Chapter 6 – Self-Compassion: Unconditional Positive Regard Turned Inward

o be congruent, we must first develop self-compassion. Self-compassion enables us to hold awareness from a place of abundance, as we provide unconditional positive regard inwardly.

= I am good enough.

Awareness without self-compassion promotes perfectionism, fixing our eyes on what is wrong. Fueled by the shame of missing the mark.

= I am not good enough.

While many of us know about the concept of self-compassion, few of us embody it. We learn to embody this form of compassion when we feel unconditionally positively regarded by others. If we’ve never felt it, we cannot provide it. Maybe we did at an earlier time in our life, but have now lost it.

It is a frequency, an attunement that we learn to embody from other BEings. Once we come to trust it, believing it to be true, we internalize the felt sense of it. From there, we can ‘pay it forward’ – providing this attunement for others. To internalize the felt sense of unconditional positive regard, we must let others see our real and authentic selves. If we do not show up authentically, we will continue to believe that our acceptance hinges on the displays we put on. We show up when we are honest, expressing what we are experiencing across the interface of mind-body-spirit. A simple yet powerful way to practice this is in our weekly ‘check-ins’ where we simply name what we are experiencing at that moment in time.

Self-compassion happens when we develop an ability to provide unconditional positive regard inwardly. Self-compassion empowers us to embody our BEing amid the fears of doing so (congruence). When we lack self-compassion, we stop BEing and start DOing to achieve the ideals prescribed to us by others (incongruence). While incongruence fuels shame, self-compassion is the antidote. Congruent people carry less shame, thus they are far less likely to subconsciously project their shame/hostility onto others. Engaging a compassionate lens, those with the most inner shame suffer the most, and because shame compounds, without any conscious choice, when overwhelmed by it, it spills onto others.

The opposite of self-compassion is perfectionism, or the felt need to earn our worth by attaining unrealistic ideals. Unfortunately, those who sit on the perfectionistic side of the spectrum are likely to subconsciously hold others to similar high and often unrealistic standards. When we find ourselves frequently disappointed by others, it is a good cue to consider looking inwardly for opportunities to develop more self-compassion. As we develop more self-compassion, we naturally extend this compassion, grace, and space for others to make mistakes and to learn and grow as they too find their natural rhythms.

Communities that are high in self-compassion naturally promote authentic self-expression of their members, free of scrutiny, and full of unconditional positive regard. Because self-compassion keeps us grounded and tuned into the inner world, tapped into our resources, we are less likely to view events and people as threats. As a result, our nervous systems are more tolerant of uncertainty and external pressures. Health wise, when operating with high levels of self-compassion, we are less prone to chronic anxiety and depression and we have a greater sense of joy and contentment and are more confident to navigate life’s challenges (Bluth et al., 2017; Dames, 2018; Gunnell, et al., 2017; Homan & Sirois, 2017; Hwang et al., 2016; Kelly et al., 2014; Neff & Germer, 2018).

Self-compassion provides the inner environment necessary for us to prioritize our needs and wants.

If we attempt through loving kindness to “fix” a situation, make something “go away”, or optimistically reframe our viewpoint to avoid feeling discomfort, we are essentially practicing conditional self regard. If we attach conditions or expectations to our loving intentions for ourselves, we will not believe we are unconditionally positively regarded (by ourselves or others) and, therefore, we are not practicing self-compassion. This same premise applies to providing compassion, free of condition, to others.

Adapted from Neff’s (2018) research, there are three core characteristics of self-compassion:

  1. Unconditional positive regard directed inwardly – treating yourself like you would a dear friend.
  2. Recognizing our common humanity. This looks like normalizing –not minimizing- our experience,reactions, and missteps. Reminding yourself that everyone experiences suffering, everyonemakes mistakes.
  3. An ability to step back so you can allow discomfort instead of suppressing it.

To develop self-compassion, we can:

1. Establish relationships where we feel unconditionally positively regarded. Once we test these relationships by showing up and being honest about who we are, we come to believe we are unconditionally positively regarded by others. And when we believe that, we can then reflect it inward.

2. Speak to ourselves like a ‘Dear Other’ (someone we care deeply for). Even if we don’t feel loving-kindness towards ourselves, we can invest in practices of loving-kindness. ‘fake it til you make it’. With time and practice, effort turns to ease.

3. Practice treating emotions as a guest in your home, rather than identifying with them as your home, so they aren’t so threatening. From this more objective place, we are more likely to provide the space necessary to feel and soothe emotions. (Non-attachment is explained more detail in Chapter 9)

4. Investigate the old belief systems that keep us from choosing BEing over DOing. Are those belief systems still true? What is more true?

Pause to Reflect: How would you treat a dear friend?

Bring to mind a dear friend or family member. Imagine they are turning to you to gain perspective and comfort in a time of suffering. What might you do or say to comfort them?

It might sound something like: “Dear _______, I see how difficult this is for you. That is a challenging situation, and I can see why you are struggling. While it may not be perfect, you are doing your best with the tools you have right now. Just feeling these emotions takes immense courage, and I’m proud of you! Tell me more about what you are feeling in your body right now.”

Take a moment to write out your imagined response

Next time you find yourself in a place of vulnerability, find a quiet space to drop in for this important conversation. Can you be the friend you need at that moment?

