Most people would agree that having a compassionate stance towards oneself is desirable. But how do you cultivate self-compassion?
Let’s quickly define the term. In this article, “compassion” means tenderhearted recognition of pain or distress, coupled with a desire to alleviate it. Each component of this definition—recognition, tenderheartedness, and a desire to alleviate distress—offers opportunities for cultivating compassion. This article will look at how the skill of “recognition” can help you grow self-compassion.
The ability to recognize your pain or distress requires that you embrace your limits. Each of us has inherent human limits, as well as personal limits that are rooted in our personalities, life experiences, knowledge, skill levels, and more.
For example, one obvious human limit is that everyone needs sleep on a regular and consistent basis. A less obvious human limit is that everyone needs some amount of play. Other examples may include the amount of money you need in your savings account in order to feel prepared for a “rainy day,” your tolerance for grumpy individuals, the patience you have for slow drivers, and more.
Some people have a difficult time accepting these human and personal limits. This desire to have no limits stems from a variety of sources. One common reason is that people confuse limits, which are neutral facts, with weaknesses. To put it another way, some people (falsely) believe that if they have limits, they are somehow flawed, weak, insufficient, or not capable of great things—therefore, they deny the reality of their limits. Denying your limits does not enhance your worth or value, but does block you from having genuine self-compassion.
By recognizing that you have limits, you can notice when you have been pushed beyond them, and then deem your ensuing emotions as legitimate. For example, if you know one of your limits is that you need a break every three or four hours of work, and you have to work a full day without breaks, you will know it is legitimate to feel exhausted.
Understanding this emotional distress as legitimate sets you up for the next component of compassion, which is tenderheartedness. In order for you to have compassion towards your distress, you must recognize your distress as legitimate: worth noticing, worth caring about, worth turning towards, and worth alleviating. It is by acknowledging, accepting, and allowing your limits to exist that you bestow legitimacy onto your distress.
Another piece of “recognition” is granting yourself permission to accept your limits as they are in the here and now. Your limits are not what you desire them to be or think they should be. Some limits, such as how much sleep you need, cannot be changed. Other limits, like patience for slow drivers, can be changed—but regardless of the flexibility of the limit in question, if you’ve exceeded your limit, you are beyond it.
While it is entirely appropriate, and a sign of maturity, to work on expanding limits, you can’t do that by denying that you have exceeded a limit. Instead, practice noticing when you have passed a limit and acknowledging it, instead of judging yourself harshly for having it in the first place. Rather than berating yourself for being exhausted at the end of a work day that had no breaks, recognize that you are bone-tired not because you are incompetent, but because you eclipsed your work-break limit.
Self-compassion is grounded in the ability to recognize that you are in pain or distress and that this pain or distress deserves and requires attention. Recognizing your limits as they are in this moment in time, personally and as a human being, allows you to acknowledge the legitimacy of your pain and the ensuing need to attend to your distress. You are entirely capable of growing into a person with more self-compassion, and I encourage you in this work. If you desire or need the guidance of a trained professional, do not hesitate to reach out.
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