Our life journey can be compared to a puzzle. Many pieces make and shape our life, which mold and shape our worldview. These pieces may also vary in size, depending on what is affecting us the most, physically and psychologically.
When cancer invades our world, it can make that particular piece of our lives feel large and overwhelming, especially in comparison to the other pieces that make up who we are. Cancer can also negatively affect other pieces of ourselves that once felt solid and secure, such as our relationships, mood, body image, interests, and even sexual functioning.
One way to positively combat these negative tendencies is through self-compassion. Through my work as a behavioral health counselor, I found that most people are able to easily identify and define “compassion.” However, when introducing the concept of “self-compassion,” I was often met with a questioning look.
Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, and Associate Professor, Department of Educational Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin, explains self-compassion clearly. She writes, “Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves being moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way.”
Dr. Neff says that compassion also means offering understanding and kindness to others when they make mistakes instead of judging them. “When we feel compassion, we realize that suffering and imperfection is part of the shared human experience,” she says.
Similarly, self-compassion means being kind toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, when you fail, or when you don’t like something about yourself. It means that instead of ignoring your pain in a difficult moment, you ask yourself how you can comfort and care for yourself.
As a result of practicing self-compassion, people do not feel isolated by a failure or a struggle. Research has also found that self-compassionate people report lower rates of psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
3 Elements of Self-Compassion
What does practicing self-compassion sound like? According to Dr. Neff, there are 3 elements of self-compassion:
- Common humanity
Self-kindness entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate rather than ignoring our pain or being self-critical.
Common humanity is choosing to not view ourselves and experiences as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. It is choosing to recognize that we all suffer and are all vulnerable and imperfect. This can also allow us to have more realistic expectations of ourselves and others.
Finally, practicing mindfulness is allowing ourselves to be present in the moment. It is all about balance, not avoiding the feelings or experience, and not drowning in it. It is being able to recognize in the moment what we are feeling and thinking in a nonjudgmental way.
A Helpful Tool
Examples of practicing self-compassion could include the following:
- “I am going through a difficult time right now. It’s okay to take a break, and I don’t always have to be strong.”
- “I am doing my best, and that will have to be enough for now.”
- “Right now I am struggling. What do I need to honor my feelings and continue taking good care of myself?”
Consider self-compassion as a tool to help manage the difficult pieces that arise in our lives. In the face of cancer, learning and practicing self-compassion can help us navigate through the difficult times, and grant us the gift of grace, which we all deserve.