Compassion is one of those words, like kindness, that some people seem to feel uncomfortable with. When I suggest that a self-critical client could be more compassionate to themselves, they often say, 'But how would I motivate myself?' Or 'How could I stop my standards from slipping?' This idea, that being harshly self-critical is the best form of motivation, often baffles me. Think of it this way: if your child was struggling with maths at school, would you want their teacher to shout at them and tell them they were stupid and pathetic? Or would you want a teacher who was encouraging, helped them understand what they were doing wrong and kindly taught them, step by step, how to improve their work?
It's a no-brainer, isn't it? So why do we think that being harsh and unkind to ourselves, using names like 'idiot', 'stupid' and 'loser', will do anything but drain our self-confidence and make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy. We also know from MRI scans of the brain that our brains cannot distinguish between external attack – from a bully, say – and internal attack, when we are punishing and angry in our thoughts and self-perceptions.
There is also an idea that kindness and compassion are fluffy, wishy-washy concepts – fine as ideas but of no use when dealing with the harsh realities we often face in daily life. Not so. When learning about compassion, I have been deeply struck by the teachings of Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and his French interpreter, Matthieu Ricard. In his wonderful book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard describes the often harrowing stories of Tibetans who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese military – China has occupied Tibet since 1950, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
But the Tibetans, who have been tortured or seen their loved ones murdered, are neither bitter nor full of hatred for their tormentors. Instead, their deep resources of compassion allow them to retain their sanity and equilibrium. The Buddha teaches us that hatred is a poison for the mind; it causes as much suffering for the hater as the object of his or her hate. When I read these stories I am humbled, because of people who have suffered so much can forgive their invaders, I can certainly forgive the petty annoyances and difficulties people cause me.
The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is not just for the easy people in our lives – those we love and care about. Compassion is for everyone, whether we like them or not; those who help us and those who do us wrong; the easy and the difficult, likeable and dislikable. As he says, 'Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer'.
So, try to be a little more compassionate in your life – both to those you come into contact with and yourself. Compassion really is like a healing balm to a troubled mind.
If you would like to learn more about being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, and would like to arrange a session, email firstname.lastname@example.org