite to compassion, my brothers exercised it at every turn. If I hurt myself, or even if they hurt me, they would say, “Ohhhh, poor baby! Did that hurt? You poor, poor thing!” This was delivered with the most brittle, icy sarcasm available—which was a lot. To visibly suffer was to demand sympathy, which was treated as a shameful act.
Perhaps our father helped create this culture. I remember how, when I was 12, my brand-new bike was stolen during the few minutes I spent using a San-O-Let at a bike race. Far from expressing sympathy, my dad was livid. “If you had spent your money on a good lock instead of a fancy cycling cap, you’d still have your bicycle!” he thundered at me. This was a pretty typical scenario, so I guess I’m not surprised that my natural reaction to any personal failure is still self-flagellation.
But in a sense, my hesitation to grant myself some compassion isn’t wholly irrational. On a very conscious level, I take some issue with compassion in general, if it’s applied too generously. As I’ve written before in these pages, “For every person who pushes himself too hard and needs to lighten up, I’d say there are 10 who are just too complacent to push their comfort zone.” Something about self-compassion strikes me as defeatist—like, by the time you’re doling out compassion, you’ve kind of given up, haven’t you? Shouldn’t we temper our our magnanimous acceptance with an opposing effort to encourage and challenge?
This is all very abstract, so I’ll give an example. For the past few years, I’ve coached high school mountain biking. The afternoon before every race, our team rides the course. Early in the season, one of the new riders showed up for the pre-ride but suddenly balked. “Coach, I can’t race tomorrow,” he said. “I’m having trouble breathing.”
Nothing about asthma or bronchospasm was mentioned in this rider’s pre-season medical evaluation, and he looked fine to me. Was it time to be compassionate? Of course! I looked him right in the eye and said, “Wow, I’m really sorry you’re such a pussy.”
No, of course I didn’t really say that! (Just having a little fun here … this essay was starting to drag.) I decided compassion was indeed called for with regard to the obvious butterflies in this kid’s stomach, but I wasn’t ready to concede that he had a bona fide breathing problem. So I told him, “Hey, how about you go ahead with the pre-ride, see how that goes, and decide in the morning if you feel like you can race.” Well, once he got out on the course, he started having fun, gradually picked up the pace, and next thing you know he was leading the team. At the end I told him, “Hey, the way you were riding today, I sure hope you can race tomorrow.” Which he did. (I asked him afterward, “Are you glad you raced?” To which he grinned, “No.”)
How does this tough-it-out business play in my own life? Well, it definitely causes me stress. For example, when I bought a new dishwasher, I really wanted to just pay someone to install it and be done with it, but I’d have felt like a wuss. The uncharitable side of me demanded that I man up and figure it out for myself. I reached out to my brother, and though he’s far more supportive today than in the “Ohhhh, poor baby!” days, he wasn’t letting me off the hook, either. By egging me on, and in fact questioning my manhood, Bryan applied powerful pressure, which gave me the motivation to continue. If instead he’d shown the same compassion as my wife had (something like, “Just hire somebody … you have more important things to do”), I’d be out a bunch of money and would’ve missed out on the satisfaction of rising to the occasion (and blogging about it).
Another issue I have is that, given my privileged life, self-compassion can feel indulgent and even ungrateful. I’m lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, to have close family and friends, and to enjoy good health—and any one of these privileges ought to be enough to keep me from ever feeling sorry for myself. To accept others’ solicitude, or grant it to myself, feels like tempting fate … as though God might say (perhaps in my late father’s voice), “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
So … will self-compassion make you a wuss?
So is that it? Should stoicism and a hard line always trump compassion? Of course not. Self-compassion, I must admit, is often appropriate given the various assaults that even a life of privilege can wage on our emotional health. With all these gifts, happiness can seem almost compulsory—like anything short of flat-out elation, under these circumstances, is a kind of failure. We’re not such rational creatures that we can simply talk ourselves out of feeling inordinately bummed about this or that personal slight, unfulfilled ambition, or grey day. Whatever our blessings, it’s hard not to compare them to the better life and better self we could have if we could only just … just … whatever. With this in mind, I’m ready to advance the idea that self-compassion doesn’t just ease our burdens, lower our stress, and serve as a balm; it can actually make us stronger.
