Compassion begins at home

People function better and are happier when they learn to be kind to themselves.


By Judy Woodward

Well, you sure screwed that up! Whether it was the business presentation that went awry, or the chance meeting with your ex, or even the seemingly innocuous conversation with your teenage son that suddenly erupted into toe-to-toe confrontation, we all wish we’d done some things differently. And for many of us, the harshest words of criticism are the ones that arise within our own heads.

We are self-critical perfectionists, eager to recite the litany of our offenses against competence, social desirability and constructive family relationships, while our inner voice flows like molten lava over the self-inflicted wounds to our self-esteem.

We would never treat a suffering friend that way, and Jean Fagerstrom says we shouldn’t do it to ourselves, either. Fagerstrom is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, where she teaches a course in something called “mindful self-compassion.”

“Many people have strong inner critics,” she says. “We think [self-criticism] is a good way to motivate ourselves. But the truth is we function better and happier if we learn to be kind to ourselves.”

Not only that, but we’re more successful when we forgive ourselves our inevitable human failings, says Fagerstrom. “Research shows that kind people are more resilient and persistent in the face of setbacks.”

But how to turn off the persistent inner voice of condemnation? Sometimes it’s as simple as treating yourself like a friend. One exercise that Fagerstrom does with her students involves visualizing a friend in trouble. “What words, gestures or tone of voice would you use [to comfort] your friend?” she asks. “Now think about yourself in the same bad situation. What words and tone of voice do you use now?”

There’s often a big difference, Fagerstrom points out, and the lesson to learn is, “We ourselves are deserving of the kindness and encouragement that we give others.”

Fagerstrom is firm in her declaration that what she practices “is not therapy. It’s a skills course.” And many of those skills revolve around active meditation techniques.

“We spend a lot of time living in our thoughts,” she says. “Sometimes it’s important to let go of being immersed in thought and go into the experience of the body.”

Fagerstrom teaches her students methods of working with difficult emotions such as anger or fear. “It’s important to name the emotion, feel it in the body,” she says. Note your rigid fists and that sick, tight feeling in your stomach, in other words. “Then practice softening and soothing the body,” she instructs, and perhaps the mind will follow the body’s lead.

Mindful self-compassion is an eight-week program that was developed by two psychologists based in Massachusetts and the University of Texas. According to his online biographical statement, Christopher Germer initially became interested in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation when he was studying in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. Later, he developed the self-compassion component in an attempt to address his own personal fear of public speaking. Germer and University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff have collaborated on training materials and, according to Germer’s website, they will soon publish a handbook for the public.

Fagerstrom encountered the program when Neff visited the University of Minnesota “about three or four years ago. I attended the presentation and I thought it would be very useful,” she says. As a clinical social worker, Fagerstrom was already aware that “many people have a very self-critical voice.” She took the mindful self-compassion training and says she has experienced positive changes in her own life as a result.

“I think I’m more supportive of myself. I have less fear of failure,” she says. The training encourages her to bring new confidence to her teaching. “I’m more relaxed, I can show more sense of humor.”

Fagerstrom thinks it’s important to distinguish between self-esteem and self-compassion. She notes that self-esteem has long been considered an important objective for psychological health. “But self-esteem is based on being successful, being better than others,” she notes. Self-compassion, on the other hand, has something to offer the individual when it’s obvious that things are not going so well.

She gives the example of a student who has done badly on a math test. A low grade never helped anyone’s self-esteem, and it might even lead the student to give up, concluding that math is just not something he or she will ever be good at.

A self-compassionate approach, on the other hand, encourages the child to maintain confidence in his or her inner worth and look for external factors that can be improved. Inner messages like “I need to work harder, I need to find a helper” encourage persistence and self-discipline, Fagerstrom says.

Then there’s the problem of living in a high-stakes, winner-take-all economy. You may learn to feel compassion toward yourself, but chances are that society—much of the time—will not. How do you as an individual stand up to devastating criticism from the world around you?  Fagerstrom takes the example of a young man about to begin a high-pressure job in a field where time is money and, if you make one big mistake, you are not likely to get a second chance.

“He has to project infallibility to others,” she says, “but to himself he should acknowledge his imperfect humanity. He should know that he will inevitably make mistakes and that he needs to look for allies and wise advisers,” before he finds himself in trouble.

Self-compassion, she continues, will help the young man know his values and know if he can live by his values in the high-stress environment in which he finds himself. “It’s important to clarify your individual goals, to ask yourself, ‘Why did I put myself here?’ Otherwise you might be following society’s goals—not your own.”

And if, despite all your preparation, the worst happens, and you do get fired, self-compassion can help here, too, says Fagerstrom. Instead of telling yourself that you’re worthless, a self-compassionate message might lead you to the insight that “I was really more interested in other things. I do have other skills and I’m going to learn from this episode.” After all, as Fagerstrom notes, “There are many different forms of success.”

The next eight-week course in Mindful Self-Compassion will begin on Wednesday, April 4, at 6:30 p.m. in the Mayo Memorial Building at 420 S.E. Delaware Ave. on the East Bank Campus of the University of Minnesota. For more information, contact the Center for Spirituality & Healing at 612-626-5361 or go to, click on Community Engagement, then Mindfulness Programs and Mindful Self-Compassion.

Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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