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Compassion for self and others

In this article, Assoc Prof Marcus O'Donnell outlines how compassion, including self-compassion, helps build resilience.
Smiling volunteers unloading cardboard boxes from truck
© Deakin University
Helping others is a natural instinct wired into our brain. However, in addition to having compassion for others, we also need to show compassion towards ourselves.
The human brain has what Dan Goleman and Richard Davidson (2017) call ‘care-taking circuitry’ that lights up when we respond to those who we love, such as children or partners.
In their intriguing book about the science of meditation, Goleman and Davidson point to research that shows how quickly this part of the brain can be activated through ‘compassion-cultivation training’, which they describe in the following way:
Unlike other benefits of meditation that emerge gradually – like a quicker recovery from stress – enhancing compassion comes more readily. We suspect that cultivating compassion may take advantage of ‘biological preparedness’, a programmed readiness to learn a given skill, as seen for instance, in the rapidity with which toddlers learn language. Just as with speaking, the brain seems primed to learn to love. (2017, p.112)

Developing compassion

Numerous studies have now linked activating this compassion circuitry to better health, happiness and even a longer life. One study, for example, showed that the same pleasure centres in our brain that light up when we are given money also light up when we observe someone giving to charity.
In some sense, this is not surprising. Western culture is imbued with ‘the golden rule’: do unto other as you would have them do unto you. The additional insight that Eastern traditions add is the importance of ‘self-compassion’.
Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English translator, has worked with scientists at Stanford University to develop a course in compassion awareness and compassion cultivation that includes both compassion for ourselves and towards others. He explains that the connection between compassion for others and compassion for self seems harder for Westerners to make:
We were surprised when we started the compassion cultivation work that we couldn’t start with the traditional Buddhist compassion meditations, because the first step is based on an understanding that self-care and self-compassion are instinctual. But we found that many of our Western students needed additional help to learn to have self-compassion; they couldn’t start with this as step one!

Why self-compassion matters

According to some, self-compassion is even more important than self-esteem. For example, as psychologist Kristen Neff from the University of Texas at Austin says:
Self-compassion doesn’t demand that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as better than others. Rather, the positive emotions of self-compassion kick in exactly when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations or fail in some way. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. It is constantly available to provide us with care and support in times of need. My research and that of my colleagues has shown that self-compassion offers the same benefits as high self-esteem, such as less anxiety and depression and greater happiness. However, it is not associated with the downsides of self-esteem such as narcissism, social comparison or ego-defensiveness. (para. 8)

Compassion and resilience

So let’s bring this back to our key theme of resilience. The research tells us that:
We know that resilience is a social process (ie we need the support of others) and the circle of compassion allows us to claim that support. When we learn to be more compassionate – to both ourselves and to other people – we learn the right ways of both giving and asking for support.
In doing so, we also become more resilient.

Your task

Use Kristen Neff’s self-compassion test to see how self-compassionate you are.
When you’re done, reflect on your results and use the comments to share your thoughts about developing self-compassion.
© Deakin University
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