Most people would agree that having a compassionate stance towards oneself is desirable, yet exactly how to go about cultivating such a stance is less clear. Before discussing how to cultivate compassion, let’s quickly define the term. In this article, compassion is defined as: a recognition of pain/distress coupled with a tenderheartedness towards the distress and a tendency to pull alongside the suffering with a proclivity to alleviate it.
Each component of this definition – recognition, tenderheartedness, pulling alongside of and a proclivity to alleviate – offers opportunities for cultivating compassion. This article will look at how the skill of recognizing 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 limits that are rooted in our personalities, life experiences, knowledge, skill levels, etc…. i. e. personal limits. For
example, an obvious human limit is that everyone needs sleep on a regular as well as consistent basis; while a less obvious human limit is that everyone needs some amount of play. Examples of personal limits are the amount of sleep you need within a 24 hour period, the amount of play you need in order to work at your optimum, the amount of money you need in your savings account in order to feel prepared for a ‘rainy day’, the tolerance you have for grumpy individuals, the patience you have for slow drivers, etc….
Some people have a difficult time accepting the fact of these human and personal limits. This wish, to not have limits, can be due to a variety of reasons but a common one is that people confuse the neutral fact of limits with weakness. Phrased another way, some people (falsely) believe that if they have limits then they are somehow flawed, weak, insufficient or not capable of great things and therefore they deny the reality of their limits. Tragically the denial of your limits does not enhance your worth or value but does block you from having genuine self-compassion.
By recognizing that you have limits (i. e. the limit of needing a break every three – four hours of work) you can notice when you have been pushed beyond your limits (i. e. you had to work a full day without any breaks) and you can then deem your ensuing emotion (i. e. exhaustion) as legitimate. Understanding this emotional distress as being legitimate sets you up for the next component of compassion, which is tenderheartedness. This link between limits and compassion is quite critical and therefore worthy of being repeated. In order for you to have compassion towards your distress you must recognize the distress as being legitimate, as being 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 recognizing is granting yourself permission to accept your limits as they are in the here and now versus as you desire your limits to be or as you believe your limits should be. Some limits, such as the limit to your waking hours, cannot be changed while other limits, say your patience for slow drivers, can be changed but regardless of the flexibility of the limit in question, if you are exceeding your limit, you are beyond your limit. While it is entirely appropriate and a sign of maturity to work on expanding your limits, this is not done by denying that you have exceeded your limit.