Compassion for yourself

As I was travelling by air recently, I found myself fascinated with this enticing emotion, which we know as compassion. It began when one of the cabin crew was acquainting passengers with the onboard safety measures, saying: “in the event of a loss of pressure in the cabin, your oxygen masks will drop in front of you. First place your mask on before helping the person sitting next to you.” This is when I realized that the cabin crew isn’t telling us to be selfish. Instead, we are being encouraged to protect self in order to help others! Later reflection led to the following equation: “Care for self + Care for others = Compassion.”

“Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or an ideal that we’re trying to live up to. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.” Pema Chodron.

We know that compassion is essential to humanity. It is our need to be cared for and to care for others. Yet it is not easy to love yourself. It is only when we have compassion for ourselves that we can have compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his experience is. Subsequently, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ pain so that your heart responds to their suffering (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel affectionate, caring and the desire to help the suffering person in some way is triggered.

Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them cruelly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another, it means that you understand that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

“If you aren’t good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you’ll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren’t even giving to yourself.” Barbara De Angelis

Self-compassion involves acting in the same way towards yourself when you are going through a difficult time. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “nothing can be done” mentality, you can stop to tell yourself: “This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” Instead of harshly judging and criticizing yourself for various Insufficiencies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. After all, no one is perfect.

You might try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy. But you will only do this if you truly value who you are. Having compassion for yourself also means that you respect and accept your being. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is part and parcel of our human condition, a fact shared by all of us.

We need to open our hearts to the humanity that resides within us, instead of constantly fighting against it. Compassion for self is very different from self-indulgence. The latter leads us to self-destructive activities e.g., “I’m stressed out right now so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat junk.”

Being compassionate to yourself mean that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. Our tendency for instant gratification can lead us to taking drugs, over-eating etc. Caring for self involves self-discipline and some remedies are not readily appealing e.g., quitting smoking, adopting a balanced diet and exercising.

“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Oscar Wilde.

By loving ourselves and by being compassionate we add enduring value to our being. This enables us to become useful members of our family, organization and community.

by Burhan Shah