How? Well, first of all, self-compassion can help us stand up to our own egos when it comes to tackling something difficult. I’ll use writing as an example. Something about spending a lot of time with one’s own text is almost intrinsically soul-crushing. Several times already, during the composition of this essay, I’ve fought the temptation to throw up my hands and say, “This is boring! Nobody wants to read this! I should just stick with fart jokes!” And maybe you agree—but that shouldn’t stop me from trying, should it? Many a wannabe writer gets so caught up in self-editing and self-critiquing that he fails, or declines, to produce anything at all. If every wannabe succumbed to this self-doubt, we’d have no writers, and nothing to read. The fact that this blog exists attests to my charitable acceptance of “good enough.”
(Is “good enough” actually acceptable? I can’t help but to keep asking this. But it is acceptable, and here’s why: when I was trying to write back in high school, I was far worse at it than I am today … but I’m still glad I made those early efforts. For one thing, they document that time of my life, and where my head was, in a way that memory cannot. Also, because I know I’ve improved, I can have fun taking shots at my early stuff, as I’ve done here.)
In case you’ve never wanted to write, here’s a more universal example: sometimes, by forgiving our physical limitations—especially the ones imposed by age—we can set more modest fitness objectives for ourselves, and thus do something rather than nothing. As a longtime cyclist, I’m perennially drawn into the data-slave mentality of monitoring my performance throughout every ride. This habit has become progressively more discouraging as I age, to the point that not infrequently I’ll feel like giving up mid-ride and slinking home because I’m going so slow. But I’ve learned to temper this, and not just with self-talk (e.g., “Who cares, it’s a nice day and a gorgeous road”). I have learned, on those bad days, to ignore the heart rate and stopwatch altogether, by turning my bike computer to “the weather channel.”
This doesn’t mean I won’t reflexively glance at the device to see how I’m doing, but when I do I’m reminded to forget about performance. The thermometer reminds me I’m not in control, that I’m subject to global forces larger than myself. I’m letting myself off the hook.
My latest cycling breakthrough has been shortening my standard route, to the point that I often ride for less than an hour (which I’ve traditionally thought wasn’t even worth suiting up for). I’m acknowledging to myself, “I’m 50. I’m busy. I’m tired. South Park is a bloody hard climb. It’s enough.” Is this a cop-out? Not as much as the dangerous alternative: deciding I don’t have the time or energy for a proper ride so I’ll just stay home.
The beauty of this scaled-down approach is that sometimes it frees me to scale back up later. Half the time when I set out on the short ride, I end up feeling okay after all. And once I’ve got the adrenaline going, I’ll throw in one more climb—a “bonus climb,” so I can take it as slow as I want—and next thing I know I’m drilling it up Canon Drive and ending up with a pretty sweet hit of endorphins.
Another way self-compassion defies self-indulgence: it takes us out of ourselves, if we approach it the right way. If the opposite of self-compassion is dwelling on our failures, we need to remind ourselves how this affects those around us. When we suffer, so do they. Too much of this and we become insufferably self-absorbed. When I fear I’m succumbing to this, I try look at my situation from a loved one’s point of view and see if it looks as bleak from there. If it doesn’t, that tells me something. Using this trick to forgive myself thus reduces my self-absorption.
Finally, self-compassion helps me be more honest with myself. How? Well, consider how hard it is to confess to something when you have no expectation of forgiveness. I mentioned already how unforgiving my dad was; need I mention that my brothers and I generally hid our blunders from him, even when we could have really used his help? By the same token, if we can’t learn to forgive ourselves when we fail, how can we expect to be really honest with ourselves?
In other words, we might stoop to self-deception if the alternative is too painful to face. For example, let’s say I get bawled out by my boss. If I’m afraid to concede that she may have a point, I’m not likely to take her criticism very well. Instead of seeing her perspective, I might succumb to that self-protective reflex—to feel wronged, to decide she’s a jerk, and to channel my inner Dilbert and shrug off the criticism. This isn’t self-compassion—it’s denial! On the flip side, if I can forgive myself and be honest, I’m more likely to see her point. In this way I can actually improve—so my ability to forgive myself, so that I can face my failure and learn from it, is more of a life tool than an indulgence.
So … we’re good here, right?
Of course it’s easy enough to spew forth all these platitudes (actually it’s not, I’m starting to gag), but putting them into practice is another matter. I suppose I wrote this pro-compassion tract as much to convince myself as to convince you, whoever you are. So I’ll make you a deal: if you promise not to silently mock me for this earnest essay, I’ll try to do the same.
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