Physicians, clinicians, providers, healers, and now heroes, are some of the names we have been given throughout history. These titles bring together a universal concept in medicine that all human beings deserve compassion, understanding, and care. However, as health care providers we forget to show ourselves the same compassion we bestow upon others.
Self-compassion is a new way of relating to ourselves. As clinicians, we are trained investigators, delving deeper into what our patient is thinking and feeling. “Tell me more about that. How does that make you feel? That must have been (very painful/scary/frustrating).” These are a few statements we learned in patient interviewing to actively engage with patients, build rapport, solidify trust, validate their concerns, and ultimately obtain the information needed to diagnose and heal.
We know the importance of looking beyond the surface, as more often than not a deeper inspection reveals more to the story. We have uncovered cracks in the foundation, erosion of the roof, worn out siding, and a glimpse into the complexities that make up each individual. We look at our patients, loved ones, and the world with night-vision lenses to uncover what is deeper.
Clinicians are good at directing compassion toward others, but not as good at giving it to themselves.1 Many health care providers may see self-compassion as soft, weak, selfish, or unnecessary. However, mindful self-compassion is a positive practice that opens a pathway for healing, personal growth, and protection against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, anxiety, burnout, and depression.
What is self-compassion?
Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, was the first to academically define self-compassion. Self-compassion brings together three core elements – kindness, humanity, and mindfulness.2 Self-compassion involves acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time as you would toward another person. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for self-perceived inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion allows you to ask yourself: “How can I give myself comfort and care in this moment?”
Mindfulness acknowledges a painful experience without resistance or judgment, while being present in the moment with things as they are. Self-compassion provides the emotional safety needed to mindfully open to our pain, disappointments, and defeats. Mindfulness and self-compassion both allow us to live with more acceptance toward ourselves and our lives. Mindfulness asks: “What am I experiencing right now?” Self-compassion asks: “What do I need right now?” When you feel compassion for yourself or another, you recognize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are all part of the shared human experience.
The physiology of self-compassion
When we practice self-compassion, we feel safe and cared for because there is a physiological pathway that explains this response. Self-compassion helps down-regulate the stress response (fight-flight-freeze). When we are triggered by a threat to our self-concept, we are likely to do one, two, or all of three things: we fight ourselves (self-criticism – often our first reaction when things go wrong), we flee from others (isolation), or we freeze (rumination).
Feeling threatened puts stress on the mind and body, and chronic stress leads to anxiety and depression, which hinders emotional and physical well-being. With self-criticism, we are both the attacker and the attacked. When we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating the threat-defense system and activating the care system, releasing oxytocin and endorphins, which reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security.3
Why is self-compassion important to provider well-being?
Research has shown that individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction, and motivation; better relationships and physical health; and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events. The more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves, the more we’ll increase the habit of self-compassion, and extend compassion to our patients and loved ones in daily life.4
Why is self-compassion important? When we experience a setback at work or in life, we can become defensive, accuse others, or blame ourselves, especially when we are already under immense stress. These responses are not helpful, productive, or effective to the situation or our personal well-being. Although in the moment it may feel good to be reactive, it is a short-lived feeling that we trade for the longer-lasting effects of learning, resilience, and personal growth. Self-compassion teaches us to connect with our inner imperfections, and what makes us human, as to err is human.
To cultivate a habit of self-compassion itself, it is important to understand that self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. Self-compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering, but it does not erase any pain and suffering that does exist. The truth is, we can’t always control external forces – the events of 2020-2021 are a perfect example of this. As a result, we cannot utilize self-compassion as a practice to make our pain disappear or suppress strong emotions.
Instead, self-compassion helps us cultivate the resilience needed to mindfully acknowledge and accept a painful moment or experience, while reminding us to embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response. This builds our internal foundation with support, love, and self-care, while providing the optimal conditions for growth, resilience, and transformation
Self-compassion and the backdraft phenomenon
When you start the practice of self-compassion, you may experience backdraft, a phenomenon in which pain initially increases.5 Backdraft is similar to the stages of grief or when the flames of a burning house become larger when a door is opened and oxygen surges in. Practicing self-compassion may cause a tidal wave of emotions to come to the forefront, but it is likely that if this happens, it needs to happen.
Imagine yourself in a room with two versions of yourself. To the left is your best self that you present to the world, standing tall, organized, well kept, and without any noticeable imperfections. To the right, is the deepest part of your being, laying on the floor, filled with raw emotions – sadness, fear, anger, and love. This version of yourself is vulnerable, open, honest, and imperfect. When looking at each version of yourself, which one is the real you? The right? The left? Maybe it’s both?
Imagine what would happen if you walked over to the version of yourself on the right, sat down, and provided it comfort, and embraced yourself with love and kindness. What would happen if you gave that version of yourself a hug? Seeing your true self, with all the layers peeled away, at the very core of your being, vulnerable, and possibly broken, is a powerful and gut-wrenching experience. It may hurt at first, but once we embrace our own pain and suffering, that is where mindfulness and self-compassion intersect to begin the path to healing. It takes more strength and courage to be the version of ourselves on the right than the version on the left.