BEing Self-Compassionate versus DOing self-care

Self-care means different things to different people. To some it provides permission to BE kind to oneself, for some it feels like an obligation, and for others it feels selfish. The moment self-care activities become obligations, which are typically rooted in shame, it is no longer self-compassionate. When we practice self-care from a self-compassionate place, we are operating from a place of desire, purpose, and joy. While it may feel selfish to do what we want, it is quite the opposite. The feeling of want is our body asking for what it needs. In order to be in service to the world, we need to first be in service of ourselves. Once we fill up our own cup, it will spill over to others around us.

Cultivating Self-compassion by Re-parenting/Re-partnering

In general (exceptions always apply), many who were brought up in households where they believed they were unconditionally and positively regarded, will naturally enter adulthood with high levels of self-compassion. Conversely, for those who did not believe they had this, they tend to lack self-compassion.

Without this environment of felt (embodied) unconditional positive regard, wounds that imprint on us as kids cannot heal, and as a result, they continue to inform how we interpret current events (whether as threatening stressors or simply challenges to navigate). To heal past wounds from our childhood, we now have an opportunity to revisit them as the more resourced and compassionate parent we may not have had. To heal past wounds in adulthood, we can revisit the events as a compassionate partner, or friend. As strong emotions arise, rather than viewing them as uncomfortable threats, we can re-orient ourselves to embrace the opportunity to revisit the core wound.
Re-parenting (or re-partnering) enables emotions that were not permitted in the past to:

  • be acknowledged for what they are; unhealed wounds, not threats,
  • be felt – once we find space to see them as an ‘other’ (non-attachment), 
  • be nurtured – provided with unconditional positive regard.

All the parts of our “real” self that previously felt forbidden (a threat to our ability to be loved and accepted) can be reclaimed through re-parenting and/or re-partnering. Much like the conversation we had in the ‘pause to reflect’ above, we can be the person that we needed back then, right now. Each

time intense emotions arise, we have an opportunity to answer the call coming from the younger, less equipped, self. We can go back in time, sit with our younger selves, and be the person who provides the unconditional positive regard necessary to heal, to continue mirroring the same inwardly, and to provide the same for others.

Pause to Strengthen: Compassion for Self

The practice below was adapted from Neff’s Self-Compassion Break (2019). To begin, try to recall a situation that felt threatening to you, causing you to feel stress. It doesn’t have to seem incredibly significant, go with whatever situation comes to mind. Continue bringing the situation to life until you re-experience the associated felt sense.

Note how stressed (usually described as anxiety) you feel as you start this exercise and think about a particular stressful situation. At this moment, on a scale of 1-10, how anxious are you? _______

Observe and allow the emotions to come. Rather than telling yourself a story about the emotions (‘I’m feeling sad, I’m always sad. Why can’t I ever be happy?!’) practice exploring the varying characteristics of your feelings. Try to be curious. (How does the sadness feel in my body? Where do I notice it? Does it move?) Notice how the sensations with the emotion that you’ve identified. Investigate how the sensations may move, the quality, texture, and fluidity of the feelings.

Now, try to talk to your emotions like you would a dear friend, acknowledging them, hearing them, soothing them. Try to include the following:

(1) acknowledgment of the emotion
(2) normalizing the experience of suffering (you are not alone in this experience)
(3) loving-kindness using nurturing words that promote acceptance, expression, and compassion for the emotion.

Once complete, reflect on your feelings. On a scale of 1-10, how anxious are you now? _______.

Pause to Strengthen: Self-Holding with the BUTTERFLY HUG (ArtigasJarero, Mauer, López,Alcalá, 2000) written by Marcia McMillan

The Butterfly Hug was developed by a Mexican psychologist named Lucina Artigas (Artigas et al., 2000), as she was delivering care to groups of children who had been traumatized by a hurricane in Acapulco in 1998. It’s been around for over 20 years and it’s effective with all age groups.

The goal of this technique is calming the nervous system. You can experience some wonderful side effects, with regular practice, which include befriending the body and even opening the heart.

So, let us begin.

Take two deep breaths, as you do feel your feet on the floor, your bottom on your seat and let your shoulders drop.

Cross your arms over your chest, with the middle finger of each hand just below the collar bone. Hook your thumbs together – in the middle.

Try to keep your hands more upright, so they point towards the neck, rather than the upper arms, but don’t strain.

Now imagine a beautiful butterfly is resting on your chest and flapping its wings, as you begin to tap with me: L and R, L and R, L and R.

Use a little pressure so you can feel your flesh give a bit under the touch.

Just tap and breath normally or you can do deeper breaths – whatever feels right for you.
That’s right, just continue at whatever speed feels right for you, with eyes either closed or unfocused.

If things pass through your mind and body such as thoughts, images, sounds, feelings, maybe physical sensations. Just notice without the need to change, judge or push anything away. You can pretend what you are noticing is like clouds drifting by.

We will be ending soon, when you are ready, let your hands be still and rest on your chest, and open your eyes.

I close my practice with a little self-hug, like a pat or rub on my arms. Of course, this is completely optional and you may be curious to try it. If not, just put your hands down and take a deep cleansing breath in and out.

One last thought, this is something you can share with your children if you have them. Kids really love it! Or even with the child inside of you if that feels right.